How do you keep your life organized? Your home? Your desk? If I looked into your closet, would I find it neatly organized by color and season, or would it initially look like chaos until you explained to me the method behind your madness? We all know that, in order to manage our lives successfully, we need to be organized. I, for example, live by my planner. (And as long as they sell ’em, I will always prefer a low-tech daily planner to a phone or tablet. There’s just something satisfying about writing things down on a physical piece of paper, and I won’t give it up no matter how shiny that iCal is!) If I don’t have it written in my planner, it’s not happening, which is why I’ve learned over the years to write things down immediately after scheduling. But organizational skills, like time management and a few other skills crucial for success in college are not necessarily intuitive for the average high school student turned college freshman.
One of the reasons that my students enter school or end up on academic probation in the first place is that their lack of organization is rendering moot all of the skills they do possess. For example, one of my new students this semester, a freshman named Jacob, is both intellectually curious and hardworking. I predict he would be producing competent and even above average work in all his classes…if he could ever find a syllabus in the black hole that is his backpack. Most of his papers are loose, and the two notebooks that he does use are not delineated by course. His notes are all over the place, and he is having a difficult time connecting the notes and thus the ideas of one week’s class to those of the next.
In addition to organizing one’s physical notes and papers, I help my students get organized digitally. It’s increasingly important that students keep up with their coursework through the online syllabus, check for changes to assignments or deadlines that a professor may only post online, and follow online discussion threads, even for classes that meet primarily in person. We too often assume that members of the millennial generation, who account for the majority of college students today, have such a natural facility with technology and the digital world that they just know how to do this stuff when that’s not always the case.
Despite decades working as a teacher as well as a success coach, I can still be surprised when a student takes the art of disorganization to a new level. However, I do have faith that time and a little coaching can help them turn it around. I’ve written a few times about a student with whom I worked last year who arrived on campus on academic probation, then climbed out of the hole only to fall back in. She’s with me again this fall, and it’s clear that last year’s roller coaster of an academic performance left her motion sick. It’s also clear that she is intent on getting off the ride for good. She has her planner planned out way ahead, a folder for every subject, in the front, left pocket of which sits a copy of the syllabus like a trusted sidekick. She’s got her work cut out for her, but she is organized in a way that tells me she is really motivated to get it right this time.
Some of us can’t keep our clothes organized by color and season; I know I can’t. Everyone has his or her own system, but if someone doesn’t have a system at all, it’s not going to work. So I and my colleagues are in constant dialogue with our students, trying and erring and trying again to figure out what works for each of them.
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.