Are you or your child struggling to reach academic potential? Are you looking for some manageable, simple learning strategies to help improve academic performance?
Top tutor, Scott has figured out the most effective strategies and techniques, based on his own experiences at university. In this post Scott outlines five strategies to improve academic performance. Most of them are simple, but if implemented (and this is the key) they are extremely effective.
1. Set Goals and Work Backwards
The first step with any new student is to construct a set of goals. Goals enable a student to continuously track their progress and adjust accordingly. It is considerably easier to make small adjustments throughout the year, than to make a huge pivot come exam time (or after mock examination results, as is common). This helps students feel more in control, reducing anxiety during exams.
The process of setting goals also enables students to plan their time more effectively and quantify their progress. This enables students to re-evaluate their performance and determine what they can achieve throughout the year. In the words of Bruce Lee, “Long-term consistency trumps short-term intensity”.
2. Use A Wider Variety of Learning Resources
Using different resources is significantly more effective than using a single resource. Here are a few reasons why:
You can gain different contexts and/or perspectives
Overall, anything that gives you a different perspective on a theory, idea or problem will act to enhance learning. A good example of this is to look at the earth from a single image. It does give you a perspective of what earth looks like, but you never get the whole picture until you look at it from several different angles (and get several different perspectives).
They can provide different associations and analogies
The same is true of using different associations and analogies. Everyone has had that experience where they haven’t understood something properly, and then suddenly it clicked with an analogy that resonated with them. In my opinion, it is certainly one of the most effective ways to learn more abstract subjects, such as the sciences or maths.
Different learning styles i.e. visual, auditory and/or kinaesthetic are stimulated
In my experience, using resources that engage visual, auditory and kinaesthetic have the best results for students.
It can help make learning more enjoyable
There are two effective ways to memorise information: repetition and variation. While the former is very effective it is also quite tedious, particularly if it is from the same resource. Variation, on the other hand, is not only very effective but it can also make learning more enjoyable. Studies have also found that students learn better through active engagement.
3. Get Through the ‘Frustration’ Period
There is no doubt about it; trying to learn a new skill or material can be frustrating at first. However, this is a natural process and the friction caused by a lack of understanding will always disappear given enough exposure.
A great analogy for thinking about these stages is learning to drive (or if you haven’t reached that stage, riding a bike). The ‘learning cycle’ suggests that we all go through four stages of learning.
Here are the four stages using this analogy.
- Unconscious incompetence: (this is when you are grossly incompetent at something because you haven’t been exposed to it before).
When you start learning to drive, you don’t know how anything works. This stage can be very frustrating and you feel completely incompetent for the first couple of lessons.
- Conscious incompetence: (this is when you know you are not good at something despite having had some exposure to it)
After a few driving lessons you begin to improve but you still cannot not drive independently.
- Conscious competence: (this is when you become knowingly competent in some area of skill)
You have taken your test and are able to drive on your own. This stage, however, still requires a lot of conscious effort to drive on your own.
- Unconscious competence: (this is when you can do it on autopilot. It becomes natural and subconscious)
Finally, after a few months, driving becomes subconscious.One of the key challenges of secondary and higher education is getting a student to the last two stages in the learning cycle. The challenge being that many students are exposed only to new information for a few lessons at most.The problem arises when students are stuck in the ‘incompetence’ stages of learning. Frustration can lead them to avoid the subject altogether; or worse still, they start to believe they are not smart enough and develop a dislike (or even anxiety) towards that subject. We know, however, if students are able to through this ‘frustration’ phase they will grow in confidence and self belief.
4. Sharpen Your Examination Techniques
It might sound obvious, but you don’t get good at driving a car by taking the theory test (using my car analogy, again). You have to physically get in the car and start to drive. Likewise, you don’t get good at exams just by learning the content tested in the exams.
Mastering examinations is a skill all of its own, much like essay writing and giving oral presentations. Yet, surprisingly, I have found many students fail to practice the techniques required to do well.
These techniques do depend on the individual’s level of education but typical questioning generally progresses from description to explanation to discussion. At GCSE level, you are focusing much more on the former.
The typical prefix to questions will be:
These are usually combined with the open-ended questions: what, where, when, why and how. At this level, the examiner is typically looking for keywords.
At higher levels, the questions start to incorporate discussions. These require more thought and structure, typically combined with your own research, opinions and case studies.
Exam technique requires an article of its own. Nevertheless, one useful tip is to always put yourself into the mind of the examiner when answering questions; and when practicing, always have the mark scheme to see exactly what keywords the examiner is looking for.
5. Practice Exams
In his TED Talk “What do top students do differently?”, Douglas Barton of Elevate Education discussed how top students don’t necessarily get the top grades because they have the highest IQ’s or even because they work the hardest (although there is usually some correlation with the latter). It was because they do more practice exams.
Their study, based on a 13-year process looking into the learning habits of tens of thousands of students, found that they could almost perfectly estimate a student’s results based upon the number of practice exam papers they had done.
I cannot disagree with this. Here are a few of the many benefits associated with practicing exams:
- Recognisable patterns will begin to form in the questioning and content
- Applying knowledge to different types of questioning will become easier.
- Using additional resources supplied with the exam will become more familiar.
- The structure of the exam will make more sense.
- You will become faster and less prone to silly mistakes
Ultimately you will sharpen the techniques I discussed in the section above and become more aware of what the examiner (or mark scheme) is looking for.
One of the most common problems I see is when a student is knowledgeable in the subject area but cannot connect that with answering a question. This is simply a symptom of lack of practice.
So there you have it. These are my top 5 strategies to improve academic performance. I believe that if you apply these strategies from the beginning of the year you will be shocked at how far you progress by the time you have to sit an exam.