Where do you need to improve?

From Chapter 2 of Good Habits, Good Students:

Here’s a good way to find out where you need the most improvement: check your report card. Don’t just look at the grades, though. Check the comments your teachers write about each subject.

Far too often when students receive report cards, they check their marks and then stop reading. However, if your reports include comments from each teacher, these can be more useful than the grades when it comes to figuring out what you need to do to improve.

Not all comments by teachers are useful in this way. Some consist mostly of a standard description of what the class has studied in the previous term. There may be only a brief comment on your own work, and sometimes such comments emphasize what is most positive—which is nice, but not helpful if you’re trying to identify your weaknesses.

Sometimes, too, teachers’ comments are written in a kind of secret code I call “report-speak”. “George has a good understanding of blah blah blah”, you read. Sounds good. Actually, however, a “good” understanding may be the third– or fourth–best level, below other possibilities like “excellent” and “very good”. Once you realize this, “good understanding” doesn’t sound so good anymore.

Because comments on reports don’t always include the information you’re looking for, and because they are sometimes written in report-speak, any attempt to use your report card to discover where you most need to improve must include this vital step: asking your teachers, in person.

Before you speak with them, however, do a bit of preparatory work.

Step 1: Make a simple chart like the Post-Report Evaluation (see Appendix A). Or if you prefer, you can make a separate sheet for each class. Whichever way you do it, leave space for the following information:

• Subject
• Number 1 Area Needing Improvement
• Biggest Obstacle to Improvement
• How to Overcome This Obstacle
• Goal (to Make the Needed Improvement)

Step 2: Before reading your report card, write in pencil what you think is the number–one area needing improvement for each subject. Leave the other areas blank, for the moment.

Step 3: When you receive your report card, compare what you’ve written in pencil with what each teacher has written in his or her comments. If there is a big difference between what you expected and what a teacher has written, this is something to discuss with the teacher. Note any differences, and also note the subjects in which the teachers’ comments didn’t really help you identify where you most need to improve.

Step 4: Ask each teacher for a few moments to talk. Find out where the teacher thinks you need to improve, and clear up any questions about exactly what you need to do better. If you had different ideas about where you need improvement, ask the teacher about this, too. (“I thought my spelling would be the biggest problem, Mr. Jones, but you didn’t even mention it on my report card. Why not?”)

If you’re allowed to attend the parent-teacher meetings that often follow report cards, that is an excellent time to ask these questions. If not, arrange a time after class or after school.

Step 5: When you’ve identified the single most important area where improvement is needed in each class, look down the list. Do most of your teachers say that your “class participation” needs improvement? Or is there something different in each subject? If the same problem repeats from class to class, that’s easy. But beware of report-speak: your problem with “class participation” in History may be that you never raise your hand to answer a question, while your “class participation” problem in English is that you chat constantly with your best friend when you should be paying attention. If the problems are different in every class, pick the class where you most want to improve your grades and work on that one first.

Step 6: Fill in the next two blanks for the problem you’ve decided to work on. What is the biggest obstacle to improvement? Maybe you can’t concentrate in class because of where you’re sitting. Maybe you don’t finish your homework on time because your work space at home is filled with distractions. Whatever the main obstacle is, write it down. Next, describe what you could do to overcome this obstacle. If you don’t know, ask your teachers or parents for help.

Step 7: Set a goal! You can establish better habits by setting goals. But before you can set a goal that will really help you, you’ll need to read the next chapter.

Author: Eric MacKnight

I have been teaching English since 1980 in the United States, Morocco, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, The Netherlands, and China. Good Habits, Good Students is my first book.

2 thoughts on “Where do you need to improve?”

  1. I think setting a goal itself discourage to follow a goal.
    Better just keep in mind that you have to follow your instinct and just go for it, will bring the success.
    What is your opinion?

    1. I must disagree with you, Prof. Mishra—unless you have truly superior instincts! ;^)

      Students who carry out the sort of analysis that I describe above become much more self-aware. Without it, they have a much weaker grasp of what they are doing, and what they should do to improve their results. There are always exceptions, of course; but I believe this is true for a large majority of people.

      Best wishes,


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