If you’re new to studying online, creating a project plan for a research assignment, essay or dissertation can be challenging. For some disciplines, accessing physical resources is critical to transition from the literature review to analysis while others depend on human interaction like interviews or laboratory work in order to move a project forward. How can we create project plans which are resilient enough to cope with unexpected hurdles and allow us to think laterally to keep our projects moving?

One method which has grown in popularity is agile project management, a modern methodology which accepts uncertainty as a given in contrast to more rigid project management styles like Waterfall which dictate strict stages from start to finish.

Agile encourages you to break down a project into small tasks, work on it quickly and get feedback regularly. Feedback sessions should be short and sweet – just enough to evaluate what is working and what is not so that you can adapt your plan from there. These small, fast and repeated cycles are “iterative,” in that they build on each other, and have special terms in the agile community like Scrum, Sprints or Kanban.

We won’t get too bogged down in the terminology here, but we will give you our top 5 tips for using agile to get ahead – and stay ahead – in your project, especially when faced with uncertainty about what is possible.

1. Know your end goal
Like with any project, you need to know and understand your end goal. What is your objective and how will you achieve it? That being said, being agile means that your project scope can be changed. Therefore, when creating your goal, make sure you are able to address changes and additions to the project easily. For example, if you can’t get access to certain resources or need to change what you will research.

2. Create a roadmap
A roadmap is a diagram, timeline, or simple list of the steps taken to deliver your goal. You need to break the objective into discrete parts – for example, break down the question, read the rubric, start initial literature review and note-taking, create an essay plan, write a draft, edit the draft, and proofread.It’s best to create something visual and to set deadlines for small tasks so that you are constantly producing work and getting into a rhythm.

3. Make daily lists
If you are a graduate research student or writing your major assessment for a coursework unit, you need to make sure you’re holding daily meetings with yourself to reflect on what you got done and what needs to be completed for the next day. These meetings should only be 5-10 minutes long. Enough for you to reflect on the day and plan well (make a task list!) for the next.

4. Take stock when you complete a task
An important feature of agile project planning is to ensure you get quick feedback after completing small tasks – either from your supervisor, tutor, yourself, or the Library’s virtual Research and Learning Point.  Typical project planning methodologies allow for feedback once the project has been developed, but we want you to think of your project as having a series of shorter development cycles so you can stay ahead of what you need to do and identify any tricky issues before they become problematic.When soliciting feedback, make sure to have questions you want to ask – whether that’s of another person or yourself. Think about the project’s goals and ask if the task is on track to achieve them. As you receive feedback, make sure to adapt your roadmap to reflect your changing goals, identify potential bottlenecks, and optimise your time.

5. Reflect
After each task and feedback round, especially when you get feedback from your lecturer, tutor or supervisor, take a bit of time to reflect on how you managed this particular project and what you would change for your next assignment, essay or thesis chapter.Perhaps you found you spent too much time reading and delayed writing or perhaps you dove straight into writing and you did not spend enough time understanding the key concepts or literature. Either way, holding a retrospective will help you learn from your mistakes and become a more productive, efficient student.

Want to know more?
You can read about more traditional project planning in another library blog here. If you are a research student, we recommend this article which appeared in Nature. If you want to learn more about different terms like Scrum, Sprints and Kanban, Australian tech startup Atlassian has developed free business tools at The Agile Coach that can be adapted to study.

Remember, a lot of anxiety around projects comes from fear of not being able to complete it on time or worrying about what might happen. By creating smaller tasks with individual deadlines and anticipating the need to adapt, we take ownership and this leads to success each time.


Author Jessica O’Leary is a Learning Skills Adviser at the Law Library.