Why Grades Are Not the Best Measure for Success

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As an academic coach, I am always amazed at how much my students teach me with their feedback and observations. A few days ago, one of my students made an observation about grades that reinforced for me how unreliable they are as a measure of success.

I am not at all anti-grading in saying this. I am fine with the concept of studying hard and receiving a grade in return to reward the effort. In life, we are all ‘graded’ in some form or another at our jobs, and getting feedback from others is essential to growth in whatever form that feedback takes. So on the surface, a student goal of making A’s in classes makes sense, and is such a habit for most students and parents (and, I admit, for me as well) that I sometimes forget there’s a better, more measurable goal to set than looking at grade reports – until a student comes along and reminds me.

This student was feeling frustrated because he was having a hard time measuring his success from week to week due to the lack of grade updates he was receiving in some of his classes. He may have studied hard for his tests and quizzes, and turned in some late assignments to teachers to eliminate some zeroes, but when the teachers didn’t get those grades and makeup assignments entered into the online system quickly, he was unable to get confirmation that his efforts were working.

It can be frustrating to look at low averages week after week when the student knows they’ve made up some of their missing work, or re-taken a test to up the score, but I do think we need to give teachers a break here. As a former high school teacher, I know how overwhelming a job it is, and the truth is grading and entering those grades takes time that has to be carved out from the myriad other responsibilities teachers have to juggle from day-to-day. While waiting weeks to get test grades entered certainly isn’t acceptable, it makes sense to give teachers several days to get them posted. On the other hand, I always tell my students that one of the many benefits of turning in work on time is getting to see the grades in a timely manner, and that a teacher isn’t under much of an obligation to quickly grade and log assignments that missed the deadline. Resolving the consequences of your lateness, and the low grade that results from it, isn’t going to be a teacher’s priority, and for the most part, it shouldn’t be.

All the more reason for realizing a measure of success that relies less on the teacher, and more on the individual student. So how is this done? The student can think about the actions he or she is going to take to accomplish the goal of improving grades, and make those actions the real goal. Saying, “I am going to bring all my low grades up to passing” or “I am going to bump my Bs to As” is a great idea, but again, the student doesn’t control how or when that magic happens. But, a goal that states, “I am going to turn in all my homework on time this grading period” or “I am going to study for 30 minutes every day for 4 days before my tests, instead of trying to cram everything in the night before” is not only more clear and productive, but it’s entirely dependent on student action, and therefore, immediately measurable, even if it takes the teacher another week to enter grades.

Setting goals that are outside our realm of control is a habit that is tricky to change, especially when it comes to academics, because the big reward is generally to get that glowing grade report at the end of a semester. But it is worth checking in with ourselves every once in a while, especially when we’re feeling frustrated with our lack of progress, to see if part of the problem is that we’re relying on someone else to give us the feedback we need to know whether or not our efforts are paying off. It’s not about abandoning the goal of making good grades, it’s about being as proactive as possible in working to achieve them. Measuring  success against a student’s own actions provides much more immediate feedback than waiting for grades to post (which puts them in a reactionary position that doesn’t serve them). This also provides students with a more concrete and useful evaluation system if something goes wrong grade-wise – sometimes, in spite of their best efforts, students fail a test or miss a deadline, and the more detailed a student’s action goals were, the easier it is to go back and evaluate what went wrong along the way and make changes.

It may sound strange to say that grade reports are not the proper measure of student success, but in reality, action-oriented goals that focus on how a student will behave from day-to-day are, in the long run, a better form of measurement. Students need to be able to evaluate themselves regularly, without waiting for feedback from others to validate how they are doing.

How to Study: Think Like a Teacher and Test-Maker

It’s a common refrain: students don’t know how to study. It’s true that for the most part, kids wants to pull out their notes and review sheets, stare at them for an hour or so, then consider themselves done; but there are a few tried-and-true methods students know about that aren’t that hard to implement and actually are effective. And aside from those few, what else can kids do to study more effectively?

In a 2013 article published in Scientific American, a group of psychologists reviewed over 700 studies on commonly used techniques to evaluate and rate their effectiveness. An archive of the entire article can be found at the link above, and is worth a read, but I’d like to focus on a few of their findings and elaborate with some ideas of my own that I’ve seen work for students in the past.

The article identified two primary strategies as having the greatest effectiveness: self-testing and distributed practice. In other words, those two-sided flash cards are actually a fine idea, as well as any other method a student can devise to quiz him or herself over the material (distributed practice simply means it’s better to study a little each day over a longer period of time than it is to cram a lot of study in a night or two before an exam). Building on this, I’d like to throw out a few other effective self-testing methods that students don’t usually consider.

THINK LIKE A TEACHER

If you work in a study group, arrange to teach a certain amount of your study materials to the other group members at your next study session. Have other members take on different sections of the textbook or notes to teach, and as a group you each take turns sharing what you’ve learned with the other members. It’s important not only for you to know the material you are supposed to explain, but to ask questions of the other members when it’s their turn to ‘teach.’ In this manner, a discussion is generated about the material, instead of just rote memorization or review. It’s a more effective manner of using a study group than simply looking over the materials together at the same time; everyone comes to the group prepared both to teach and to learn.

