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“The mission of Ranger College is to transform lives and give students the skills to be a positive influence in their communities.”

Best practices for day-to-day academic success

Using a syllabus – Using a rubric – Organizing your workload – Using a spelling and grammar checker – Plagiarism

How do you eat an elephant?

College requires a lot of time and effort.  Organizing the heavy workload is not always easy.  This guide is meant to provide tips and advice on balancing your load, planning for your goals, and making sure you are able to complete all your assignments on time.

The big picture:  Life

No matter what your goals you have to make a plan and then work the plan.  Consider your long-term goals – you want to be an architect or a veterinarian or whatever.  To get there you have to accomplish certain tasks, like getting a degree or training.  While you can’t just jump straight from deciding what you want to getting it, you can get there in a way that seems natural and easy. 

The same is true of anything you are working on.  Any project, big or small, still has specific tasks that must be accomplished in a certain order.  Some of those tasks will take longer than others.  The first task of any project is to figure out what the tasks are.  This is a college site, so we are going to look at college goals, but these tips apply to every aspect of life. 

The secret is small bites. 

The interim picture

The interim picture:  College

The current phase of your plan is working toward your future by earning a degree or certification in _______.  Your college has helpfully provided a list of required courses and even a suggested course load for each semester.  How do you get from day one to the end successfully?  Certainly not all at one time.

Look at the whole picture.  Do you have obligations that will prevent you from completing all of the suggested courses each semester?  Are you first attending a two-year school that may not offer all the courses on the list?  You may have to shift the list around a little to accommodate the circumstances you have right now.  Take something that is suggested from a later year to fill in the gap.  Take fewer classes and spread them over ten semesters instead of eight.  Take a couple of semesters off.  Life happens and we have to adjust.  The point is to keep plugging away at the goal.

Do what you can then do the rest later.

The little picture:  This semester

This is going to be a little more intense.  You have bought and paid for certain classes.  That money cannot be recouped and you have to make the most of it.  You show up on day one and the professors hand you their syllabi.  What next?

Generally, that first week is going to be the easiest.  You will be concerned with getting your books, taking syllabus quizzes, writing introductions, and other simple assignments.  The real work you have to do that week is figure out your calendar.  This is a lot more than looking at the posted due dates in Blackboard.  You need to sit down with each syllabus and examine each assignment.  Think about how long each thing is going to take, in real measurable time. 

With ALL of your syllabi on hand, sit down with a calendar and look at each assignment.  You will need them all to avoid conflict.  If you have two papers due the same week, you want to be sure one is done the week before.  Do not rely on the Blackboard calendar that warns you the day something is due.  You need to start with a paper calendar you can make adjustments on.  You are setting your own priorities here.

Consider what each type of assignment is.  You may have reviews, readings, quizzes, tests, papers, articles, or any of a dozen other types of assignments.  Consider the steps you will have to take for each and how long it will take.  Reading alone should probably be scheduled for a couple of hours each day.  Each class will cover at least one chapter in the text each week. 

Fill in your calendar.  Take into account obligations you cannot avoid.  If you have to work, block out your regularly scheduled hours.  If you have athletics, block out practice and game times.  If you don't have athletics, set aside time to exercise.  Block out the actual times you need to be in class.  Don’t be overly ambitious by scheduling every waking hour.  You know you are going to do laundry, hang out, date, and many other personal things.  Schedule them, even if it as simple as blocking off every Saturday afternoon and evening and labelling it "Stuff".  Block out the hours you will need to sleep.  This is critical.  Sleep is the most important thing you can do for yourself.  You will simply perform better with enough sleep.  Get up when the alarm goes off.  You have things to do.

Next, add the assignments.  One effective method is to schedule a day for each class.  Plan to do the reading and assignments for that class and work on only one class at a time.  This focus will help you accomplish more.  Reading the assigned chapters will probably take three to fours hours per week per class.  If you do the reading the same day you do the assignment you will be able to focus your reading and get more from it.  If you can do the assignments immediately before or after class, the information will be fresh and you will accomplish more.

Consider this sample schedule:  M, W - History and English/T,T – Algebra and Biology.

