Inspire Struggling Learners to Study Harder, Learn More & Raise Grades

“I’m lazy,” teens often tell me when I meet them for the first time. Parents often confirm this. And so do teachers, when I email them to get more info about how a client is doing in their class.

I know students often feel lazy. And they certainly seem lazy to parents, who watch their teens get sucked into the vortex of their phones.

But what if students are not lazy at all. What if — God forbid — it’s the adults around them who are helping to create the conditions for this apparent “laziness”?

Let me explain:

As an academic life coach with a glimpse into hundreds of classrooms throughout my career, I’ve noticed two different tendencies amongst the students who seek me out:

  1. Some students try really hard. They stress themselves out keeping up with their school work. Despite their best efforts, these kiddos still perform poorly on tests. Argh! Why?!
  1. Other students seem apathetic, perhaps even lazy. They can’t motivate themselves to learn, despite teachers’ best intentions to make curriculum interesting and their parents’ best efforts to keep them on track.

I’m guessing that YOU are the kind of educator who has also noticed this trend… and is doing what you can to reverse it. 

You are sincere, creative and a hard worker. You’ve done your darndest to design a curriculum that will be motivating and effective for students.

So why are students STILL struggling so much?!

What are we missing as educators that hold them back?

As an academic coach I’ve spent thousands of hours talking to stressed out and/or unmotivated students, and one pattern has emerged from these conversations that are striking —

Students don’t know how to study. Everyone TELLS them to study, schools and parents EXPECT them to study, but no one has actually taught them how.

“But that’s not true!” you might be thinking. “I tell my students exactly how to study for my tests. I give them study guides, quizlet sets and teach fun mnemonics! Why isn’t that enough?!”

I don’t doubt this is true. Many educators ARE giving students a zillion resources to help them study. However, this is what I’ve learned in my hours coaching teenagers from around the country:

The way adults talk to students about their own learning may be backfiring!

That was true for me, at least, for the years that I was a classroom teacher. Once I became an academic life coach, I discovered that I needed to unlearn a number of bad habits about how to talk to students about learning and studying.

Although my actions were intended to help students become more engaged, proactive learners — instead they created the opposite effect.

Students became passive learners, dependent on their teacher’s creativity and curriculum development expertise to guide their learning. They didn’t know how to teach themselves. 

Now that I am an academic life coach, I’ve been unlearning these bad habits. I’m watching my student clients transform their learning, lower their stress level and raise their grades in unprecedented numbers. I’m also watching the teens who seemed lazy perk up and start taking action.

If I can do this as a coach, you can do this too — as the incredible teachers, counselors, tutors, and coaches that YOU are.

So, what are these bad teaching habits to which well-meaning educators fall prey?

Here are the top four bad habits that I discovered in myself and have observed in other educators:

  1. We overuse the word “study,” assuming it communicates something of value to our students.
  2. We teach specific strategies (like flashcards) that worked for us when we were students.
  3. We focus on “learning styles” as the way to discover how to study effectively.
  4. We break learning down for students into bite-size, motivating chunks and provide clear instructions for students.

Well hold up, you might be thinking! Aren’t these the tenets of good, progressive education? How can they possibly be bad teaching and tutoring habits?

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How To "Trick" Struggling Learners into Studying Harder, Learning More, and Raising Grades
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I feel your pain. I was surprised, too, to discover that certain “facts” of good teaching in which I’d been trained sometimes do more harm than good. Why might that be?

Let’s take a closer look at each of these bad habits that are plaguing well-meaning teachers, tutors, and academic coaches:

Bad Habit #1 – Educators overuse the word “study.”

Imagine the following scene:

It’s Wednesday, 4th-period chemistry. The teacher writes on the board, “Study for test on Friday.” Students make a mental note, “Ok, I better study for that test”; some even write “study” into their planners. Parents, coaches and tutors see the word “study” in the planner and follow up by asking, “Have you studied for the test yet?” The student responds somewhat impatiently, responds, “Yes! Yes! I’m studying.”

Think about it: How many times was the word “study” used? Was anything of value about the learning process communicated in these brief interactions?

I’d argue NO! This entire conversation about studying is largely meaningless. How do students decide what they need to DO to study?! How will they know when they’ve been successful studying, and are ready to take the test?

Because students aren’t actually taught the theory behind effective study and the strategies associated with that theory, they often go home and do one of two things:

  1. They try to “study” the best way they know how, often by rereading the textbook and reviewing and highlighting notes. Some make flashcards, though this technique is often a time-waster too (more on that later). Or…
  2. They simply don’t study, either because the actions I’ve described above are unmotivating and uninspiring or because they don’t believe they need to study.

