I had this student who came to me for help. He said that he was really struggling in his math class and he hoped that I maybe could help save his grade. I said sure, and I asked him to show me his homework from last night. He said that he not done any homework for over a week because he didn’t understand what the ‘stupid’ teacher was talking about. I said, “Well… just show me the last homework you did for this ‘stupid’ teacher.” He picked up his math book, grabbed it by the two outside covers, turned the book upside down and started kind of shaking it back and forth as papers started to fall out of his math book. After a few seconds he looked up at me kind of sheepishly and asked, “Does this help to explain some of my problems?”
I think you get the picture. It’s possible that I could have put this chapter as the first chapter. Think about it. You can’t do pre-class homework on a Tuesday night, for class on Wednesday morning, if you don’t KNOW on Tuesday night what the topic of discussion will be on Wednesday morning. Does that make sense?
I told you in the chapter on reading that no single skill set was more important than reading, and that’s totally true. But I will tell you that more students fail school because of a lack of organization than any other reason. No kidding. Some really bright students fail classes because they come to class unprepared.
Consider this word picture from the great game of football. There Joe is standing on the sidelines during the big game. He has finally made it to the varsity bench and he is praying that he might get a chance to make it into the game. All of a sudden Joe hears coach calling his name and he is so excited that it has finally happened. In front of a packed stadium he is going to get to show that he deserves this chance and he tells himself how great this will be as he runs out onto the field and into the huddle. Joe’s pals look at him, slightly winded from the sprint to the huddle, and he immediately knows something is not right. His best friend has this pained look in his eyes as he whispers, “Dude… are you going to wear a helmet for this play?” It’s then that Joe hears again his coach’s voice calling his name. Only now it sounds different, as Joe has to turn and jog back to the sidelines and hear coach calling “Time Out.”
I have told this story to lots of students and every time they can feel embarrassed for the poor kid showing up to play football without a helmet. But every day teachers will report any number of students who show up to their class without their helmet. Ask any math teacher how many times in a day she or he is asked, “Do you have a pencil I can borrow? I forgot mine.” Sad.
Let’s get one thing straight right now. If you are going to have any chance at being a successful student, then you MUST learn how to get organized. What’s beautiful about getting organized is that it will help you in any number of other areas of your life as well. The problem most high school students have is completing multiple deadlines. What does that mean? Well if I give you one activity to accomplish, the odds are that you will get that done no problem. I tell you that by next Friday you have this problem set to complete, and you just get it done. But the real problem comes when I tell you that next Friday you have a problem set due, the following Monday there is an essay due, and two days later on Wednesday you have to give a speech on a certain topic. If you are like most students you will get the first deadline done, but struggle to be prepared for the other two deadlines. This is the challenge of multiple deadlines. In a word, this is the challenge of study at the university level.
You have a choice of how to approach your school studies. One way is what I call random. You show up to each class with no idea of what’s about to happen and you hope for the best. Sometimes things will go well for you and sometimes they won’t. Of course this is the approach of a child. If you have ever babysat you know that kids are defined by random. They don’t have to worry about the future, because they know someone will always be there to tell them what to do next. While random seems like freedom, you’re actually giving your freedom up to someone else who will tell you what to do.
The other approach to your studies is intentional. This means that YOU are in control of what happens in YOUR life. You recognize that while it’s fun to be random and have someone to blame when you fail… in the end your life can never be your life until you make your own choices. You can only make your own choices when you know what choices there are to be made. That’s called intentional.
There is nothing heroic about showing up to class without any idea what’s happening. There is nothing courageous about trying to play football without a helmet. In the end it stops being funny, and it starts to look pathetic. Sorry for the hard words, but I want to be honest with you. Of course random students love to call intentional students ‘over-achievers’. That is, right up to the moment they need help, and then who does the random student seek out? Right. The intentional student is the only one who can really help that random student figure out what has to be done to be successful on an assignment.
For a few seconds of fun watch this video and be reminded of what I said in the forward about running into a wall as well as what I was just saying about wearing a helmet!
Students who learned how to be intentional early on in school have often had to live with being called names… teacher’s pet… over-achiever… nerd. But go back to what I said in the forward of this book. If your mom needs emergency surgery… which doctor do you want working on her? The random one that did as little as possible through school and barely scraped by the medical boards, or the one who was… an… over-achiever? That’s a no-brainer question isn’t it?
What does it mean to be an intentional student? Simple… it means you have a plan. This is why I love sports and extra-curricular activities. Attend any practice by a great coach or teacher and notice how organized he or she is. Every great band director, or choir director I know is extremely well organized, and very intentional about planning out the practice. Look at great ball coaches. What if you showed up to basketball practice and the coach said, “I don’t really have a clue what we will do today.” Right. You would immediately lose respect for that coach. Why? Because you understand that to be a winner you must be intentional.
