At this point in the year students seem to put their heads down to focus on understanding all the difficult new topics they need to learn. Many have exams in January which they are anxious to do well in. But more often than not the barriers facing students are not within the subject they are learning but within themselves! Focusing on addressing those can yield benefits across all subjects and significantly improve grades. The following are the habits I have observed in my most successful students, regardless of their subjects. How many are yours?!
Taking responsibility for both their achievements, and failures
This is the single most important habit, but the one which can be most elusive. When things go well most of us are happy to take the credit and bask in the approval of others. But when they don’t go so well we generally seek an excuse: “I wasn’t feeling well”, “The teacher is rubbish”, “It was a tough exam”. But the danger of this is that we miss a major opportunity to learn and adapt our approach in order to improve in the future. If you find yourself reading this and thinking “Nah, that’s not me” then maybe just pause for a moment!
Highly effective students always know that they are responsible for their own learning, successful or not. They don’t look for excuses but instead seek ways of changing their approach and understanding things better. I once had a student who repeatedly made small errors in algebra which would lead to her dropping a lot of marks in maths exams. For a long time she ignored the problem and pretended it was because her teacher was inadequate. When she eventually accepted that this was her responsibility it quickly stopped and her marks improved hugely.
So use failures and disappointments as a launchpad for future success!
Always wanting to understand, not merely remember or reproduce
The problem with lots of teaching and learning is that the teacher and the student remain content with the ability to reproduce the material covered in class, rather than for the student to truly understand why it is true. But it is only understanding that will enable you to answer the unpredictable questions you will face in the exams. There is no word for “ununderstanding” because it doesn’t exist!
So when in class or reading a textbook always ask: “What does this mean?”, “Why is it true?”, “How does it connect to other things I know?” Challenge your teacher or tutor to answer these questions! Challenge yourself! Use all the resources available to you to get you to a state of deep understanding. Then you will be able to tackle anything thrown at you and you won’t have to memorise anything (well almost)!
Always reflecting on and learning from experience
We all make mistakes. They are a fact of life. And in fact they are a crucial means by which we learn. But if they are ignored or their lessons are disregarded then we risk repeating the same mistakes over and over again. I once had a student who kept sitting exams and running out of time, so his marks were never as he should have achieved. We discussed techniques he could use to improve this but then they would just be forgotten about or dropped and he would revert to his old ways. So he never improved.
If an exam or test doesn’t go as well as expected, the successful student will always ask themselves why, and seek a clear answer to that from their teacher or tutor if necessary. They will then act on the answer. So if the answer is “I don’t understand conditional probability” they will then go away and make sure they work on it until they do understand.
You can be highly intelligent, motivated and hard-working, but if your notes are not filed properly, you are always late for your classes and you don’t know what’s in the syllabus then you are not going to achieve much.
Getting organised is a matter of being in control of your studies rather than letting it control you. It means: always being on time for lessons and never missing deadlines, keeping your notes organised and accessible, always knowing what you need to know and by when. It means doing this not just periodically when it has all got out of control but always, as a matter of habit.
Knowing how to rest, relax and enjoy themselves
If this is all sounding like hard work then it’s important to emphasise that the most successful students are not necessarily those that spend the most hours studying. The ones that spend the most time are usually wasting their time because they are disorganised, bored or tired.
In fact successful students know and appreciate the value of time spent playing sport, resting, or just having fun. They know that this time is not only valuable in its own right but also provides time-off for the learning mind to recuperate and assimilate new information. People forget that when you are not thinking your unconscious mind is still learning! Time spent on hobbies and pastimes also helps put studies into perspective and avoid the stress and anxiety associated with over-work. So it’s vital to build in regular times for rest, sports, social activities and fun in and around your studies.
Time spent developing these habits might just be the best thing you ever do!