What do the best students do?

The characteristics of successful students

Through my career I have taught, coached and mentored 23 students into Oxbridge. All of them are very different, yet in the own ways are extremely similar.

So, what characteristics do all the high performing students appear to share?

1. They Google EVERYTHING.

It’s like an automatic reaction. New concept = go to Google for a quick explanation. Don’t think just because your teacher gives you a textbook and some examples on the interactive whiteboard that you’re limited to that information. You have a massive free search engine at your fingertips, so make use of it.

2. They never “read through” the textbook.

Per time spent, reading the textbook is one of the least effective methods for learning new material. Top students use the examples and practice problems, but otherwise use Google, lecture notes, and old exams for study materials.

3. They don’t always do all of their homework.

Shock/horror, teenagers do not always do the homework? Say what?

Yet who can blame them? The homework I have seen set has generally been set to please the senior leadership team and Ofsted inspectors. The quality is poor and the tasks extremely mundane, with no connection to to any future usefulness. Parents are experiencing unnecessary confrontation by insisting that their little ones colour in that picture of a rabbit set by the Biology teacher who had been teaching about natural habitats. dull, dull dull. No wonder the brightest students avoid completing this work.

The best homework’s are the ones set to inspire further questions which they can bring to class next time, that allow the students to stretch their minds and prepare them for learning, maybe completion rates might even improve.

4. They test themselves frequently.

Testing yourself strengthens your brain’s connections to new material, and gives you immediate and clear feedback on whether you know something or not. Bottom line, repeated self-testing significantly improves long-term retention of new material.

Those of you familiar with my blogs, will know the following strategy to help with retrieval:

Block out a two hour revision slot in your revision timetable.

  • 30 mins – Revise the information, read the notes/books, make notes, use flashcards. Active learning through doing rather than simply reading or highlighting.
  • 10 mins – Off, go and make a cup of tea, check your insta stories, whatever really to switch off.
  • 30 mins – Answer a question in exam conditions, no notes, no phones, no laptops, no reference points. Simply put yourself under pressure for 30 minutes.
  • 10 mins – Reward yourself wit a cup of tea or a nice cool relaxing drink
  • 30 mins – Compare your answer written in exam conditions with your notes. use mark schemes and examiners reports. what grade would you have given yourself? Why? What did you do well? what could you improve etc? If you have time re-write either your whole answer or parts of it.

5. They study in short bursts, not long marathons.

Studying in short bursts tends to help you focus intensely because you know there is at least a short break coming.

This also fits in nicely with our Ultradian Rhythm, the natural activity/rest cycle of our bodies, which makes studying continuously for multiple hours on end counterproductive. Students are always amazed when I explain this to them, yet it is such a simple concept, no one can concentrate for more than 45 minutes at a time, this is why TV shows are becoming ever shorter, episodes of Schitts Creek or the Mandalorian for example are never more than twenty minutes long as they know the attention span of the audience cannot commit to longer.

6. They reverse-engineer solved problems.

It’s one thing to follow and memorize a set of steps to solve a calculus problem. It’s an entirely different thing to understand what a derivative is, be able to take derivates of complex functions, know when to use the chain rule vs. the product rule, etc. The problem with simply following the steps the teacher provided, or the textbook outlines, is that you’re only achieving a surface-level knowledge of the problem. Top students, instead, take solved problems and work backwards, from solution to question, asking “why.”

7. They don’t own a highlighter.

Highlighting anything = unengaged reading. If you want to note something that stands out, underline and write a corresponding note to go along with it. Or better yet, write yourself a note summarizing the item in your own words. Alternatively try the Cornell note taking for effective notes which can trigger retrieval.

8. They sleep–a lot.

They’re teenagers! Let them. The daily routines of top performers, in any field, are characterized by periods of intense work followed by significant quantities of high-quality sleep. You see this trend in top violin prodigies and chess champions, as well as elite athletes. The idea is to alternate periods of intense work with rest, so that you create tons of new connections in your nervous system, and then allow adequate time to assimilate those gains.

9. They engage themselves by asking questions.

An innovative mind must always be filled with questions. You’ll probably find yourself going to Google to fill in the gaps. Through that process your learning will be much more deeply seated in your brain than anything your subject teacher ever told you about. That’s the power of asking questions.

10. They immediately study their exam mistakes.

In a recent CPD, I challenged teachers to not focus on why the student achieved seven out of ten, but why they missed out on the three. This is what the highest achieving students are doing, most students get their exam grade back, flip through to see if the teacher made any mistakes they can argue about, and then promptly shove it into their notebook, never to be seen again until the mad scramble at the end of the term to study for the exam.

Instead, top students ignore what they got right, and use their mistakes as an indicator of what to improve on.

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