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“Students just don’t know how to manage their time.”

In my job, I communicate frequently with faculty and staff in a range of disciplines about student learning and academic performance. A concern I often hear is that students come to post-secondary education not knowing how to manage their time, particularly when it comes to self-directed projects like writing and studying. In talking with students and the peer tutors I work with, though, I've gotten the sense that students' "poor time management" isn't the root of the problem.

I think the problem is more so in how we frame academic labor. We expect that students will have been trained in specific models of learning and academic production, but we aren't transparent about what those models are. And, it’s likely that those of us who have built careers in higher education have become so accustomed to these processes that they feel natural and obvious.

However, I would argue that what we risk in continuing to lament students' time management skills is a perpetuation of deficit models of education. Telling students they don't know how to use their time sends a message that they are personally and individually deficient. The intent behind higher education professionals’ talk about time management skills is, of course, good—they want to identify a specific way that we might help students learn more effectively. The impact, though, can be reinforcing the vague and often opaque nature of academic expectations, particularly for those students whose sense of belonging in academic contexts is already under threat.

I have recently grown curious about what might happen if we shift this conversation to project management rather than "time management.”

In business, project management refers to a specific process and set of skills used to guide a team through a large-scale project. But I think there is potential to adapt it in useful ways. For instance, the image below is a screen shot from a workshop I gave earlier this year for a group of peer mentors on campus.

My hypothesis is that if we shift our discourse about academic labor, we may see these things shift as well:

Students would consider a wider range of resources.

  • Scaffolding our assignments with project management concepts and processes can help students become accustomed to drawing on a range of resources to accomplish specific goals. Time is not the only resource that we use when working on an academic project. There is a whole network of texts, people, and tools (both within our institutions and outside of them) that students should feel empowered to use in completing their assignments and projects.

Students may feel a greater sense of agency in academic contexts.

  • This change could help us move away from a Protestant work ethic model of academic success and more toward an awareness of and respect for our students as creative, competent human beings, not human doings.

  • Changing this discourse means focusing on the project as the thing to be managed rather than the student's time. The way we talk about students’ processes of writing or studying wouldn't feel like we’re making a moral judgment on how they use their time.

Students may develop a greater understanding of the iterative nature of learning and composing.

  • Thinking about papers, exams, and other types of assignments as academic projects can help students unlearn standardized test-based measures of success. Like design thinking, project management entails testing, getting feedback, and measuring progress. Framing academic labor according to a project-based model can make more room for these important aspects of learning.

The term project management may not be the answer given its overtly corporate, capitalist connotations. But I think an important first step is to ask ourselves and each other what we really mean when we say students don't know how to manage their time. After all, words matter.

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