If you don’t have a study group but work with a tutor or peer, you could do something similar, or just practice ‘teaching’ material to yourself by assigning yourself a topic, preparing to teach it, and then putting the study sheet away while going over it as if you’re teaching it to someone else. You don’t have to stand up at the front of the room and talk out loud to do this, just think of it as constructing the information into a different form from what’s on the review sheet or in the text. Facts are not malleable, but the way in which those facts are presented is, and any time you take what you know and re-shape it into another form you’re deepening your understanding of it. Look at it this way – you’re never totally sure how you are going to be asked to show what you know on an exam, so the more ways in which you are able to look at the information and understand it, the better.

THINK LIKE A TEST-MAKER

Not only does thinking like a teacher help students perform better on exams, so does taking on the role of a test-maker and actually writing your own test questions. Here’s why: coming up with a test question and the proper response is easy, but coming up with three other wrong answers is a challenge, and having to do so reinforces the right answer in your brain. It’s another way to work with the material you’ve been given and manipulate it into a different form so you know it inside and out. Many students move into their freshman year of high school still expecting every test they take to ‘match’ their notes and reviews, only to find that this is not the case – more critical thinking is required. Aside from the fact that you have too much information to memorize anyway, you have to understand the information instead of regurgitate pre-supplied answers. Generating your own test questions out of study materials is an excellent way to add depth to your understanding.

For example, let’s say you take one chapter of a Biology text, and create 10-15 test questions for it as if you are going to give it to someone else. Then, if possible, actually give the assessment to someone else, see how they answer, and go over the results with them. No essay or short answer questions – create 10-15 multiple choice questions, with four answer choices for each one. Reviewing the questions with someone else, if possible, and letting them ask questions  so you  explain your answers will also help you understand the material – and if you find an answer that isn’t correct, it helps you know where your knowledge is falling short.

This all may sound like it takes too much time, but if you’re following the second recommendation of the Scientific American study (distributed practice), you’re only doing a little bit of this at a time over the course of a week or several days rather than all in one big session. It’s more engaging, it generates interesting discussion and thought processes, and it helps you understand the material as well as giving you test-taking practice. You can’t get all of that from simply looking over the notes and textbook and hoping you’ll be prepared. 

THINK LIKE A GOOD GUESSER

Creating your own test questions out of your study material is also excellent test-taking preparation. Creating test questions gets you comfortable with answering them, and gets you inside the mind of a test-maker, which is more valuable that you might think. Once you’ve gone through the process of creating multiple-choice questions yourself, you have a better idea how to break an exam down and understand the ‘tricks’ of that particular trade.

This not only helps you when you are trying to decide between answer choices on an exam and are not sure which one is best. It can also help you at those times when flat-out guessing is necessary (it happens to all of us). In addition, tips such as these from Brigham Young University  are essential for learning how to navigate the different types of test questions you encounter on a typical exam. Print out these tips and commit them to memory – they will save you more often than you might think!

THINK LIKE AN ENGAGED LEARNER

As with everything else regarding your education, communication with the teacher is key. You should never go into an exam without knowing what sort of test is going to be handed out: is it multiple choice, fill in the blank, essay, matching? A combination of all of these? If so, how much? Some teachers will give the class all this information in advance, down to the number of each type of question, the amount of time each one should take, as well as how many points each one will be worth. But some won’t tell you a thing unless you ask them – so if they don’t tell you, you must ask! Knowing an exam is all essay means you’ll prepare differently than if it’s matching, true/false, or multiple choice, so you  need to arm yourself with that knowledge.*

Another overlooked key to successful assessment: you must go over your exams with your teachers – at least the first few, if not every single one. It’s imperative that you understand how the questions you missed should have been answered; you need to know the teacher’s expectations and testing style to better prepare for his or her exams. If you do not go over at least the first exam with each teacher, you are not going to perform to your full potential on assessments in that class. It’s that simple. Every teacher tests differently, and you need to understand why you missed what you did, and how the teacher constructs their tests and quizzes.

Of course, many teachers go over exams with the entire class, but many do not, for various reasons. A teacher’s curriculum is overloaded, and there often isn’t a lot of time for test review. And student absences are a problem – a teacher can’t go over the answers for a test when several students still haven’t taken it. Then often, by the time those kids do take it, too much time has passed and the review gets overlooked (hint: please don’t be that student. If you miss a test due to absence, make it up as soon as you return. It’s better not only for you, but for everyone). If you receive your exam back without getting a review of it in class, email your teacher and request to meet with him or her during a tutoring session to go over the questions you missed. Then, as you do that with your teacher, be sure you understand why you missed them. Pay attention to how the teacher explains the construction of the test too – there’s no reason to memorize those 100 vocabulary terms you are given at the start of each unit if the teacher only tests that vocabulary by throwing those words into test questions, for example. Understand that you need to have enough knowledge of them to figure out their meaning in context, and move on to other information you know is going carry more weight on test day.

So, think like a teacher, test-maker, good guesser, and engaged learner, and you can improve your study skills for quizzes and exams. If you put into play the concept of distributed practice, wherein you teach and test yourself a little bit each day, you’ll be prepared for pop quizzes and last-minute tests as well (it would be nice if every teacher gave you two weeks’ notice for every exam, but we all know this isn’t the case). Don’t settle for reviewing class material in the form it is given to you, re-construct it in creative ways to gain deeper understanding, and as always, involve your teacher in this process by asking questions both before and after the exam. 

