How students can take advantage of the pandemic

Remember the time before the pandemic, when your day was filled with classes? “I wonder what I should do for the next hour?” was a question you rarely needed to ask. And the adults around you were constantly nagging you about your schedule and your deadlines.

“Wake up, you’ll be late to school.”

“Hurry up there, class starts in two minutes!”

“How’s that essay coming along?”

“Where’s your homework? It was due yesterday!”

No more. Now you have just as much work to do, or even more, but almost no schedule apart from an occasional online meeting. How to start? How to organize? Without a fixed schedule for each day and constant reminders from adults, many  students are struggling to keep their learning on track during the pandemic.

Here’s the good news: you have an opportunity to develop time management skills and self-discipline that will really pay off when you get to university. First-year university students quickly discover that no one will remind them of due dates, or wake them up in the morning, or tell them it’s after midnight and they should go to sleep. Suddenly, just to maintain passing grades they need skills and habits they never needed in high school.

The unstructured days of distance-learning are more like being a university student. Seize the opportunity to develop work routines that keep you on track and up to date. Learn how to use a digital calendar, digital reminders, and to-do lists. Develop the habit of spending the last half-hour or so of each work day preparing for the next day’s work, making sure you will be ready. You might find a task-manager app like Notion useful.

You can also use independent reading and vocabulary study to help organize your work time in a healthy way. We have all been told that it’s unhealthy and counterproductive to sit for long stretches of time without a break. But if we take breaks every 20-40 minutes, that’s a lot of breaks to fill up with . . . what? Exercise, yes. Snacks, yes. And then . . . what? Here are a couple of suggestions.

1. Use break times for independent reading.

Background knowledge is the #1 factor in school success, and reading is the #1 way to acquire background knowledge. It also develops your general-level vocabulary, your reading comprehension, and your reading speed. Take advantage of the pandemic by reading a book of your choice for 15-30 minutes a day. You can build this reading time into your work habits. Take a break from other work, stretch out comfortably, and read for 15 minutes. Physical books are better than digital, and will give your eyes a needed rest from looking at screens.

2. Use break times to develop your higher-level vocabulary.

Take advantage of the pandemic, too, by building your higher-level vocabulary with Freerice, a free vocabulary web site and phone app from the UN’s World Food Program. I recommend the phone app. You should spend 10 minutes daily on Freerice: it’s fun, easy, and addictive. The program evaluates your responses and adjusts the level of vocabulary automatically. It recycles both right and wrong answers until you answer correctly several times, and then moves you up to new words. And, with every correct answer, Freerice’s corporate sponsors donate the equivalent of 10 grains of rice that will help to feed hungry people all over the world. By using Freerice daily you will increase your store of higher-level vocabulary (the words that you don’t normally encounter when reading novels, etc.) and help to make the world a little bit better at the same time. You can weave Freerice into your work habits very easily. Take a break every 30-40 minutes, walk around, and open up Freerice on your phone. If you do this just two or three times a day you will easily spend at least 10 minutes daily building your vocabulary.

Adding these independent reading breaks and Freerice breaks into your daily routines will help to organize your time, will keep you healthier, and will develop essential skills that you will find valuable your whole life.

Hand in work on time [book excerpt]

First, be organized about writing down assignments and due dates—use an agenda!

Second, don’t procrastinate.

Third, if you encounter a problem that may cause your work to be late, talk to the teacher before the assignment is due.

Years ago, I was a summer camp counselor. Before the campers arrived, all the counselors had a few days to prepare. On our first day, we sat in a big circle on the lawn in front of the main building. There were about fifty of us, and two-thirds of us were there for the first time. The Director, a lady who was almost seventy years old, went around the circle, without notes, and introduced each one us to the others. She knew our names, where we were from, and where we were going to school.

When she had finished introducing all fifty of us, she said, “Each of you will be responsible for about a dozen campers. We have a folder for each camper, with their photos, and when they get off the bus on Wednesday I expect you to greet each one of your campers by name.”

Until then, I had convinced myself that I was no good at remembering people’s names. My camp director convinced me otherwise. I learned that remembering names was a simple matter of desire, determination, and effort. We can all do it, if we really want to.

Being on time with homework assignments is also a simple matter of desire, determination, and effort. If you think it is really important—and it is—you will make the effort that’s required.

