Tips for Students Who Want To Start a New School Year Right

(This article is written with high school students in mind, though in some cases the advice might also work for younger students.)

When it’s  that time of year again, hopefully you’ll look forward to with joy–but realistically you may end up missing the summer, at least for awhile. If you’re reading this article, you probably know that school, whether you view it as a thrill or a chore, is important to you. Making the most of education now can make life a lot more rewarding in the future. With that in mind, I’ve compiled some suggestions for how to make the most of that opportunity.

Make a good impression on your teachers.

You know the old saying, “You never have a second chance to make a first impression”? There is a lot of truth to it. I’m not suggesting that you should adopt a “teacher’s pet” mentality. I am suggesting that common courtesy goes a long way in human relationships in general, and student-teacher relationships are no exception. Since it is possible to be polite without being a “kiss-up,” make every effort to treat your teachers well. Remember that teachers are people too. (I know it sounds silly to say that. Of course you know teachers are people, but I’ve found that high school students don’t always embrace that truth emotionally. Early in my teaching career, I ran into some some students at the UCLA Mardi Gras, and one of them said, “Mr. Hiatt, what are you doing here?” I replied, “Probably the same thing you are,” and they all looked stunned, as if they were thinking, “You mean you don’t crawl into the filing cabinet at the end of the school day and go into suspended animation until school starts again?” I would have thought of this experience as a one-off kind of thing, except that it happened a lot.)

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Aside from being polite to the teacher, if you have negative feelings about the subject matter, try to keep those to yourself. Strange as it may seem, teachers would like to think that, even if everyone isn’t thrilled by the subjects they teach, everyone understands that those subjects are important. Teachers know that not everyone is going to be naturally brilliant in their subject and that levels of enthusiasm will vary, but, especially early in the year, it’s best to avoid questions like, “When will we ever use this in real life?”

It is also wise to avoid rookie mistakes. These include sitting as far back in the room as you can (which suggests that you are trying to hide–and therefore that you will probably want to get away with something), showing negative feelings toward other students (since teachers don’t like bullies and might misinterpret your intent), and being overly informal with the teacher (since teachers, though they should be friendly, can’t actually be your friends). That last point seems paradoxical to some students, but if you think about it, you’ll realize it’s true. That said, teachers do accept varying levels of formality. As the year progresses, you’ll get a more specific feeling of what is and is not appropriate in each classroom. At the beginning of the year, it’s best to be relatively formal. You can always loosen up later, if the teacher’s style allows for it.

(Special Note for Juniors)

If you are planning on applying to colleges that require teacher recommendations, then you may already know that your junior teachers (particularly the ones in academic subjects) will probably be the ones from whom you need to select recommenders.

As with any other kind of sales pitch, recommendations are much easier to write when the teacher is advocating for a student about which he or she is enthusiastic. It’s in your best interest not only to make a good first impression, but to maintain that first impression throughout the year. I’m not suggesting that you be phony to do that, but I am suggesting that, as the University of California system recommended to students writing college application essays, “Be yourself, but be your best self.”

Take it from someone who’s written recommendations for over a thousand students during my teaching career. If you create the best record you can, a teacher will have no difficulty writing for you, even if you aren’t the world’s most brilliant student. If you do less than your best, a teacher will generally know it, and, while he or she won’t make overt negative statements about you, college admissions people reading those letters are good at spotting situations in which the teacher is faking it rather than being genuinely enthusiastic.

Be as active a participant as you can.

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All things being equal, actively engaged students learn more than passive ones.  Not only that, but, to return to my last point for just a minute, a teacher is more likely to know an active student better than a passive one. Remember that recommendation writers have to comment on your personal qualities as well as your academic achievements–and I can tell you from experience a teacher isn’t going to have a clear picture of a student’s personality if the teacher has never even heard the person’s voice.

Some of you may be cringing at this point if you’re shy. You don’t have to become Mr. or Ms. Assertive overnight. Remember that teachers also value improvement. If you have weak spots but are trying to improve, a teacher will understand that and appreciate your effort.

What that means in practical terms is that you should try to participate a little bit at first and gradually work yourself up to more. The students I’ve known who made the attempt were always happy they had. The students who didn’t were just postponing the inevitable in some cases. The reality is that a lot of professions involve a certain amount of verbal interaction, so if you want to go into some of those fields, you will have to take the plunge sooner or later.

By the way, if you’re prepping for an oral presentation and want some pointers, you can find the video version of my PowerPoint on the subject here.

Get organized–and stay that way.

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If you have a typical load, you probably have five or six classes, and some of you may have more. That’s going to be a lot of instructions, handouts, and deadlines coming at you, so good organization is essential.

Some schools have partially automated the process in one or more ways: assignment calendars posted online, email assignment reminders, and other similar devices. However, many have not, so you need some way, whether digital or nondigital, for keeping track. If a school or teacher doesn’t limit your options (for example, by banning digital devices in the classroom), find a system that work well for you. If you are constrained by rules from using the system you like best, find the best way to work within the structure you have.

Ask questions–unless you can answer them yourself.

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Asking questions is an important part of learning, and no good teacher is ever going to be annoyed by a legitimate question. That said, teachers can be annoyed–and you can end up wasting their time and yours–by asking a question for which you could very easily have figured out the answer yourself.

