high school runner crossing the finish line first

What is your New Year’s Resolution?

Lose weight? Begin a new hobby? Improve your grades?

If it’s to improve grades, then you are not alone.

Many students want to improve their grades, but don’t know how. I have always thought that it’s ironic that public schools don’t teach you how to study – we either develop study skills on our own or don’t develop them at all.

I have helped many students improve their grades at C2 Education, and in almost every case, the students had the ability to do well but did not know how to study. As a result, many of them had struggled and failed to do well in some of their classes, and their confidence took a huge hit as a result. Many had become resigned to the notion that they weren’t good at math, English, science, or other subjects, when in reality, they just needed to learn how to study more effectively.

In the next couple of blog posts, I will share my study habits, tips, and advice with you.

Grades are an indication of mastery… not intelligence

First, let’s start with mindset. A lot of students think that grades show how smart you are. For example, if Mary is getting an A in Algebra whereas John is getting a C, then Mary must be smarter than John in terms of math. That’s a common misconception.

Grades show how well you’ve mastered a subject, and that’s very different from intelligence. Intelligence and talent give you a head start, an edge, but the experience you get from a lot of practice is much more important to obtaining mastery.

If John only does the minimum work required by the teacher (does homework and pays attention in class) whereas Mary goes above and beyond what the teacher requires (does homework, pays attention in class, AND she does all of the practice questions in her textbook, AND she reads the textbook before class, figures out what she doesn’t understand, and asks the teacher questions during and after class), is it any wonder that she has a higher grade (and greater mastery) than John?

John represents the average student, and he’s getting an average grade. If you want to stand out with an A like Mary, then you have to have the mindset of a straight A student – you have to be willing to do MUCH more work than the other students in your class because that’s how you get an A.

Mastery is a product of talent, training, and experience. You might not be able to change your natural talent, but you can improve your training and experience by learning how to study and by getting much more practice.

Practice is the pursuit of mastery

Practice, Practice, Practice.

No matter how talented or well-trained you are, you cannot master a concept if you have only done it a couple of times. In order to become a master, you need to have had a lot of practice and experience.

I’m not talking about rote repetition – that doesn’t provide experience. Many students study for a test by re-reading the chapter in a textbook, reviewing a problem set or homework packet, or re-doing questions that they have already worked through. Review is good, but tests will have new and unfamiliar questions, so it is very important to practice by exposing yourself to as many new and unfamiliar questions as possible.

Don’t think of practice as work – homework and schoolwork become mindless chores if they’re approached that way. Change your mindset – embrace the Practice. Don’t start studying with a specific number of practice questions or a certain time limit in mind – that makes studying a chore to be gotten out of the way.

Learn to love Practice – it’s the first step towards Mastery.

Extra textbooks: How to get practice with new and unfamiliar questions

A great way to do better in school is to get extra textbooks. In middle and high school, my father and I would buy used textbooks in addition to the ones I got in school. In the beginning, I didn’t understand my father’s wisdom, but later I came to understand that some authors are better at explaining certain concepts than others, so extra textbooks act as backups in case you don’t understand your teacher or your main textbook.

For example, when I was in high school, I took AP chemistry. I had one textbook provided by my AP chemistry teacher, but I also had two additional college-level Chemistry textbooks that I used. Sometimes I would come across a chapter that I didn’t really understand well in my school textbook. It would be really helpful to read three different explanations written by three different authors and to be able to go through three different sets of practice problems. This did not mean that I had to do three times as much work as everyone else, but it did give me access to three times as much material if I needed it.

Today, you have the benefit of online study resources as well. For example, the College Board and others offer practice questions for AP exams. Many of these resources are free and easy to locate.

The best way to utilize these extra textbooks (or online practice materials) is to look at all of the questions. After working through a few problems, you will start to be able to tell immediately whether you know how to solve a problem. If you can figure out the steps you need to take to solve the problem within a few seconds, then you can move on. If you have any doubt about how to solve the problem, go ahead and work through it. And if you come across problems you can’t solve, ask your teacher.

Read the chapter before class

Read the chapter that your teacher will cover in class so that you’ll already be familiar with the materials during the teacher’s lecture. If you are really short on time, then at the very least, try to skim through the chapter and look at all of the charts, tables, diagrams, and example problems.

Reading ahead gives you a couple of benefits: First, it allows you to make note of anything that you don’t understand so that you can ask your teacher about it during class; second, it helps you to better understand what your teacher is conveying since you’ll already have a foundation to work from. Because you’ll already have this foundation, you’ll also be better able to catch the details that your teacher emphasizes in class – this is an important skill, because teachers will usually give hints about topics or test questions that will be on the test.

Read the chapter first or skip right to the questions?

Is it better to read the chapter before working through practice problems, or is it better to look at the practice problems and read the chapter as needed to answer the questions?

This is a matter of personal preference, and you should figure out which works best. For me, I liked to jump straight to the questions at the end of the chapter. I realized as I worked through the problems that I would have to go back and reread the parts of the chapter anyway in order to solve the problem. I saved time by skipping right to the problems and reading the chapter as I worked through the problems. Then at the end, I would go back and read the chapter again to make sure that I didn’t miss anything, and then I would make an outline of the most important points in the chapter.

This method won’t work for everyone – and if you’re being diligent and trying to read the chapter before class, then you may end up with a lot of questions that you aren’t able to figure out or work through. That’s ok. Now you’ll be on the lookout for information in class that could’ve helped you solve those problems. You can ask the teacher questions or ask to work through the problem in class. In the beginning, you will get stuck often, but this process will teach you to become an independent learner, and as you do this more often, you will become better at finding the answers on your own.

Set up a study schedule

The best way to get a lot of practice is to have a study routine.

If you are taking challenging classes and you are hoping for straight A’s, you’ll need to set aside a lot of time. At the beginning of the year, plan to spend about an hour for each class each day. For five challenging classes, that’s five hours per day, Monday through Saturday, to do homework, read ahead, review notes, and work through practice problems.

Before you worry about being able to actually spend that much time studying, remember that you can reallocate time once you figure out which classes challenge you the most. Maybe you’ll find that you can breeze through your history class without too much review but that your chemistry class requires a lot more effort. You can always cut out some of your history study time to give yourself more time for chemistry or to allow yourself time for other pursuits.

Studying is like any other skill: It takes time to get better. It can be hard for an athlete to practice every day, but the daily routine of drills builds physical stamina. The same is true of studying: practice builds stamina.

Seek help when you need it

Your teachers are there to help you understand the material, so you should never hesitate to ask for clarification or help when you need it. And if you still find yourself struggling – whether with specific concepts, an entire subject, or just figuring out how best to study, C2 Education is here to help. Contact your local C2 Education center for a free consultation.