The Assignment Book: Your Lifeline to Success
There are very few subjects that will drive a wedge between a parent and child as quickly and forcefully as the assignment book. Many students view this tool as their nemesis, while teachers and parents see it as the key to student success. Believe it or not, both parties are right! When used correctly, the assignment book can be one of the most powerful tools a student has in their toolbox. However, if this tracking device is merely handed out without instructions or guidance, it becomes just one more source of frustration in an already-overloaded backpack of angst. But wait, you say. Aren’t all assignment tools the same? How difficult can it be to use it? All my kid has to do is fill it out every day!
And therein lies the problem. For many students, especially those who struggle with executive functioning skills, the assignment book is one more task to add to a burgeoning to-do list. Time is short, and attention spans are even shorter; why is a kid, who can barely get himself to the kitchen table to start his homework, going to feel an ounce of enthusiasm about adding to the tasks that need to be done before he even begins his work?
Part of the tension surrounding this tool centers on whether the assignment book should be an actual assignment book, or digital format like an app, Google Calendar, or other paperless version of an organizational tool. Parents are frequently convinced the old-fashioned paper version is the best idea-it’s tangible, doesn’t rely on batteries or electricity, it fits in the kid’s backpack; and it’s familiar. Students argue the digital formats are more portable, they won’t lose them (a serious benefit over the paper version!), they can attach audible and repeating reminders to certain tasks, and the information contained in these tools can be accessed on all devices. Again, both arguments are valid.
So, how are parents and students supposed to navigate this debate? Simply stated, the key here is to recognize there is no one right answer. There is no cookie-cutter approach to organization; what works for one person may not work for another. Some students like the feeling of writing out the words onto a piece of paper; it feels comfortable and gives them a sense of control over the entry of the information. Furthermore, as proven so many times in numerous studies, the act of handwriting information helps students to better process and store content. So, for these students, the “old-fashioned” version of the assignment book is the way to go. On the other hand, students who struggle with fine or graphomotor skills, the hand-written version of an assignment tool is a nightmare. They can’t fit the words into the tiny lines and boxes, rendering their entries illegible. For students who lose personal belongings, the hard-copy book is a gateway to the adventures of seeking items lost to the blackhole. In this case, the student may very well benefit from a digital tracking tool.
Keeping track of one’s assignments is not as simple as it sounds, and every student’s approach to its use must be customized to meet his or her needs. Let’s look at the hard copy version first. One of my favorites is the Order Out of Chaos Planner available at Amazon. First, the assignment book must lend itself to actual writing. Tight lines and tiny boxes are useless for anyone, but particularly those students whose handwriting is large or illegible. Make sure the spaces dedicated to writing are spacious enough to write in without straining one’s hand or eyesight. Each class needs to be listed in the entry for each day:
Foreign Language: _______________________
The first step is to check one’s entries against the school portal. Are your entries matching those made by the teacher? Even if you do not have homework in a class, it’s still helpful to list that class and place an “X”, “NH”, or “0” to signify no homework.
Assignments that are listed should include not only the daily assignments that are due, but the long-term assignments. Let’s look at these assignments for one minute. I always encourage students to take long-term assignments and break them down into chunks. For example, if a research paper has been assigned, unless the teacher has issued his or her own due dates, the student needs to break this type of assignment into smaller pieces AND then calendar them. What does this look like?
Research paper: Final Due Date December 15th
Identify 10 resources: November 5th
Complete research: November 15th
Outline: Complete by November 17th
Thesis statement: November 18th
Write Intro Paragraph: November 20th
Write Section 1 of Body Paragraphs: November 22nd
Write Section 2 of Body Paragraphs: November 24th
Write Section 3 of Body Paragraphs: November 27th (I don’t want to work on this over
Write Section 4 of Body Paragraphs: November 29th
Write Conclusion: December 1st
Meet with Teacher to Discuss Rough Draft: December 3rd
Submit Rough Draft (Teacher Due Date): December 5th
Work on Works Cited Page While I Wait for Teacher Feedback: December 8th
Work on Edits: December 12th
Final Draft: December 14th
Each of these chunks is then placed in the assignment book on the day you stated you would complete it, and it is to be treated like a daily assignment, not ignored, but completed.
With all assignments, students need to check them off to confirm completion, and, if submission of work is a challenge, a second checkmark needs to be made once the assignment is handed in. This is my famous Double Check system. If any assignment does not have two checkmarks next to it, that means it is either incomplete or it was not handed in.
Other tricks related to taming the assignment book include making sure your entries are specific. Using the research paper example, it is not enough to enter “Research Paper” in your assignment book. You need to be specific. Similarly, when you are studying for an exam, do not just write, “Math Test”, rather specifically list the content you will review for that exam. For example, write, “Review first ten terms in chapter ten and make flashcards and hints.” You now know what you are going to do in that period of time and how you will do it. This specificity not only creates a plan of action, but it helps you with self-accountability.
Color-coding can also be an effective tool. I have students who make this skill into an artform! Some students have their binders, folders, and ink color of each subject coordinated -History is red, English is Blue, Math is green, etc. Others just make their entries color-coordinated, using the same colors for each subject every time they are entered. Other students use color to signify importance of assignments: red means top priority, yellow means average importance, green means upcoming assignment in the next week or so.
Make use of the space allocated for notes to yourself. This is a great place to use colored writing to remind you to do those unusual tasks like meeting with your guidance counselor or teacher; bringing a prop to school; or having a parent sign a permission slip. The colored writing will draw your attention the these extra tasks.
Finally, make sure your assignment book is with you at all times. If you are not allowed to carry a backpack from class to class, place that book on top of your book pile so you see that it’s there; put it in your backpack and take it to every class; and double check to make sure that sucker is in your backpack before you leave to go home. This tool is really your key to success!
When it comes to digital tools, the same rules for the assignment book also apply, with a couple of added bonus features: portability, commutability, and alarms.
There are many digital versions of homework tracking tools. Google Calendar, MyStudyLife.com, iStudiez Pro, are but a few of the digital tools students can use to track their work. Google Calendar tends to be a bit trickier to set up as there are multiple steps to take to scheduled tasks and color-coding tends to be a bit laborious. But once Google Calendar is set up properly, it is a powerful tool. Most apps can be used to set up reminders related to specific tasks and can be used on both iOS and Android phones as well as laptops, iPads, and tablets.
It is important to note that when setting up reminders and alarms, it is particularly crucial to choose times when you can take the required actionable step. For example, it doesn’t make sense to set a reminder to start your homework at 4pm if you will be in soccer practice at that time. If you tend to swipe and ignore alarms and reminders, use my Three Call system. If I want to start my homework at 4:30pm, I will set my alarm for 4:25pm with a note that says, “Get Ready”. I’ll set a second alarm for 4:30pm that says, “Let’s Go!”, and a third alarm at 4:35pm that says, “Did you start?” Having this three-alarm system facilitates organization and time management as well as self-accountability.
I would encourage you to explore different hard copies and digital versions of homework tracking tools. Play with them and understand how they work, then determine what works for you. Whatever assignment tracking tool you decide to use, it has to serve your needs and you must be willing to use it consistently.