Transitioning to High School: Organisational Skills 101

High school brings as many organisational challenges as academic ones. Learning how to organise yourself, manage your time and how to study are key to high school (and life!) success. We have some simple, tried and true, tips to make life easier and reduce the overwhelm.

Cluey Learning Monday, 5 February 2024

Organisational skills can be the first thing that students struggle with when they arrive in high school. Not only are there new subjects and teachers to get used to, students need to take greater responsibility for managing where they need to be and what they need to do.  

There is a clear connection between organisational skills and academic achievement. Not only do these skills make it easier for a student to meet assignment and assessment deadlines, being organised also clears the mental clutter that can get in the way of learning.  

Here are a number of strategies that Cluey’s resident education expert, Dr Selina Samuels, has routinely used with her students and that will help your child (and possibly yourself!) to be more organised and learn more efficiently and effectively. 

Time Management 

Learning to manage your time is the aspiration of most organisational strategies and is also a very different process for each individual. There may need to be very different strategies in place for students diagnosed with ADHD, for example. 

Googling “time management strategies” will give you an overwhelming array of recommendations.  Many people extol the virtues of the Pomodoro technique, which breaks working time into 25-minute intervals with a short break of 5-10 minutes. Then there are others who talk about time audits. But I think the most useful piece of information for secondary students is that there is only so much time you can focus on one task. Neuroscientists agree that the average adult can only concentrate on a task for a maximum of 90 minutes. For high school students, that period is much smaller.  

So, for a high school student who is expected to do one hour of homework a night, I would break that into two half-hour chunks of time, each one followed by some physical movement. Not only will moving help students acquire more energy after sitting still for half an hour, movement helps them to embed what they have learned. There is also evidence that doing unusual movement and being physically unstable (that is, balancing on one leg, turning upside down) helps to consolidate learning. But any physical activity is better than none! 

In breaking their tasks down in this way, students need to be precise about the expected outcome or output of what they are going to tackle in each half-hour slot. Rather than planning to “do Maths”, they would be better to plan to “Complete exercises A to C and redo any that I get wrong”. This level of detail will give them a stronger sense of completion and achievement at the end of the study session. 

Organisational Tools 

There are almost as many organisational tools available as there are recommended time management strategies. I expect you’ll spend more time looking for the ‘perfect tool’ than using it. A student’s best organisational tool is a simple diary (online or analogue) and the commitment to use it. Assessment and assignment deadlines need to be noted promptly, and then students taught to work backwards and note when to start planning, drafting and revising.  

One technique that I have seen work very well for my students is colour coding. Each subject is allocated a colour and the lead-up to an assessment is marked with ever increasing intensity of colour. So, if English is blue, “planning my English essay” two weeks before the assessment might be pale blue while “drafting my English essay” the next week is cobalt and the week of submission the strongest blue available. This will help students identify where their priorities should lie when they have a number of subjects and tasks to attend to. 

Study Habits 

Many students leave high school claiming that they were never taught how to study. The most important thing to note about “studying” is that learning should be active and not passive. So, rereading notes has limited benefit. Learning by rote is also of limited and short-term application and should be restricted to learning quotes or equations for an assessment.  

The best way for students to acquire effective study habits is for them do something that applies their newly-acquired knowledge and skills and shows them whether or not they have understood what they have been taught. That may mean doing mock exam papers to time for Maths, writing practice essays for English or summarising class notes for History. In each of these examples, the student is doing something active to apply and embed their knowledge.  

One of the best study habits to acquire is that of re-teaching what they have learnt at school. Teaching others – a patient parent, sibling or friend – helps students to consolidate what they have learnt, and shows them what they have understood and what might need to be visited again. 

A final note: for all students but particularly those who are experiencing a new environment and the excitement and challenge that goes with it, getting enough sleep is vital. It is during sleep that learning is embedded, so it is probably the best study habit of them all! 

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