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Month: November 2013

3 Work Habits of Productive Students

3 Work Habits of Productive Students

It’s not easy to buckle down and get things done- just ask Congress! But seriously folks, even after years in the professional world, we all still have days where we sit in front of the computer, the internal monologue of our brains sounding like a car that won’t turn over. We are trying our best to knock out that grant proposal, or powerpoint presentation, or poem- but we just can’t focus. And then, of course, it really does feel like time for a muffin…

Not surprisingly, students also run into problems with focus when trying to complete assignments, study, or write papers- problems that can be compounded when combined with issues like a lack of motivation or comprehension of the material, as is often the case with students who end up on academic probation or warning.

Right now, I have two students in particular who have been having trouble. For Jenna, the issue is both motivation and comprehension. Fernando, on the other hand, is genuinely motivated. He’s also a social butterfly, so for him, it’s about distractions. He will start his work in my office or a solitary corner of the library, but by the time he’s gotten back to the dorm to finish up, he’s encountered four or five better offers than another two hours trying to hammer out the next paragraph on the economics of social migration in ancient Mesoamerica.

Working with these two students has rekindled my interest in studying the ways in which students can optimize their ability to focus and be productive. Here are 3 “musts” for getting things done:

1. Make Space and Time

It was a recent interview (

with the youngest daughter of author Roald Dahl that reminded me of the importance of both creating a physical space conducive to work as well as mandating (and keeping to) a regular time commitment in order to do it. According to Lucy Dahl, “His hut was a sacred place…he sat in his mother’s old armchair and then put his feet up on an old leather trunk. His work sessions were very strict — he worked from 10 until 12 every day and then again from 3 until 5 every day. Even if there was nothing to write he would still, as he would say, ‘put his bottom on the chair.’ ”

2. Optimize your space for “Closed” and “Open” Modes

A few weeks ago, I watched a lecture on creativity by comedy icon John Cleese ( In it, he espouses the idea of two “modes” of operating- open, where we take a step back, brainstorm, look at the task at hand as a whole- and closed, where we hone in on specific decisions and implement them. This made me think of the different ways in which my students must approach something like a paper in its initial stages- choosing a topic, research, coming up with a thesis- versus the “closed mode” task of putting words on the page. Some of my students excel in the open mode and can tell me verbatim exactly what they want to do and how they plan to do it but have difficulty executing the work. Others have the capacity to write a really good paper in very little time…if they could only figure out what they want to write about. Consequently, I am continuing to look for ways in which students can create the kind of space and time optimal for each of these modes. (For example, another radio interview I heard recently

discussed a study that found that a neat work area was more conducive to structured tasks, while a messy one inspired more creativity.)

3. Remove Distractions

According to the American Psychological Association, multiple studies have shown not only that the idea of “multitasking” is a myth (we are merely switching back and forth between tasks) but also that our distracted, “multitasking” culture is actually making us less efficient, not more. It may be especially difficult to convince students who have grown up doing their homework amidst checking texts and updating their facebook status’ that they will be well served by trying their best to remove distractions, but…hold on, I just got a notice that it’s my turn on Words With Friends…ok, now what was I saying?

We’ve all had those times when we’re riding the wave. These are the spans of work time when thoughts and words flow easily, and when we consume page after page of reading with both speed and comprehension. Because we are focused and “in the moment”, hours can go by in what seems like minutes. Suddenly we’ve finished that insurmountable project without entirely remembering what seemed so daunting in the first place. We’ve also felt that terrifying sensation of, “my brain has gone inexplicably blank! This thing is due by tomorrow morning and I’ve got absolutely nothing!” These are the same feelings my students go through, and because they have less experience than many of us do, they’re doing it all like Ginger Rogers…backwards and in heels.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Drop-Out Prevention and Alternatives for At-Risk College Students

Drop-Out Prevention and Alternatives for At-Risk College Students

College dropouts face tremendous challenges: fewer job opportunities, lower earning ability and lower socio-economic status. According to a paper published by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 47 percent surveyed say that dropping out of school made it hard to find a good job.

