Get to know your teachers’ interests and, if it fits, include their interests in your writing and conversation with them. Take time to stay after class and let a teacher know what you like about the class and about your goals. (As a teacher, I do pay more attention to students who talk to me about their goals for the course.) sit in the middle or the front (picture an upside-down “T”) and make eye contact with the teacher, as students who sit in this “T” zone tend to do better. Don’t sit where you can easily look out a distracting window or near a talkative friend. Take notes so that you concentrate on what the teacher is saying and don’t space out. Always carry your calendar with you to immediately record in one place when assignments are due and other events.
To memorize information, associate it with something you know. Take the first letter of each word to memorize (such as the names of human bones or state capitals) and make up a sentence with those letters. Or picture them on different parts of your body, from head down to feet. Your brain learns by stimulating various senses, using pictures, sound, and feelings. For example, let’s say you want to learn the presidents of the United States. Starting with Washington, think of a noisy washing machine on your head and a ton of laundry. This helps you remember that he is the first president, and utilizes your senses of sight and hearing. To remember Jefferson as the second president, you might think of Jeff and his son, looking into your two eyes. For our third president, Monroe, you might think of three perfumed Marilyn Monroes sitting on your nose.
Jed and joey asked me to give them a list of words to remember; I gave them random names, dates, animals, etc. They used this body-part memorization technique, and months later could still list the facts in the order I gave them, starting with the top of their head. We have different ways we learn and remember. Some of us learn best by seeing, some by hearing, and some by touching. Your school counselor might give you a learning style test so that you can know your strengths.
To take tests well, Joey and Jed learned to start with a deep breath from their lower stomach area. Quickly imagine the most calm and perfect place for you, such as a beach, a lake, a mountain top, or a sand dune. Look at the teacher for a moment to focus and then get started. Read the instructions carefully. Tilt the paper so your head is not bending over in a tired position. Go through the questions and do the easy ones first. When in doubt, go with your first response. Then go back to the question you’re not sure about. If you have time, check over the answers several times before handing in the test.
When answering an essay question, first make an outline to support your theme, try “clustering,” drawing a circle with the main topic inside. Then draw lines radiating from the circle, like a starfish, labeling them with ideas to support or prove your main idea. Do this quickly, without judgment: Just brainstorm. Do the outlining or clustering ideas directly on the test paper so your teacher can see that you know how to organize.
The first paragraph should tell the reader what you are going to write about, why, and the main points you will provide to prove your thesis. Then develop the points you’ve listed in the introduction in the body of the essay. In your conclusion, summarize the most important points and suggest what might develop in the future.
If assigned a research paper, first find a quidebook in your library, such as Phyllis Cash’s, How to Write and Develop a Research Paper, or The Term Paper by Charles Cooper and Edmund Robins. Make sure you are absolutely clear on the assignment. I sometimes have to mark down my students’ research papers because they didn’t pay attention to the directions, as when they focus on describing a problem rather than on solving it, as I ask them to do.
Take notes for research papers on index cards. It takes too much time to try to organize notes with many points on notebook paper. Use only one topic per index card. List on the card the last name of the author and page number you are reading, and the theme number. For example, if you write a paper on the achievement of the Civil Rights movement, school integration could be theme one, equal opportunity to use public facilities like drinking fountains could be theme two, and so on.
When finished with all your reading divide the cards into piles. Then organize the first topic’s theme cards into an order that makes sense to you, use them as your outline, and write. If you read your essay out loud to yourself or a family member, you’ll be able to hear where the paper needs more explanation or connection between ideas. A high school composition teacher told me to write essays for someone stupid, to explain the connection between ideas that may seem obvious to the writer.
At home, make your senses happy to sit down and study by having a neat space, a beautiful picture, a favorite photograph, unbuttered popcorn to eat, juice to drink, relaxing background music, and a chart to check off your accomplishments. It’s normal to think of excuses to avoid studying, such as you really need to clean your room or make a call, but stick to your schedule. Once you get started, you’ll get on a roll. Sometimes it’s best to start with your easiest assignment, because finishing it gives you the sense of accomplishment to go on to the next one. Usually it’s best to do your hardest homework first, though, when your concentration is strongest.
When you read for schoolwork, always take notes because, just like listening in class, it’s easy to space out if your body isn’t involved in the activity of writing. Give yourself rewards; when I concentrate well for 20 minutes, I take a break to do what I want. Well, usually it’s to do the dishes or pick up, but variety is the spice of life.
The worst enemy of school success is procrastination, saying to yourself, “I’ll do it later.” Putting off doing work robs you of energy and confidence, getting a job done adds to your energy and confidence. Break a big task into small daily parts. For example, if you have a report due, read about the topic for half hour each day after dinner. Set aside a regular time and place to do homework.
Negative self-talk is another enemy, so post positive messages around your work space, such as “I am capable of deep concentration to remember what I read.” Set realistic goals ad reward yourself for achieving them, as we respond to rewards and praise. You might ask your parents to add to your rewards when you achieve a goal.
I asked Billie Jackson, head of the Student Learning center at California State University Chico, the difference between an “A” and a “C” student. (She has first-hand experience with her daughter and son, who graduated from UCLA and the University of California at Berkely and went on to graduate schools.) “A” students start ahead of time; they don’t cram for tests the night before. They do more than just the minimum requirements. They talk about what they’re learning, putting new vocabulary to use. Organization is the key. They write down assignments in one place and have a notebook with sections and pockets for each subject.
Ms. Jackson observes that effective students have a study schedule. This involves a quick preview of the text and class notes before class, concentrating in class, and asking questions to prevent daydreaming. Review as soon after class as possible in a Sunday through Thursday scheduled homework time, with intensive review the night before a test. The key is to review information three or four times a week.
She suggests that you try a reading strategy called SQ4Rs (for the letters which begin each technique) when you read a text.
How to Read Effectively
First quickly survey the headings, bold type, charts, and questions at the back of the chapter to create memory hooks. The main idea of each paragraph is usually in the first sentence. Ask yourself questions as you read each section. Answer these questions after reading each section, recite the answers out loud to use your various senses, and record your key answers in your notebook, then reflect by typing in the new information with what you already know. (You might want to take a speed reading workshop to learn how to increase your comprehension as well as speed.)
To improve your test-taking results, be over prepared and avoid cramming. Try to predict test questions as you study and write down answers on study cards. Breathe, relaxing your muscles as you exhale all your air, gently expanding your belly as you breathe in air. Do this at least three times. Ms. Jackson also suggests always reading the directions completely, nothing point values so you can plan your time. Don’t leave any answers blank, even if you have to guess. In true and false tests, inclusive words like “all” and “always” often flag a “false” statement. There are usually more true than false questions on a test. Longer questions are likely to be correct. Read multiple choice statements noting whether each is a “T” or an “F” so that you can respond to an “all of the above” choice (these are likely to be true).
Another important part of school, besides teachers and tests, is friends. A teenager who considers himself popular says his secrets of success are to risk getting to know strangers, listen well to people and ask them questions so they know you are interested in them, have the courage to be yourself, pick friends who like you for who you are, and don’t discriminate against unpopular students. Liking yourself is important if you expect other people to like you. Being confident without being conceited is attractive, so practice your self-esteem techniques and keep adding to your journal list of qualities you like about yourself.
Observe well-liked and respected students to see what they do. But quality is more important than quantity of friends. Depending on their personality type, some people are happier with a few good friends while others like to meet and great many friends. One style is not better than the other.
Since school success is linked to your career success in the future and to how you feel about yourself now, experiment with the techniques in this chapter to see which ones enhance your school performance.