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.

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!

Online note-taking apps

This article from reviews eight online note-taking applications that you might find useful.

Of course, an application you like will help. But you still need to know how to take notes—how to organize them, what to write down, what to leave out, how much detail to include—and that takes practice, whether with a pencil or with a computer.

“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.

How Teachers Can Help

Students can build good habits and break bad ones on their own, if they are determined. But success rates rise dramatically when they get support from teachers, parents, and friends.

So what can teachers do to help?

Require students to write their assignments in a homework diary.

This simple act works wonders. The key is for teachers to require it, not simply remind or nag. Teachers who have the bad habit of shouting out the homework assignment as the lesson is ending and students are packing up encourage students to develop the bad habit of not writing down their assignments. Students who don’t write down the assignment are much more likely to forget it, or to remember it incorrectly.

Instead, teachers should develop some good habits that will help their students develop good habits. Give out the homework assignment before the end of the lesson, and provide time for students to take out their diaries and copy it down. When students are working, move around the room and check homework diaries. Praise those who have written down the assignment; remind those who haven’t, and watch while they do it. Do this every day: daily repetition builds habits.

With a very small investment of class time, teachers can dramatically improve their students’ performance. Not only will students complete your homework assignments—they will develop an essential good habit that will serve them well for years.

Try it. Then, when you see what a difference one teacher’s efforts can make, enlist your colleagues and make this a school-wide initiative.

Essential: the homework diary

Whether you call it an agenda, a planner, or a homework diary, no single piece of equipment is more important to staying organized.

However, not all homework diaries are created equal.

To be most effective, a homework diary should remind you of essential daily tasks and make it quick and easy for you to check them off as they are completed.

For example, it’s not enough simply to provide space to write down homework assignments. There should be a blank for each subject that might assign homework that day, followed by a quick way to indicate that homework either was or was not assigned, followed by space for writing down the assignment and the due date.

Here’s a sample excerpted from the SSIS Homework Diary that I designed last spring. Middle-school students at SSIS have a maximum of three homework assignments per day.

Today’s Homework
1. ___________ HW/NHW
2. ___________ HW/NHW
3. ___________ HW/NHW

1. ____________________
Date Due ________

The students fill in the three subjects on their homework timetable for that day. For each class, they circle HW if they have homework, and NHW if they have no homework.

This “NHW” feature is important. Without it, no one can tell whether (a) no homework was assigned, or (b) the student forgot to write down the homework.

The key to forming habits is repetition, and a well-designed homework diary helps remind students to record their assignments, thus building one of the good habits essential to success.