If you hand in your work late (more than very occasionally), you are sending a very unfortunate message to your teachers: you are telling them that you don’t really care—NOT the message you want to send!

At first, if you have developed bad habits in this area, finishing work on time will require focus and concentration. As time passes, however, working on time will become habitual, an almost automatic reflex, and the effort required will decrease considerably.

Use an agenda. Enlist the help of your teachers, your Advisor or Homeroom Teacher, and your parents. Use the Homework Tracker, which you can download from my website. Do everything you can to develop the crucially important habit of finishing your work on time!

Where to buy “Good Habits, Good Students”

At the moment, it’s available on the U.S. Amazon site, here—

“Good Habits” on

—and on the Canadian Amazon site, here:

“Good Habits” on

Alternatively, you can order it from your local bookshop using these ISBN numbers:

ISBN-10: 1595265740
ISBN-13: 978-1595265746

If you have trouble finding a copy, drop me a comment below.

Skills and habits

Sometime in the 1990s I was walking in Portland, Oregon with a friend when he saw a computer store and said, “Do you mind if we stop here for a moment?”

We walked in. The young man behind the counter looked at me and said, “Mr. MacKnight!” I had no idea who he was.

“Guilty as charged,” I replied. “Who are you?”

He told me his name, and it rang a bell—one of my students from several years before. We began chatting, and I began remembering more about him. He had been my student for just one year, in Grade 12. Finally I asked him what he had learned in that class. He paused, looked puzzled, and then brightened. 

A lot is two words!” he cried triumphantly. 

That may seem very little to remember from a high school English class, but if someone asked me what I remember learning in high school, I would be hard-pressed to recall anything at all.

So what does stay with us after all those books and facts and lessons are forgotten?

Skills and habits. They remain for years. Both of them are formed by repetition over a long period of time. 

In one sense, repetition is easy. No genius or special aptitude is required. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and sooner or later your skills improve. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and eventually you will have formed a fixed habit. 

Do you want to improve your reading skills? Read every day!

Do you want to improve your writing skills? Write every day!

Do you want to form the good habit of checking for assignments and deadlines every day? Then set a reminder, and check every day!

It’s easy.

Except that it’s not. 

If you love playing basketball, then you enjoy the daily repetition of shooting and dribbling. If you love reading, then reading every day is a pleasure, not a chore. 

When the skills and habits you desire involve activities that are not immediately enjoyable, however, repeating them every day is something you dread. You make excuses. You develop, through repetition, the habit of procrastinating.

To practice those “unpleasant” skills and habits, therefore, you need help. Maybe an electronic reminder will be enough. Maybe teaming up with a friend will do it. Maybe asking a parent for daily reminders will work for you. When you don’t enjoy what you know is good for you, when motivation is too often overcome by laziness, you will need to find support of some kind.

The good news? Once you do that, it’s a simple matter of repetition. And that’s easy.

“If You Want to Get Better at Something, Ask Yourself These Two Questions”

Peter Bergman’s short piece in the Harvard Business Review nicely explains the idea that improvement requires a certain amount of discomfort and frustration.

“I have two questions for you,” I said. “One: Do you want to do better?”

If the answer is “no,” then to attempt to coach would be a fool’s errand (a mistake I have made in the past).

“Yeah” he said.

“Here’s my second question: Are you willing to feel the discomfort of putting in more effort and trying new things that will feel weird and different and won’t work right away?”

You can read the entire article here.

On “being the best person you can be”

The trick is to stop worrying about the future, which is so full of unknowns.

Be the best person you can be right now, today, this hour, this minute. If you do that—if you succeed at that only some of the time—you will find yourself equipped to deal with whatever life brings you, and to create the future you have imagined when the opportunities arise.

At certain moments, however, “being the best person you can be” means being someone who is exhausted, run down, discouraged, out of ideas, completely lacking enthusiasm or inspiration.

At such moments, you need to stop and take care of yourself.

Update: where to buy the book

Good Habits, Good Students was originally published by Llumina Press, but they are going out of business and I have moved the book over to Amazon (under the Aeon Publishing, Inc. imprint), so that’s now the best place to buy. Here is the link to use:

Good Habits, Good Students on Amazon

You’ll see that there are only two reader’s reviews of the book, but they are both 5 stars and from teachers who strongly recommend Good Habits, which certainly pleases me.

