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An increasing number of students seem to struggle with meeting deadlines. Some students have a challenging time following instructions or assignment directions, while other students pay little attention to when or where they will be taking their midterm or final exams.

What contributes to a student’s inability to remember or follow instructions? Why do some students never seem to know what is going on in class? After all, they seem to be engaged. Many of them type furiously on their laptops during class discussions. They appear to be taking copious notes, but it turns out many of them are on social media, checking the latest scores on ESPN, or shopping on Amazon.

Excuse me!

The excuses teachers receive from students are often interesting and can be quite creative—from “my alarm didn’t go off” (not a stellar excuse if they own a smartphone) to “I was busy with the Spring Break Party Committee.” Consider the following emails we recently received from students:

The common theme seems to be student forgetfulness. Are students listening? Many of those “forgetful” students are high achievers who scored well on their college entrance exams, and they maintained good grades in high school. So, why can’t some students remember to take a final exam or when a major term paper is due? Where is the disconnect?

This behavior is like a doctor showing up at the hospital to deliver a baby, forgetting why they were there, and driving back home. Can you imagine the doctor emailing or texting a patient and saying, “I’m really sorry I wasn’t at the hospital to deliver your baby. I drove to the hospital this morning and talked with several doctors. After a while, I got distracted, drove home, and made myself a huge bowl of Frosted Flakes. Anyway, I hope the delivery went well”? Yet, why do we accept similar behavior from some students?

The story is told of a business owner who received some sage advice. A consultant he hired said, “The first time you share important information, no one hears you. The second time they may think they’ve heard it somewhere before. The third time they may start to pay attention but will soon forget. The fourth time they may recognize it as new information, and the fifth time they may actually understand and act on it. What matters is whether they hear and understand you—not how many times have you told them” (Porter 2001).  That advice holds equally true in academics.

Taking proactive steps

What can we do when students do not seem to understand and act upon crucial course information? Here are four suggestions:

  1. Tell students multiple times. Some of today’s students have noticeably shorter attention spans than those of previous generations. Digital media, short videos, and flashy attention stimuli may be accelerating this trend . One study installed a computer program on college students’ laptops that took a screenshot every five seconds. Researchers discovered that students switched between tasks every 19 seconds on average, and most computer windows remained open for less than one minute (Twenge 2017, 64). Attempting to multitask is a surefire way to dilute focus. Repetition can help students focus, which in turn can reduce student forgetfulness.
  2. Tell students in multiple ways. We should present information to students in multiple ways—a broad-spectrum approach. Share information everywhere and hope something sticks! Tell students in the classroom, on your learning management system, and by emails, texts, and even tweets. Some professors send short videos with critical information and announcements. We have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to place information where students will find it so they cannot miss it.
  3. Teach student skills. We sometimes assume that students know how to be successful; however, many do not. Some students have never been taught how to take notes in class, organize their academic calendars, or study effectively for an exam. Students may need to be taught how to create a homework schedule, organize their day, make a to-do list, or set calendar alerts to remind themselves of upcoming due dates. Short how-to videos recorded by professors or teaching assistants can be reused and widely distributed—assisting students and saving valuable faculty time.
  4. Hold students accountable. Actions have consequences, but so does inaction—especially in an academic setting. Teaching students to be accountable will better prepare them for life after college. If they forget to take an exam, they may earn a B− in the class instead of an A, but that can be a valuable life lesson for them to learn. Unless there are significant extenuating circumstances, we should consistently apply the rules, guidelines, and deadlines outlined in the syllabus.

Sharing essential information many times and in many places, teaching basic student skills, then holding students accountable to correctly act on that information will hopefully help them become more responsible. One of the most significant things a professor can do for their college-aged students is to help them during the transition from adolescence to adulthood (Lythcott-Haimes 2015, 77). No matter what interventions you put in place, though, you may still occasionally receive emails like this: “Hey, I’m really sorry that I was late to class today. While I was walking to class, I saw a deer on campus, and I had to deal with that.” Sometimes in our profession, you just have to smile.


Everett-Hayes, La Monica. 2018. “Today’s Teens Increasingly Disconnected from Books, TV, Movies.” SDSU NewsCenter, August 20, 2018. https://newscenter.sdsu.edu/sdsu_newscenter/news_story.aspx?sid=77333

Lythcott-Haims, Julie. 2015. How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Adult Kid for Success. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Porter, L. Aldin. 2001. “Repetitive Training.” Training Seminar, June 2001, Provo, Utah.

Twenge, Jean M. 2017. iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. New York: Atria Books.

Mark D. Ogletree, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. He is also a licensed professional counselor, having worked with individuals, couples, and families for the past 30 years. Mark is the author of books and articles on marriage and family issues.

Kenneth L. Alford, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University and a retired U.S. Army Colonel. Previously, he served as a professor of computer science (U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York) and as a department chair and professor of strategic leadership (National Defense University, Washington, DC).