Few academic strategies are resisted by students as strongly as the use of a planner. For many parents, asking their child to use a planner to keep track of his schoolwork is like asking him to simultaneously eat broccoli and clean his room.
Talking with your child about using a planner is a classic example of the challenges associated with talking with your children about school. One reason the planner conversation often goes so poorly is due to the misconception that, to be a successful student, you have to use a planner, and this simply isn’t true.
There is another way. (Actually, there are several other ways, but this one is my favorite.)
Most successful students do, in fact, use planners to keep track of their schoolwork. Planners can be very useful. But many top students do something else, either instead of or in addition to using a planner. At home, they engage with every class, every day.
If a student uses the every class, every day program, then he is in the habit of consistently working with and thinking about the content from each of his classes. This means that he has a ritual of doing a bare-minimum check-in with every class after each school day and at least once per weekend.
That check-in consists of looking through the binders, folders, or notebooks associated with each class to see if anything pops out. Often the student discovers homework that he might have otherwise forgotten about. Sometimes the student sees a handout or notes that reminds him of the content that was covered that day. Occasionally, the simple act of glancing at the class materials helps him remember an upcoming test.
Please note that this technique works with or without the use of a planner. So if you really don’t like the idea of using a planner or just find it difficult to use, consider instead the habit of engaging with every class, every day. It’s a strategy that anyone can adopt as his primary method of staying on top of the work. The program can also be a powerful supplement to the use of a planner, providing a safety net for those times when you neglect to write something in your planner.
The system is as simple as it is reliable. If a student checks in with the materials for each of his classes every day, he’ll find it awfully hard to forget about upcoming tests and due dates. Even if the student has failed to write down anything indicating an important date, briefly engaging with the course material will often jog his memory.
The every class, every day program is just one example of an alternative strategy. I’m highlighting it, partly because I like the strategy, but also because it’s a nice example of how we’re not rigidly locked into a universe in which a student must use a planner or nothing at all. There are other options.
Homework vs Studying
Although I’m a big fan of planners, calendars, and other systems of written reminders, there is one big reason to actually see the every class, every day strategy as better than a planner. The reason is that planners only record homework, quizzes, and tests, so if there’s nothing required for a particular class, then you won’t engage with it. The every class, every day program gets you to think about what you’re learning in each class whether or not there’s homework. It helps students develop the habit of daily studying.
Daily studying is an important habit to develop for a few reasons. One is that success in school often depends on much more than just doing the homework. Studying is typically defined as some sort of academic work that isn’t required, that you don’t get credit for. It helps you on the test, but no one is making you do it. The homework is typically aimed at getting you to a point of understanding, but understanding is not enough. To truly, deeply learn something, you have to go beyond understanding and walk the mastery path. Every class, every day is a habit that can facilitate that journey.
This habit is also important because it’s increasingly what you’ll be expected to do as you advance as a student. In college, the homework is often optional or ungraded, even though it’s more important than ever. Professors often don’t even suggest homework, but expect that you know how to use your textbooks to self-generate homework. Studying outside of class on a regular basis is essential to success in college. Less work is going to be asked of you directly, but more work will be required.
Lastly, the every class, every day program taps into an important feature of the human brain. Daily engagement is a form of spaced repetition, which is a very efficient way to deepen understanding and form memories. Working with the content from each of your classes every day is a powerful way to convince your brain to care about what you’re learning. When you do that, your unconscious mind helps you learn far more than it otherwise would.
Crafting the Habit
Now, developing the habit of engaging with every class, every day isn’t easy, which is precisely why I recommend starting small. Just look at the materials that are in your binder. Maybe something will catch your eye, maybe not. If you discover work to be done, of course do it, but even if there’s nothing due tomorrow, you’re at least creating an opportunity to think about what you’re learning.
By keeping the bar low at first, you’re making it difficult to make excuses. Perhaps just commit to one minute of engagement with every class, every day, no matter what. With six classes, that’s just six minutes per day! The goal at the beginning of any habit development is consistency.
Top students, of course, choose to go above and beyond merely checking in, and will engage in some form of actual studying, even when there isn’t an upcoming test. This is, of course, a fantastic choice, but no one gets to that point overnight. Once the habit of simply checking in is established, it becomes easier and it feels more natural to engage in a little mental recall or make some written product in order to solidify whatever you’re learning. After the basic check-in becomes routine, gradually increase the time and effort. If you reach ten minutes of studying with every class, every day, you should see big benefits.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.