College students working at their desks with an instructor helping them. The LearnWell Projects' logo is on the left side.

College Success Fundamentals

Leonard Geddes 30 Comments

High school doesn’t always prepare students for college success. It tends to focus on studying content, whereas college focuses on producing outcomes. Some new thinking skills and a return to fundamentals can set students on the right track.

The ABCs of Academic Work

The ABC acronym represents the start of learning and can even save lives. Literacy begins with learning the alphabet. Just saying those first three letters—A, B, and C—assures us that we are off to a great start.

Likewise, in the medical field, first responders are taught to follow their own version of the ABCs. They learn that before they can properly assist people in distress, they must first check for the ABCs: airway, breathing, and circulation. This acronym serves as a life-saving tool that informs them precisely how to start diagnosing people in their care, regardless of illness or injury. The patient may need additional work, but following the ABC sequence gets them off to a great start.

Students need a universal way to start their academic work. The ABCs of Academic Work ensures students are poised for success in any course they take. This sequence of activities helps students stay focused on what matters most. They avoid getting sidetracked by “pseudowork” that seems and feels good in the moment but is ultimately futile.

Have you ever wondered why students who claim to study so much learn so little of what they should know? William L. Kelemen notes that students with weak self-regulation skills may shift their efforts in the wrong direction, studying the wrong material or for the wrong outcome. When students underperform, it’s tempting for educators to question their capabilities or work ethic. However, in my observations with students across several institutions, many students are suffering from ineffective academic work. They are doing lots of things that don’t matter.

College Success Worksheets

The LearnWell Projects has developed a series of worksheets to help students decode course outcomes, optimize their thinking, and redefine their role. In other words, they learn to focus on the right type of work.

Assignment A

If students are to do effective academic work, they must meet two fundamental prerequisites:

  • Understand the differences between studying content and producing outcomes.
  • Work deliberately toward achieving outcomes.

Assignment A equips learners to use their courses’ learning outcomes as conceptual guides to shape their academic work.

Assignment B

Students must be strategic thinkers to avoid wasting time doing the wrong type of work or doing work in the wrong ways. They use their thinking skills to achieve specific outcomes for their courses. Assignment B provides a three‑step framework for students to assess the thinking requirements for their courses and optimize their thinking as needed.

Assignment C

Students must set clear, feasible goals for themselves. Assignment C encourages students to summarize the work that lays before them. This simple, powerful step focuses students’ efforts and establishes accurate metrics for measuring their learning.

Download The ABCs of Academic Work and show students how to adjust their thinking and align their work to produce the essential outcomes of their courses.


Your thoughts matter! The first 20 thoughtful responses will get a digital copy of the diagram section of the new ThinkWell-LearnWell Diagram User’s Guide. You will use this excellent resource to elevate student performance.


Comments 30

  1. Chronicle of Higher Ed, as well as other online publications, are recognizing the learning gap the COVID pandemic left us. As a tutoring center director at a large, public university, I am seeing these gaps firsthand. I am also hearing from faculty colleagues, the stories from classrooms where students are less engaged, less focused, and less prepared. While the frustration levels are high, being able to offer practical solutions to bridge those gaps is the best way to keep moving forward. Learnwell’s scaffolded ABC plan sounds like an ideal place to start! I am very curious to learn more about the worksheets and how they might be integrated into some of our college classes.

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      Hi Cynthia. Thanks for the valuable response.

      I’m very familiar with the great work at The Learning Center at USF. I have also heard stories of students who are disengaged and even aggressive toward faculty. I believe some of this is due to the fact that students are frustrated that they cannot do the work as successfully as they have before college. Their inability is either masked by apathy, or it erupts in anger. However, I have also seen students gain competence and confidence as they use the ABCs of Academic Work assignments. They gain the clarity and direction they are unknowingly seeking.

      I’ll get the User’s Guide to you shortly! Thanks again!

  2. Leonard, I love how you are able to pare down so much of what I know troubles our students into manageable concepts. Our community college is launching a summer bridge program this year, and my unit (tutoring) has one session in which we can present to the students. I’ve been debating how to make an impact in a relatively short session, and I think I may have found my solution right here. Thank you so much for sharing!

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      Thank you for the insight into the challenge you are attempting to navigate.

      If you want to make an impact, these assignments will provide the shift in perspective and guided practices they need to switch from time-based and effort-based metrics to outcome-based metrics.

