Tuesday 27 August 2013

Starting The Academic Year Well - How To Improve Student Performance

So ... the beginning of term, and indeed a new year, is looming. What can students do to make this year a more successful – and a more satisfying – one? Here are a few basic and very practical tips for students:

First, define success for yourself. It won’t help you if success is defined by your teachers, tutors, friends, parents or other relatives. People don’t, in general, work as hard for other people’s objectives as they do for their own. Consultation is sensible, and objectives are best set when there have been some good honest conversations before the setting takes place. Once success is defined, goals can be set, and targets agreed, or thought of. Too many people set the target first, and then define success and fulfilling the target. As far as possible, success should be defined in objective terms: a long-jumper should aim to jump the gold medal distance, not to win the gold medal, since the latter is dependent on the behaviour of others.

Secondly, remember that ‘this year is going to be different’ only if you make it so. The vast majority of students starting the new academic year in the next few weeks is saying ‘this time is going to be different’ to themselves. Most won’t manage it. Making this year different from last year is a completely different game from resolving to do so. The resolution doesn’t need a ‘how’, accomplishing it does. If you are tempted to resolve to make this year different, think hard about what is going to be different about it, and then make yourself accountable to someone for actually doing it.

Thirdly, think about what you have learned from the recent past. What is the lesson of your exam results about what works and what doesn’t? What did teachers write about you last year, in reports, or at the bottom of your work? What needs to change? What themes emerge from feedback you have received? What needs to change that you want to change? What are your strengths and weaknesses as a student? If you don’t know the answer to this question, make sure to start the academic year by having this conversation with a parent, teacher, tutor, or older sibling. Check your perception of yourself against that of others – and don’t forget that theirs is likely to be more accurate than yours. Most under-performance starts with poor self-awareness.

Fourthly, don’t do it next term, next week or tomorrow. Start it – whatever it is – today! A resolution delayed once is far less likely to be implemented at all. If you don’t do the first homework on time, you’re toast. Habits are most easily established with the first decision – subsequent ones get easier. Do all your prep on time for a month, and you may not even notice the effort it used to take at the start.

Fifth – and most important – persevere. It isn’t all going to be easy: it isn’t meant to be. Athletes don’t go to the gym to find lifting weights easy – they get stronger by lifting weights that are really hard. Similarly, our intellects don’t develop unless we test them by doing things that are really hard. It can be dangerous to try to lift a (physical) weight that is too strong for our bodies to bear, but there is no such danger with our intellectual exercise. Note that one of the best predictors of educational attainment found in academic studies in the USA was not the answers given to questions about study, but the number of questions attempted. (See http://www.uaedreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Hitt_Trivitt_EDRE_2013_05.pdf for more details). Grit really changes things. Be encouraged: this means that people might actually get the outcomes they deserve in education: the trick is to make sure you deserve a good outcome.

Finally, if all this seems like common sense, that's because it is. Excellence is usually in simple things done well, and consistently. There's no magic wand.

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