How To Be A Good Student: The Surprising Habits of Kids Who Excel

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Ask almost anyone:

“What do kids need to do to do well in school and get good grades?”

And you’ll get pretty much the same set of answers every single time:

  • Go to class
  • Pay attention and take notes
  • Do all of the homework assigned
  • Study every night and prepare for upcoming quizzes and tests

But there’s a problem: there are plenty of kids who do all of those things, and still perform poorly.

So why the disconnect?

What makes the difference between an average student and a good student?

In this post (and video) we cover how to be a good student, and some of the surprising habits they’ve adopted that have allowed them to excel. And they probably aren’t what you think.

Let’s start off by saying this:

We all have some predetermined misconceptions about what “A+” students do that allow them to perform at such a high level.

And the biggest misconception? That the best students are born great students.

Yes, there is genetic variability that plays a role in how students learn and adapt to an academic environment. And yes, some students seem to have a natural interest or aptitude for specific subjects.

But you may be surprised to find that kids with straight A’s and high standardized test scores don’t necessarily have higher IQs, eidetic memories allowing them to take in and regurgitate information, or even a natural inclination towards learning.

In fact, sometimes those “gifted” kids with higher IQs and reasoning skills do worse in school.
Learning comes a bit too easy and they never actually have to develop the organization, study skills, and discipline necessary to excel.

As professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Herbert Walberg says:

“Top grades don’t always go to the brightest students. Knowing how to make the most of your innate abilities counts for more. Infinitely more.”

So what does make the difference then?

It turns out that students that excel actually have 3 main characteristics in common:

Top students dismiss the myth of intelligence

Many kids think that in order to well in school, you’re either smart or you’re not, but that’s simply not true.

Great students believe that through perseverance and hard work, anything is possible. And it’s because of this attitude that they’re able to achieve such high marks.

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Photo credit: woodleywonderworks

When things get tough they’re willing to pick themselves back up, dust themselves, off and keep on going. And this ability to handle obstacles is essential to consistent learning.

They learn how to experience failure and bounce back

In this case, the “F” word is actually something that should be celebrated… And we’re of course talking about failure.

Kids who have experienced failure are more likely to have higher resiliency, the skill they need in order to bounce back. And this means that they’re more likely to be successful, in all walks of life.

Professor of psychology Angela Duckworth has measured this characteristic (called “grit”), and found that it may be more important than intelligence when it comes to academic achievement

To be gritty means to have the energy and determination to stay focused in the pursuit of goals over a period of time, and have the fortitude to persevere despite challenges, adversity, and failure. Those who are gritty not only work hard, but also have the stamina necessary to keep working hard and push through periods of discouragement and disappointment. These students “compensate by working harder and with more determination” and therefore outperform their higher IQ peers.

But that’s easier said than done, because in order to help kids develop git and resiliency, parents need to do two things:

First, they need to get out of the way

Now I’m sure you’re heard the term “helicopter parents” used to describe parents that are overly involved in micromanaging their kids lives. But it turns out there’s a new term on the block social scientists have started to use: “lawnmower parents”

This describes a subset of parents who attempt to smooth out and mow down all obstacles. According to Wendy Grolnick out of Clark University these are, “parents who are oriented towards control rather than supporting self-sufficiency often raise children who fail to develop autonomous motivation academically.”

In plain english: lawnmower parents prevent kids from developing the ability to handle learning on their own.

Then, they need to instill a “growth mindset”

Okay, so if we’re not helping our kids handle obstacles, what do we do instead?

Well it turns out another researcher out of Stanford has an answer for us. Students who are intrinsically motivated rather than extrinsically are more likely to reach long-term success.
Dr. Carol Dweck’s research shows this.

Students who have what she terms a “growth mindset” (they believe that intelligence and success are not fixed traits but are things that are practiced and developed) are more likely to succeed academically than those with “fixed mindsets” (students who believe they don’t have the ability to influence their innate traits).

