I’ve been there: the teacher has moved onto a topic about which you understand nothing, and you’re sitting in class waiting patiently for the next topic, which you hope you might actually understand. Students in these situations often shy away from asking questions in class because they’re afraid that they’ll interrupt the lesson for the other students. Most hide the problem and stay quiet until the next topic comes along. It’s sometimes only when the class sits a standardised test that the issue is even brought to the teacher’s attention.
Here’s some (modified) meta-data from students I’ve taught in the past year. I searched my inbox for the surname of every student I teach then counted the hundreds of questions they’ve asked me collectively since the start of the academic year. I grouped the students into quartiles and plotted the average number of questions asked in the last few months versus their current academic performance.
Results were shocking: not only did the higher-achieving students ask me more questions by email than the lower-achieving students, but the correlation was surprisingly strong (R² = 71%). This begs the question: do high achieving students get higher grades because they ask for more help? Is there a causal link between getting more help from a teacher and achieving a higher grade? Common sense suggests that there is.
What does this mean for you?
Students should ask for more academic support in order to maximise their learning. In particular:
Always email your tutor with academic questions. Number each question for easy reference in later emails.
Remember the 5-minute rule: ask for help from your teacher or tutor if you make zero progress on a question for more than 5 minutes.
Ask to see your teacher or tutor if you don’t understand something. Just ask them to “explain [topic] to me because I didn’t really understand it in class”. They’ll be happy to explain it to you.
Don’t get put off if your teacher seems too busy to help you right now. Just ask them, “do you have time tomorrow?” and schedule a more convenient time to meet.
In university, teachers don’t pay such close attention to the individual progress of each student. After Year 12, you’ll be mostly on your own. You’ll have to be proactive, take responsibility for your own learning and ask for help when you need it.
Are you a top-achieving student who learns all by themselves? What are your thoughts? Leave your feedback in the comments section below.
“Talent, you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft” – Will Smith
I read an interesting article in The Conversation this morning, in which, author Kevin Donnelly claimed that the recent success of Shanghai’s students in international examinations such as PISA and TIMSS was owed to the “chalk and talk” teaching method that’s so popular in Chinese schools.
I have a different view. I think that their success was owed to one main thing: study-hours. Typically, school students in China spend ridiculous amounts of time practising for those tests, which usually translates into excellent scores on examination day. Here’s why.
Ericsson’s 10,000-hour rule states that on average, people become world-class ‘prodigies’ at a particular skill (such as playing a sport, chess, or an instrument) after spending about 10,000 hours practising that particular skill. The 10,000-hour rule was made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his excellent book Outliers, who illustrates the rule using Bill Gates, Bill Joy, the Beatles and famous chess players as examples, all of whom spent about 10,000 hours practising before they had a major breakthrough on the world stage.
The notion that greatness comes with tenacious practice seems obvious to most adults. However, it seems less obvious to most children.
High-achieving students spend more time on their homework assignments. When the teacher doesn’t set any homework, the high-achieving students re-read the textbook and/or re-write their notes, allowing them to clock up extra study-hours before their final examination. Students with more study-hours, in my experience, really do get higher grades.
We can estimate the number of study-hours a student gets per subject during Years 11 and 12. Five Chemistry lessons per week totals 300 hours. Doing 3 hours of homework every evening (averaging 45 mins per subject) equates to another 300 hours in two years. Students who study each subject for 50 minutes a day during the school holidays will clock up an extra 80 study-hours. Weekly tutoring could add another 160 hours, and last-minute revision lectures (e.g. such as those from TSFX) could add another 10 hours.
Students who ‘cram’ for three weeks right before the exam for 8 hours a day, 6 days a week earn an extra 36 hours per subject.
First, we can see that sustained, deliberate practice throughout Years 11 and 12 is clearly the best way to clock up extra study-hours, and thus maximise your examination score at the end of the year. Second, we notice a huge disparity in the amount of time that students might devote to their studies in Years 11 and 12. The disparity in study-hours is about as large as the range of test scores you might find in a class: 42% to 90%.
Kevin Donnelly’s article neglects the fact that most of the Shanghai students who were chosen to sit PISA and TIMSS sat through countless practice exams prior to taking the real ones. Their schools will have forced them to take the “maximum” preparation in the chart above. To paraphrase Will Smith, the Shanghai students’ examination successes can be explained mostly by a “sickening work ethic”, and the countless hours of tenacious practice they clocked up before doing the exams.