  3. I am an executive function coach and I work with high school and college-level students who I often see struggling with this conflict between content and outcomes. They spend so much of their time and energy studying the content shared in class but this does not lead to the grade they were anticipating on the test. They feel discouraged and don’t know why it keeps happening or what to do differently.

    It’s not the students’ fault; students are rarely taught to pay attention to outcomes. This resource you have created is the bridge I’ve been looking for to support students to learn how to interpret outcomes and then adjust their study strategies to match. I think this is going to make a significant difference in how they study.

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      As a fellow consultant, I can say that I derived these assignments from watching students agonize over their poor performance. Educators often assume that either the students were poorly educated in high school or that they are not taking college seriously. In reality, students are doing lots of good work, just not effective work. These assignments help them be effective in their work.

      By the way, I am finishing a book that focuses on some “transition traps” that I have identified that are stealing students’ success in college. Stay tuned for its release later this year.

  4. I would love to see your new guide, Leonard. You always do such a good job of helping folks make sense of cognitive principles and how to put them into practice. What I believe you’re doing here is helping students use self-management to avoid “the illusion of knowing.” Self-management is something we’ve talked about for many years in our center, and how we’re linking a lot of it to twelve executive functions to help students zero in on strategies that will help them right the ship when they’re having trouble. I suspect that with your ABC idea, you’re touching on the same ideas.

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      Hi Amy, It’s good to hear from you. I hope things are well. I don’t want to spill the beans yet, but I have a model that is the cheat code for helping students self-manage. Here’s a tease: It’s called “The AP3” and it will be a game-changer!

  5. This is such a great way to scaffold the metacognitive steps that students need to perform in a very explicit, accessible way. So many students struggle with these transitions into college work in exactly the ways you describe, and the differentiation of “studying” and “learning” (ie, producing outcomes) is a great first step. I also appreciate the connections between learning goals, student strategies already within their toolbox, or other options that I would guess “B” explores, and then explicit goal-setting for students. This is a key way for them to identify their own motivations and feel a sense of empowerment about how to make progress with their learning. Thanks again for such useful, learner-center, and reflective content!

    1. Post

      Hi Laura,

      I believe we’ve met at conferences in the past. I recognize the name. You are quite right. These activities provide students with the sense of empowerment they crave. Check out the comments from the students at end of this explainer video: Students are awesome!

      Thanks for your great comments!

      Also, I am soon completing an online training course with these assignments.

  6. Thanks, Mr. Geddes, for your session with us this afternoon at Cape Fear Community College. I’d like to see the diagrams. Anything that we can do to help students understand their own learning and how they can improve their own learning will contribute to their academic success.

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      It was a short, sweet time introducing The ABCs of Academic Work to your community. I look forward to building upon the foundation!

  7. Thank you for the ABCs of Academic Work! Those lessons are very practical and helpful to students as they learn to use metacognition. One difficulty I have had emerge with students is that instructor outcomes are not always very clear. When that happens, a breakdown can occur in Step C because the true learning outcomes are not set forth by the professor. A student can be careful not to waste time on a certain learning task that he actually needs to be engaging in, which is why communication and interdependence are also important.

    1. Post

      You make an excellent point! The entire assignment assumes that the outcomes are well-conceived and well-constructed. Unfortunately, I find that outcomes are never (I use that word deliberately) well-conceived or well-constructed. This is why when I consult with institutions I work with faculty to deconstruct their knowledge and build what I call metacognitive learning outcomes. These devices are key for students to be able to effectively construct knowledge. With that said, sub-optimal outcomes are better than none.

  8. Hello Leonnard,
    Thank you for this contribution. This reminds me of Rafael D. Alvarez’s work at San Diego City College,..his video series about revealing the culture of learning in college has similar elements to your ABC’s. a section of which describes how for any item we are learning we need a large view of the big meaning, conceptualization significance as well as the mechanics of how it works, what it does, etc. that was another piece that helped articulate the parts of learning….from which then a student can then use your chart to know what action is being asked for.

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  9. I’ve been advocating for the use of transparent assignment design, and these assignments pair nicely with TILT because they give students the skills they need to analyze assignments and their responsibilities as academics. I love the inclusion of the visual learning space, which offers students choice in how they think about and complete work (UDL). Thank you for sharing!

    1. Post


      I’ve only recently been introduced to TILT and it seems to align with an aspect of my work on creating complementary learning environments. I certainly believe that educators much have certain information ingredients and course infrastructure elements in place if students are to successfully independently learn.

