In Favor of Routines

Why structure helps students to succeed

Tomorrow is August 1st and the start of the semester officially starts for me. I can’t wait. I haven’t taught this summer and I have missed having a routine. Classes, office hours, and committee meetings structure my day in ways that increase my productivity and, dare I say, gives me comfort. Perhaps this stems from the rituals of Catholicism which shaped my upbringing, or just my own need to find patterns in human behavior (I am a sociologist, after all!), but having structure and order help me.

I am thinking a lot about the 250 new first year students I will be meeting in two weeks. And how for many of them, structure is something they think they want to throw off when they come to college. Personally, I think it is someone else’s structure which they want to be rid of (i.e., parents and K-12 teachers) and not structure itself, but that’s a hard sell for many of them…at least it is until my first test. Then many drop by my office asking for help with time management, with finding structure and balance in their lives. I wish I could offer them this advice now instead of six weeks from now. So what’s my advice?

First, touch every class, every weekday. It doesn’t have to be the same amount of time for every class, every day, but do something with each class. Maybe it’s reading assigned pages, or taking reading notes, or doing an online quiz, or writing an outline for a section of a paper, etc. Spend more time on content for classes you have the next day.


         Second, build time for yourself in your daily schedule, whether it is for friends, for recreation and exercise, spirituality, or even some recreational procrastination. Think of that “personal time” as important as a class and protect it from encroachment by other priorities.

Third, schedule time for others. That might be your roommate, your romantic partner, or the student or civic organizations you join. It might be time to be a parent to a child. It might be work time in order to pay bills. These relationships teach us patience, acceptance of others’ worldviews, and show us that others see the world differently.

Unfortunately, following these three rules is not so simple – for any of us! There’s never enough time in the day and the best schedule can be trashed with one text message, a pop quiz, or a cold. How one gets back on track, however, can be as important as the schedule itself. Often where students can go wrong, is that one bad day becomes two, which can become a week, and so on.

So how can faculty help our students to learn time management and balance? Should we make an assignment where we ask students to create a study schedule? Do we talk early and often about how many hours a week we believe is necessary for success in our class? Do we share our failures as well as successes as students? Many institutions used to say the norm was 3 hours a week per class credit (though some have revised that down to 2 hours per credit hour). Expect student push back, though, if this is your advice to them. I have my students complete a form about their expectations for classes and about seventy percent each term think that they will be able to earn an “A” in any class with less than two hours of studying per week. They aren’t happy when I say that’s not likely to work for our class (nor any class). Suffice it to say that I don’t win any popularity contests on the days we have this conversation!

But over time, I see students find a better balance of studying, time for self, and time with others. And almost always, their academic grade in our class increases at the same time. I want to help them, but this is one of those soft skills that each of us has to learn – and keep learning – for ourselves. So students – I can’t wait to meet you, and to watch you figure out the routine that works for you.



Teaching ‘Big’: Taking Care of the One or the Many?

How should faculty balance compassion for one student and equality for all?

scaleOne of the struggles we all have is how to enforce our class policies…how to balance compassion with equity. I realize that “life happens” to each of us and that there are times when bending rules is the humane thing to do to help a student undergoing trauma, stress, and who is feeling overwhelmed. Helping a student in crisis connect with other services on campus or just letting that student know that I care what is happening on a personal level with a handwritten note or a brief conversation after class can make the difference between a student hanging on or quitting a class or even the university.

I try to do all those things. If a student has surgery in a local hospital, I’ll send flowers on behalf of the class, telling them to get well, to take it slow, and that we’ll work with them to catch up with the student is ready. I also send an email which explains the incomplete policy, if the illness crops up late in the semester. If a student has experienced a death, I’ll buy a card, and I have walked many a student over to our Counseling Center or called it on behalf of the student, to assure that the student is seen as soon as possible. I encourage counseling as a place where there is scheduled time to talk about an issue, which can help later on when the student is trying to study for classes. I tell them that, while I am not a trained counselor, that I am here to listen and to help them to negotiate our institution’s bureaucracy if the student needs help.

On the other hand, making individual “deals” with students in a class of hundreds makes me very nervous. I struggle with remembering the deal we made or trying to keep it private (especially if it is medical-related reasons), etc. I have found that teaching large supersections only compounds the internal debate that I have about when – if ever – to break one of my rules, because with so many students, the opportunities for events to crop up exponentially expands.

But my biggest worry with these “private” deals with individual students – even students who might could use a break – is that there are other students in a big class (or really, in any sized class) who read the syllabus’ rules and will follow them without ever considering asking for “a break.” I was one of those students; I would memorize my syllabi and would never have dared to ask faculty to extend a deadline or to break a rule for me. After being in an accident with a bus and having significant back pain, instead of asking for extensions, I went to every class, stretched out on the floor, and took notes, writing above my head. Not a single faculty member ever asked me if I was okay or if I needed any help. It never occurred to me that they could (or perhaps even should have) helped me by changing the syllabus, nor that I deserved any “breaks” from them.

Where is your line between justice for all and compassion for the one? What do you do in this situation?