September 20, 2022

Employing Executive Function Skills at the College Level: A Recipe for Success

By Jess Holman, Instructor

As students return to school this fall, college students’ day-to-day lives are changing quite significantly – especially if they are moving away from home for the first time! College is all about independence – students’ grades, academic experiences, and accommodations are private, and cannot be shared with parents without written consent from the student. While many students relish the opportunity for greater autonomy, for some students the newfound freedom is anxiety provoking.  Armed with the right set of executive function skills, college students can tackle their next academic chapter confidently and successfully. Here are a few of the critical EF skills and campus services that students might utilize:

  • Self-advocacy skills: Learning how to communicate effectively with members of the University community is a critical skill for success. There’s a team of people rooting for you and your success. Start off by regularly checking your email for updates about campus resources – this will help you connect with various offices and learn about opportunities to get involved, advising, financial literacy, tutoring, accessibility services, and so much more! You may also need to search the University website for additional resources, such as the campus food pantry,  textbook loan program, and services for specific populations of students. 
  • Organization of (Online) Materials: Even if you’re learning in-person, many students use various online learning platforms, textbooks, and assignment submission tools. It’s important to stay organized and know where to find resources and support. Most professors have an online space with the course syllabus, a schedule for office hours, students’ grades, supplemental reading assignments, and resources for academic success. In addition to what is shared by faculty members, online learning platforms often include features to help students with planning and time management, such as calendars and notifications. Check out your University’s Information Technology website for information about online learning software best-practices and spend time exploring what your professor posts – there’s often important dates, course materials, and information about how grades are calculated! 
  • Planning and Time Management: One of the most jarring changes from high school to college can be how much time college students spend learning and studying outside of the classroom. Using a calendar system that works for you -whether online or a paper planner – can be a wonderful way to visualize your schedule and map out all of your academic and extracurricular activities. 
  • Organization of Ideas:  College courses often require students to synthesize information from various sources and textbooks. Students may be asked to take notes on their readings and lectures, which may be challenging to organize. A great way to organize all of the information students process is to utilize tutoring or academic coaching on campus. To get started organizing your ideas independently, try one of the following strategies: 
      • Harvard Notes or Cornell Notes: These note-taking styles separate the main idea or concept from supporting details; formatting your notes in these styles is a great active study strategy. These note-taking styles can be tailored to your individual needs or you can build your own graphic organizer that breaks down complicated ideas into more manageable and defined concepts. 
      • Active Reading Strategies: Whether you buy or rent your textbooks, there are plenty of active reading strategies that can help you organize your ideas, define key terms, and flag key plot points. Some students prefer to take notes directly in the text while others prefer to type their notes – explore what feels best to you! 
        • TIP: If you rent your textbooks, be sure to check their policies before writing directly in the text. If you are concerned about the book losing value, try using post-it notes or page flags as an annotation tool. 
      • Organizing Your Writing Process: When students skip the step of organizing their ideas before writing a paper, they often end up writing to their argument and their thesis statement emerges in their conclusion paragraph of their first draft. It’s important to consider your main idea or argument before you start writing, so that your paper is structured, cohesive, and effective. To start, put the prompt and the rubric into a blank word processing document to review what you are being asked to do and how you will be evaluated. Next, put your ideas on paper; some students benefit from creating a messy brainstorm document and others prefer to build a structured outline. Regardless of what your pre-writing process looks like, reviewing the assignment and organizing your ideas before you get started is a valuable use of your time that results in stronger writing. 
  • Self-Monitoring and Follow Through: You are the expert in what study environment is best for you!  Campuses are intentionally designed to have a variety of study spaces for students. Work in spaces that are conducive to your learning – for some students this is a silent floor in the library and for others it may be a desk in a bustling cafe on campus. Find what works for you and build time in a study space into your weekly schedule. 

Remember to have fun! It’s important to take breaks and find moments of joy and relaxation. You are not alone – armed with your executive function skills, support is always nearby whether you are learning online or in person!