*There may be times when a teacher does not want to reveal what form a test is going to take. Quite honestly, sometimes this just means they’ve yet to create it, but there are other reasons for a teacher to do this, and it shouldn’t be assumed the teacher’s being stingy or mean. Some teachers are committed to preparing students for college by expecting them to prepare for any sort of test without being told beforehand; it’s a legitimate situation students face in college, so it makes sense teachers want to prepare you for this in high school. Another reason could be student perception: sometimes getting the information in advance leads to less preparation rather than more. For example, I found  when I taught middle school that if I told students they were having an essay test over a novel, they interpreted that to mean they didn’t need to study for it since “we’ll be able to use our book and there’s only going to be one question.” Sigh. I tried a few times to convince them otherwise, and I thought their low test scores might do the trick if on my own I could not, but in the end I had to stay silent about what kind of test they were going to take in order to ensure they prepared for it. If you do encounter a teacher who chooses to keep the form of a test secret until the day of, it’s going to be even more important for you to review that test with him or her after it is graded so you can keep it in mind for the next one. Chances are they will test and grade in a similar manner in the future, even if they don’t tell you in advance what it will be like, and you’ll have to keep that in mind. 

READY TO GET STARTED? Contact me at cynthia@coxtutoring.com, call or text me at 281-346-9372, or use my contact page. 

Re-Thinking Classroom Accommodations

As a teacher, I was given checklists at the beginning of every school year listing the accommodations I was required to provide students in my classes with learning disabilities. Over the years, I came to know those checklists well, and later, as a coordinator for students with accommodations, I got used to filling them out and distributing them to teachers. For the most part, the checklists looked almost the same for every student. Sure, there were differences here and there, but there were also standard accommodations that came up in the testing reports for every single child – things like, check for understanding of verbal instructions, and re-direct if student is off-task. 

I fully admit that as a classroom teacher, I was baffled by accommodations such as these. What good teacher wasn’t already re-directing off-task students and checking to be sure the kids understood instructions? And as a school counselor in charge of a student accommodations program, I would wonder if parents found such accommodations concerning – if something like ‘check for understanding of instructions’ had to be included on a legal document of accommodations, what did that mean for students in the class without such a document? For that reason, when I facilitated parent/teacher conferences for students with learning differences, I would actually point out that many of the accommodations on the list were things teachers provided all students – it just felt like something that needed to be said!

Over time, though, my perspective changed about such accommodations. Perhaps it was because I read through those checklists so many times in so many meetings that my thinking about them expanded as a natural consequence, but for whatever reason I began to view them not as tasks or strategies a teacher was required to implement for that child, but as a list of signs for the teacher to observe that indicated the student was struggling with his or her disability. In other words, the accommodation to re-direct an off-task student really means: Look. When this kid is off-task, it’s because she’s struggling with her ADHD, not because she’s being disrespectful, so please help her out and gently re-direct her.

I think when we view a list of accommodations as examples of how kids with learning differences struggle, we are more attentive to other signs and struggles that may not even be written down on paper. We’re also more open to inventing new strategies that work better for that particular child. It’s a paradigm shift, really, in how we perceive that checklist.

The document itself didn’t change as I moved into a small-group setting to work specifically with students who had learning disabilities, but my perception of it did, and it became more useful to me as a result. Instead of just a legal document of obligations, it was a guide map – a way to navigate the student’s struggles so he or she could move forward. Once the checklist became a document that could help me understand that child, instead of just a list of things I was supposed to do for them, I could help shape it into something better and more effective. It’s a shift in thinking and not so much a shift in behavior, but I think viewing accommodations this way increased my sensitivity to the roadblocks that get in a student’s way, and as a result, I was able to be more effective, and more compassionate, towards my students.

READY TO GET STARTED? Contact me at cynthia@coxtutoring.com, call or text me at 281-346-9372, or use my contact page. 

How to Meet and Greet Your Teachers

Your teachers put a lot of thought into making the right impression on students the first time the class meets (except for those who put no thought into it whatsoever, but even in that case – and perhaps more so – it still makes an impression!), but what can you do to make the right impression on them, when you’re one of as many as 100, 120, or even 150 students they will encounter throughout the day? Unfortunately the kids who often make strong first impressions are the ones who show up late to class, don’t follow the dress code, or refuse to pay attention while they speak, but if that’s not the sort of attention you want to generate, how can you distinguish yourself among the all other motivated, friendly, and cooperative kids who shuffle in and out that teacher’s door amidst the chaos of the first few days? If simply showing up, being polite, and paying attention doesn’t do it, what else is there? And does it really matter, anyway?

I’d suggest that, while it isn’t crucial, it does matter to make an impression as soon as possible, if for no other reason than most students won’t do it, and it’s an easy way to make an early connection that will benefit you as you move through the year. What I would suggest is that at some point in the first week of school, you introduce yourself to your teachers. Sure, they’ve already called your name out during roll call, and you’ve told them you were present so they could match your face to your name. But that’s just a procedure, and not really an introduction. Perhaps they had some ice breaker games or had you write out some information about yourself on a form – but that’s all stuff other kids are doing, too. I’m suggesting you take it one step further, and personally introduce yourself to your teachers.

In my opinion, the easiest way to do this is with a note card. That way, you have time to write out exactly what you want to say, and hand it over to the teacher without having to remember any of it in the moment. Plus, teachers are often busy both before and after class, and standing by awkwardly waiting for a free moment to speak to them can really whittle down your confidence. So, if you see an opportunity and feel comfortable extending your hand, introducing yourself, telling the teacher you are excited to be in their class, and thanking them for being your teacher, then go for it. But it may be much easier to hand them a note card, smile, and take your seat (if it’s the start of class) or leave the classroom (if it’s after). If the teacher is busy at the moment, they can put the card aside and read it later when they have time.

