Teaching Students to Manage Their Digital Assignments
Predictable routines can teach students how to use organizational tools and help them develop their executive function skills.
You just wrapped up an invigorating conversation with your 10th-grade students. They contributed brilliant ideas, and you’re looking forward to reading the written reflections you assigned for homework. But when you log into Google Classroom the next day to grade their work, you find that nearly half of your students didn’t submit the assignment. Only two-thirds of them even opened the document.
So many students who are engaged in real-world learning activities struggle to complete assignments in the digital world. Digital work is often out of sight and out of mind the moment they leave our classrooms. It can cause teachers and parents to wonder if being organized is even possible in our tech-focused society.
1-to-1 Devices are Permanent Fixtures in Today’s Classroom
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic pushed most schools into a virtual teaching model, students spent much of their instructional time on a device. A 2019 study out of Arlington Public Schools found that middle school students spent 47 percent of their time and high school students spent 68 percent of their time on a device. Findings from the study suggest that devices are frequently used for “reference and research, presentations and projects, and feedback and assessment.”
By the return to in-person learning, 90 percent of students had access to a one-to-one device for school, and it’s evident that technology in the classroom (and workplace) is here to stay.
Teaching Digital Organization Skills is Key
Although they have access to a myriad of digital organization tools (myHomework, Evernote, Google Keep, and Coggle, to name a few), students may still struggle to organize their assignments and complete them from start to submission. We often assume that students can transfer organizational skills from the real world to the digital world, and we often ask them to quickly and seamlessly transition from hard-copy work (reading a chapter in a novel, completing a science experiment) to digital work, such as writing a reflection in Google Docs and submitting it to a learning management system (LMS).
Digital files are perceivable to the human brain, but they aren’t tangible in the same way that binders, notebooks, and folders are. And while an LMS may aid students’ access to information, it doesn’t do the heavy lifting of organizing information and prioritizing tasks. These actions are highly demanding cognitive skills that students can be taught and practice in the digital world—even if students have already perfected them in the analog world.
Teachers can prioritize strategic, direct instruction of organizational and other executive functioning skills for a tech-focused world.
Streamline Your Classroom Resources
The first step in helping students organize digital work is to organize your classroom resources on the back end. In coordination with your department, grade level, or district, choose one LMS and three to four instructional resources, and stick with them for the entire year. For example, you could select Google Classroom as your LMS and use PearDeck, Google Calendar, and EdPuzzle as instructional resources.
Though it’s tempting to adopt new and exciting technology as it evolves, a revolving door of programs is difficult for students to juggle and can lead to app fatigue.
Teachers can further streamline their classroom resources by color-coding folders and files in their chosen LMS, posting log-in directions in easily accessible locations, and offering a landing page in their LMS that holds all of the links to digital resources.
Create Predictable Routines Around Digital Work
Next, it’s important for teachers to create clear and predictable routines around organizing digital assignments.
One routine that I’ve developed in my classroom is a living table of contents document. I create and print out a blank table of contents for each unit, and students house them in their binders. I then project the table of contents at the start of each class with the day’s newest assignments, and students fill in these new items on their hard copies when they settle in. Each assignment is numbered, and assignments located online that won’t appear in their binders are labeled with an “S” (for us, that stands for Schoology) to note that the assignment is in our LMS.
Another predictable routine is entering homework assignments into Google Calendar or agenda books together at the end of every class. Prompting students to write down their homework may seem elementary, but even older students appreciate the predictability and consistency of this routine because it reduces anxiety (rushing to write it down before the teacher moves on) and frees up brain space for critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving.
If you’re not sure that your current routine is clear and predictable, consider whether or not students could replicate your system in your absence. If students can’t get through the routine on their own, your routine may need to be articulated more clearly (such as being posted somewhere in the classroom), or it may need to be implemented more consistently.
Model a Variety of Organizational Strategies
Similar to the process of how academic skills are acquired, teachers can model organizational skills for students. Consider creating opportunities to demonstrate strategies such as how and where to save documents, how to sync information across devices, how to share calendar events with peers and parents, and how to plan for long-term projects.
You can also help students get more comfortable with organizational strategies by sharing “think-alouds” for task initiation, task prioritization, and time management. Consider using common language for reminding and prompting. For example, at the start of every new assignment, you could say something like, “Now that I’m ready to start, I’m going to open up Schoology, Google, and a Word document and close out of other tabs.”
Because executive functioning skills are not innate, providing language for them allows students to identify them, replicate them, and use tools to do them more quickly. Prioritizing these skills can improve student outcomes and prepare students for an increasingly tech-focused world.