“The Plan for Success” – Supporting Students’ Executive Functioning Skills

By Forrest C. Helvie, Ph.D.

As Integrated Reading & Writing teachers, we all preach and believe in writing as a process. But what do we do when students come into our classes with varying grasps on that process? And how do we help these students develop into independent learners who will be able to take this process and apply it across their programs of study?

The first year of college often serves as a transition point into a new world, and for some of our students, this change can prove disruptive and challenging as they try to adapt their planning skills to the college classroom. Successfully generalizing these process-focused skills can be especially difficult given that many first-time students are still developing their executive functioning (EF) skills. These skills help people plan, consider steps involved with completing simple and complex tasks, and manage their time. Conditions such as ADD/ADHD frequently include executive functioning deficits; however, students who have either struggled in their high school experiences or been away from the classroom for an extended time may also experience EF challenges initially as well (Ward & Jacobsen, 2014). 

Recognizing that a number of students in my IRW classes were struggling with the process planning skills that are integral to their success in the course, I created the “Plan for Success” based on the feedback I’ve provided them on their essays. EF experts Sarah Ward and Kristen Jacobsen (2014) developed a strategy for work completion called “Get Ready, Do, Done, Get Done” and my “Plan for Success” approach adapts their work for college level writing students to not only help them get done, but be able to do it on their own after they’ve progressed on from my class. To ensure it happens with fidelity (and to aid in their attempts to translate my handwriting!), I do this in class on the day they receive their papers back initially, but as the semester goes on, the students find they’re better able to complete it on their own thereby growing their sense of “academic independence.”

The first step in the “Plan for Success” is to have students fill out the title of assignment and the due date for the next draft at the top of the paper. This seems simple enough, but it’s serves as a continual visual reminder of when the assignment and its due date. Before they can begin the work, they need to be 100% clear on what the subject is and when it will be due.

Next, students identify WHAT they need to edit and revise. They do this through collecting all of the feedback provided to them in their essay after reading instructor feedback and then creating a bullet list of what they find. This way, students don’t need to flip back and forth through their initial draft to find the feedback as it will be collected all in one place. Additionally, it requires students to read the instructor feedback and transfer it onto their plan in a way they’ll understand. If the feedback doesn’t make sense, they have an opportunity to seek clarification right away. As a result, they will have gathered all that they need to complete the work thoroughly. Lastly, this bypasses more traditional “writers’ checklists,” which utilize a one size fits all approach. Instead, the “Plan for Success” offers each student an entirely individualized list. After all, when students understand something is relevant to their needs, the likelihood they’ll buy in is that much greater.

Afterwards, I have students write out WHERE they will work on these revisions. Some students might have access to a computer at home, but others are not as privileged. Even those who do have a computer at home still need to understand some spaces are more conducive to learning than others. This step reinforces the importance of students recognizing that one of the steps in completing their work is ensure they have a good study environment, and this may result in more planning for some than others. Too often, assignments fail to be turned in because students didn’t plan on where they would go to complete the work or until it’s too late. With practice, they’ll begin to know where they can be most productive and how to avoid those places that can distract them from being focused on work completion.

Then, students identify WHEN they will complete the work. Again, this step aims to address last-minute planning that often results in students working at the last possible minute … or failing to get the work done at all. For many, this may prove to be one of the most challenging aspects of the plan, but with practice, they’ll become more acclimated to thinking about scheduling time to complete their work. Even if they recognize after the fact that they did not adhere to their plan, they can begin to consider what times would work better than what they planned or what factors led to their being derailed during that time frame. Again, the more we can encourage and cultivate a sense of mindfulness in our students, the more likely they will be at completing their classroom activities and obligations.

Now, up to this point the students have prepared to do the work and hopefully completed the revisions and edits for their essay. But if you’ve ever had a student tell you they did the work but left it at home, then you understand the difference between being done with writing an essay and getting an assignment done. Ward & Jacobsen (2014) refer to this as the final stage of the process of assignment completion: Getting Done. With this in mind, students will need to identify on their plan HOW they will submit the assignment to their instructor. In some cases, they will submit it electronically; in other instances, it may be that they need to list where they will print the assignment out and how they’ll store the assignment so it gets to class on time for submission.

Many teachers provide students with an assortment of tools for supporting assignment completion, e.g. graphic organizers, checklists, etc. And while I do not want to discourage this, I would challenge faculty to consider that when students develop the tools for work completion themselves, we are better supporting their taking ownership of their learning through helping them internalize the process of getting their work done. The “Plan for Success” that I developed helps students do this through prompting them to come up with the list of work that needs to be done to revise their writing, identify what logistical needs they’ll have, and create a realistic timeline for meeting their instructor’s expectations. It’s more than just a basic checklist; instead, it serves as both a written reflection and opportunity for critical self-reflection that can lead to students completing their work for not only your classes but throughout their academic experience.

Works Referenced

Ward, S., & Jacobsen, K. (2014). A clinical model for developing executive function skills. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, 21(2), 72-84.

Dr. Forrest Helvie has served as a developmental English faculty member for the past eleven years at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. In that time, he has coordinated the developmental English program and chaired the Academic Enrichment and First-Year Experience department. Presently, he is beginning a new position as the Connecticut State Community College Interim Director of Professional Development.