When test grades are published, student’s spirits are dashed. “But I studied!” they say. “How come I got such a bad grade?” The answer is — because they studied in ways that felt effective but are are not actually effective.

As an academic life coach, I am on a mission to banish the words “study” and “review” from the English language. Ok. I know. That’s pretty impossible. But what if educators, parents, and students used it a lot less? How would you talk about test preparation with students if you weren’t allowed to use either the word “study” or the word “review”?!  Too often the use of these words allow us to live under the illusion that we are communicating something of value about the learning process, when truthfully we are not.

What should teachers, tutors, and academic coaches do instead? 

  • Quick Tip: Start noticing when you use the word “study” and what you are actually trying to communicate. Play around with banishing the word “study” from your vocabulary for a day or two. What might you say instead?   You might even include your students in this game! See how this experiment forces you to talk about learning in new ways. 
  • Advanced Tip: Want to know the 3 words that I use with my clients instead of the word “study”? Watch the FREE demonstration video that’s embedded here. You might even print out the graphic of the 3-step Study Cycle that I provide in my e-book, post it somewhere visible, and practice using those words with your students instead.

So, what’s the next blind spot I’ve noticed in educators (and of which I was also guilty)?

Bad Habit #2 – Educators teach specific strategies (like flashcards) that worked for us when we were students.

I’m guessing you are one of the many thoughtful teachers, coaches, and tutors who DO teach specific strategies for studying. Perhaps you suggest flashcards or provide mnemonics to help students memorize complex information. Maybe you hand out a study guide with suggestions for how to use it. Some teachers (I was one of these!) even build studying for a test into the curriculum, guiding students through the steps they need to prepare.

Yes! This is all good pedagogy!

Here’s the problem:

First, usually, we pick the strategies that worked well for us when we were students. But not all learners are going to rock the information just because they’re studying it in a way that worked for you.

Also, well-meaning educators often suggest strategies without explaining WHY these strategies tend to work. We assume that the strategy in and of itself is what will help the student study. But even the BEST strategies can fail if implemented in ways that ignore how the brain is built to learn. I know so many students who are bored to death by flashcards, but who use them anyway because they’ve been taught it is a successful learning strategy.

Many educators themselves don’t truly understand how learning happens in the brain. I sure didn’t, before I became an academic life coach. In our teacher education programs, we are taught strategies for engaging students, but we aren’t taught how this fits into a brain-based model for how learning happens.

When we teach strategies without teaching the underlying theory about why that strategy might work, we are creating kids’ dependence on the specific strategies. We are teaching them that the way to study is to throw a random strategy at the problem and hope you learn the information.

What should teachers, tutors, and academic coaches do instead? 

  • Quick Tip: When you hand students a new assignment, ask students to look it over and reflect: “What is the purpose of this activity? What am I supposed to learn?” and then “How does the design of this lesson help me learn this objective?”  The goal here is to help them start to distinguish between learning objectives and the strategies used to achieve that objective. 
  • Advanced Tip: Teach students the 3-Step Study Cycle. Once they understand each of the three steps, have them reflect about which step of the cycle they are in for each kind of assignment you offer. This tip might not make much sense now, but it will make more sense after you read the description of the 3-Step Study Cycle and watch the demo that I provide, both of which are available here for free.

Bad Habit #3 – We focus on “learning styles” as the way to discover how to study and learn effectively.

Many educators — myself included! — have espoused learning styles as an important factor in increasing student motivation and performance.

When I was a classroom teacher, I had students take learning inventories, and then I would use the results of this inventory to help individualize student learning. For example, I’d have students who tested as “visual learners” do history projects that were primarily visual; students who tested as “logical” thinkers could write an essay or create a chart filled with information.

When I was trained as an academic coach, I was taught to use these same inventories with my clients, and then apply the results to help the students maximize their learning.

In the last few years, however, I’ve stopped giving these inventories. I DO still believe that every person learns differently and that it is important for students to understand — and advocate for! — learning methods that reveal their strengths.

However, I’ve noticed that too much of an emphasis on learning styles makes students less inclined to learn in ways that are *not* their learning preferences. In recent years, brain science has backed up my observations, stating that the most effective learning strategies use all parts of the brain, regardless of whether the students has a specific preference for that strategy.

What should we teach instead?   

