Monday, February 1, 2010

The Unwritten Rules of School

School is a game, and the students who know it and play by the rules are the ones that do well.

When I was a teacher, I certainly had my share of smart A students. However, I also had many surprises - students with average intelligence that earned really high grades and really smart students who failed the class. In fact, about a third of the students that failed my class were very intelligent. They were bored with school and did not see the benefits to doing homework. They often wrote papers that were interesting to them but did not fit the assignment.

Conversely, I had students who earned very high grades because they knew how to play the school game. Here are some of the things that they knew but other students did not.

1. Turn in Every Assignment: Never, ever, skip anything ever. Forever. You need to understand the law of averages: if you earn a zero on an assignment and an A on the next two assignments, you still have a D in the class. Even if you had turned in a poor assignment that first time and earned a 50%, you would still have a C+ in the class. It will take a month of straight A's to recover from a zero, so turn in everything.

2. Make the teacher like you.
Some students might bristle at "kissing up to the teacher," but good students know that many grades are subjective, so they show the teacher that they enjoy the class and are trying hard. Be polite, sit near the front, answer when the teacher questions the class, and ask questions after class. All of this shows that you are interested in doing well, and the teacher will want to help.

3. Turn in neat work. If your homework and papers look professional, the teacher will think that you put in a lot of effort, even if you did not. He or she will look for the good parts (glass half full) instead of noticing the errors (glass half empty). If you earn a borderline grade on a subjective assignment, you might even get the higher grade. So type assignments when appropriate, handwrite neatly, rewrite the page if you have to, and put your name, title, and date on everything. It will only take a few extra minutes, but the results will add up.

4. Take tests the smart way. Obviously, you want to study for every test, but what do you do if you don't know the answer? First, don't panic - freaking out will only hurt you on the rest of the test. Second, on a multiple choice test, cross out the wrong answers to give your guess better odds. Third, come back to that question at the end because something later in the test could give you a clue to troublesome question.

On an essay or short answer test, if you don't know the answer, write about something you do know about. If you can't remember specifics (the Gettysburg Address), just write about something general (effects of the Civil War, Lincoln's leadership) or something similar (King's "I Have a Dream Speech"). Any answer is better than nothing, and you just might get a little partial credit.

5. Ask. Ask for help before the test, ask what you should study for the test, ask for a makeup assignment, ask for extra credit. If you approach your teacher in a respectful way, there may be ways to gain points that you did not know about. It can't hurt to ask, as long as you don't badger her too much.

Here is an offshoot of the "ask" strategy that is only helpful if you don't mind being annoying. After the first test of the year, make an appointment with your teacher to go over your test. Talk through every question you missed and ask him to explain the right answer. This can be helpful because 1) you might convince him to give you a couple of points here and there, 2) you will show him that you try hard and want to do well, and 3) it will take so much time that he will think twice about taking off points next time because he won't want to have another meeting. (taken from a book by Tim Ferris).

6. Don't Keep Doing What Doesn't Work: Unfortunately, there are some students that work super hard. The good news is that their perseverance and work ethic will really pay off in the working world after school. In the mean time, these students might be studying the wrong way for their brains. A book on study skills like Learning to Learn: Strengthening Study Skills and Brain Power might help. You could also try something like Get the Best Grades with the Least Amount of Effort which helps students learn faster or Secrets that Smart Students Know. Sometimes you just need to try a different way of studying.

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