I use the Will Smith video above (and some real-life examples) to demonstrate that even the most talented people can’t afford to be lazy. I tell students that there are no shortcuts to learning anything difficult, and that learning anything (including VCE Chemistry!) takes a large amount of time and effort – even for those students who are naturally ‘talented’.
All classes contain students of mixed ability levels. However, performance in an end-of-year examination is more dependent on how hard a student is willing to work than on any measure of innate ability. Student learning correlates much more with “grit” than with talent. In other words, the more hours you study, the higher your grades will be.
In this article, I’m giving you my observations from a teacher’s perspective of what students in the top 20% (in terms of grades) tend to do.
1. They don’t play games on their iPad
Students with low scores tend to resort to picking up their iPads at every spare moment. iPad addiction is a typical sign that a student doesn’t spend any of their free moments reading or thinking. Successful students don’t usually have games on their iPad. If they do have games, they’ll be the more intellectually-stimulating ones such as Scrabble or quiz apps: you certainly won’t find an A-grade student frantically thumbing their iPad screen to Flappy Bird or Crossy Road between lessons.
2. They read the textbook at home, highlighting and annotating as they go
When I ask a class of students to open their textbooks to a certain page, four things happen:
The most successful students open their books to those pages, which are already highlighted and annotated with key vocabulary circled and translated/explained in the margins (see picture above);
The mid-range students open their textbooks, which look brand new;
The least successful students do nothing because they weren’t listening;
The remainder (if any) didn’t bring their book to school.
Reading the textbook before class does two things. First, it helps you to understand the lesson much better. It’s much more effective to read the textbook at home then ask questions in class than to learn the textbook in class then ask those questions at home. Second, a textbook that’s highlighted and annotated looks very impressive. Your teacher and classmates will be impressed.
3. They write neatly and colour-code their notes
Successful students use large, A4 notebooks. They write the date, title, and subheadings in the same places with the same colour pen. They don’t cram too much writing on one page, and they organise their notes heavily using subheadings.
An interesting studyfound that students who reviewed their own notes outperformed students who reviewed notes given to them by their lecturer.
4. They have a designated homework diary (or an app)
Successful students always remember to do their homework. They record their homework tasks in their diaries with due dates. Reminders for iOS does this job excellently.
5. They do all their homework on time
Even if the teacher forgets to ask to see students’ homework, the most successful students will actively hand it to their teacher because they’re proud of the work they’ve done.
Even if there’s no homework set, they’ll still spend time reading the textbook (or another relevant book) or watching YouTube videos to supplement their understand of what’s been taught. The most successful students are self-motivated.
6. They pay most attention to their teacher during the lesson
From experience, students who chat to each other too much tend to get low grades at the end of the year. They miss crucial instructions, homework, questions and information being delivered by the teacher. While it’s important to be sociable, the most successful students always pay more attention to their teacher than to their classmates.
“Students who reviewed their own notes outperformed students who reviewed notes given to them by their lecturer.”
7. They ask questions after class and email their teachers at evenings/weekends with questions regarding the homework
Most days, I receive Chemistry-related emails from students. However, these emails are usually sent by the same 30% or so of the students I teach. The students with the habit of asking more questions—both inside and outside the classroom—tend to fare better in the end-of-year examination.
8. They understand that we learn primarily through reading, and that the classroom is just a place to discuss what they’ve read and put it into practice
Successful students learn more outside the classroom than in. They read the relevant textbook section before class; they come to class with questions about what they’ve read. They re-read the textbook section after the lesson as well. They know that the more times they read the textbook, the more they’ll learn and the better their scores will be in the end-of-year examination. They know that their textbook (not their teacher) is their primary learning resource, and that their success depends more on how many hours they put into studying than on how ‘good’ their teacher is.
9. They know when to say, “Sir, I don’t get this!”
This is one of the most valuable skills on this list: admitting that we don’t know what we’re about to learn is the first step we take when we learn something new. Successful students have the confidence to admit to things they don’t understand and are thus more receptive when their teachers explain them. In other words, it’s a dangerous habit to pretend that you actually understand something—this habit usually has disastrous consequences before the end of the year. In a classroom, always admit when you don’t understand something.
“admitting that we don’t know what we’re about to learn is the first step we take when we learn something new”
What do you think?
Are you a student who agrees/disagrees with these 9 observations? Are you a teacher with more observations to add to the list? Write them in the comments section below.