Strategies for Autistic Students Around Exam and Paper Due Dates

Does a due date ever loom in your future, causing you stress? You can see it on your calendar but aren’t sure what to do to start or when to begin? Sometimes taking the first step in planning for a due date can be the hardest part about getting an assignment finished or feeling confident before a test.

The first step—and one of the most important—is to fill out a calendar for the entire semester including due dates, test dates, and any meetings you must attend in addition to class time. (See my post “Autism and Understanding ‘Hidden Curriculum’: Part Three, the Course Calendar” as well as Patrick Dwyer’s post “Patrick Pontificates: An Autistic STEM Grad Student on All You Need to Know About Lists, Schedules, and Calendars” for tips on making your calendar work for you.) Now, how do you know which assignments will take a full week of work, and which ones can be done in one day? Which tests will require an outline, study group, and hours of studying, vs. which will be simple to review for? Good news, there are clues:

  • what the teacher says in class
  • how weighted the assignment or test is on the syllabus
  • whether the topic is listed on the syllabus as being core course information

Networking with classmates can also be a major factor in helping navigate these tricky situations.

Unlike in high school, college teachers and professors will rarely explicitly review time-management and study skills with their students. If this is an area that you believe is especially difficult for you in general or is becoming challenging during a specific class, getting a tutor that has taken the class before or has managed their time well in college will be an invaluable asset to help!

Studying for Class & Exams

In general, students are expected to study for two hours for every hour that they attend class, and sometimes three. That means if you meet for algebra class Mondays and Wednesdays from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m., you should plan on studying or working on problem sets for 4-6 hours additionally outside of this time.

Since everyone works and studies at their own pace, be prepared for this to fluctuate from week to week and to increase before a major test or for more difficult chapters. The best way to prepare for this increase in study time is to schedule it into your calendar. If you do not carve out time to commit to each class to study, you jeopardize falling behind and having to cram and lose sleep right before a big test. Taking a test with a tired brain is not a great recipe for success! You can add permanent time chunks into your weekly schedule such as studying from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. before a class, or 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at night. Holding yourself accountable will increase the likelihood of you actually getting down to studying and not wasting time/getting sidetracked. Make sure that you give yourself nights off for other events such as social commitments, family dinners, and general relaxation time. Some students find that if they study all night Wednesday, they will look forward to a night off for video games on Thursday and therefore be more motivated to study during their studying chunk.

Think about what type of studying usually works best for you. If you have felt well prepared for a test by reviewing flashcards, then you can begin making the flash cards as review after each lecture. By test week, you will have a deck of cards ready to be flipped through! Some students learn better through rewriting notes that were taken during a class powerpoint or typing up handwritten notes. Again, this can take place after each class meeting to really internalize the material. These study techniques can also be started immediately after each lecture, and then reviewed closer to the test date. This will make you feel confident in having acquired information through study and review over the course of the semester, rather than thinking “I NEED to study for 5 hours for this exam!”

Some students benefit from reading notes or flashcards aloud, or listening to lectures again that they recorded in class. Sometimes making and taking a practice test can be an efficient way to practice problem-set material. You definitely do not want to leave course reading assignments until right before the test! The week of the test should be about reviewing the material, learning anything that is still unclear, and studying with a tutor or study group. If you have used time each week to review the material presented in class and read as outside material, then you won’t have to worry about putting in 10 hours at once for any given test or cramming. Plus, “research shows that spacing learning over time produces substantial learning benefits” (Thalheimer, 2006).

Another consideration is WHERE and WITH WHOM to study. Finding a place that does not have distractions, is motivating, and allows for some breaks can be a major factor in the quality of your study sessions. Finding a study partner that you can bounce ideas off of and ask questions to but that does not distract you from being efficient is also someone to befriend and utilize as a resource.

Writing Papers

When it comes to writing papers, you can never be too far ahead of the game. As soon as the assignment is announced, begin brainstorming topic ideas that seem to pop out as interesting to you. Look at the due date, and look backwards in your schedule to see what you want to accomplish each week. For example, you will want a final draft completed at least a day or two before the due date so you have time to review it with fresh eyes before handing it in. Give yourself a few days before that to have the rough draft done so that you have time for grammatical and referential editing. A week before that, you will want 75% of it complete, then 50%, then 25%, etc. The first week or two after a paper is assigned should be about doing research to gather resources, stopping by the library, and creating an outline. These timelines will of course vary by total time given to complete an assignment. If a teacher just gives a few nights to write a 2-3 page paper, they won’t have as many expectations regarding citations, length, and grammatical complexity. Another clue for how long to work on a paper is how weighted the assignment is. For example, if the paper is going to make up 5% of your total course grade, you should not be putting in 80% of your study time that week in to it. Likewise, if a final paper is 30% of your total grade, you should expect to use a good chunk of your time in the weeks leading up to the due date to help create the best piece of work possible. This principal will apply to tests as well. A weekly quiz that is worth a few percentage points won’t require the same diligence and planning as a final exam or midterm.


A great resource available on any college campus is the librarian. University librarians are trained to help students time manage around assignments and they have the resources and search engines available that are the most up to date and efficient to use! Don’t forget to check your course syllabus and the assignment grading rubric for additional information regarding what is expected for each assignment. The easiest way to underperform on a writing assignment is forgetting to include a mandatory section or resource. Sharon Sorenson, author of How to Write Research Papers has additional helpful tips to consider when writing a college paper beyond planning for the timing here: https://www.petersons.com/blog/writing-a-research-paper-at-colleges-and-universities/

Lastly, as mentioned earlier, never forget to write to your professor or see you TA with any questions before a test or about a reading assignment. Professors generally want to see students succeed, and will often offer study tips or help guide you to the area most pertinent to review. An important clue that material will resurface again on an exam is when professors repeat it often in class, put in bold or italics on a powerpoint, or ask students questions about it. When you review the course syllabus for the core pieces of information that are expected learning outcomes, these will be the areas most likely to be tested on and written about in the semester. These can be clues for what to include in your assignments and studying and help guide you towards success.

Have you ever found yourself under prepared for a test due to a lack of study time? What do you wish you had done differently? Is there a time when you think you had a study schedule that really worked for you? Please share in the comments section!

Thalheimer, W. (2006, February). Spacing Learning Events Over Time: What the Research Says. Retrieved July 14, 2018, from http://www.work-learning.com/catalog/

Sorenson, Sharon. Writing a Research Paper at Colleges and Universities. Retrieved July 14, 2018, from https://www.petersons.com/blog/writing-a-research-paper-at-colleges-and-universities/

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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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