Practice, practice, practice!

Some students think that certain assignments are important, while others are not important—or that some assignments are more important than others.

This is a dangerous error.

If you only read what is assigned to you, you will never read enough to become a really good reader, and to acquire the background knowledge you need.

If you only write what is assigned to you—or even worse, only what the teacher marks in detail—you will never write enough to become a good writer.

Imagine a basketball player who never touches a basketball except during team practices and games. That player will never learn to play basketball well. Good players become good by spending hours and hours and hours in the gym, shooting lay-ups, shooting free-throws, shooting jump shots. No coach is there pointing out errors or praising progress.

Or consider the piano student. Once a week, during lessons, the teacher points out what the student is doing well, and where the student needs to improve. In between lessons, the student must practice, practice, practice, practice. No one is there to say, “That’s good!” or “No, no, your left-hand fingering is wrong!”

Getting better is all about the repetitions.

If it were possible for a superhuman English teacher to mark in detail every piece of writing you do, it would be a waste of time for the teacher, and for you! Why? Because we continue making the same mistakes, for a long time. Mistakes arise out of bad habits, and bad habits can be corrected only through practice, practice, practice!

Consider the basketball player. During a team practice, the coach sees that the player’s elbow is stuck out away from the body on jump shots. “Pull your elbow in! Your forearm should be vertical!” says the coach. But the player must shoot hundreds or thousands of jump shots to train the brain and the body to keep the elbow in and the forearm vertical. It would be useless for a coach to stand behind the player for hours crying out, “Elbow out! ”That’s better!” No, it’s out again!” The player knows what the problem is. Correcting it takes practice, practice, practice!

Those hours of practice begin to pay off, eventually, during team practices and games. But without the hours of practice, unobserved and ungraded, the player—and the student—will never make much progress.

Who will be a better player: the one who never touches a ball except during team practices and games, or the one who isn’t even on the team but spends hundreds of hours in the gym practicing?

Who will be a better writer: the student who never writes except on graded assignments and exams, or the one who writes every day, privately, and is not even enrolled in the course?

The answer is the same in both cases.

Better than either of these, however, will be the player who practices for hours alone, gets good coaching during team practices, and then puts it all together during games. Better than either will be the student who reads and writes voraciously outside of class, gets good instruction in class, and then puts it all together on graded assignments and exams.

That’s why every assignment is important.

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.

Sleep and memory: more evidence

From the BBC:

The mechanism by which a good night’s sleep improves learning and memory has been discovered by scientists.

The team in China and the US used advanced microscopy to witness new connections between brain cells – synapses – forming during sleep.

Their study, published in the journal Science, showed even intense training could not make up for lost sleep.

Experts said it was an elegant and significant study, which uncovered the mechanisms of memory.

It is well known that sleep plays an important role in memory and learning. But what actually happens inside the brain has been a source of considerable debate.

Read the full article here: .

“They don’t take notes!”

Today a colleague began talking about his Grade 11 students. “They don’t take notes,” he said in exasperation. “Not a single one of them.”

Another colleague, overhearing us, joined in. “Isn’t that their problem?” he said. “By Grade 11 they should have figured this stuff out. We shouldn’t have to tell them to take notes and use their homework diaries.”

I wrote Good Habits, Good Students primarily for students. Teachers, for a variety of reasons, rarely teach the habits needed to succeed in school. Students are left on their own to “figure it out.” Unfortunately a huge number don’t figure it out, and they usually blame themselves for their academic disappointments: I’m lazy, I’m no good, I’m stupid. I wrote the book to help students acquire the good habits they need, and to convince them that they can be successful.

But I also wrote the book hoping that teachers and schools would realize that they should be teaching habits. If they did, students would achieve much better results on the “material” taught in school, and would believe in their ability to learn, and would be equipped to go on learning on their own when they are out of school. Grade 11, of course, is a bit late to begin.

Imagine what my colleagues would be saying, though, if their students had been learning and practicing good habits for years. It’s a dream, but it would not be particularly difficult or expensive to make it come true.

Getting boys organized

He had not understood that in seventh grade he was responsible for handing in his homework, instead of waiting to be asked.

The New York Times has an article, “Giving Disorganized Boys the Tools for Success”, that echoes much of the advice you’ll find here: learn to file your papers, use a homework diary, find a quiet place to study, etc. The article quotes a Grade 12 boy who, with the help of an organization tutor, raised his grade average from B- to B+:

“I was really happy about that,” he said. “I always thought I could do it, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t. I just needed that backing, that structure.”

All of us—not just students, and not just boys—can benefit from the support of others as we try to improve our habits. A parent, a tutor, a friend—find someone who will help motivate you and keep you on track.

Practice good exam-taking strategies [book excerpt]

It’s that time: end-of-year exams have either started already or will shortly. This excerpt from Good Habits, Good Students may help.

Getting Started
Read the instructions and skim all the questions of the whole exam before answering any questions. Be sure no pages are missing from the exam booklet. Be sure whether you should write your answers on the question sheet or on a separate answer sheet. Should you write in pen or pencil? Put your name on the exam booklet and on every one of the answer sheets. Use a highlighting pen to mark important information in the instructions or questions. If a question is unclear, write a note to the teacher explaining how you have interpreted it.

Comprehension Questions
Read the questions first and then the passage they’re based on. That way, you know what to look for when you read the passage.

Multiple-Choice Questions
If you aren’t sure, test researchers say your first hunch is more likely to be correct.

Know how much each question or section is worth, and spend most of your time on the most valuable questions.

Don’t get stuck on a difficult question. Skip it, answer the questions you know, and then come back to the difficult ones at the end if you have time.

Before you begin writing, brainstorm your ideas (web diagrams or mind-maps are excellent) and then plan out the structure of your essay.

State your thesis in the first paragraph.

Be sure that each body paragraph consists of one assertion plus all the evidence and argument needed to support it. Lead your reader smoothly from one paragraph to the next with transitions or linking phrases that reinforce the meaning of your argument.

In the conclusion, try to do more than simply re-state what you’ve already said. Take your ideas “one step further”  by discussing the wider implications or adding your personal judgments.

If you have time, catch your reader’s interest by opening the essay with a startling statement, a quotation, or a brief anecdote. Then in your conclusion you can close nicely with a da capo (“from the top”) ending that returns to your opening by commenting on it, completing it, or adding to it.

Mathematics and Science Tests
Show all your work. Be sure your reasoning is clearly explained, as this is often just as important as the final answer. Never delete or cancel a solution until you have discovered a better one. We learn a great deal from our mistakes, and teachers will be able to help you make improvements if they can see your mistakes and understand where you’re making a wrong turn.

If you finish the test or exam early . . .
There are three possibilities: a) the test was too easy for you; b) the test was too hard for you; or c) your answers have been too hasty and careless. First, re-read the entire exam—questions and answers—making any needed changes or additions. Second, re-read it again, starting with the last question and working your way back to the beginning. Why? Reading it backward may help you catch a mistake you missed before. Finally, read through your answers to check for spelling and grammatical mistakes.