You could also make your introductions through email, but in my opinion a hand-written note is a nicer gesture, especially at the beginning of the year. Still, emails are certainly an acceptable form of communication with teachers nowadays, so if it feels best to you to do it that way, it would work – just be sure to format the email properly and be cognizant of your tone. Emails are easy to misread, and you want to be sure your message comes across clearly. Be it note card or email,  be sure the message includes your full name (first and last) and the class period you are in (teachers won’t know right away who you are, so help them out), and a thank you to them for being your teacher. That’s really all it needs to say, but you can also include anything you might want them to know about you, like being on the swim team, or being a new student at the school, or having a learning disability of which they should be aware. If you like the subject they teach, you could share that, or, if you struggle in that subject, let them know that too. If the teacher said something the first day that caught your attention, you could mention that. Whatever you say, keep it brief, and be sincere. You’re not trying to kiss up to them so that they give you an A later. You’re letting them know who you are, and that you appreciate the effort they are putting in to teach you.

This may make you nervous because you fear how the teacher will respond. And certainly, we can never predict how others will react to anything we do. Is it possible a teacher might misconstrue your gesture of kindness, and react negatively? Yes, that is always a possibility (although it would be a strange way to react to a kind note expressing gratitude to a teacher!) but remember that you are not doing this to get some sort of reaction from your teachers – that would be manipulation, which is not what I’m suggesting. You are doing it to introduce yourself, and to put your best foot forward for them. Whether or not they appreciate it, you will have still achieved your goal. Celebrate the fact that even though you didn’t get the response you expected, you still did your part and took a risk, and  your actions will still be of benefit to you in the future. For the most part, though, you will get positive responses from your teachers for such a gesture – teachers don’t hear thank you very much at all throughout the year, and they never hear it at the beginning of the year! 

What’s most important about this is that you are taking charge of your learning experience a little bit more than you have before. You are owning your participation in that class, and your connection with that teacher. So, write those notes and file those first-day documents into their proper folders. And then, get ready for a great year!

READY TO GET STARTED? Contact me at cynthia@coxtutoring.com, call or text me at 281-346-9372, or use my contact page. 

 

All Systems Go: Student Organization Made Easy

Most students start off the school year with a resolution to be better organized and stay on top of their assignments, but if they’ve struggled with this in the past it doesn’t take long to fall behind again and feel defeated. That’s because those plans for getting organized usually involve changing behaviors and routines without changing the thinking about what it is being organized.

If this sounds familiar to you, try considering the way you navigate each school day as an exercise in information management, because that’s really what you’re doing. The data may be presented to you by different people, and it may take different forms, but at a basic level it is all information with which you need to do three things:

  1. Categorize
  2. Review
  3. Interact

STEP ONE: CATEGORIZE YOUR INFORMATION

Your average student has between 7-8 classes a day. That’s a lot of information to manage and process by the end of it. This blog post will focus on boiling it all down to the most basic level, but for many students this is all that’s needed. In fact, the less organized you tend to be, the more basic your system of organization should be. Students often get this backwards, thinking that the more chaotic their academic lives have become in the past means a more elaborate strategy is needed than that student who stays on top of assignments and always gets home knowing what needs to be done. Not necessarily – in fact, the latter student already has a system that probably is an elaborate one they’ve refined over the years and can maneuver through like clockwork; you just aren’t aware of it.  Look at it this way: if you were capable of following a detailed and elaborate form of information management, wouldn’t you be doing it already? Of course you would.

In fact, it’s not just okay to keep it simple, it’s necessary that you do so. Once you’ve established a foundation of organization, you can build on it in any way that feels right to you (I have suggestions for that, too, but I’m not getting into it here). The good news is this: As far as what information you need to manage, I can break the organization of your school day down to two basic categories:

  • Incoming Information
  • Outgoing Information

You need to collect the information you receive throughout the day (Incoming), and you need to compile the information you will give to others throughout the day (Outgoing). And for now, these are the only two categories you need.

If you’ve never broken your school day down into these two components, doing this simple step will give you a better grip on what’s happening in your classes. Sure, these categories are very broad, and you can generate many subcategories under each one of them, but for now I’m going to do as little of that as possible to make it easy for you. And for some of you, this might be as deep as you ever go. Others will create subcategories on their own once they’ve got the basics down. But here are a few simple subcategories, just to identify the difference between the two:

  • Incoming Information
    • Handouts from teachers
    • Graded/returned work
    • Class notes

Each class will have information that varies from this a little, but you get the idea. Notice that Incoming Information is not just pieces of paper a teacher passes out in class or hands back to you, it’s also the intangible information he or she gives you in the form of lectures or class discussions. So some of your Incoming Information will be written down by you – but it’s still information you received from that teacher.

What about Outgoing Information?

  • Outgoing Information
    • Completed assignments to turn in
    • Important documents or forms to return

On your end, this is basically it. Not bad, right? Notice again I’ve kept it general; within the completed assignments category, for example, there could be subcategories such as homeworkessays, or late work, but again, I don’t recommend getting too detailed with this until you’re sure it’s something you can maintain. Take it too far, and you’ll lose track and get discouraged. Just keeping in mind that you have these two basic types of Outgoing Information to manage is a perfect start.

So, you’ve now got your two categories, but how are you going to use them to organize information throughout the day? Once again, let’s keep it simple – how about having one folder for all Incoming Information, and another folder for Outgoing Info? You don’t even have to separate the information out by subject. Just carry an Incoming folder and an Outgoing one all day, every day. The Incoming folder will get loaded up with all the things we mentioned being in this category – notes, handouts from teachers, returned work, and so on. And the Outgoing folder will have within it everything you need to turn in that day, so you can simply pull it out and check it at the start of each class to find whatever it is you need.*

So we’ve taken care of step one – categorize – let’s turn now to step two.

