Creating Success at School and in Life

Steven Michaëlis

(Article in the September 2009 issue of Genç Öğrenci)

With the new school year starting, pressure is building again to achieve more at school and prepare to pass those all important exams. The delights of the summer holidays are quickly forgotten when school begins and homework and the dershane are taking up all available time. Education is a serious matter and key to success in later life. So what is the answer? Simply work harder, put even more hours in, or have a sterner study regime? Or is there another way to learn more and achieve better results?

Success is not measured by the effort put in, but by the achievement at the end. At a job interview nobody will ask the university graduate how many hours he studied, they are only interested in the grades he achieved at the end of his studies. And it is not unusual for very intelligent students to fail exams, while other students with rather average abilities pass with high grades. So what is the secret to success at school and later on in life?

When we concentrate too much on what to learn, we may forget how to learn. Schools are very good at presenting all the facts and figures that need to be understood and memorised, but how much time do they spend on teaching how to learn in the most efficient and effective way? Students that achieve high grades and people that succeed in life often employ smart methods that simplify or speed up the task in hand. “Learning smarter, not harder” may be the answer to success.

Preparing to learn.

A study found that only 3% of the students graduating from Yale University in 1953 had written goals and specific plans for reaching them, but 20 years later those 3% were earning more money as a group than the entire other 97%! Planning and preparation are key to success.

Success Tip No. 1: Before starting to study, write down what you need to learn. Do this for short term goals, but also for what needs to be achieved throughout the study year. Review this plan regularly, as it prepares the brain for learning and makes connections with what we already know.

Our brain constitutes only 2 % of our body weight, but it uses 20 % of our energy. It is easy to forget that our brain is the most active part of our body and that in order for it to be able to pay attention and concentrate it needs to be fed. It needs blood full of oxygen and it needs water.

Success Tip No. 2: Plan your study time with short breaks every 20 minutes and do some physical activity in those breaks for just a few minutes – it will oxygenate the blood. Drinking water throughout the study period will also help attention and concentration.

Better learning.

Much of the study materials are contained in books and students are required to read, understand and memorise many pages each day. How many students read the words but fail to take in the information? How many simply re-read the same pages over and over again in the hope that it will somehow stick in their brain? How many students regard their books as 'horrible enemies' rather than as a valuable resource towards their success and happiness? There are fortunately smart ways of taking in information from books.

Success Tip No. 3: Do not open a book at page one and start to read! The smart way to learn about the contents of a book is to read the back page or contents pages first. Then take a few minutes to scan through the pages, read the odd sentence or headline and look at any pictures or diagrams contained in the book. Check if there is a summary at the beginning or end of each chapter or the whole book and read that. Then just open the book somewhere in the middle and read one page. This will all prepare the brain for the type of information it will receive and will already start the process of making connections with existing knowledge stored in memory. Then start reading the book!

To help us understand better and remember what we've learned, there is a simple and fun method used by students and successful people throughout the world. They seem to be drawing pictures and taking short notes, often using different coloured pens, while listening or reading a book. They are actually making Mind Maps, a smart way of organising information on a sheet of paper that helps us to see relationships between different pieces of information and helps memory recall later on.

Success Tip No. 4: Take a blank A4 sheet of paper, use it side-ways, draw a bubble in the middle and write the main subject in that bubble. Then from that bubble draw lines (branches) outwards, one for each main element of that subject, writing the element name alongside the branch. Do not worry if you forget an element as it's easy to add another branch at any time. From the main branch you can draw little branches, one for each idea or subject. Add colour and little drawings to make it more memorable.

Passing the test.

All learning counts for nothing if we can't reproduce it on demand during a test. To be successful in a critical exam, years of hard study must flow effortlessly out of the student in just a few hours of concentrated exam time. Some of the best students fail in these moments of stress and anxiety.

Success Tip No. 5: Learn from top athletes who all concentrate on winning the race, rather than running the course. Picture yourself after the exam, having completed all questions well. Sense how well you feel, relaxed and proud. Hear your parents congratulate you. Smell and taste the celebration cake you will eat after the exam. Make the brain believe that you've already finished and succeeded and the stress will reduce and memory recall will improve. Simple and effective.

Planning the exam time is key to success. Like with reading a book, starting at question number one is a big mistake. Having an overview of all the questions helps the planning process and will ensure you do not run out of time at the end. Taking time to read the question is as important as answering the question. Too fast working leads to many mistakes.

Success Tip No. 6: Review all the questions and answer those that you immediately know the answer to first. Half the exam, and the critical points that go with them, can often be completed in just 25 % of the allotted time. Then there is more time for the harder questions, but even then leave the most difficult questions to the very end. For those questions you do absolutely not know the answer to, guess – in multiple choice questions you can still gather a few extra points by guessing rather than not completing the question.

There is more to success at school than I can fit on two pages in this magazine, but I hope it inspires you to investigate these smart ways of learning some further. Spending just one day at the beginning of the school year learning how to learn can transform that year and bring not only success for the student, but also improve behaviour, happiness and self-esteem.

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