  10. Hi Professor Geddes,
    I am excited to see these worksheets! Your quick and effective strategies for helping students practice meta-cognition (I accidently wrote mega-cognition :)) are more relevant than ever given how overwhelmed students are feeling. In our first-year program, we are finding that students will only respond to the most stream-lined and “just in time” resources. Similar to your worksheets, we have been creating over sized “placemat” handouts about wellness and habits that offer brief tips and tricks from experts; ask students to reflect on their own behavior/habits; and then set a goal/intention. Using these self-contained and tangible worksheets have provided some of our best class discussions. Your ABC worksheet would be a great addition to the mix.

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      Hi Lynn, Please share how these assignments work for you! Many students have found the clarity and direction that they seek, and these elements have empowered them to do much better academic work.

  11. I am looking forward to seeing these assignments. For years I focused on college success for first-year college students. However, I am currently working with the career training department at a local community college. The career training learners come to us with little knowledge of how to study. I watch them struggle not only with how to study but also with what to study. Our typical student is non-traditional and is juggling a family, and work responsibilities. Learning how to make the most effective use of their study time is a valuable asset. It also decreases stress and may subsequently increase retention. I am hoping your worksheets will be simple enough for them to complete and assimilate the tools into their learning habits.

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      Hi Margaret,

      Yes, unproductive academic work hurts everyone! It drowns students in futility and adds unnecessary work to faculty as well. Time-strapped students will save time and improve their success with this perspective and these assignments.

  12. This process is deceptively simple. The activities are well-designed and have immediate real-world application for a student. I can see a strong place for it in academic coaching, and will be sharing this information with my staff member who oversees that program at South Texas College,

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      Hi Lynell,

      Please do share how you use it with coaches. I have used this approach in similar capacities with great success.

  13. Hi Leonard,

    I’m excited to use the ABC’s of Academic Work with a student this afternoon. I have delivered many presentations on syllabi to students, tutors, and faculty, and it’s always intriguing how many people (regardless of the population) gloss over learning outcomes/goals/objectives. By highlighting course outcomes, we can also get the student “buy-in” to focus on chapter outcomes as a tool for reading effectively. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Post

      Hi Kim,

      Yes, many educators overlook their course outcomes as well. Unfortunately, many create them for people up the chain of command and not for students. When outcomes are well-conceived and well-constructed, they are some of the most effective tools available.

  14. Thank you for the opportunity to see the ABCs of Academic Work and to imagine how I could use it with community college students in Michigan. Since so many students struggle to identify what is important, taking class time to present a split screen of the syllabus and Thinkwell-Learnwell diagram would help them make connections. I must admit that the language ‘scaffolding’ and ‘callibrated’ used in the sample Assignment B under thinking optimization actions didn’t sound like terms my students would use. Lastly, with the assignment C I might ask students to consider where and when to correspond with ‘workspace’ as I could picture them thinking that filling out the blanks would be the end of the assignment, not necessarily realizing it could become a personal plan for productive pondering.

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      Hi Paula,

      I see you viewed the online videos. Yes, starting with the outcomes (again, assuming they are well-conceived and well-constructed) builds a center of gravity for the course for students. This magnetic space pulls all the things that matter most toward students while repelling irrelevant items. The students who used the “scaffolding” and “calibrated questions” tactics were taught these metacognitive maneuvers. I love the way they have absorbed them into their learning approach. Lastly, your instincts are correct on Assignment C. I actually have a further assignment that requires students to complete a schedule. (PS-I see we see eye-to-eye with productive pondering. As you may know, this is a practice that I continuously promote. The most effective learners ponder academic material.)

  15. Hello Mr. Geddes – I first met you at The Kellogg Institute @ Appalachian State in Boone, NC. Later, I invited you to do a workshop for my colleagues/faculty at Mountain Empire Community College in Virginia. I now teach at Bellingham Technical College in Washington state. The differences in students’ abilities, since suffering through 2 years of forced online classes due to the pandemic, is nothing compared to the lack of confidence in them. I also notice that they do not take the time to read directions; instead, they shoot off a quick email to ask me to “explain” how to do the work. It is the most frustrating thing for an instructor, when clearly, all they need is in the modules. These assignments are PERFECT to get students to take responsibility for their learning and I am anxious to implement them into my English courses. Thank you for continuing this important work!

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      Hi Jan,

      Of course, I remember you! These assignments have provided students with the clarity and direction they seek. The students in the video that is linked at the bottom of the article were taken during the pandemic.(The video is linked here also.) The ABCs of Academic Work helped them tremendously. I hope it does the same for your students.

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