I am certain that I am not the only teacher who has given students an entire period or two or three (or a week!) to research a topic only to find that they have a few piddly facts scribbled down. I’m further certain that I’m not the only teacher whose students find they don’t have enough information and turn in subquality and surface-level work that has clearly been done the night (or lunch period) before. I’ve seen it in every discipline, at every grade level I’ve taught.
But a few weeks ago, something very interesting happened. Another teacher and I, who are co-teaching an independent action research/capstone project class together, started class with a quick impromptu research project. Each student drew a card from Apples to Apples and had 30 minutes to find information about the topic, and put together a meaningful presentation.
And they did. In fact, they pulled together projects that were of the same (or better!) quality than what we’ve seen students turn in after a week’s worth of work.
We then gave them a list of deadlines for the gargantuan project that they were about to undertake and modeled the first piece of notetaking and had them get to work. But they didn’t. They clicked on sites. They watched some relevant videos. They went to the bathroom. They talked about their mornings. And after a few days of independent note-taking they had a few thing marked down, but nothing that looked like three days’ worth of hard work. I thought back to that initial thirty minutes when they were so productive.
What was going wrong?
Teaching Time Management
In the classroom, we often sacrifice explicit skill instruction for the focus of content. We assume students know how to take the steps if we tell them how to, and we get frustrated when they don’t follow through. We’ve all heard teachers say (or have said ourselves!) that students are “lazy.” That they are “time wasters.” That they “don’t care.” Or that we can’t “hold kids’ hands.” And there is some truth to some of that in someinstances, but when we can make a sweeping truth about the general downfall of a group of students, it generally means we’ve gone wrong somewhere.
And where we’ve gone wrong here is not teaching students how to think about how to use their time.
Helping students structure their time, particularly in large, research-driven projects, does not have to be synonymous with holding students’ hands. Instead, it should be a metacognitive practice that guides their progress, allowing them to feel the success that comes with timely work completion.
Ways to Help Students with Time
- Do the 30 minute challenge. Have students draw a card with a random topic on it and research and present. This sets the groundwork for productivity. It opens up a discussion about how they used their time and what worked for them.
- Do a 5 minute challenge. In some classes, we have done a shorter version of this: students read resources that are relevant to their current topic of research and take notes for 5 minutes, and then in 5 more minutes pull together a quick visual presentation. After this task, I have had students say that they want to work for 5 minute bursts with a 1 or 2 minute break between. I have had students say that they couldn’t believe that they could actually learn so much in 5 minutes. Sometimes they just need to be shown what they are truly capable of.
- When delving into a longer project or paper, ask students what they envision at the end–what do they hope their final product to be or look like? What kind of quality are they shooting for? And then ask them what steps they need to take to make that happen. Often, students know what they want something to be, but require conversation to determine how to actually get there.
- Have students self-structure their classtime. Instead of saying, “You have the next 45 minutes to take notes,” ask them, “What do you need to accomplish today?” and have them jot that down on a notecard. Some kids may make a checklist; some may write a quick narrative. At the end of the class period, have them reflect on the back of their notecard how successful they were and why or why not and have them report out to one another. It’s a twist on the exit form.
- Use calendars. Have students list all the steps they need to take and then give them a calendar and the time to plug those steps into the different time periods they have. What can they get done in class? What do they need to do at home? Check in frequently on progress and hold them accountable for meeting these self-designated deadlines.
Many students will say “I need to take notes.” or “I need to read.” Challenge them to write more specific tasks. What do you need to take notes on? What specifically do you need to read? How much? Direct them to really think about what needs to be accomplished in the time they have and to write qualitative daily goals. This explicit time management instruction benefits our students long term–they learn strategies to complete work in a timely manner and they feel the confidence that comes with turning in work they are proud of without the stress of rushing in the end. And while taking the time out of our content instruction to work on these skills may feel like adding “one more thing,” we will discover instead that the quality and quantity of work accomplished in our classrooms improves.
Remember, our students’ brains are still developing–even our most advanced high school students- and if none of us works with time and skill, we are failing to help them build the necessary neural pathways that will help them manage their time independently in college and life. It can start with an Apples to Apples topic, a calendar, a timer, and an index card.