What does it mean to have a plan as a student? Well it starts with what I call a master schedule. What’s that? Simple… a master schedule answers two questions about any possible schoolwork you might have:
1. What’s due in any class… specifically?
2. When is it due… specifically?
If you know the answer to these two questions then you can make a plan. Let’s take each one in order. First the idea of what’s due. In any class you must be aware of the stuff that you must do. Remember my math student at the top of this chapter. What did he call his teacher? Stupid? Yeah… well… let’s just say it out loud. You, as a student, can’t accuse a teacher of being stupid or lazy or useless, if you are unwilling to be intentional in your studies. That’s the problem with being random… you can’t ever ask others to be intentional if you are unwilling to be organized. That’s what a child does… demands of others what he is unwilling to demand of himself.
In any class the stuff you have to do is most often organized around some textbook to which the teacher will refer. Remember our comments on pre-class reading. When I say that you must know what’s due, I mean you must be aware of what reading you must do, what writing you must do, what activities or problem sets you must do. But notice that I said ‘specifically’. Why? Because it’s not good enough to know that you are going to have an exam in history next week over chapters 1-3. You must know specifically what information from those chapters will be tested. You must know what kind of test. You must know what key concepts the exam will test. Without that information you are walking into the exam random… and you are trying to play football without your helmet.
But knowing what’s due in each of your classes is only half the battle. You must also know when it’s due. If you know you have an exam over chapters 1-3, that’s one thing if the exam is in two weeks… but what if the exam is in two days? How many times have you been in class on the day of an exam or a test and some pathetic student has actually said out loud, “Dude… I didn’t know we had a test today.” Sad.
For you to be a successful student you must understand that you have responsibilities and so does your teachers. The teacher’s responsibilities are simple. His or her job is to tell you what information is coming, so you can begin to teach yourself the material. The teacher’s job is to help you learn the material. Your responsibility is to be sure that you know the two pieces of necessary information listed… what’s due and when.
So, you are sitting in math class and you have decided that you are going to try to be an intentional math student. That means that tonight you are going to do two kinds of homework for math. First you are going to do the homework, problem set that has been assigned for the lesson today. But after you finish that work, you are going to turn to a few minutes of pre-class annotations to try to get a jump-start on the lesson of tomorrow. But what if the math teacher has not told you what the topic for discussion of tomorrow will be?
Well… you could ask the teacher! You never want this request to be anything other than a humble request. You can say to your instructor, “I’m really trying to help myself learn the material by looking over it the night before you present it in class. To help me do that can you give me a rough idea of what we will be covering for the next few days, and do you mind if I ask for this information every few days?”
But I have another suggestion that might allow you to never even have to talk to the teacher about this. Question: Does your instructor seem to be following the book from one chapter to the next? If the answer is yes, then you don’t have to ask the teacher for what the lesson of tomorrow will be. Just look over the next lesson on your own. It’s your life and it’s your learning. I have taught students who went through whole semesters and their teachers never even knew that they were doing pre-class annotations, reading the material out of the book for the next day of lessons.
I did have a teacher once come to me and say that she finally figured out why her top math student was doing so well. She had asked him how it was possible that when she assigned the problem set in class he would be working on the lesson for the next day, and he just pulled out the problem set assigned for that day… already done. She asked him when he did that and he said, “Last night.” He was able to teach himself the information by following the instructions in the textbook and so he would just work through the problem set exercises at the end of the chapter each night. That way the next day he could get started on the new work, and he could stay one day ahead. This allowed him to know that he had no homework for the weekends and he could enjoy his weekends.
This brings me to an important comment about energy loss. To help you think about the ways that you waste your energy, follow this word picture. Imagine one of those large red gas cans that you see strapped to the sides of an old jeep. Inside the gas can is gas… the gas represents your energy. If you have a good night of sleep and you stay away from drugs and alcohol, then in the morning when you wake up your gas can should be full… lots of good energy.
But right away, as your day starts, you are going to start expending energy. Let’s say that in the first hour you are awake you have a fight with your mom. That’s like someone taking an ice pick and punching several small holes in the side of your gas can. You head to school and in first hour you flunk an exam because you forgot about it… more ice pick holes in the side of your gas can. Later in the day you get in a fight with your best friend… again lots of holes in the side of your gas can. After school you have practice for two hours… more energy loss. Finally you come home and sit down and get ready to do your homework. The only problem is that your energy levels are so low that you are just ready to go to bed.
The intentional student recognizes what is causing the greatest amounts of energy loss for him or her. The events that cause the energy loss are of two kinds. Either the stuff that’s punching holes in the side of your red gas can are events you can control, or they are events you cannot control. If you can control things that are leading to energy loss, then control them. The things you can’t control, you must learn to let those things go. Worrying about stuff you can’t control is a chief source of energy loss.