If  you prefer to order from your local bookshop, the ISBN is


Christmas is coming, so if you have a student in your family or among your friends, consider Good Habits, Good Students. Definitely better than socks or jammies!

Believing in yourself

Many uninspired students lack confidence. Somehow they have come to believe that they are not good enough to succeed. “I’m no good at math,” one may say. “I’m no good at writing,” says another. “I’m just a terrible student,” says the one who has given up altogether.

If you are one of these students, you will have your own story or series of stories about how you reached this point: painful memories, perhaps, of failures or lost competitions or inability to keep up. Behind all these, however, lie some fundamental assumptions—some deeply-held beliefs so firmly embedded that we may never have questioned them. Together they produce an argument that goes something like this:

Some people are smarter than other people.

Some people are good at math and science, but not English and history.

Some people are good at English. They love reading and writing, but they are no good in math and science.

Some people are no good in math, science, English, and history. They are just no good in school.

You cannot make yourself smarter. Intelligence is something you are given at birth. Or not.

You cannot make yourself into a good math student if your strength is writing essays and poems. You cannot make yourself into a poet or a lover of literature if your strength is in math and physics. You cannot make yourself into a good student if you are just no good in school.

If you agree with these statements, or most of them, you are probably from Europe or America. If you disagree with most or all of them, you are quite possibly Asian. In other words, such beliefs are quite widespread in the West, but in Asian cultures people generally hold different beliefs. The Asian view might be summed up this way:

Intelligence is like a muscle: it gets stronger with exercise.

If reading and writing are more difficult for you than math and science, then you must work harder at reading and writing. If math and science are more difficult for you, then you must work harder at math and science. 

If you find all subjects difficult, then you must work harder in all subjects.

You will only improve through hard work, in the same way that your muscles will become stronger only if you exercise them. If you work hard enough, for long enough, you can succeed in any subject.

Teaching in two different international schools in China, I saw these beliefs in action. Asian students who struggled in my classes usually responded to low grades by working even harder. European or American students were much more likely to respond to low grades by giving up.

If you are one of those students who is inclined to give up, or who has already given up, you should know that science, so far, agrees with the Asian side of the argument. The statement that “Some people are smarter than other people,” for example, cannot be verified by science. We do not even know what intelligence is, much less how to measure it. You may resort to “common sense” and say, “Well, okay, but just look around. It’s easy to see that some people are smarter than others.” Even if we accept this assertion, however, we still don’t know whether these differences were there from birth, or whether they result from different levels of effort. Think again of the muscle-bound body-lifter: he was not born that way.

One thing is clear: students who believe they can improve through hard work do better than those who believe that no improvement is possible, however much they work. As Socrates says in one of Plato’s dialogues, “the belief in the duty of inquiring after what we do not know will make us better and braver and less helpless” (Plato’s Meno, tr. W.R.M. Lamb).

Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re no good, that you cannot learn, that you cannot improve. Put simply, these are terrible lies. Perhaps you are a very weak student today, but you need not be a very weak student a year from now. Imagine someone who cannot complete even a single push-up. Would you tell him, “Well, you’re just no good at push-ups. Don’t even try. Do something else instead”? Of course not.

Start where you are. Work hard. Accept the fact that improvement will be slow. Ask for help. In time, with effort, you will succeed. Don’t give up! You can do it.

Getting Help From Parents and Teachers [book excerpt]

Let’s face it: in the beginning, we may be filled with enthusiasm and determined to succeed. But as the days and weeks go by, our old tendencies begin to reassert themselves.

Do it the easy way. 

Be a little bit lazy. 

Take a break. 

Do it tomorrow.

And before we know it, our grand plans for improvement have been forgotten.

This is when we need help from others.

Parent Power: Nagging Reminding

Do you ever wish your parents would stop nagging you? “Clean your room! Help with the dishes! Take out the garbage!” It never ends.

You may be surprised, then, at what I am about to say. If you are serious about improving your habits but find that you need help, here’s the best thing you can do:

Ask your parents to nag you.

Actually, nagging means being reminded of things you would rather forget. In this case, we are talking about things you want to remember. So maybe we should call it reminding, not nagging.

