Getting Started on Assignments: Impact of Attention and Temporal-Sequential Ordering

Getting started on assignments in school and at home requires students to engage their attentional abilities. Students must be alert to the task at hand, possibly shifting focus to a new activity, and have the mental effort necessary to initiate the task. Students who are able to preview, or think about the outcomes of a task before beginning, are helped in many ways. They can have an idea of what a report will be like once a topic is selected, what materials will be necessary to do an assignment, etc.

In addition, students who have a strong sense of "step-wisdom" – knowing how tasks or activities can be broken down into a series of steps, will be able to determine the first step needed to get started on an assignment.

Here are some strategies to help students improve their ability to get started on classroom or homework assignments.

Getting Started

  • Help students get started on assignments by encouraging them to preview (think about ahead of time) what the completed assignment will look like, or what they will do in the assignment. For example, have students use prediction charts when reading to organize their predictions and maintain them for later reflection. Prompt students to preview elements of the text to gain information before reading, e.g., the title, pictures, etc.  
  • Provide jump-starts for students to help them begin homework or classroom assignments. For example, provide the first sentence of a paragraph they are to write, start the first few math problems, read the first paragraph of the story/passage they are to read, etc.  
  • Encourage students to start a homework session or study period by planning what will be accomplished during the session. If necessary, help students develop objectives that are clear, specific, and measurable (e.g., how long they will work, how long the report will be, how many problems they will do, etc.).  
  • Encourage students to include reviewing as a regular part of their study or homework routine. For example, suggest that they start a homework or study session with a quick review of the last assignment in class, or recently covered material related to the same topic. This sort of reviewing can be brief, taking only 10-15 minutes, and can be thought of as a kind of "warm-up" to get students started on the task at hand.

Teacher Techniques

  • Have students practice solving problems in which estimation, prediction, and outcome comparison are necessary steps. Vary the subject matter and nature of the problems. For example, in writing, use story starter activities, as well as collaborative writings where each student contributes a segment. In social studies, have students make predictions about historical events before learning the actual outcomes.  
  • Use affinity areas, or topics/activities of high interest to students to enhance the likelihood that they will initiate and sustain work on an assignment.  
  • Assess students’ attitudes about assigned activities. Be sure that students feel that their abilities match the demands of the work they have been given. For example, be aware that fears of doing a less-than-perfect job might be interfering with students’ willingness to start assignments on their own.