  • Quick Tip: Teach students that the brain needs to learn information in a multitude of different ways. If one method doesn’t seem to be helping them learn, then students should be flexible enough to choose a different learning strategy, even if it’s NOT their preference or dominant learning style. 
  • Advanced Tip: So that students understand the brain-based reasons why variety is important in learning, teach them the 3 Step Study Cycle (it only takes 5-minutes to teach, as you’ll see in this demo). Then brainstorm with them multiple strategies for studying the same content when they are on their own, using the Study Cycle as a guide.

Bad Habit #4 – We break learning down for students into bite-size chunks.

When I did my teacher training, I learned of the importance of breaking tasks down for students to help them be successful. I mastered the art of creating engaging, complex curricula for students, as well as how to break it into discrete, doable parts with clear instructions so that students wouldn’t get lost in all the details.
This is an important teaching skill! I don’t knock it, and I hope you continue to do it!

However, a side effect of this kind of teacher-intensive curricula is that it can accidentally foster dependence rather than independence in students.

Students depend on the instructions. They wait to be told what to do, for the adults to initiate action.
I can’t tell you how many of my clients have answered my question, “Why didn’t you take notes in class today?” with the, “My teacher didn’t tell me to.” Argh! I stifle my frustration at this answer with, “Your teacher shouldn’t have to tell you to take notes!! You should know what’s good for your own learning, and be able to take initiative on your own!”

The side effect of our willingness as educators to break learning into digestible parts is that the teens themselves don’t have to learn to do this for themselves. They’re off the hook and don’t need to understand how successful learning happens for them. Instead, they mindlessly follow (or resist) the teacher’s instructions, a habit that is not conducive to lifelong learning.

Even tutors foster passivity and dependence in students. I’ve had several students who’ve told me, “Oh, I don’t need to study for the Spanish test by myself; I’ll just do it with my tutor.”

When students rely on their tutors and teachers to guide their study process, they are abdicating responsibility for their own learning. So what should teachers and tutors do instead?

Here’s a quick tip you can apply immediately:

  • Quick Tip: After you teach a lesson, ask students to reflect on what they just learned and how they learned it. Ask them to notice the ultimate learning objective, and how you structured the learning to help them get there. Invite them to remember that when they are studying at home, they are in charge of designing their own learning process.*
  • Truly Highly Advanced Tip: Check out my list of 7 types of struggling students, including each student’s “study blind spot” and “study solution.” This will help you hone how you work with specific types of students to help them study more strategically, including which step of the Study Cycle each kind of student needs more practice with.

*You may notice that this tip is very similar to the one I made for Bad Habit #2. This is purposeful! It is helpful to ask students to seek out the learning objectives both (1) before they complete a worksheet or assignment and (2) after they have engaged in a learning activity. The more often you have them reflect about what kinds of learning strategies help them achieve what kinds of learning, the more self-sufficient they will become at being able to structure their own learning when they are at home studying.

Is It Really This Simple to Help Students Break Through Passivity and Become Strategic Learners?

Yes! In my experience, most students are eager to learn how to become more effective learners. However, adults make it seem so complex! When they are introduced to a simple, easy-to-understand model for how to learn strategically, they rise to the occasion.

That’s why I’m such a fan of the 3-Step Study Cycle. I teach it to all my clients now, and I’m watching them become creative, engaged, skillful learners as a result. In fact, just a week ago a college freshman who’d been getting C’s and D’s on most of his tests this semester, came to his session with his eyes beaming. Here’s a summary of our conversation:

Student: Guess what?! I got an A on the test!!!!!!!

Me: OMG! Seriously?! Wow!!! How’d you manage that?!

Student: I followed the study cycle. And I worked really hard to hone my notes*.  In the past, I could usually narrow the multiple choice answers down to two that seemed similar, but I never knew what the right answer was. This time I totally knew! It was clear to me because I’d taken the time to encode the stuff I didn’t know in new ways*.

I’m so proud of this young man for working so hard to understand how to study strategically and raise his grades. He clearly worked hard! In that respect, it’s not simple to become a strategic learner; it involves hard work!

However, it is simple to teach students how to study strategically. And in my experience, it all starts with a 5-minute conversation that I fondly call the 3-Step Study Cycle. I’m such a believer in this process I’ve discovered that I wrote up an instruction manual for how to teach it to students, and I’m giving it away for FREE:

Click here to download your FREE copy of The Art of Inspiring Students: How to “Trick” Struggling Learners Into Studying Harder, Learning More, and Raising Grades.