STEP TWO: REVIEW THE INFORMATION

Step two is the tricky bit for students with Executive Functioning issues or ADHD; just remembering to gets things into the proper folder or written down in a planner (which is another area where I can help – planners are important, too) is so far out of the norm for them, and requires so much effort for them to do, that it feels like they’ve done far more work than they actually have. Then the impulsivity kicks in – if it feels like I got everything done, there’s no need to check and be sure; I must be done with everything because it feels like I am.  It’s important to understand that this is not laziness, absent-mindedness, or rebellion; many kids’ brains work much harder to focus amidst the chaos of  that crucial time in class when papers are being handed back, homework is being assigned, and class discussions are underway, to get their own work turned in and their handouts filed properly.

So, keep the responsibility throughout the school day focused simply on getting things filed into one folder, or removed from the other one. That’s all you have to do. Then go home and review what’s in the Incoming Information folder when nothing else is going on around you. This is your time to think about what each piece of information is, and what you need to do with it. Having to stop during class and decide where each piece of paper should go is too much – if it all goes into the one simple place, you have a much better chance of  getting it home and getting it done. Just stick it all into the same folder and deal with it later.

And while we’re on the subject, please don’t think that shoving everything into an open backpack is the same thing as placing information in a folder. Cramming papers into your backpack may be easy at the time, but later on you’ve got a crumpled mess that is harder to sort through and cannot be mended. Your teachers work hard on the handouts and documents they give you, so respect that enough to treat them with care and keep them neat. The same goes for respecting the work you do, too, by the way – the work you produce is NOT garbage, and should NEVER look like it is.

So what does it mean to review information anyway? It works like this:

  • Take out anything from the Incoming folder that is for homework, and move it into the Outgoing Information folder to be worked on that night
  • Review every other piece of paper and create one “pile” for each subject
  • File all this information by subject in a manner that works for you

As you can see, you do need somewhere to keep information by subject, but it doesn’t have to be carried with you everywhere you go. You can keep it all at home – in separate binders or one big one, in stacks located somewhere in the room, in an accordion file – whatever you decide works for you (or whatever we decide together, if you’re working with me). But the idea is, you don’t need to carry an elaborate system with you every day, and you don’t have to think about that system during the bustle of each class. You can go through and organize things later during a quieter time. It’s much less stressful and far more productive for those of us that struggle to keep things straight in the midst of chaos (and I say us here because I’m one of them).

So, all homework you pull out of the day’s Incoming folder goes straight into the Outgoing one. After you’ve filed everything else away, that Outgoing folder is essentially your homework one – just make sure it’s all done before it goes back to school the next day.

But what about the handouts you receive from teachers that you are supposed to carry with you at all times (it could be a formula sheet you’re working on in math or a handout of notes you will be working with in English class)? You can still keep it simple: for any piece of information you are unsure how to categorize, ask yourself, is this Incoming or Outgoing? If it’s something that at some point you are going to turn in to someone, it’s Outgoing. If it is never going to be turned in, but used in class for a while, it’s Incoming. Make sense? This works because anything you are to eventually turn in will be in a folder where you see it every day during review time, as a reminder that it still needs to be done. And if it’s something you need to take with you to class every day, keeping it in the Incoming folder will ensure you actually have it when you need it.

This is where a lot of students say to me, can’t I have a third folder for information that’s ongoing, and title it as such? To which I say, sure – great idea! That’s how a student starts to take ownership of this system and make it his or her own. But don’t feel like you have to do that now, or ever – keeping it limited to two folders of information will always work.

STEP THREE: INTERACT WITH YOUR INFORMATION

You’ve probably already noticed that Step Two (reviewing) involved interacting with the information already. And that is correct. Reviewing is a form of interacting with the information, but so is utilizing your two folders throughout the school day appropriately. It’s important for you to check both folders in every class at least once; to be sure to put anything new into the Incoming one and to retrieve anything you need to turn in from the Outgoing folder. This has to be done in every class, as well as during other periods of the day – you may have things to turn in within the Outgoing folder that aren’t going to be called for in a class, such as application forms for a special program or a permission form for a field trip that needs to be turned in to the proper office. Therefore, it’s not enough to wait for a teacher to trigger your interactions with your information; you have to prompt yourself to do it too.

Make it a habit of checking each folder either at the beginning or at the end of each class, whichever works best for you. Certain teachers may call for homework every day at a certain time, and that might dictate your interactions in those classes. But it’s best not to wait for prompting. You also need to check both folders before the school day starts, somewhere that is calm and peaceful so you can pay attention. That might be at home before you leave, or it might be in an area at school where you hang out before the first bell rings – as long as it gets done.  You also need to check them mid-day, either at lunch or during a study hall. And of course, check them again once you get home for your Review session.

It sounds like a lot of interacting, but look at it this way: no matter how comfortable with this system you become, things happen throughout the day that will shake up your routine – special assemblies, pop quizzes, and fire drills, just to name a few. Checking mid-day during lunch or study hall will make up for those times you get thrown off track in a class, and by doing so you can catch something like a homework assignment you forgot to turn in. You can also use your information management system to help out any friends you have who aren’t yet as organized as you are – checking it during lunch can remind others they have assignments to turn in, too.

