Get Better Grades, Quicker and Easier, by Practicing

Telling Your Teen to Do the Homework Isn’t Enough

By the time teens get to high school, their eight or more years of school have convinced most of them that they are doing about as well as they can. As the parent of a teen, you may think he or she could and should be getting better grades, struggling less, and enjoying school more. Based on the success of thousands of teens who have attended our Power Learners workshops, it is clear that you are right. This post presents data that show both that it is possible and how to make it happen.

The problem looks like this. Bright students bringing home mediocre grades, or working too hard for the grades they get. Now, we find that, regardless of how they are doing and what they say, essentially every teen knows the value of education and would love to be doing well in school. The most common barriers are:

• They don’t think they can do better.
• They don’t know how.
• They start many courses and daily lessons without some things they need to know from before.

Based on this view, our workshops, books and videos are designed to coach student to do these things:

• Learn primarily by practicing what they are learning to do.
• Persevere in practicing each lesson, with help as needed, until they are competent.
• Consciously measure their progress, which improves their motivation, self-esteem, and general happiness.

One summer we delivered these one-week workshops to 1655 teens. At the end of the workshops, the teens were excited about their achievements and felt motivated about returning to to school. To see whether they then did better, we surveyed the teens after the Fall semester. We also separately surveyed their parents. We asked them to indicate the level of improvement in 10 areas on a scale from 1 to 10. The results from 1129 families are shown below.

The table indicates the percentage of parents and teens reporting moderate to major improvement in each of the 10 characteristics listed. The graph shows the percentages reporting each level of improvement. The black bars are the levels reported by the students. The gray bars by the parents. The graphs for the other nine attributes are similar.

On an individual basis, 93% of teens reported moderate to major improvement in 3 or more areas.

The key to high school and college success is learning one’s courses. And the primary path to learning is practice. Of course, teachers and other experts are enormously helpful. In a course or a semester, they can show how to do things and how to learn things that would take years to figure out on your ownl. But then, most of the learning occurs when the student practices.

Now you might think that everyone knows this. But many students in both high school and college aren’t doing enough practice. Here’s some data. In 2019, we surveyed student success faculty and counselors at 30 colleges and universities in the U.S. These are the people who advise and tutor struggling students. Almost all, 204 of 219, reported that fewer than 10% of their students are aware that active practice—answering, solving, explaining and applying—is more effevtive than passive studying—rereading and rewatching.

I was a junior in high school when I first started deliberately practicing to become faster and more accurate in math. Well, it worked. I was soon winning math contests. My top SAT scores got me a full scholarship to MIT and I became a Ph.D. Rocket Scientist at 24. Later, while teaching Advanced Calculus at UC Berkeley, I realized that most of my students were passing without gaining any lasting competence in math. So, I started coaching my students to learn by practicing.

In the past 25 years, we have helped thousands of high school and college students in our programs on a dozen college campuses in California and at hundreds of high schools. Our experience proves that it is possible to train teens to become better learners. This training is a high-leverage complement to the instruction and mentoring provided by teachers in class and online. Our earlier books and videos were published by Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Penguin Books, and Time/LIFE Video. Our new You Can Get A’s video course is available online. To find out, watch the free sample lesson. Better yet, get your teen to watch it with you. It takes 10 minutes.

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