Improving Academic Performance

How to Improve Performance in High School & College: 5 Basic Strategies

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Fri, May 10, 2019 @ 11:55 AM

430_3143166_350x219We are a tutoring company, and as such parents and students tend to seek us out when they realize some extra 1-1 help is needed to perform well in an academic class or on a standardized test. However, using a private tutor is just one way to improve your academic performance. In this article, we’ll explore other, perhaps sometimes obvious yet too often ignored or neglected, strategies to try before investing in private tutoring.

There is no “magic” about the number five. In identifying five “basic” strategies, I am trying to highlight what you might call “foundational” things to try doing differently to get better grades or test scores. What follows are five strategies high school and college students (and their parents) should consider when trying to improve academic performance.

#1 – Ensure you have an accurate, healthy and balanced perspective on intelligence and academic skill development and performance. Adopt a “growth” mindset.

We regularly engage with students who try hard, do their homework, study for tests, etc., but still don’t perform very well in certain subjects. When you dig a little deeper, you learn they just think they aren’t wired for a certain class or school in general. They might use language like “I’m just not good at math” or “I’ve never liked reading” or “I’ve never done well in school” and it negatively impacts their motivation, focus, and ability to build new skills and learn new concepts. Putting aside actual medical issues like poor vision or hearing, ADHD (trouble concentrating) or dyslexia (trouble reading) that could lead to these types of statements, often the core issue is a mistaken view that intelligence and academic prowess are traits that you are either born with or not.

But people are not, in fact, born as “good at math” or not.  There is mounting scientific evidence that intelligence as most people would define it, and even under some very strict definitions, grows just like a muscle. The more you push yourself and practice, the “smarter” you become. Then, the easier certain subjects or classes will be for you.  The student who seems like “a natural” often practices a lot behind the scenes or had parents who worked with him or her from an early age.

It should be intuitive that if you think of being “smart” as reading or writing well, or knowing how to do math, that the more you practice these academic skills, the more skilled you’ll become. But there is even evidence that as you push yourself intellectually to learn new things, your physical brain changes, more connections between neurons are built, and that over time, even your raw IQ score can change.

Another way to summarize this first strategy is to say you want to have a “growth mindset” which means you want to believe and act as if intelligence is something you build, not something you are given. A psychologist named Carol Dweck coined the term, and has shown how some people have growth mindsets and others have “fixed,” (meaning you do believe in fixed traits and in being genetically wired to be good or bad at various activities).  She has shown that academic, athletic, and musical success is linked to having a growth mindset. In other words, you aren’t born with talents, you build them.

To summarize strategy number one, approach school with a growth mindset. That’s it. Over time, your grades and test scores, will likely improve.

#2 – Focus on building “grit” as the key to academic success.

Another scientist (a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania) who operates in similar circles to Carol Dweck is Angela Duckworth. She developed and researches the concept of “grit,” which she has defined as “a distinct combination of passion, resilience, determination, and focus that allows a person to maintain the discipline and optimism to persevere in their goals even in the face of discomfort, rejection, and a lack of visible progress for years, or even decades.

Duckworth’s scientific, statistically significant research shows that “grit” is a better indicator of academic success than IQ. You can measure your own grit here. So, to bring together strategies 1 and 2, the worst thought to have would be that you can’t succeed in a math class because you just aren’t a “math person.” It would be better to adopt a growth mindset and realize that it is certainly possible to build your math skills and develop math talents with practice. And, it would be even better to realize that the key to building those talents and achieve your goals is to have grit. Find ways to be interested in a topic, set goals, and be determined and resilient as you pursue them. This will drive your success in that math class, not some innate math talent you do or do not have.

In sum, improve your performance in school by recognizing the importance of and building grit.

#3 – Make sure you are sleeping, eating, and exercising enough.

This strategy is a bit different than the first two, and perhaps a little more obvious once written or spoken. But that doesn’t mean the average parent or student is following it. Taking care of your physical and mental health can have a very real positive impact on mental health. There is scientific evidence that:

  • Getting enough sleep is strongly correlated with academic success. If you are falling asleep in class or having trouble focusing or concentrating because of fatigue, you are ultimately going to have trouble learning.
  • Memory and cognition improvements, as well as stress reduction, is linked to exercising regularly.
  • Symptoms of ADHD and overall stress levels are reduced, while cognitive capacity and ability to focus are improved, through improved nutrition, particularly in adolescents.