So let’s sum this blog post up: We now know that in order to stay on top of your assignments and class work you must learn to manage information that comes to you in two basic forms: Incoming Information and Outgoing InformationIncoming Information is all the data you receive throughout the day from your teachers. Outgoing Information is all the data you must turn in to teachers and other educators throughout the day. In order to ensure that you are managing these two types of information effectively, you must categorize it (determine if it is Incoming or Outgoing), review it (go over both folders at the end of each school day), and interact with it (check each folder regularly throughout the day, including after school, during lunch, and/or study hall). And by the way,  don’t get disheartened if it takes some time getting used to, or if you stumble every once in a while. No system is foolproof, and things happen. Just commit to doing better the next time, and move on.

Here’s some more good news for you: No student is ever as on top of things as on the first day of school; it’s the one time everyone shows up to all their classes completely caught up with everything (I’m ignoring summer reading assignments for the sake of argument). So take advantage of that clean slate to change your thinking about organization, and stay one step ahead for the rest of the year.

*Some teachers will require you to keep a binder in their class that is organized in a specific way, and when that’s the case, there’s generally a grade involved. Don’t let that throw you off. Carry that binder with you every day – chances are the teacher references it on a regular basis – but you can still put all NEW information you are given during class into the Incoming folder. When you review the folder after school, you can then file away the materials for that class into the binder the teacher requires you to keep. 

READY TO GET STARTED? Contact me at cynthia@coxtutoring.com, call or text me at 281-346-9372, or use my contact page. 

 

Keyboarding, Please

Recently, while getting a yearly checkup with one of my doctors, he stopped during the middle of updating my information and asked, “You’re a teacher, right?”

After I answered in the affirmative he continued: “Do you want to know, out of all my years of education, including medical school as well as all my other advanced degrees, what the single most important class is that I ever took? The one I use what I learned every single day? Keyboarding.”

He said this as he stood in front of the computer cart he wheels from room to room, typing in updated information and notes about current complaints. It was a serendipitous moment for me, because I had just been making the observation at the school where I worked that our students with a laptop accommodation often couldn’t use it properly to compensate for their dyslexia, dysgraphia, or other learning disability. At the time, I was focused on the need for students with learning differences to take a keyboarding class, but the truth is that all students could not only benefit from taking a typing course, but are probably suffering from a lack of ability to type accurately without one.

When I left the public school system in 2010 keyboarding classes were still offered, but they were far from mandatory, and a lot of students avoided them. I know I was guilty of assuming that, because the students had clearly been using computers since they were children, they had already developed the ability, and it seemed a lot of people around me assumed the same. This was at a time students were still disallowed access to cell phones during the school day, so the extent to which students bypass computers and laptops almost entirely in favor of their smartphones was not as evident to me then as it was when I returned to teaching after graduate school – to this day, I am still amazed at how many students insist on using their phones for everything they can get away with using them for; checking school email, accessing the library’s databases, reading uploaded teacher notes, and even typing them. No wonder when they’re forced to type an essay on a computer, they move at a snail’s pace and take what feels like days to hunt-and-peck their way through the process – they are literally tapping out responses to everything they say, and rarely, if ever, really typing.

This lack of keyboarding ability not only slows them down, but it drastically affects their ability to think about what they’re saying, because they’re concentrating so much on what they’re doing and how to hit the proper keys. Typing should be second nature to them by the high school years, so they can hammer out ideas quickly and move into the rough drafting and editing phases, but more often than not I found trying to work with a student as he or she typed out an essay to be an almost torturous experience, and I admit to often allowing kids to hand-write just to move the process forward. Sure, I had a handful who came to me with a typing class under their belts, and they all carried and used their laptops consistently, but those kids who’d never learned how continued to choose hand-writing responses and essays to typing whenever possible, and the struggle to read those responses (or worse, their notes, if that’s what they were writing) caused them way more frustration than taking a typing course ever could – even if it sounds like a boring or unnecessary class to take.

It’s downright tragic that a student with a learning disability is unable to utilize a technology that can be so helpful to them because of the keyboarding issue, and I now make sure to emphasize the importance of it to those students and their parents. But honestly, I should be recommending it to all students, because any kid who gets out of high school without really learning to use the keyboard on a computer is going to be at a disadvantage when they get to college. It might not be what you want to use an elective credit for, but if you don’t believe me, take it from my doctor – it will be the most valuable elective you ever take!

READY TO GET STARTED? Contact me at cynthia@coxtutoring.com, call or text me at 281-346-9372, or use my contact page. 

 

Wired to Win

As a ninth grade counselor and teacher, I witnessed the struggles of students (and their parents) making the transition from 8th to 9th grade first-hand. But it’s not so much moving from middle school to high school, or even high school to college, that is the truly difficult part; it’s just that each new step emphasizes those areas of navigating your education you still need to master. The skills you need to get the most out of your education are the same no matter where you are along that path, and it’s never too early to start putting pro-active behaviors into place.

Believe it or not, your educational institutions – your teachers and your schools – are there to serve you. It may sound like a terrible thing to say, but the fact is, there’s a game to be played, and if you’re sitting on the sidelines you may not be losing – but you’re not winning either. You can’t be a passive learner and truly learn. You need to participate in class, ask questions of your teachers and of your school, and reach out for help when it is needed. Never should you get to the end of a class with a teacher to whom you’ve not spoken – not even in a college class of 300! It is not enough to avoid ‘losing’ at the game of school; you are wired to ‘win’ – because we all are. It will look different for every person, but once you get the feel of your own personal success, you’ll be glad you stretched yourself outside of your comfort zone and started to grow.

