Planning Projects: Help Students Do a Pre-Mortem

Two students sitting at a table planning their assignments

Projects, essays, and long-term assignments can easily turn into a mess when students lack the executive function strategies they need to plan, organize, and self-monitor. Even when teachers provide students with EF strategies, there is no guarantee that students will use these strategies if they don’t understand why the strategies could help. A pre-mortem is a powerful tool that can help students understand how EF strategies can make their projects more successful.

What’s a Pre-Mortem?

A pre-mortem works by imagining that a project has failed—then working backward to identify why. By recognizing potential pitfalls before they happen, students can choose the strategies they will use to prevent disaster and increase their chances of success.

Pre-Mortem Brainstorm

To do a pre-mortem, students should first imagine that their project has failed and ask themselves why. What went wrong? Was it a lack of sources or expertise? A lack of communication or coordination among team members? Or perhaps a lack of planning or execution?

For example, if a lack of sources was identified as a possible reason for failure, students can set a goal to find more high-quality sources, asking a teacher or librarian for help as needed. If a lack of communication was an issue, students can establish clear communication channels, setting up a Google Doc or email thread that they can all use to communicate. If a lack of planning was identified, students can set up a detailed project plan and milestones to ensure that everything stays on track.

Analyzing External Factors

When conducting a pre-mortem, it is also important to consider the external factors that could impact the project. For example, if a student is on a sports team or has a play rehearsal, this could limit their time to work on the project. By considering these potential risks, students can develop contingency plans to mitigate their impact.

Setting Students Up for Success

By identifying potential pitfalls and risks before they happen, students can be more realistic about the challenges they might face, take steps to prevent them, and increase their chances of success. Practicing a pre-mortem can also help students to be more flexible and adaptable to changes that happen as the project unfolds in real time.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:



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