Perhaps you want to acquire the habit of reading every day. You set a goal to read for 15 minutes every day, and for the first day or two everything is fine. But then you start forgetting.

Ask your parents to remind you. Tell them what your goal is, and put that parent power to work on your side.


Parents can also help with organization. Maybe a wall calendar would help you keep track of your goal-setting activities and important due-dates. Perhaps your mother or father can help you to arrange a schedule that will work for you. Are you being disturbed by your little sister when you’re trying to do homework? Do you need a better place to study?

Don’t try to solve all of these problems yourself. Put your parents to work!

Not only will your parents be able to help you reach your goals—they will also be happy about it. They will be delighted that you are improving your habits, setting goals, and becoming organized.

They might even stop nagging you so much.

Teachers: Error Detection

Teachers can sometimes be too negative. They fall into that trap because it is so much easier to explain what’s wrong with your work than it is to say what’s right about it. They are very good at pointing out errors and mistakes.

You can use your teachers’ error-detection talents to help you build good habits. My advice here is similar to asking your parents to nag you:

Ask teachers to tell you when you’re messing up.

You may think this is crazy advice, but let me explain.

Even though they spend all day pointing out errors, teachers usually don’t enjoy being so negative. They feel guilty.

You can relieve your teachers’ guilty consciences by asking them to point out your errors. “Imagine!” they will think, “a student who actually wants to hear bad news!” They will be so happy to be able to do what they do best, without feeling guilty. And I want to point out that a happy teacher is usually a nice teacher. A sympathetic teacher. A teacher who, hesitating between a higher mark and a lower mark, might just choose the higher one.

You’re beginning to see the strategy here, right?

Teachers are busy people, of course, so you don’t want to annoy them by adding unnecessarily to their workload. Instead, make it easy for them. Use the Daily Check Sheet, for example (see Appendix A). Pick one class where you need to improve when it comes to homework, and ask the teacher if he or she would be willing to take 30 seconds at the end of each lesson to fill in your sheet. Most teachers, impressed that you have taken this initiative by yourself, will be pleased to help. Do this for a week, and then ask the teacher’s advice. Should you continue with the Daily Check Sheet for another week? Are there areas where you need to improve that the sheet doesn’t mention?

Letting teachers know that you are working to improve your habits will improve their attitude toward you. Once you have gained their trust—once they see that you are committed to improvement—they will be much more willing to spend extra time helping you.

Show them this book, and ask them for their ideas. Where do you need to improve the most? What can you do to improve your test scores, or write better essays, or improve your reading skills? Put your teachers to work for you, and, just like your parents, they will be happy to help.

Expert Information and Advice

Teachers—and school librarians, too—can also help by answering questions about nutrition, sleep, exercise, and the scientific evidence regarding study routines.

They can help you . . .

  • find good books about study skills;
  • find good novels to read that are right for your reading level and personal interests; and
  • find other books, internet sites, etc., that will allow you to explore your interests in science, history, mathematics, automobile mechanics, or wherever else your nose leads you.

As one of my own teachers said to me, “The school is a cow—milk it!”

There may be other adults you could call on as well—a school counselor, perhaps, or a grandparent, or a neighbour. Don’t be afraid to ask—most people will be happy to help.

The Education Genie [book excerpt]

Imagine . . .

It’s your summer holiday, and you’re walking along a beautiful, deserted beach. The wet sand oozes between your toes. The salt breeze blows in your hair. The seabirds run up and down as the waves roll in, then recede.

In the water up ahead, a strange shape catches your eye. As you approach, the waves wash it onshore. When you get close enough, you see that it’s some kind of old jar. No, wait—it’s a bottle, the glass so dark it’s almost black. And sure enough, it’s sealed with a cork that is covered with red wax.

“Cool!” you exclaim.

The wax is old and brittle, and with a bit of effort you are able to pry it loose. After some tugging, you succeed in pulling out the cork.

If there was ever something inside that bottle, it evaporated long ago. You turn it upside down and shake it, but nothing falls out and nothing rattles.

Oh well, you think. At least it’s a cool old bottle.