Maybe you aren’t comfortable with the ‘winning and losing’ construct that I’m using, but it’s the simplest way I can say it. When I worked in a small-group setting, it was a regular occurrence for a student to walk into the classroom, sit down, and immediately begin to ask questions about an assignment he or she had just been working on in English class. My first question to that student was always, did you ask the teacher about this? And inevitably, the child would respond in the negative, even though they’d just left that teacher’s classroom!

Never before working in this environment – where I had the chance to work one-on-one with students instead of teaching English to 25+ kids per class – had I witnessed the depth of student resistance to exposing perceived academic weaknesses to their teachers and peers. While I do not feel this experience is exclusive to students with learning disabilities, I did see in them more clearly how beaten down we can be when our hardest work does not yield results that in any way mirror the level of effort we put into them, and how stubborn that innate need for self-protection can be after even just a few instances of perceived failure.

This is just one example, but really it’s a composite of what I saw play out over and over again with my small-group students: A student is struggling with a subject. She appears to grasp a concept well until test day, when once again she bombs the exam (sound familiar?). By November she is devoid of hope, convinced she will fail, and completely resigned to that fact without being willing to entertain any option or alternative. We all sense that she knows what she is doing, but the grades are telling us otherwise.

Now let’s say this student is only attending tutorials sporadically at this point, and she clearly needs more regular help than either sporadic tutoring or our classroom program can offer. We know that when  she goes to the teacher’s tutorials, there are other students also in the room, and she rarely, if ever, asks questions. So we convince her (more like strong-arm her, I admit) to attend a set tutoring schedule with her classroom teacher where she is the only student present, and she begins meeting with the teacher one-on-one before school two times a week. Soon enough, she’s passing her tests and quizzes, and for the rest of the year, she makes decent grades – her class average never falls below a C again, and her attitude never takes another turn for the worse, even when the occasional stumble occurs.

So what happened? In those private tutoring sessions, her teacher had time to ask specific questions, and wait for her to answer without having to navigate the responses and reactions of other students. Together they figured out where things were going wrong, and worked on a strategy to make up for the deficit. This isn’t someone else coming to the teacher with paperwork and telling them what the problem is and what to do to assist with it, this is better – because the teacher sees the struggle in action and participates in addressing it. Maybe the teacher realized she was more successful when she answered questions orally instead of writing them down, and gave her permission to test privately to recite her answers (if that sounds like too radical a solution, that there’s no way a classroom teacher would allow such a thing – I’ve seen it happen. Repeatedly).  Maybe the teacher realized an underlying issue with reading fluency or comprehension was causing the problem, and alerted the student’s counselor so it could be addressed. Or perhaps the one-on-one time simply allowed the student to review concepts that flew past her too fast in the classroom – anything is possible. But such solutions will never be found if the student declines to show up, ask questions, and get the teacher on her team. 

Doing this is incredibly hard for many students, because it makes them vulnerable to the adults and peers around them. They have, after all, one job to do in school – pay attention, take notes, and learn. When they cannot accomplish this on their own, it taps into all sorts of insecurities and, in many cases, real past experiences where they were mocked or shamed for falling short in the eyes of others. Perhaps the people who did the shaming didn’t do it intentionally, or even realize that the one sarcastic comment they made as an attempt to cheer the kid up affected them as negatively as it did. But to the student in question, it doesn’t matter. Such memories loom large in a child’s mind (and in many adult’s lives, too) and it involves a lot of courage and a good bit of trust to open themselves up to criticism again. But it can be done, and in fact, it has to be done – not just to get what you need from your teachers but to help you move past the roadblocks to your success and replace those old, painful memories with some new and positive experiences.

Just think if the kid in our example had asked for assistance from her teacher as soon as the problem arose – she would have never gotten into that hole in the first place. It’s not that the teacher performed some miracle once she got the kid into her room for tutoring; it’s just that he or she was finally made aware that there was something going on other than apathy that was holding her down. And that is the point I’ll make here, too: you  have to do more than just show up. You have to make that connection with those people charged with educating you. If you don’t, it is not just your teachers who won’t know of what you are capable – you won’t know it, either.

READY TO GET STARTED? Contact me at cynthia@coxtutoring.com, call or text me at 281-346-9372, or use my contact page. 

The Power of Email

I remember several years ago, when a high school where I worked was planning to implement a school-wide email system so that every student enrolled had an account. The program was going to be expensive, and a committee was formed to sift through the dynamics and logistics of the plan. A friend of mine on the committee insisted repeatedly that the system would not be used, because ‘kids do not use email.’ I admit that even I discounted her objections, and of course the plan moved forward. One year later, we were all admitting that my friend had been right. The students were trained in the first weeks of school how to log into and navigate the system, and for most of them, that was the last time they used it.

However, as a teacher in a special program where I worked closely with a small group of students, I was in a position to require them to check school email and use it regularly, as well as monitor that they were doing it. They had to log in to their email account at least once a week, and every time one of them had concerns to discuss with a teacher, I encouraged them to use school email to do so. We always had to consider whether email or in-person communication was the proper approach, but it was important students began to consider electronic communication as an option; at least at the time of this writing, email is still the primary mode of communication these kids will have with their universities when they get to college; and unless things change dramatically in the next 5 years (which may happen) email will be the primary mode of communication they will have with their co-workers and employers too. So in my opinion, it was always a benefit to start getting comfortable with it now – not to mention it was important for the students to use a system the school had spent so much money on to provide!

