“Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
This may sound like a cliché but the words still echo in my ears as I remember the stern voice of my English teacher at school. The truth is, what I’ve come to realise over the years through my career as a teacher and tutor is that this simple sentence applies to every aspect of academia & beyond. As soon as students understand the importance of planning their schedule, including timetabling, planning essays for exam questions and following a consistent routine, like a domino effect, everything starts falling into place. We are creatures of habit after all, so once we can master the art of planning, we work a lot smarter in life as a whole.
Article written by Sheila G, BA MA, who has been a private tutor in London, Dubai, Pakistan, India & Sri Lanka over the last 14 years. Sheila specialises in English, French, German, Public Speaking & Mindfulness tuition.
Planning folder arrangements
There’s something rewarding about having a folder in front of you which is well organised; it makes a student want to study as opposed to wasting time trying to find scattered bits of paper everywhere. As a language tutor I’ve advised students to have dividers in their folders with sub sections of the topic we are working on. Take for instance English Language; a student in Key Stage 3 could divide the folder up into sub sections using the dividers like ‘SPAG’ (Spelling, Punctuation & Grammar), ‘Creative Writing,’ ‘Non-fiction’ (this will include analysis of non fiction texts as well as transactional writing e.g. speeches, articles, letters) and for English Literature we could break it into: ‘Poetry,’ ‘Shakespeare,’ ‘Gothic literature’ and perhaps the name of a text studied at school like ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Spending a couple of hours organising a ring binder folder with the relevant sections will go such a long way. It means if we come back to revisit a topic, it’s easy to find. It also means that when it comes to the end of year exams or even end of term tests, the resources and completed work, with corrections, will be organised so efficiently – in chronological order – that the student will feel more confident about revising; this simple, yet effective planning strategy cuts down hours and works with every subject.
Five minute plans
For many students, the word ‘essay’ is usually associated with an overwhelming sense of not knowing how to start or how to structure it. The fact is, essay writing is a significant part of a student’s life, especially in secondary school. The foundations are simple & all you do is build on the concept of a beginning, middle and end. I like to use the analogy of a burger; the top and bottom (the bread) represents the introduction and conclusion. The layers of filling including the ‘meat’ represents the middle. Put simply, whether it’s a creative writing task or a persuasive article, the student should aim to have a minimum of 5 sections. Here is an example of a creating writing plan (in note form):
Write about a time you felt frightened.
Setting: Friday, late afternoon (one winter evening in year 7), walking home alone from school. Darker than usual (pathetic fallacy)
Build up 1: Battery on phone is dead; feel vulnerable walking through a quiet road 5 mins away from home. Silence (trees look threatening/starts raining – personification)
Build up 2: Hear footsteps behind me – too frightened to look back so I start walking faster (heart beats are fast/sweat pouring down my forehead) but footsteps get closer.
Climax: Start to run and trip on the pavement so I’m almost face down; I panic and yell,’help!’
Resolution: Feel a hand touch my shoulder – it’s my next door neighbour Greg! Feeling overwhelmed (confusion, foolishness, relief)
Ending: Greg helps me get up; exchange a few words. He makes a joke. I decide = won’t watch any more horror films!
The above is a simple 5-minute plan, which would be around half a page long when written out. When pupils first start to plan, it may take longer because they’ll feel the need to write down all the minute details; as tempting as it is, it’s essential to remember that a plan is only an outline of the essay. It means that there won’t be time wasted when trying to think of what to write about next and most importantly, having a plan will mean that there won’t be unnecessary repetition in the work, which I see so often when students try to ‘wing it.’ Having a plan also looks impressive to examiners as it shows that the student has thought about the structure and has a clear order to the written piece.
Here is an example plan for a transactional writing task from a GCSE English Language paper:
Write the text for a speech you will give to your peers giving essential advice on personal safety.
Intro: catchy intro: what is personal safety? My definition (use pronouns ‘we’ & ‘you’ to address peers – conversational language)
– Online apps like Facebook/Twitter – personal information being shared to the public could be risky; burglaries in homes. You don’t know who’s checking; advice: make sure you enable privacy settings. Restrict your account.
– Online shopping risks; phishing scams, buying from untrusted third parties, identity theft & stolen money. Advice: checking sender’s email address, buying products from reliable sources. Checking with parents.
– Attacks/muggings/assaults – walking alone in dimly lit settings, catching the tube when it’s dark. Advice: being wary of your surroundings. Making sure someone knows your whereabouts incase you’re unreachable; carrying a portable phone charger.
Conclusion: reiterate main message of personal safety, including a rhetorical question. End with ‘You can never be too vigilant.’
The above plan has a very clear beginning, middle (with three parts) and an ending. As with the creative writing plan, it means that the ideas won’t be repeated in the essay. What’s brilliant about this concept of planning is that it works for other humanities subjects like History and Geography. It’s a skill which will also be used throughout the student’s academic work at university and beyond; it truly forms the foundations like the brickwork of a house!
Students often ask me if they should do linear plans or ‘spider’ plans. My answer is that they can opt for whichever planning style suits them, provided there is a clear, logical structure and that it looks presentable.
Planning when to do homework in the week is crucial. As a tutor, the homework I give to students is an addition to the work they already have from school. Typically, a tutor gives around 45 minutes or an hour’s worth of homework (depending on age and level). With tutorial sessions usually taking place once a week, the student then has the time in between to complete it. The first step is to get the school timetable and cross out the evenings which are already occupied with extra-curricular activities after school or homework time slotted in for school work. Once that’s done, there will be so much more clarity; I always recommend not to complete the homework late in the evening, and that whichever hour is picked is consistent every single week. Of course, if there are changes, this can be adapted accordingly, but the student must remember that consistency is key to progress. I’ve found this planning strategy to be so efficient for all age groups, especially those with very busy timetables. It’s a simple step which goes a long way.
When it comes to planning an exam revision timetable for GCSE level, I always advise that the student aims to study two subjects a day; that means that 10 subjects will be covered from Monday – Friday. If there are only 9 subjects, one day could include going over a weaker subject again. As with the homework timetable, if there are times or days the students can’t do, I would recommend that they catch up on that particulate subject over the weekend. Of course, this is based on some prospect of study leave. In this case, the day should be split into two parts with 45 minute – 60 minute bursts of revision and short 10 – 15 minute breaks in between, with a longer break for lunch. I would always recommend that after 7:30pm, there is rest and recuperation. It’s important not to bombard the brain with study into the early hours of the morning! For students who haven’t had much study leave, they can start their revision later on in the day, ensuring that they are still covering two subjects.
For younger Key stage 3 students who may have end of year exams, the concept is similar. They should aim to revise two subjects after school; an example would be: 5pm – 6pm for French, then a dinner break. After that, 6:30pm – 7:30pm could be allocated for English. As with every plan, there can be adaptations as life can sometimes interrupt us without any warning. In these circumstances, I advise students to move the slots over to a Saturday to even a Sunday.
When I’ve gone through exam revision timetables with students, I usually find that they feel a sense of relief when everything is slotted in; it has a profoundly positive effect psychologically when there’s some sort of a road map to revising for exams. It also alleviates stress because students will feel better prepared and more confident about each subject.
The time taken to organise components in folders, plan written pieces and refining timetables will inevitably lead to a sense of fulfilment in every student; planning is a transferrable skill, which will not only lead to better academic performance, but also a clearer direction. It’s like sitting in a car and using a satellite navigator to instruct us when we are going to a destination. Plans work in similar ways, silently instructing us to our success. I believe that when students practise the art of planning, they will grow in confidence which will permeate other areas of their lives from youth to adulthood.