Set up Monday for History, Tuesday for Algebra, Wednesday for English, and Thursday for Biology.  You can schedule in longer assignments and projects for Friday, Saturday, and/or Sunday.

Scheduling longer assignments

In addition to your regular reading and assignments, each class will have one or more projects and assignments that you will have to work on throughout the course.  A common example is a research paper.  Written projects often present challenges to students, but by tackling the assignments in a logical, orderly way, taking one bite at a time, you can finish them on time and stress free. 

The secret to this starts on day one, just like everything else.  As you are reading through those syllabi, include every assignment on the calendar, but also read the requirements for the assignment.  Calculate the process you will have to work through to complete it and convert those tasks to real time, in hours.  Be realistic, then add 20%. 

Consider a typical research paper.  The professor may have several checks during the semester, such as outline, draft, and final.  Those are designed to ensure you are not waiting until the last minute and to give the professor an idea of who might be struggling.  You need to break it down even more deeply.  What are the various tasks you will need to do?

Determine your topic – fairly easy

Conduct pre-research to see if it is viable – time consuming but not hard

Conduct in-depth research – this is the hard part

Write the research question and outline

Write the draft without formatting – formatting can be challenging for students unfamiliar with it.  Anything new you have to learn is disruptive and slows you down.  Learning formatting can wait until you are ready to focus on it.

Format, proof, and edit

Prepare the final the paper

If you look carefully at this list you should notice that the hard work all has to happen BEFORE you can actually start writing.  You will have to complete this BEFORE the first check assignment is due.  Set up your schedule accordingly.

The micro picture:  Today and this week

Establish a start to every week.  For some that might be Sunday night.  For others, Monday morning.  Go over the schedule.  Look at the tasks.  Is everything due this week ready?  What new work will you have to do this week?

Look ahead into the coming weeks and ask yourself if you need to make adjustments to your plan.  As you work on items you may realize you did not allot enough time or they are more difficult than anticipated.  Do not be afraid to adjust your calendar to reflect changing needs.

Do the work.  This can sometimes be the hardest part.  Be realistic when you set up your schedule.  Consider your peak productivity times.  Set your studying times when you are going to get the most out of it.  If you schedule morning work, get out of bed and do it.  If you schedule evening work, go to the library, not the mall.

Other factors to consider in organization

1.  Create a productive work environment.  Comfortable is not always productive.  You want to sit at a table with only the tools you need for the task.  Laying in bed does not help you stay on task.  You need good lighting, good internet, your books.  If you use a laptop, set it up with an external keyboard and mouse.  You can work faster and more effectively with good tools. 

2.  Along the same lines, do not do your work on a tablet or phone.  They are simply not as versatile.  You will not be able to get the same function from them as a laptop or desktop computer.  That will reflect in the quality of your finished products.

3.  Do not think you can multitask.  There is no such thing as multitasking.  What you are really doing is changing the focus of your attention dozens of times per minute.  You will accomplish more by focusing your attention on one thing only.  Turn off the music, television, games, and other distractors.  Better yet, do your work in a place without those distractions, such as the library or learning center.

4.  Set aside your time for you and make sure friends and family know it.  Working in a quiet area, such as the library helps avoid distractions and ensures others know you are actually working.

5.  Know when to say no.  No, I cannot go out tonight.  No, I cannot help with xyz.  No, I cannot volunteer at the soup kitchen this week.  Once you have set your priorities, stick to them.

6.  Take a minute at the end of each day to check yourself.  Did you get done everything you needed to?  If not, why not?  What can you do to recover?  What are you plans for tomorrow? 

7.  Breaks can be helpful, but don’t let them get out of hand.  Taking three hours to go play ball with the guys is not a break.  It is avoidance.  Getting a fresh bottle of water or walking up and down a flight of stairs is a break.  One trick is to change tasks.  If you are working on a paper, switch and work on the formatting for a few minutes.  If you are reading a textbook, stop to look at the assignment that goes with it.  You may be able to work on it for a bit.

8.  Procrastination is the root of all evil.  It leads to cramming, which leads to poor quality work.

You eat an elephant one bite at a time.

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