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?

Free ebook: The Art of Inspiring Students

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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

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How To "Trick" Struggling Learners into Studying Harder, Learning More, and Raising Grades
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How Involved Should Parents Be In Their Student’s School Work?

screen-shot-2016-08-08-at-11-37-09-amIt’s every parent’s dilemma — how involved is TOO involved to be in your child’s education?

On the one hand, you want them to be self-sufficient, and a self-motivated learner. On the other hand, you also want them to be college ready, and are scared that — left to their own devices — they won’t progress fast enough to be college-ready.

Megan and Gretchen discuss elementary, middle, and high school parenting, and share a list of guidelines for how to support your student while still nurturing their self-sufficiency. Included in the conversation:

  • when should parents intervene with teachers and the school, and when should they let students figure it out themselves
  • how to support students with homework
  • when do you let students solve problems for themselves, and when do you solve them for them,
  • and more!

Gretchen also shares some wisdom from the book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success  by Julie Lythcott-Haims.

Got any questions or comments about how to apply anything we said in this episode to your situation? Please email us! We love addressing your questions on the podcast (free coaching for you! yes!). Find us at collegepreppodcast@gmail.com.

 

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This podcast was originally broadcast on www.collegepreppodcast.com

Appreciative Inquiry and Academic Coaching

Strong Hands Climbing a Rope

Lately, I’ve been asking the same old series of questions to the teenagers with whom I work.

Do you have any late assignments that haven’t been turned in yet? (Shrug. Pause. English and Math.)

Let’s tackle English first. What got in the way of doing it? (I dunno).

Think about it a sec. There must be something that kept you from doing it? (Shrug. Pause. Finally: lost my textbook).

Ahhhhhh. The Case of the Lost Textbook. Anything else getting in the way? (Shrug. Pause. Pause. Pause. I don’t understand what to do).

Ohhhhhh. That’s tough. The Unclear Assignment Conundrum. Two problems; we’ll need to find two solutions.

Even though it works (sort of), I’m getting tired of this line of questioning. No one wants to talk about what they’re not doing well.

I’m an academic coach. Kids come to me when they’re falling behind because of their time management, organization, or inefficient study strategies. It’s so easy to fall into problem solving mode with them. In fact, I find it satisfying to sleuth through the shoulder shrugs and inarticulate grunts, until I unearth the suddenly obvious obstruction that’s been stalling their success.

In the above scenario I uncovered two key skills that my client needed help building: (1) how to complete an assignment when he’d lost the tools he needed and (2) how to clarify an assignment when he doesn’t understand what to do.

These might seem like obvious skills to you and I, but kids who suffer from executive functioning deficits just get overwhelmed when they encounter a roadblock. The executive centers of the brain help people organize, prioritize, time manage, and more. People who have deficits in these neuropathways have to work extra hard to manage themselves and their things in order to achieve a goal.

Problem Solving Doesn’t Always Work.

Some kids resist the problem solving approach. They don’t want to talk about their deficits; who wants to rehash all the bad grades, disorganized backpacks, and dropped assignments?

Take Griffin, for example. Griffin resisted my help last year. He just did NOT want to be a problem that needed solving. He wanted to just chill. Cruise through. Do anything but work.

No, that’s not exactly true. I think he *wanted* to work hard (thought he’d never say it). But his brain was overwhelmed by the constant barrage of expectations from eight teachers.

The biggest problem: Griffin often did the work but then lost it before he turned it in. I remember one in particular that he redid three times before it finally made it to the teacher. This kid was working hard; he just couldn’t follow through.

From “What Went Wrong?” to “What’s Going Right?”

This year, I’ve decided to take a whole new approach with Griffin. I no longer walk him through questioning that starts with “What went wrong?” and ends with “What could you do differently next time?”

Instead, I’m noticing that he’s doing a few things really well. Like, over the last week he only had two late assignments.  This is a miracle for Griffin.

“Wow! What are you doing that’s working out so well?” I asked him.

He was thrown off. Confused. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, you’re obviously doing something right.  Your work is getting turned in. You seem pretty happy. What choices are you making that are causing these great results?”

I’ve asked this question two weeks in a row now.  Griffin is totally stumped by it. He has no idea what choices he’s making, much less what’s working for him. As far as he’s concerned, “I’m in the flow this year, that’s all.”

I perseverated. “You must be doing something right. Because you’re the one responsible for creating the flow. You did it by making choices. What are those choices? Let’s find out.”

It took all session, but we finally discovered a helpful list:

  • He takes a decent break before he starts his homework.
  • He’s pretty good at not letting Facebook distract him once he gets started.
  • He plays a sport and is getting exercise.
  • He checks his teachers’ web pages daily for the assignments.
  • He’s using Google Docs for all his papers.
  • He’s consistent with his self-designed organization system.

Phew! Now that we know what he’s doing well, Griffin can focus on making these choices consistently. In other words, do more of what is already working. Or at the very least, keep up the good work!

Appreciative Inquiry Shifts the Conversation

Although I’m not trained in appreciative inquiry, I’m pretty sure that my new process is resonates with the AI folks. (No, not artificial intelligence. I’m talking about the authentic intelligence that comes when we focus on the good).

From what little I’ve read, AI (the appreciative inquiry kind) is the art and practice of asking questions that help strengthen people’s capacity to identify and heighten their positive potential (this definition compiled from this website). It is about searching for the best in people right now, and helping them use that information to build a plan for an even better future.

I’m inspired by this approach.  I want to dedicate this school year to helping kids notice what is already good in their process and approach, and how they can create more of what’s working.

There are two reasons why I anticipate that the AI approach will initially be challenging: (1) Most educators (myself included) habitually look for what’s wrong in our students, so we can “correct” it,  and (2) Students are so used to this approach that they clam up when asked to think differently.

We’ll all need to build new inquiry habits.

Discover. Dream. Design. Destiny.

Here’s a summary of the AI process that I hope to experiment with this school year:

1. Discover the “best of what is” –  inquire about what is working well
2. Dream “what might be”  –  discuss the possibilities for improvement
3. Design “what could be”   –  design the changes to be implemented
4. Create a Destiny based on “what will be” and let students participate in creating this for themselves.  (Kinni, 2003, quoted in Exploring Appreciative Inquiry)

Progress reports just came out yesterday at the school where I coach. Instead of focusing on the “bad” grades, I’m looking forward to getting the kids to discover what’s working well in their classes; dream about what could be improved by the next progress report; and design changes for how they can practically make this happen.

More reflections to come! Thanks for reading to the end of this longer-than-usual entry. I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts about focusing on the good, Appreciative Inquiry, or academic successes/conundrums with the teens you know!

Move Your Body, Solve Your Problem!

IMG_1703

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?