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How to Organize Your Semester: for Autistic Students

Are you getting ready to start your first year of college? There are so many changes, and one important change is the greater responsibility you have for organizing your academic life. Unlike many high school teachers, college professors will expect you to be adept at keeping track of your own assignments, due dates, course handouts, and notes. With multiple courses each semester, this can be overwhelming for any new college student, but especially those with executive functioning (self-management and organization) challenges! 

Good news, though: much course content is now found online. Professors are giving course notes and assignments through their websites, and you can use these same websites to hand in their assignments, post discussion points with classmates, and receive grades. However, instead of a messy backpack, you might be left with a messy desktop screen! If your screen is cluttered with random assignments, notes, documents, and folders, you are more likely to miss assignments or fall behind in small ways that could really add up at the end of the semester, so let’s begin with computer desk-top organization.  

Create and Organize Computer Desk-top Folders for Each Class 

The first step to staying organized is to create a computer folder for each course. I like to organize these folders in one general computer desk-top folder for each semester (i.e. Fall 2019). Each folder should minimally include sub folders containing: 

  • Assignments 
  • Powerpoints and notes 
  • Course syllabus and any rubrics or grading frameworks your teacher hands out 

Now you have dedicated space on your computer for important information for each class in each semester. Make sure everything in your folders is clearly labeled by class date and course title. When it comes time to study for a test, your notes, handouts, and other materials will be easy to pull up to read on your laptop screen or print out to highlight and go over as a hard copy. 

If you commit to using the folders, you can cut down on anxiety and worry about class materials, due dates, and exams because you will have the necessary information and resources stored and labeled on your computer in easy-to-access locations. 

Organize Your Written Notes 

For some autistic students, hand-writing your notes isn’t a viable practice, and taking notes on tablets, computers, or audio-recorders can be very effective. However, there is often a benefit to taking notes by hand and then typing them up after class. (I like to take notes in handwriting in class on a printed out PowerPoint–I print it out in “handout” form with lines for notes–and then type up the notes later on Microsoft Word.) This will not only keep the notes organized and easy to read later, but the act of rewriting them will actually aid in memorization and comprehension of the material. If you’ve ever looked back at your written notes months later on the night or week before a test and said to yourself, “Huh?! What on earth did I mean there?!” I’m talking to you! 

Keep a Color-coded Calendar for the Semester  

Creating a calendar that encompasses all the assignment due dates and test dates for all classes together is essential. You might have an electronic version on your computer desk-top, or a hard copy version that you keep in your workspace. Color coding can be a very helpful tool that helps you see upcoming dates and deadlines so that you can use your study time most effectively.

You can color code the calendar in a few ways. One way is to choose a color for each class; say Environmental Science is yellow and everything for that class is written or highlighted in yellow. The other option is to choose a color for each type of calendar entry. For example, all test dates can be written in purple, all reading assignments can be in red, and all discussion board posting dates can be written in green, etc. Find out if you prefer a calendar on your laptop/phone, or if you prefer a paper calendar.  Most bookstores and even stores like CVS will have many options. 

Keep Calm and Carry On—or, Be Proactive 

Don’t panic if you miss a class or lose a day of notes. However, don’t just ignore that class session, either!  Many college students ask classmates for a copy of the notes if they have to be absent. Other colleges offer tutoring and resources to help with organizing and studying. Professors often hold office hours which mean that you can stop by and speak to the professor, ask questions, and even receive some helpful test tips. The most important thing to remember is that it is always okay to ask for help! 

Setting up these tools and organizational frameworks can take time, but instead of thinking of these as “extra” steps, try thinking of them as the essential first steps in achieving your academic goals. One of the most common challenges for all new college students is time management, and following these steps will help you master it.  

What other management and organizational topics would you like to see covered? Have additional tips or suggestions? Let us know in the comments. 

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Katie Newton

Katie is a part time speech and language pathologist and part time professional runner. Katie received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Boston University in Speech, Hearing, and Language Sciences and Speech-Language Pathology, respectively. She also trains on the Boston Athletic Association High Performance Team. Katie has experience in public and private schools as well as private clinic settings. She works with children and young adults with a variety of disabilities, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Katie loves to share executive functioning and planning tips along with the more traditional social language strategies to help students succeed.

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