In this short instruction manual, you’ll receive:

  • suggestions for how to talk to students about the difference between homework and studying
  • an overview of the 3-Step Study Cycle, a brain-based model for effective and efficient learning
  • a video demonstration of how I teach the Study Cycle to students
  • 5 different sets of learning tools that help students apply The Study Cycle more effectively
  • the 7 types of struggling learners, and which study tools work best for which learners

Phew! That was a lot to take in! If you have questions or observations for me about any of these bad habits, please feel free to post below. I look forward to engaging with you.

Free ebook: The Art of Inspiring Students

How To "Trick" Struggling Learners into Studying Harder, Learning More, and Raising Grades
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How to Read a 400 Page Book in Two Hours, Part 2/4

Reading is hard for students!!

Especially reading books that you don’t necessarily choose for yourself…and at an assigned pace that isn’t natural for you. So it’s important to have some tricks up your sleeve for how to read large quantities, ESPECIALLY if you are a college or grad student.

This week I discuss creating a roadmap for finding important information and main ideas in books. Once you understand the structure of how an Author writes, it is easier to dive in and start reading efficiently.

Watch to find out how!

Just to recap so far:

Tip 1. Pay attention to the table of contents
Tip 2. Pay attention to “where” the Author puts their main ideas.

Stay tuned for Part 3 in this four-part series next week.

For more time management and study solutions for students, parents and educators, please sign up for the Anti-Boring Approach to Successful Studying Course HERE

Memorizing Definitions: A Client Success Story!

Memorizing definitions accurately can be a real challenge for students. Not to mention booooring!

Here’s an “anti-boring approach” success story from a client who used what I call my “formula technique” to learn and memorize some complex definitions in a higher level class.  When I checked in with him at the end of the school year, he credited this technique for transforming his ability to be prepared for tests.

Check it out and let me know if it would work for you, too!


Would you like to learn more great tips like this? My online course The Anti-Boring Approach to Powerful Studying is filled with 30+ tools for rocking school.


3 Surprising Ways to Turn Your Math Grade Around

I know that summer is here for most students math is the last thing you might want to think of. However, I couldn’t wait to share this trick!

The other day, I was talking with a client of mine who has been struggling in her math class. Trying to decide if she needed a tutor or not, we came up with some ways that might help her turn her grade around, and they worked!! Check out what we came up with:

What experiences do you have with coming up with creative solutions for turning your grades around? I’d love to hear. Also, check out this cool link that’ll give you more surprisingly awesome ways to be a great student!

The Inspiring Science of Fitness & the Brain

I think I’m in love with Dr. John J. Ratey. What’s not to love about this declaration:

What I aim to do here is to deliver in plain English the inspiring science connecting exercise and the brain and to demonstrate how it plays out in the lives of people.” p. 7, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

Amen!! Now that I’ve just outted myself as an ecstatic nerd, let me explain.

Lately I’ve been on a crusade to get more people “using the brains in their whole body.” This is a deeply personal crusade, as well as a professional one.

PE Classes That Teach Kids to Think!?

As an educator, I got especially excited about Ratey’s case study of a revolutionary approach to PE classes. Imagine–  heart rate monitors replacing dodge ball:

The essence of physical education in Naperville 203 is teaching fitness instead of sports.  The underlying philosophy is that if physical education class can be used to instruct kids how to monitor and maintain their own health and fitness, then the lessons they learn will serve them for life. And probably a longer and happier life at that. Spark, p. 12

Ratey presents study after study that proves that fitness is essential to maximizing not only people’s health & happiness — but also their smarts. Turns out we think especially clearly and effectively after we engage in:

  • 30 minutes of aerobic activity, and
  • complex physical tasks.

This kind of fitness literally builds new neuropathways in our brains, as well as strengthens old ones. As the coaches in Naperville 203 are fond of saying, “in [the PE] department, we create the brain cells. It’s up to the other teachers to fill them” (Spark, p. 19).

MuseCubes Help Us Remember to Move

I’ve known through experience that movement effects my thinking. In fact, the more I move, the more I experience freedom, passion, balance, and productivity.

What’s amazing to me, though, is how often I forget to move! Yesterday I spent over 6 hours on the computer. I woke up this morning in physical pain, emotionally drained, and without an ounce of alertness.

As a heady intellectual, I’m constantly looking for ways to be more embodied. That’s where MuseCubes come in.

Now, a MuseCubes break takes 30 seconds, not the recommended 30 minutes.  However, I notice this: the more I remember to roll the MuseCubes, the more I choose to move in other aspects of my life, too.