Those who graduate with a post-secondary degree earn on average nearly $20,000 more annually than those with a GED or high school diploma. Obtaining a diploma is the first and most important step on the road to opportunity. If you know how to find the right resources, there are alternatives available to at-risk students.

Preventing College Dropouts

It’s OK to reach out and look for help or options if your college student is in danger of dropping out. Many public, charter and private schools offer guidance counseling and resources for families in need.

  1. Tailor learning environment to student needs (different schools for different students): Not all people learn the same way. One reason many students cite for dropping out of school is the overwhelming change or the freedom is too much to manage. The online program at offers at-risk students with an alternative to traditional classroom settings. The National Dropout Prevention Center/Network,, is a good starting place to find alternatives to traditional universities. Your child may benefit from hands-on instruction, self-directed online instruction or another method of learning. Starting at a community college and living at home the first couple years can give your child a leg up in education and financial success.
  2. Look for career education programs: Job Corps ( is one source that offers free education and job training to low-income college students. Some school systems offer vocational training programs as alternatives to traditional college and university curricula. Before you enroll in a program, do a little homework to make sure it is reputable. The Federal Trade Commission offers guidelines for checking the backgrounds of these schools on itsConsumer Information page.

What If My Child Drops Out?

According to a 2011 Georgetown University study, professionals with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of 84 percent more than those with a high school diploma or GED. The study also estimated that 63 percent of jobs in America will require some sort of “post-secondary” education or training by 2018.

If your child drops out, work with him or her to understand the consequences of that choice. Set limits and let him or her know that you won’t be able to take care of him/her for the rest of his/her life. Set a deadline for finding a job or enrolling in college classes again or a vocational/technical program, and hold him/her to it.


Guiding Students Through the Registration Process

Guiding Students Through the Registration Process

College, like life, is all about the balance between the macro and the micro- between long term planning and what’s at the very top of the to do list. Nowhere in the university setting can that interplay be seen more clearly than during registration. As a success coach, part of my job is to help students, especially freshmen and sophomores, choose a course load that will set them up for success both during the semester for which they are registering as well as in terms of their long-term college goals.

When thinking about the semester itself, I help students try to achieve balance in the amount and type of coursework a given set of classes will likely require (considering his or her academic strengths/weaknesses as well as other factors that may influence the amount of time a student will likely have to study). Knowing the student well means a lot in this regard. For example, last week I met with a student whose freshman seminar advisor had recommended to him a certain course load that included four reading and writing intensive courses and one higher level math course. However, because I get to spend much more one-one-one time with each of my students than a freshman advisor does, I know that, in addition to writing not being his strong suit, this particular student plays a Spring sport. We reworked the plan to include fewer writing intensive courses, and we organized his week so he would not be overloaded on any given day with the demands of both athletics and academics. Especially for students who are struggling to climb out of an academic hole, it is important to create a short-term registration plan that will give them the greatest possible chances for success.

We also, of course, have to strategize and plan based on a student’s long term goals. For my students who come to school (or quickly realize) what they want to major in, this is about making sure they are completing core requirements while also taking at least one or two classes that fulfill the requirements of their major. Many students don’t realize, for example, that some courses are only offered in the fall, or only once every two years, or may be offered every semester but fill up quickly. These conversations help them map out a 4-year plan, even as they are focused primarily on registering for the semester ahead.

For students who do not yet know what they want to major in, I remind them that it’s perfectly okay not to know. I let them know that exploration is not just okay- it’s encouraged! Many first and second year students are primarily fulfilling core requirements anyway, so they will still be able to register for a full load of classes. Then, I say, “find room to take at least one course each semester in an area in which you think you might be interested, just to try it out.” I remind them that a broad, general education makes you, well, an educated person! And isn’t that just as important (or, in my opinion, even more so) than exclusively honing in, at the age of 19 or 20, on a particular, specialized skill set?

In the end, helping students through the registration process is about showing them how to look at big and small simultaneously, and that is a skill they can take with them throughout their lives.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.