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12 Habits of My Most Successful Students

This piece was originally published by now-defunct

Parents want what is best for their children, and when it comes to school, “best” usually includes good grades. But, as teachers, we hate to focus too much on grades (which should reflect a child’s learning rather than drive it), as doing so can undermine learning and cause anxiety.

As an Advanced Placement teacher at a top preparatory school, I have been asked hundreds of times how children can “do better in school,” and I can tell by the look on parents’ faces when I give my advice that they expected me to suggest prodding, hovering, and grade-rewarding. However, such tactics often backfire because they do not foster independence, the primary goal in a child’s education.

Instead, parents can and should communicate to their children—at any age, and the younger the better—the value of being proactive, encouraging these twelve traits I have noticed in my most high-achieving or successful students (defined here as students who are prepared for college or the workforce, and, as a result, also receive high grades):

  1. Successful students are metacognitive (they evaluate what is working and what is not working) in their studies. In a recent study, Stanford researcher Patricia Chen discovered that 15 minutes of self-evaluation can help students raise their grades from B+s to As. Such successful students not only take good notes, they evaluate whether those notes are working effectively toward learning the material. They might, for example, compare their notes to the material assessed on a test and ask themselves whether they had adequate information for studying. They might see their teachers the day after taking notes to make sure they have heard everything correctly. Or, they might compare their lecture notes to outlined textbook notes or to other students’ notes, observing places information diverged and why. These practices help students understand what is meant by “effective note taking” and efficient studying. They begin to realize that studying is more than intellectual giftedness or having an eidetic memory and that there are ways to improve studying while cutting down study time. It is important to remember, however, that while effective studying will improve a student’s grades, the end goal is primarily self-awareness and learning how to adjust to a set of expectations.

  2. Successful students adapt to various teaching styles, not only understanding that teachers deliver information differently (some through lecture and Power Points, others through Socratic method, for example), but that teachers also provide varying levels of hand-holding or allow more independence. Even when curriculum aligns, teacher personalities vary, and students must adapt quickly to those many preferred styles, just as they will in the working world. Students who become too attached to a specific or favorite teacher will only become rigid and grow anxious and confused when things change. Successful students, however, understand how to modify their approaches, remaining flexible and developing many skills along the way.

  3. Successful students make friends with other successful students. Not only can peer groups pressure students into negative behaviors, they can influence students’ grades positively, creating norm-consistent achievement. In other words, if their friends value success in education, so will they. And when groups form around academic success, they study together, celebrate one another’s achievements, and push one another to strive.

  4. They are involved in extra-curricular activities. Students involved in extra-curricular activities tend to have fewer absences, tardies, and failures than do students not involved. They also have higher test scores, grades, and college graduation rates. It is possible that these successes can be attributed to the value students place on their chosen activities and the risk of losing that privilege if they do not do well in school, but students engaged in time-consuming activities also need to prioritize time and manage it effectively if they want to continue practicing that activity. These skills become invaluable when students enter the workforce and take on more and more responsibilities and interests.

  5. Successful students are otherwise very busy and thus make good use of their time. When given downtime in class to work on assigned reading or writing, my best students get to work, even if only several minutes of class remain. They also report that they tackle the assignment as soon as they possibly can, sometimes in the car or bus home, or as soon as they walk in the door. Procrastination is not a student’s friend. It breeds anxiety and insecurity about a task, which fosters even further procrastination and avoidance, leaving the student feeling helpless and ineffectual.

  6. Effective students are independent and self-advocate. One study suggests that students of helicopter parents are anxiety-ridden and less able to deal in social situations; conversely, students who are more independent are also more confident, able to deal with setbacks, and can self-advocate to teachers, therefore hearing first-hand the teacher’s advice, reiteration of the material, or explanations of misunderstandings. Such students tend to participate in class discussions more, as well, and find areas of personal interest in the material.

  7. Such students develop relationships with their teachers. Most teachers know that successful teachers learn about and connect personally with their students, but many parents ignore the fact that the same can be said of successful students who speak with their teachers and become known to them. Students often assume their teachers don’t like them and are afraid to ask questions or broach topics of interest. They hover quietly, avoiding eye contact and discussion. But approachable teenagers who engage in casual conversations with adults go on to be affable adults who connect with others. Students who are remembered by their teachers also tend to get more detailed and personal recommendation letters, as well as outside help and advice.

  8. Successful students are present, which does not mean perfect attendance. Present students ask questions, join discussions, arrive to class early, sit in the front row, arrive with books, pens, and paper in hand, and find areas of interest in even the driest of subject matters. In other words, they don’t give themselves the opportunity to sleep or zone out. The constant engagement and readiness keeps them alert and on track so that they don’t miss valuable notes, assignment explanations, instructions, and due dates.

  9. Successful students keep planners. The best ones I’ve seen are physical, paper books small enough to store in a backpack and large enough to write full instructions and to-do lists on. They keep their calendars and to-do lists with them, writing all assignments, plus worrisome thoughts and tasks, in them. If, for example, a student cannot stop thinking about having to feed the neighbor’s dog, that thought will become a distraction, but if he can write it in his planner with a specific time to complete it, he can free his brain for more complex thoughts.

  10. Most obviously, successful students work hard. Students who push themselves, taking more difficult classes(not merely doing the minimum amount of work to get by with s), tend to do better in school and are more prepared for college. My best students do more research, think more deeply, and prepare more for class than do my average students. They do not have to be the most intellectually-gifted students, either: because they have put in more time and effort they will have learned and improved more by the end of the year than a student who has relied on his giftedness to get him through. I like to tell my students that everyone works hard at some point, but if they choose the right times to work hard the rest will come easily. I point out that if my students work hard in high school, when their responsibilities are few, they will have more time later to enjoy downtime, as they won’t be trying to catch up.

  11. However, effective students know when breaks are necessary and how to take them and then get back to work. Anxiety and sleep deprivation can be the most self-defeating aspects of student life. Successful students take small breaks to socialize, relax, and disengage their minds. But they also know when to shut off the game console or say goodbye to a texting friend and get back to work.

  12. They read—everything and anything they can get their hands on. When students read for fun, they develop their brains, which leads to higher standardized test scores in both math and reading, increased empathy, and developed language awareness. There is no substitute or crash course for habitual reading. Getting into the habit of reading daily, and finding material of interest, should start early and be encouraged through the years.

The important factor to remember is that, though the above habits will likely improve a child’s grades, grades should not be any student’s—or parent’s—end goal. An emotionally-healthy, balanced child who practices self-awareness and self-discipline will ultimately fare much better than one set on achieving all As, though high grades will likely result from such practices.

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