For example, on days that I wiggle and howl with the MuseCubes, I’m more likely to take a 10 minute dance break, and then ALSO go on a longer walk. Movement inspires more movement, which eventually builds up to fitness! Ahhh, I love incrementality.

Ratey himself says that “the most important thing is to do something” (Spark, p. 250). And if that something ultimately adds up to six hours a week of exercise on behalf of your brain — well, that sure is smart!

OK, speaking of moving, I’m gonna finish this blog post and walk to the library to return Ratey’s book. What are you going to do to exercise today?

“Relax Your Brain” with MuseCubes


Last August I invented an office toy called the MuseCubes.  It’s designed to liberate people who think too much.

Although I originally intended the MuseCubes for grown-ups, teachers have been buying them right and left.  They recognize the MuseCubes as the perfect, short break for stressed out students.

This afternoon, a geography teacher from a high school in Texas sent me the most amazing email.  She’d just read through all her course evaluations and couldn’t help but notice all the references to MuseCubes. Dedicated customer that she is, she typed up her teenagers’ words for me to read:

You should keep the muse cubes. They’re really fun and when you do what they tell you to do, it’s funny and it gets our hopes up. –Jose M.

I think you should keep the fun little cube game for next year because it relaxes our brain by making us laugh and, in that way, we think better. –Maria S

You should keep the muze cubes because they are a lot of fun and they are a great way of giving us a well needed break but not losing our focus at the same time. -Cesar M.

You should keep the little dice thing because that’s funny. –Irving A.

I think the cubes you used at the end of the semester were awesome and it lightened up the classroom when it was dead. -Lizeth C.

You should keep the silly dances you would do when we were tired. -Mariza S.  [Note: Mariza is referring to the fact that, sometimes the kids would watch Susan while she, alone, did what the MuseCubes said to do. It must be refreshing for students to watch an adult be such a goofball. At least, Mariza thought so!]

Wow! This is such great feedback.  I’m thrilled that Susan’s students realize how important movement and laughter is for their brains.

We humans were not designed to sit and think for hours on end.  We were designed to move and think.

Thank you, Susan, for taking the time to share your students’ words!

Move Your Body, Solve Your Problem!


Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m crazy about the links between movement and cognition (“embodied cognition” is the fancy term for it, I’ve recently learned).

So imagine my thrill when the following headline came across my email today:

Body Movements Can Influence Problem Solving, Researchers Report

In a recent study subjects were asked to solve a problem while taking occasional movement breaks.  The problem involved strings that swung from the ceiling. Researchers discovered that the subjects who swung their arms during breaks were 40% more likely to solve the problem than people who simply stretched.  Evidently, the subjects’ unconscious kinesthetic identification with the swinging motion helped them solve the problem!

You can read the whole article here if you want to, or just check out these excerpts by University of Illiois Professor Alejandro Lleras:

“This emerging research is fascinating because it is demonstrating how your body is a part of your mind in a powerful way. The way you think is affected by your body and, in fact, we can use our bodies to help us think.”

He continues with this practical take-home message (which makes me very, very happy):

If you are stuck trying to solve a problem, take a break. Go do something else. This will ensure that the next time you think about that problem, you will literally approach it with a different mind.

I’m crazy about this advice because my  invention — the MuseCubes — are based on the idea that we can use our bodies to help us think.

The MuseCubes are a set of dice designed to — quite literally! — shake you free when you’re feeing stuck. The picture at the beginning of the post shows you one of the original sets.

Recently my InterPlay colleague Dorothy tried out the MuseCubes with some stressed out students at Yale University:

MuseCubes were SUCH A HIT on campus at Yale last week! SUCH A HIT! There were so many twisting-moaning, shaking-yelling, bending-howling moments. People letting loose and feeling more ready than ever to tackle their end of year classwork! PEOPLE LOVED THEM! I LOVED THEM MORE THAN EVER!

I’m so glad that my product could help bring stressed out students relief!

(Side Note: There are shocking statistics about mental health on college campuses, and I believe that is partially because of the unbalanced and unembodied ways we are expected to learn.  But more about that in future blog posts).

What about you? What can YOU do to act on this research?

  • If you’re curious about MuseCubes, please check out the website.  I’m happy to send you a set or two.
  • If you’re jazzed about this topic, and would like to read about how I used movement to help graduate students unpack heady concepts, check out this blog post about using the brains in our whole body.
  • Maybe you need to go take a break right now?
  • But first, please comment below: how have you noticed movement influencing the way you think?