At first, I was surprised to find students so hesitant to send emails to teachers. Their primary concerns were spelling and grammar errors, but in my experience these were not the biggest stumbling blocks that could derail an electronic communication. Establishing the proper tone was far more important than spelling everything correctly; teachers generally aren’t grading the emails they receive, but they are interpreting them and responding to them on a personal level, so learning how to create and maintain a polite and respectful tone was my priority. It was also the most difficult aspect of email communication for students to grasp (and let’s face it, we’ve all had an email be misinterpreted from time to time, or misinterpreted something we’ve received, so it’s not just a kid thing).

Let me give you an example of a typical student email I might receive – you might not believe this is an accurate representation of a typical email, but trust me on this one:

hi mrs. cox I was checking my grades online and I still have a zero for that late homework I turned in that you said you would grade. can you get that grade changed please thank you

Hm. How did this email go wrong? Let’s count the ways:

  1. Number one is so obvious you probably missed it, but it happens regularly: there’s no name on the email. IF the student used their school email address to send it, a teacher can usually figure out who it is from, but do you really want your teachers to have to decipher who you are when you’re trying to get them to change a grade in the gradebook for you? No, you do not. So always be sure to sign your name, and as a safeguard, ALWAYS use your school email and never a private one, since it is most likely to identify you by name clearly. owns3dogs@gmail.com is likely to go into a spam folder anyway, so that’s another good reason to stick with school email for school business.
  2. While we’re on the subject of proper structure, don’t stop with just including your name as a formal signature – include a formal salutation, separate it from the body of the email, and separate the closing and signature from the body as well. True, this is an email and not an old-school written letter, but it still makes the email easier to read, makes your name stand out at the bottom, and communicates respect for the teacher by addressing them in the salutation. Besides, sending an email to the wrong teacher has been known to happen, and if you’ve put a name at the opening of it you will eliminate that particular confusion. And it’s not just students who skip this step by the way; parents often fail to do this too – I’ve read many an email requesting my assistance for a student problem and had no idea which student was struggling with the issue (NOTE: if a back-and-forth conversation is generated, it isn’t necessary to use the salutation and signature every time, but it doesn’t hurt, either. Besides, if an initial email turns into a chain of responses from both sides, it’s probably best to turn the conversation into a face-to-face one. Too much back-and-forth is a warning sign that email communication may not be working).
  3. Now, let’s talk about tone. I admit that if I received this email at the end of the working day, it might irk me a little. OK I’ll be honest, I know it would irk me a little. The student is just stating the facts here, sure, but it sounds accusatory. And that is not an impression you want to make on your teachers (or your co-workers, I might add). So I always shared the following handy-dandy little trick with my students: whatever the situation is, pretend it is all your fault. I know it isn’t all your fault, but pretend like it is anyway, and write the email from that perspective. You are the one who has messed up, and you’re really just writing to let them know how badly you messed up, and apologize for causing them problems. You don’t have to use those words, just use that tone, and I promise you your email will sound professional, respectful, and sincere. And you will have the best chance possible of not offending your teacher, and getting him or her to do what it is you want them to do. This is the way I approached every single email I had to send to teachers asking them to do things I knew they didn’t want to do (and as a counselor I had to send a LOT of those!) and while it wasn’t foolproof, it almost always did the trick. Here’s an example, based on the same situation as the email above:

Hello Mrs. Cox,

I apologize for taking your time, but I thought I’d turned in that late homework to you last week, and in looking over my grades online I see that I still have a zero. Did I actually turn that homework in, or is it still missing? I really meant to turn it in to you, but I’ve been falling a little behind lately and I’m concerned I messed this up without meaning to. Thank you for time about this matter and again, I apologize for the inconvenience.

Regards,

Your Student

Notice that nowhere in the email above does the student even ask the teacher to change the grade, but after reading it he or she is most likely going to take the time to do just that. The truth is, your late homework assignment probably HAD slipped the teacher’s mind, and your gentle nudge reminded her about it in a way that motivated her to fix the problem, rather than irritating and reminding her what a pain it is to have to grade late work at all, and trigger her passive-aggressive tendencies so that she waits another week to get it graded.*

Obviously this email has also been edited for proper grammar and punctuation, which is always a good idea, but again – do not get so obsessed with the possibility of such errors that you give up before even trying, and end up with a zero you shouldn’t have. Although it might be a radical thing for an English teacher to say, I maintain that proper tone is more important in an email than proper spelling and grammar – unless either or both of those components are so poor the message cannot be interpreted.

*If you’re still thinking you’d rather not use email for your communications with teachers, consider how convenient it will be if, in three weeks’ time, your grade in the gradebook still hasn’t changed, and you have a dated, written record of your initial contact with the teacher about the matter. Teachers are busy people, and even the best of them forgets from time to time to take care of something like this; while you don’t ever want to use a previous email as a ‘gotcha’ against a teacher, again, that mostly comes down to the tone and attitude you use to handle the situation. The bottom line is, if a teacher ever tells you too much time has passed from the initial turn-in date for that homework assignment for you to get credit, it sure is nice to be able to show him or her that you did turn in the late assignment, and checked in with the teacher about it, in a timely fashion. I cannot tell you how many times communicating via email has helped my students in situations very similar to this one – and every time, the student has agreed that using email was what made the difference. 

READY TO GET STARTED? Contact me at cynthia@coxtutoring.com, call or text me at 281-346-9372, or use my contact page.