One place that I suggest that you start right away to be more intentional in your studies is in your reading schedule. Instead of looking at a 250 page book and thinking about how impossible it is for you to read that many pages, try seeing scheduled reading as a way to success. For example if you only read 10 pages a day… 5 pages in the morning and 5 pages in the evening, you could knock down the 250 page book in 25 days. Thinking about your reading this way allows you to conserve your energy and actually get the book read.
I was once giving this lecture on energy loss and I could tell one of my students was really listening to what I was saying. The next day she entered class and she said out loud, “Well… I did it. Last night my guy showed up at my house, like he often does, and he demanded that I get in his car and go for a ride, like I often do. But last night it hit me that this relationship with him is the source of great energy loss… not an ice pick but a shotgun right into the side of my red gas can. So I told him that we were done. I told him that the way he treated me was not good for me, or for him and that I was going to start to control the stuff in my life that lead to energy loss, starting with him.” I was as blown away along with the rest of the class. But I was also proud of her. She had decided to take control of her life, to live HER life. Did that take courage? Of course. But in the end she realized that she had to be more intentional about her energy loss if she was going to be successful in life.
Let’s talk some final details as we finish this really important chapter. Earlier in the chapter on annotations I suggested that you use 3-ring notebook paper. Now I’m ready to talk about why. I really think that one of the main keys for student success is being organized with a 3-ring notebook and divider system. You need to have some kind of system that allows you to keep your annotations in order. Turning your math book upside down and shaking it will not cut it.
The other thing you need is a good day planner. Throughout your day you want to record in this organizer all the assignments that you know are coming. This will allow you before you leave school for the evening to glance at your day planner and see what kind of homework you have for the evening. How many students have found themselves sitting down in the evening to do homework only to discover that some of the stuff they need they left at school in their locker?
When you do sit down to do homework you must consider your study space. Be sure that you have good lighting and a desk surface to work on. Lying in bed for most of us will only lead to sleep. Sit up in a chair and work on a tabletop if you can do it. Begin with a ‘to do’ study list. Start with your most challenging work first… NOT last.
Don’t study to music that has lyrics or words. While you try to read or process information, if you have music with lyrics playing, your mind and attention will be split between what you are reading and what you are listening to. Your brain will attend to those lyrics whether you realize it or not. And that’s wasting your energy.
When you study, don’t sit down for any longer than 20 minutes. We call this studying in bursts and it makes a lot of sense. If you are a person who needs to check your phone or your computer, then make a promise to yourself that for 20 minutes you will work without that distraction, but at the end of 20 minutes you will get 10 minutes to check for messages and return calls, or whatever. Get up and take a little walk around your room, or your house, and then come back to a second round of study. When you sit down coach yourself. Remind yourself that you are choosing to do this work and while you might not enjoy it or like it… you know that it’s necessary for you because you want your life to be about learning and success.
How about one final word picture to end this chapter? I love to talk with students about learning how to focus your mind, so you can be more intentional and more effective in your studies. Our problem is what I and others have called “monkey mind”. Imagine a poor little monkey in a metal cage. Beneath the cage is a fire burning that heats up the cage. Every time that monkey touches some part of the cage he shrieks in pain. Next come the nasty hornets who sting this poor monkey over and over again. Finally someone turns out the lights.
Sad picture right? That’s your mind… much of the time. Now the key is to free the monkey. Let’s start by opening the window and getting rid of the nasty hornets; then let’s turn on the light and turn off the fire under the cage. Finally let’s open the door of the cage and let the monkey go free.
The next time you are sitting in class and the teacher is talking… the next time you are at some practice and the coach is coaching… just take a look around at the other students, the other performers. Notice how much monkey mind there is. It’s easy to see this monkey mind in others… not so easy to always see it in yourself. But see it you MUST. Instead of me telling you that you must focus… I’m going to make this suggestion to you:
Start to be aware of monkey mind… when you see it happening… then tell yourself that you need to focus your mind… that you need to free that monkey.
For years you have been saying to the adults in your life that it’s YOUR life… and guess what… you were right all along. It really is your life, and no one can MAKE you be a good student. No one can force you to learn. Until you decide to become an intentional student, there isn’t anything anyone else can do to help you.
So… can I make a suggestion? Let’s take one or two small steps to address energy loss in your study habits, and let’s start trying to free that monkey from the cage. Slowly you will change some of your poor habits and you will begin to get a better handle on this whole intentional study thing. You must have some patience with yourself. It’s not easy to change your patterns of thought and behavior. You will wreck that bike a number of times before you finally figure out how to ride without your training wheels. But ride you will. Don’t give up. Your life is too important to let anyone else determine how you will live it!