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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A Handy Tool for College Students to Start the Semester

I’m excited to share with you a handy tool for college students.

This was taught to me by a real live student (shout out to Harrison!). He is a sophomore in college and interned with me over the summer.
I LOVE this tool that he makes for himself, and I wanted to share it with you all — including a tweak or two that I’d make to it.

Check out the video, and then PLEASE forward it to any college students you know could benefit from this handy little one-page organizational tool.

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

How to Like Your Teachers and Get Better Grades, too!

Do you ever feel as if your teacher hates you?

I can’t tell you how many of my clients complain of this. In fact, it’s their number one excuse for why they don’t like their teacher! However, taking the time to get to know a bit more about your teachers helps you connect in class and get better grades.

Recently, I had a wonderful conversation with a client, who is a senior in high school this year. I just had to share with you his insight and reflection on how he shifted his relationship with a teacher last school year — for the better!

If school is overwhelming and stressful for a teen you know, please check out for the Anti-Boring Approach to Successful Studying. If my clients are reliable proof, these tools may just be the “magic wand” you need to start feeling more confident and in control, at school and in life.

What to Do When You Think Your Teacher Sucks

Lately, I’ve been hearing a common refrain amongst some of my clients to explain why they are performing poorly in a class:

“My teacher sucks!”

Today in my session with Claudia, this was her excuse about her lower-then-expected performance in geometry.

“My teacher doesn’t teach! He just jabbers away at us for the full period, and my brain is too full. I can’t think! He doesn’t give us time to practice what he’s sharing with us!!”

Sigh. Human beings can be so brilliant about what they need — and so blind!

I love that Claudia’s complaint shows a deep and intimate understanding of her own learning process. She wants to get a small chunk of information, and then be allowed to practice that before she moves on to getting larger chunks of information! It turns out that Claudia’s desire (what I might call her “inner authority”) is confirmed by research (which I’ll call “external authority), which suggests that brains take in information in 20 minute chunks.

How wonderful that Claudia knows what she needs in order to learn geometry more effectively! And how disappointing that in THIS teacher’s classroom, she is feeling overwhelmed with too much information.

Does this mean, as Claudia has interpreted, that her teacher “sucks”?

Consider this: I’m less interested in judging the teacher’s methods, and MORE interested in helping Claudia figure out how she can be a better teacher to herself!

Take a look about this conversation that took place during our coaching session:

Gretchen: “So tell me about the test review on which you scored 0/5 points. What happened there?”

Claudia: This was a review for a test. We’re allowed to use our textbooks, but I like to take my reviews the way I’ll have to take the test: cold, without looking things up. I feel like that’s a better way to see how I’m getting the information. But it’s stupid that my teacher grades reviews for the tests. I think they should be assessed without actually being graded!

Gretchen: Great! Yet again, you’re proving how naturally insightful you are about your learning process. Research also shows that the best way to prepare for a test is to simulate testing conditions, so I applaud you for figuring that out on your own.  And yes, it does seem counterproductive to grade what is meant to be a helpful review for a test. However, the reality is that your teacher DOES grade the review. So let’s not fight with reality.  Instead, I’m noticing a potential blind spot in your otherwise excellent process; may I point it out?

Claudia: (looking dubious but giving her assent)

Gretchen: I’m noticing that you waited for your teacher to grade the review; as you tell it, this makes you somewhat of a victim to his decision to grade your review. But there was something else you could have done prior to turning it in, to take the teaching (and the power) into your own hands. Got any ideas?

Claudia (thinking): Can’t say I do.

Gretchen: It occurs to me that you could have taken a few extra minutes to get out your textbook and double-check your answers before you turned in the review.

Claudia: Oh. Yeah. I guess I could have. It didn’t occur to me.

Gretchen: How might this have helped you?

Claudia: Well, I would have been able to catch some of my mistakes, and correct them before turning them in. I would have gotten a better grade…

Gretchen: AND you would have learned the concepts more deeply. When you take the time to teach yourself, you are also strengthening the neural pathways in your brain for this information. So, I’m curious: can you see a reason NOT to try double checking your own work next time?

Claudia: No, I guess not. I do think it’d help. I just never thought about doing it before. I’ll try it next time.

In this conversation, Claudia was willing to admit that she’d had a blind spot, that there was something she could do to support her own learning. This took courage and humility!

So now back to you, dear reader. Next time you think your teacher sucks, try the following simple steps:

First, notice whether your judgment is helping the situation.

Next, look at your own behavior. Is there any way you can shift your process so that you are being more responsible for how you are learning?

Finally, check this out these step-by-step instructions for how to become a better teacher to yourself. It might take a bit more effort on your part, but it also will make you a much more effective life-long learner. You won’t be dependent on teachers to make you learn.  It might even shift your relationship to that teacher; whether or not the teacher “sucks”, you get to learn a lot and make awesome grades in the process.

Photo Credit: From the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

What To Do When You Think Your Teacher Hates You

My client Jose told me that he is sure his science teacher doesn’t like him:

“I was asking so many questions in class, and my teacher was getting really annoyed. His breath changed and his face looked tense.”