In sum, though it might seem basic, if you want to, or you want your child to, perform better in school, making sure you are taking care of your body is an important strategy.

#4 – Approach school a little more strategically with a focus on goal setting and better high-level planning and prioritization.

We’ve used the word strategy several times in this article already, but let’s stop and define the term. Strategy is about setting goals and making conscious choices about what you will or won’t do in pursuit of those goals. All too often businesses and individuals are influenced by their environment and starting point and somewhat aimlessly “go with the flow” instead of stepping back and behaving strategically to achieve their objectives.

What would it mean for a student to “approach school a little more strategically with a focus on goal setting and better high-level planning and prioritization? It would involve:

  • Thinking through, early in high school, what type of college you want to attend? Ivy league, or less selective state school? Or, early in college, thinking about what types of jobs you are likely to seek. Set a high-level goal or objective.
  • Taking a perspective on what you want your GPA to be, given the answer to the first question, as well as what type of “resume” you must build. What GPA are you shooting for overall? How many activities, sports, etc. are you going to need to get involved in? Choose activities that you enjoy and that create a well-rounded student for future presentation to potential colleges, graduate schools, or employers.
  • Make sure you are enrolled in classes that stretch your abilities but also give you a fighting chance of reaching your GPA goals while also taking part in many other activities. Don’t take calculus BC if calculus AB will suffice given your goals and situation. Don’t be stubborn and struggle in a class that is more advanced than you can handle (assuming you are putting in the work to succeed).
  • Assuming you are involved in a lot of different things, as many students are, recognize how important time management is. Plan your calendar out each week, allocate time for homework, think about big projects, quizzes, and tests days or weeks in advance and plan time to work on or prepare for them. Plan to complete things in advance at least a few days before they are due.
  • Set a target grade for every specific class and write it down (or tell someone about it who you feel accountable towards.) In my experience, if you say to yourself that a B would be OK, though an A would be nice, and you don’t tell a soul, you’re likely to just get a B. But you might even “fail” to meet your internal goal and get a C if the you get a little unlucky or the class is particularly hard. However, if you tell a friend you’re aiming for an “A,” you’ll a) be more likely to actually get an A and b) you’ve established a standard for performance that means if you fail, you’ll probably end up with at least a B instead of a C. Set specific, stretching, performance targets in each class.
  • Prioritize and re-prioritize constantly. Strategy is very much about prioritizing time and energy in pursuit of goals. If your teacher assigns a lot of reading that takes hours, but specifically has told you that quizzes and tests are 90% driven by class notes and homework problems, it’s OK to skip 60 minutes of reading if you are strapped for time before a big test. Prioritize reviewing the class notes or homework problems you were assigned. Or, if you have an extra few days before a big project is due, but a big test tomorrow you aren’t prepared for, push back working on the project.

In sum, as you work your way though school, ensure you have established goals and objectives, are intentional about how you spend your time, and prioritize constantly. 

#5 – Develop a relationship with your teacher.  Go in for extra help whenever you need it. Share rough drafts for feedback.

Although getting help from your teacher for free may reduce the need for support from a tutoring company, we would be remiss if we did not remind our students that their teachers are a powerful resource.

Many students find teachers hard to understand, unrelatable, awkward, or unreasonable in their expectations around homework, quizzes, projects, and tests. But in fact, leveraging your teacher to get better grades is an extremely under-utilized strategy for doing well in school. There are three major elements to this. First, in many classes, teachers are grading papers somewhat subjectively. If you attend all the classes, participate, and go in for extra help when you need it, they will notice your positive attitude and interest in succeeding, and will want to reward you.  Second, if you are struggling with a concept, going in for extra help will, obviously, help you better understand it. And finally, many teachers, within reason, will review early drafts of projects or papers for you and give feedback. If they have provided you with feedback that you have implemented, your chances of getting a good grade improve drastically (i.e., you are literally implementing the advice provided by the same person who will be doing the grading. It’s hard to go wrong here).

So, use your teacher as a resource to succeed, not a barrier to overcome.

In Conclusion

A basic five-pronged approach can lead to better grades and test scores:

  1. Adopt a growth mindset about how intelligence works
  2. Demonstrate grit in pursuit of goals
  3. Take care of your body through better nutrition and more sleep and exercise
  4. Approach school more strategically
  5. Cultivate a positive relationship with and ask for help from your teacher