For example, a study that looked at 111 French school children, ages 11 and 12 who were given a problem too difficult to solve showed this exact effect. After attempting the problem, the researchers divided the group into two. The first group was simply asked how they attempted to solve the problem. The second group discussed that failure happens frequently in learning and it is important to keep trying. The second group, scored much higher on a later test than those who did not receive the pep talk. Researchers on the project said:

“fear of failing can hijack the working memory resources, a core component of intellectual abilities. Fear of failing not only hampers performance, it can also lead students to avoid difficulty and therefore the opportunities to develop new skills. Because difficulty is inherent to most academic tasks, our goal was to create a safer performance environment where experiencing difficulty would not be associated with lower ability.”

Bottom line: failure is good for kids when we give them the tools to overcome it on their own.

Top students use study guides

Next misconception: some students just don’t test well.

Now this may be true in some cases, but top students do well on tests regardless of whether they’re “naturally” good at testing or not. And this comes down to preparation.

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Photo credit: Amy

In fact, research shows there’s a direct correlation between the number of study guides that kids use to prepare for exams and GPA.

What does that mean?

First, when these students get a study guide from their teachers they not only pay attention to it, read it, and learn from it, they actually fill it out at least three times and use it to study multiple times before the exam. This helps reinforce the material in a way that best fits the test format, something you won’t get by reading through your notes or the textbook.

On top of that, if they’re not given a study guide, in math for example, they’ll rework problems from the book or the back of their chapter or problems given to them in class. Or if they have a history exam, for example, they’ll go through the book or they’re notes, take those those main headlines, turn them into questions, and basically try to predict what the teacher is going to put on that test, and create their own version of the test. And they do this many times over.

Bottom line: successful students take exam performance into their own control by using study guides to prepare rigorously.

Top students schedule what they like to do first

Finally, many parents assume that all of this work may occur under the assumption of a packed schedule full of study time, homework assignments, and test preparation.

But where’s the time for sports, extracurriculars, and fun?

As it turns out, this is a big misconception as well, because good students don’t just schedule study time, they schedule what they love to do first.

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Here’s an example:

When kids are struggling they often want to turn things around for themselves, so they’ll take this buckle down approach and say: “Okay from 4 to 5 I’m going to study, and then from 5 to 6 I’m going to go to soccer practice, and then from 6 to 9 I’m going to study again.”

The problem is, this usually doesn’t work, because it’s far too demanding and more often than not, kids can’t actually hold themselves to that type of schedule.

Instead, what these top students do, is they schedule things that they like to do first. So for example, if they want to play a video game, or they want to talk to their friends or hang out, they’ll actually make time for that in their calendar, either daily or weekly, and then they’ll put their study information around those fun things.

They build their schedule around the “fun stuff” so that the studying stays “contained.” This way they know that if they get their work done, they’ll still have time left over to enjoy themselves, instead of constantly having schoolwork hanging over their head.

Now when they list their study information they don’t just write down “study” because that’s too vague. Instead, they’ll write down specifically what they’re going to do:

“Biology questions page 54, 1-8”

Specificity matters because it reduces the thinking involved with getting started. If kids know exactly what they have to do when they sit down to do homework or study, it’s much more likely that they’ll get started and stay on schedule rather than procrastinating.

Bottom line: the best students don’t just live in the library. They schedule in time for themselves and their friends, and balance this with their study time.

How to be a good student: Next Steps

Okay so now that we have an idea of what actually makes a successful student, here are some things you can work on right now with your child to help them improve:

1. Have your child take the “grit” assessment.

Once you know where they stand, you can help them perform activities that help foster “grittiness.” Professor Duckworth also has a TED talk that has some suggestions on things you can do to help foster this resiliency that seems to be so critical:

2. Help them understand the value of study guides.

Even if you have to help out at first, getting your child started on using study guides provided by the teacher, or by creating their own, is a critical habit to develop to improve exam performance and give them an edge when it comes to taking tests.

3. Work with them to build an effective study schedule.

Have them start off by blocking off “fun time.” Then have them write out, specifically, what they’re going to study and when to help reduce procrastination.

Do these three things, and your student will be well on their way to achieving their full academic potential!