I highly doubt that Jose’s teacher doesn’t like him, but it’s clear that Jose feels as if there is a disconnect with his teacher. And that feeling of disconnection deserves to be honored and addressed.

(Side note: Did you know that the teenage brain has trouble reading emotional body language in other people? For example, this study shows that teens often misinterpret “fear” as “anger.” Perhaps this is one reason why so many of my teenage clients complain that the adults in their lives are “angry” at them.)

Thus began a discussion between Jose and I about how he might communicate his concerns to his teacher. At first Jose was shocked: “I can’t just ask my teacher if he likes me!!” But the more we talked, the more he realized that it’s possible to communicate directly about his experiences and needs.

Ultimately, he wrote the following email to his teacher:

Dear Mr. D. I feel like I should tell you ahead of time that in science class I often have a million questions, and I don’t want to disturb the class, but if I try to hold it in I’m afraid my head will explode (I’m planning to become an astrophysicist when I grow up, so I am always curious about these things). Can you please tell me what your preferences would be if I have these questions? You can respond by email, or I could talk to you in person.”

I’m so proud of Jose for his heartfelt, honest self-advocacy. His teacher ended up following up with him in person, telling Jose that he is not at all bothered by his questions, as long as they are related to science. Jose feels closer to his teacher, and now is convinced that his teacher doesn’t hate him — and in fact, actually LIKES him! Go figure.

Affirmation

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The following post is a project to share reflections about all 28 of the core elements of InterPlay.  For background information about InterPlay or this project, read What the Heck is InterPlay?!.

What if…we lived life consistently looking for the good in our own experiences?  What if!?

As a classroom teacher, looking for the good was not part of the culture at my school.  Critique was, though. What are kids doing wrong? Point it out so that they can grow and learn!

When I was grading papers, it was so much easier to notice what kids did wrong (poor use of a semi-colon, again!) than what they did right (creative imagery!).  After marking up a paper, I had to force myself to re-read it in order to find some compliments.  How messed up is that — that I had to force myself to affirm my students?!

Now I work as an academic coach at a private school.  Although I’m technically there to support kids with learning disabilities, it’s become apparent that teachers crave support too.  Especially affirming support.

At a meeting last week, I had been pushing the school to create systems that help students be accountable for their work.  Over lunch, a teacher approached me and asked, “Gretchen, I really think that the system I use for communicating grades to parents and kids is the best possible system for what you’re talking about.  Am I deluding myself? What do you think?!”

I was so struck by how much this teacher needed feedback and acknowledgment.  The subtext I heard was: I’m trying. I care. I’m doing my best.  Do you see me?

In fact,  all year I’ve admired his system for using Google Spreadsheets to communicate grades and missing assignments to families.  I’d been thinking it but I never said it.

And yet, I know full well that we “can create much more change in another by pointing out their strengths than by criticizing their weaknesses” (from the InterPlay leader training handbook).

In the InterPlay context, affirmation refers to naming the good in ourselves and others.  But it also has to do with practicing noticing the best parts of our own experience (as opposed to fixating on other people’s experiences).

I coach a student who loves to write. Although she doesn’t care an iota about academic writing, she hungers for feedback about her creative short stories. However, she hates it when I give general compliments like “This story is great! You’re such a good writer.”  Rather, she wants specifics; she wants to know what I’m experiencing as I read her words:

Wow, the way you describe your characters in the opening sentences makes me really curious about what’s going to happen. But in the second paragraph the curiosity went away because I got a little confused about who was talking.  I had to reread several sentences to figure it out.”

Certainly, there is a place for general praise and encouragement.  In InterPlay classes, we’re trained to say “good!” or “yes!” frequently so that people feel supported.  Creating an atmosphere of affirmation, after all, is crucial to opening up people’s creativity.

But I’m also fascinated that, in the story above, my student continued to feel affirmed even when the feedback I was giving was technically “negative.” Maybe it really is true what Marshall Rosenberg says, that the most basic human desire is to contribute to others.  I like feeling curious, and my student wants that for me.  Because she cares about me, she’s motivated to fix anything in her writing that gets in the way of my curiosity.

And as the InterPlay facilitator’s handbook says, “To be headed toward our desires is always a good direction in which to go.” Yuh – huh! What would formal learning look like if both teachers and students had the freedom to move towards their desires?

More and more, I’m committed to creating a culture of affirmation.  It’s one of the reasons I love twitter so much — affirmation is such a huge part of the culture (at least in my circle of followers; follow me, and you’ll see what I mean).

Developing a habit of affirmation, though, doesn’t come naturally to me; I have to practice looking for the good. Here are some basic tips that are helping me develop the habit.

Tips for Creating a Culture of Affirmation:

  • Notice when I’m thinking an affirmation or appreciation. Say it out loud.
  • Pepper my language with affirmation blurts: “Nice!” “Yay!” “Wow!”  “Cool!”
  • Make sure, though, that all the affirmations are genuine. (Folks can smell fake a mile away).
  • When possible, be really specific about what I appreciate.
  • Speak from my own experience.
  • Name feelings rather than opinions.

What else?!  I’m sure there are tons of other tips!!  Please comment if you’ve got one.