Photo by MC Quinn​

How to Plan Ahead​

It's that time of year: teachers are assigning final projects and essays, typically giving students at least a month to complete them.


Although it seems like a month is more than enough time to get everything done, many students struggle with these kinds of assignments. Here are some tips to help them feel less daunting.


1. Start as far ahead as possible.

It goes without saying that procrastination creates serious problems. I recommend that my students start work on their project as soon as they are given the assignment sheet/rubric. That way there is less to do on any given day and the project can be spread out over more days, with less big work days.


2. Create a general timeline for the project or essay.

Have your student sit down with the assignment sheet or rubric and brainstorm all the steps that will be needed to complete the project or essay. Then write them onto a timeline, either a horizontal one that spans a few pages taped together, or as a bulleted or numbered list. Once all the items are on the timeline, divide the tasks by the number of weeks and assign dates for when each task should be completed. This takes some guesswork, and that's okay. Estimate the best you can based on how long it generally takes your student to complete tasks. Some will take longer than others. Put the timeline up where it is easy to see, and check off items as they are completed.


3. Break the bigger tasks into microgoals.

You may remember my post from a few weeks ago about taking large assignments and breaking them into their smallest parts to help with productivity. When the timeline includes something large like "do research," that is a perfect task to break into smaller parts. This list of smaller tasks can be written on a separate sheet and taped up under the relevant dates when these tasks are due.


4. Set up times for check-ins to stay on task.

Plan days and times every few days when you and your child (or someone like me) will sit down with the timeline and track the progress. If things have fallen behind, rework the due dates the best you can and encourage your child to refocus and keep going. Point out the major milestones they still need to hit. Try to gently push them and keep the encouragement high: if they start to feel discouraged, it will impact their motivation. If they appear stuck, talk with them about the small tasks they can complete to get back on track.


5. Ask clarifying questions sooner than later.

Often, students need to ask their teachers clarifying questions about their project. It is not unusual for them to put this off, not wanting to "seem stupid" or inconvenience their teacher. Encourage them to ask those questions, explaining that it will be much less painful to know what is expected than to find out two nights before the assignment is due that they still don't understand it. 


6. Look ahead for any sports meets, family vacations, holiday plans, or other plans that might interfere with the schedule to complete the work.

Make sure students know ahead of time about big plans that will keep them away from the house and unable to work on their project. Or, when possible, consider rescheduling so that they can focus on the work. I have seen it happen so many times that students have forgotten, or didn't know about, a big sports or family obligation. And it's Murphy's Law that their big weekend to finish the project happens to fall the same weekend as this sports or family obligation. Looking ahead can help alleviate that situation.


I am happy to help create timelines with students and keep them on track. Let me know if your child has a big assignment coming up.