Rielle gets it. She’s one of the fifty college students I interviewed for my book, How to Become a Straight-A Student. Like the rest of my subjects, Rielle was a straight-A student at a demanding university (Brown) who made top academic performance seem effortless: no all-nighters; no crippling stress; just a happy, social undergrad with stellar grades.
“We like to think that good grades and other accomplishments are directly proportional to effort,” she told me. “But students with superior study skills can simply do more with less time.”
What makes the study skills of students like Rielle so superior? Over time, I noticed a pair of traits – more mindsets than practical habits – that appear again and again in my interviews with standout students. In this article I want to describe these traits, and discuss simple ways in which you, as a parent, can help instill them in your child early in his or her educational career, laying a foundation of low-stress, high-scoring performance that will last into college and beyond. The advice below is applicable to students from grammar school through high school, though the earlier you begin to practice it the better effect it will have.
Trait #1: Time Sense
Top students boast a finely-honed sense of what deadlines lay in their future. They know two papers are looming two weeks ahead, and that a quiz in the upcoming week coincides with a presentation in another class. This awareness allows them to plan appropriately: starting work early enough to avoid pile-ups and frenzies the night before deadlines.
An easy way to instill this time sense in your child is to post a big calendar in a public, unavoidable location in your house. The calendar should contain every important test date and assignment deadline. Everyday, both you and your child should face exactly what work is coming up. It can be uncomfortable, at first, to confront these obligations so regularly; many students, for example, find a false contentment in ignoring, for the moment, what’s on their plate. But the earlier a student gets used to regularly encountering his or her schedule, the more ingrained this crucial habit becomes.
An advanced twist on this advice is to use the calendar to schedule work on assignments. Every time a new date is added, agree with your child on what day he or she will do the work. This advanced planning avoids the types of pile-ups that occur when students live deadline to deadline. It also makes it easier to spread work out over many days, lowering stress and increasing quality.
Trait #2: Process Focus
There’s no quicker way to start a fight with a teenager than to accuse him of not “studying enough” for a test. No sooner do you make the accusation than the flood of complaining roars forth, full of declarations of how hard they worked, and serious explanations of how there are “no possible minutes left in the day to study,” and so on.
Top students, however, rarely think in terms of time spent studying. In fact, they rarely use the word “study” at all: it’s hopelessly ambiguous and wrapped up in all sorts of bad emotional connotations. Instead, such students focus on specific tasks. For example, a top student would never “study” for a history test. Instead, he might construct a timeline of important dates and list a series of review questions that cover the relevant chapters. He might then break the studying into three days: one day to memorize the timeline by trying to recreate it from scratch without peeking; another day to start trying to answer his review questions, out loud, as if lecturing a class; and a third day to finish up practicing the review questions that gave him trouble on the second day. For this student, time spent studying is meaningless. He’s done studying when he’s completed these specific actions – whether it takes him 20 minutes or 5 hours.
There are two immediate benefits to this approach. The first is better results. Specific study plans work better than just vaguely flipping through your notes until you feel like you’ve paid sufficient penance. Second, it often takes less time. When you start a review session with a specific goal in mind, you’re more likely to concentrate hard until the work is done. You avoid the random page-flipping review, described above, that eats up hours without producing many results.
To instill this habit into your child there are two rules to keep in mind. First, never again ask “how long” your child worked or question whether he or she “worked enough.” Instead, always focus on the process. If your child brings home a disappointing grade, ask “How did you study for this test?” If he or she starts talking about when the studying took place, or how many hours it took, mention that you’re more interested in the specific strategies he or she used, not the amount of time. An added bonus of this approach is that it moves the focus of the conversation away from judgments about the child (i.e., “you didn’t work enough” or “you’re not smart enough”) and instead puts it back on broken tactics that can be improved – a concern that makes no judgment of the student’s character or abilities.
The second rule is to demand that such a process-centric plan be articulated in advance for each test. If you follow the advice accompanying the first trait, then the test dates should already be on your public calendar and you should already by sketching a plan for each. You’re job here is to insist that these plans pass the robot test, meaning they contain only specific actions with specific completion criteria. “Learn the dates,” for example, would not pass the robot test. “Learn” is not a specific action that a robot would understand and there are no clear completion criteria. “Put each date on a separate flash card and review them until you can go through a full shuffled deck without making a mistake,” on the other hand, would pass the robot test: specific actions and a specific way to judge whether or not you’re done.
Finally, the afternoon after each test, put aside 5 minutes for a quick post-mortem conversation. Ask your child to reflect on which of his or her specific study strategies seemed to work well for the test and which were wastes of time. Conclude by coming up with a list of strategies he or she could try for the next test. This style of constant incremental improvement is the secret behind many top students’ exceptional performance. They didn’t start with a magic set of study habits, they evolved them, test by test, keeping what works and throwing out what doesn’t. Along the way, however, they never once wasted time stressing about how long they’ve spent working. Your child shouldn’t either.