Then a thin trail of mist begins wafting up out of the bottle, growing into a cloud that hangs in the air just in front of you. Suddenly—bang!—a genie appears where the cloud had been. A genie! Just like in the old stories, dressed like someone out of The Arabian Nights, with one ring through his nose and another in his left ear.

“Greetings, my friend,” says the genie, bowing slightly. “A thousand thanks for freeing me from my imprisonment. I am ready to grant your wish.” 

“Whoa!” you say. “This is so cool! What’ll I wish for? Hmm . . .  I could wish to be the richest person on the planet, or an Olympic athlete, or a famous singer, or—” 

“Hold it!” cries the genie. “Let me explain. I’m not like those genies in the stories. I’m an Education Genie, and I only grant wishes that have to do with education.” 

“What?! You mean, out of all the genies in the world trapped in bottles, I have the rotten luck of freeing an Education Genie?” 

“If you’re that disappointed,” says the genie, “we can forget the whole thing, and I’ll just be on my way.” 

“No, no,” you say. “Wait, I’ll think of something.” Then, an idea. “Could I wish for my math teacher to take early retirement?” 

“No,” says the genie. “I’m not a School Genie. I’m an Education Genie. It has to be something about education.” Seeing the puzzled look on your face, he adds, “About learning.” 

“Oh,” you say, unable to conceal your disappointment. “Okay, let’s see, three wishes about learning . . . .”

The genie clears his throat. “Who said anything about three wishes?” 

“I don’t get three wishes?” 

“You’ve been reading too many old stories,” says the genie. “You get one wish.” 

“One wish?” 


Oh boy. So you start thinking. You could wish to be a genius. But Melvin, the guy in your class who’s closest to being a genius, isn’t the most popular kid around… and he doesn’t even get the best grades. He always seems to be thinking about something totally different when the teacher calls on him. So maybe being a genius isn’t the best idea.

You ask yourself: what’s the one thing you don’t have, that you really need to help you do better in school? Hmm . . . No idea.

That’s it! Ideas! Wouldn’t it be great to be one of those students who’s always got an idea, or even several ideas? Like Lucy Dobner. She’s got ideas and inspiration to burn. Maybe you should wish for inspiration.

But then you remember that Lucy Dobner, for all her great ideas, is the most disorganized person on Earth. She forgets stuff all the time, her homework is always late . . . and she doesn’t get the best marks, either. Maybe inspiration isn’t the best thing to wish for.

Who does get the best grades? It’s usually either Janice or Chris. They’re not the smartest in the class, so what do they do that’s so successful? Well . . . they always pay attention, they write down all the assignments, they turn in their homework on time, and they never seem to have to cram for tests. They just have really good work habits.

That’s it! Habits! You start thinking about your own habits and realize that they could certainly stand some improvement. 

“Okay,” you say. “I’m ready. My wish is to have great habits.” 

“Are you sure?” asks the genie. “I’ve had many unhappy experiences with people making wishes and then wishing they’d wished for something else.” 

“I’m sure,” you say, “I’ve thought it all through carefully. The best thing to improve my grades would be if I had better habits. That’s my wish.” 

“Did you consider other alternatives?” asks the genie. 

“Yes,” you say, growing impatient. “I thought about being a genius, but that’s no guarantee of success. And I thought about being inspired with great ideas, but I don’t want to risk having great ideas without being able to follow through on them. So the best thing to have is good habits. Let’s get on with it. I should have been back an hour ago, and I’m getting hungry.” 

“All right,” the genie sighs. “Your wish is granted. From now on you will have excellent habits, and as a result you will earn much better grades.” 

“You don’t seem very happy about it,” you say. 

“You made the wrong choice.”


“You made the wrong choice,” he repeats.

“But why? I reasoned it all out very carefully!”

“If a genie offers to make your wish come true,” he explains, “you should wish for something you couldn’t possibly get on your own. You can improve your habits, if you really want to. You can even do things to become more inspired. But no matter what you do, you can’t turn yourself into a genius. You should have wished to be a genius.”

With a groan, you plop down onto the sand. “I’m such a loser!”

“Well,” says the genie, “I must be off now. Good luck!”

“Wait,” you say. “I have one more question.”

“Make it quick.”

“You say anyone can improve his habits. How?”

The genie seems a bit offended by such an easy question.

“It’s nothing difficult,” he replies. “Read this book.”