There are four specific things that teachers can do to help students to overcome barriers to completing particular tasks or assignments.
1. Encourage students to commit to when and where they’ll act
People are much more likely to do something if they combine their goal – ‘I’ll complete my maths work’ with a plan ‘at 10am tomorrow’. This kind of planning seems to particularly help if students don’t already have a plan, or aren’t great at self-control. It helps to specify a time, particularly if that time comes after an existing habit: if students plan to start work ‘after breakfast’, they have an unambiguous cue to begin. Specifying the situation helps too, such as planning to work ‘at the kitchen table, once my brother has gone to his room.’
We may also want to help students identify the times at which they are freshest and best able to complete specific tasks. Most people’s energy and attentiveness peaks in the morning, dips during the day, and recovers a little in the later afternoon. Therefore, it makes sense to focus on detailed and analytical tasks in the morning, and to take a lunch break.
It may also be useful to ask students to predict barriers to undertaking work and ask them to plan ways to address these. For example, students may pick times to work when their parents are free to help or when their siblings are likely to be quieter; or they may need to negotiate access to the one laptop in the house.
2. Encourage students to make public commitments
People who make a public commitment are more likely to act than those who just commit privately. The commitment makes them feel accountable to others: once you’ve told everyone you’re going to make dinner, they expect you to do so. Teachers can encourage students to make a clear commitment about what they will do and when, and to share their decision with you and with their parents. This should be particularly useful for parents, who will know exactly what their child should be doing, and when.
3. Plan prompts
Students are more likely to act if they set themselves reminders of what to do when. This could be a simple phone reminder for the specific time they have said they will begin, or they might ask a parent to remind them. It could be more complicated, like a checklist of tasks to complete each day. A checklist should help students to keep on track when they finish one task and move to the next, and it is a simple way for parents to check if their child is doing what they planned to do.
4. Hold students accountable
People are more likely to complete a task if they are working towards a deadline. If you haven’t already done so, it’s definitely worth setting students interim deadlines to submit work, ideally every week, so they start to get into good habits. (This doesn’t mean you have to comment on every bit of student work: the most important function is to show which of your students may need a check-up). If you want to give students more of a role, you could ask them to set their own deadlines, although these should be clearly circumscribed: ‘I’d like you to choose a date to return this to me – it can be any day before the end of the month’. Again, if parents know the deadlines, they can help to hold students accountable.
One way to efficiently get students thinking about creating a good plan is to send them the following questions and have them return their answers to you and share them with their parents:
- When will you do this task/these tasks regularly?
- Where will you do them?
- What barriers might you face? How could you overcome them?
- What reminder will you set for this? Set it now.
- Who will you send your work to when it’s finished?
To learn more about the evidence for this kind of planning, and how teachers can use it, check out this post.
Make sure you read Harry’s other posts: seven key ideas to support motivation; the importance of social norms; and building habits.
By Harry Fletcher-Wood