The classic example of this kind of problem is the student who has been given written directions and asks a question that could easily have been answered just by reading those directions. Chances are you’ll never again get as many written directions as you do in high school, so why not take advantage of them? Always read the directions first. Then ask the question if you still need to.

The same advice also applies to oral directions. Listen to what the teacher is saying, and then ask if you still need to.

It also pays to listen to the questions other people ask–and the answers they get. I can’t tell you how many times I got asked the same question I’d already answered in the same class session. No one is perfect, of course, so you may miss an earlier questions occasionally, but doing it often suggests you aren’t paying attention–and that creates a whole new set of problems.

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Take notes.

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Every year I was amazed by the number of students not taking notes or taking notes so vague that they would have been useless for review.

In the thirty-four years I taught, I encountered very few students with such good memories that they could perform as well without taking notes as they could with notes. My own experiment in two senior classes showed that note-taking students performed 19% better than non-note-takers in one class and over 25% better than non-notetakers in the other one. These results are not surprising, since studies have shown anything from a 13% gain to a 44% gain from note-taking. With that kind of evidence, it’s surprising everyone doesn’t take notes by choice. Sadly, many of my students had to be forced, and then they often did the bare minimum.

How you take notes is largely a matter of personal preference, unless your teacher mandates a particular style. My personal preference for some time has been digital notes (easier to search and organize, less likely to be lost). There is a lot of research suggesting that digital notes are not as effective, however. One of those studies is reported here. Looking at the reasons digital note-taking is less effective, though, I think their impact could be reduced or eliminated. Basically, the students in the studies that looked at this issue either wrote too much (and therefore stopped listening as well) or became distracted by the digital environment in one way or another. Oddly enough, in several years of encouraging students to take notes digitally, I never saw a student doing the transcript style note-taking criticized in the study. In any case, it seems to me that a person could train himself or herself not to write too much down. The digital distraction issue is a more serious one, and it often causes both high school teachers and college professors to ban laptops, tablets, and cell phones in their classes. I always felt that  students needed to learn how to overcome those distractions, but I’ll admit it wasn’t an easy thing for some students to do. If you are in an environment in which digital note-taking is permissible, you’ll need to train yourself to avoid the temptations that format presents.

Even if you take physical notes, you still need to adopt a reasonable strategy in order for them to be effective. That means you need to practice identifying the material that is the most important (and/or that you’re the most likely to forget). You also need to write it down in a way that captures enough to remind you of what you heard, but not so much that you get bogged down in the physical process.

If you haven’t thought much about note-taking at all, you might like this summary of different methods. That doesn’t mean you can’t develop your own system, as some of you probably have. Just make sure it works for you.

Below is the notetaking handout I used to distribute to students. It provides a fuller explanation and might prove useful to some of you. If you need help with the viewer controls, there are some tips here. (The viewer seems to be having some trouble with Chrome at the moment, so just in case, I’ve also included a download button.

If you have control over the membership of a work group, think carefully.

Group? Yes. Work? Doubtful! (copyrighted by Belushi and licensed from

Most of you have probably had some experience with group work, since it plays a role in a number of different instructional strategies. More often than not, the teacher will select the group membership, but if you are given some discretion, make good use of it.

The first problem I’ve noticed in student-selected groups is the tendency for people to group with their friends. This kind of arrangement naturally leads to a variety of temptations you would ideally want to avoid–at least if you actually want to get work done.

Even in situations in which friends in a group managed to avoid too much socializing, I sometimes found the group didn’t work as well as it should because the students shared common weaknesses. For example, it doesn’t make sense if you’re shy to group with all of your shy friends to plan an oral presentation.

The ideal group is one in which everyone gets along, but either is not composed of friends or includes only friends who can resist temptation. In addition, every skill required by the task is covered by at least one student. The ideal group also has one person who is accepted as leader (organizer) and who has the skills to keep the group on task. If the group has to do some work outside of class, it’s also important that the members have compatible schedules (a variable I noticed students often forgot to check).

Understand the basics of plagiarism.

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I know this point seems hyperspecific when compared to some of the other pieces of advice, but in my experience that was one of the areas in which students most commonly got themselves into trouble.

Most of students I saw shoot themselves in the foot on this issue erred in the same way: they copied homework (and yes, that’s plagiarism), and then they claimed they “just worked together on it.” Remember that homework is always individual unless a teacher or professor specifies otherwise. Also remember that, if an assignment is collaborative, the names of all collaborators must be listed on it.

Another common error was forgetting that anything derived from a source (for example, an image) needed to be cited. When I had a class working in a computer lab on presentations, I was shocked by how often students grabbed images without even thinking about the need to acknowledge their source, and I often spent a good part of the period nagging them to remember that point.

Sadly, I also had one or two cases per year of students who engaged in much more blatant plagiarism, like borrowing part or all of a sibling’s or friend’s essay. That is one of the most effective ways to destroy your own grade quickly and completely.

Rather than repeating everything I told students about plagiarism, I have embedded my plagiarism handout below.

Also, you can find my possibly entertaining but definitely informative plagiarism video here. In addition, this video has a nice review of what needs to be cited. Both videos have a table of contents, so you click pretty easily to the part you want.

Work hard, but not harder than you can endure.

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I know that statement sounds strange, but being a successful student involves striking a balance. Particularly if you are taking challenging classes, you will probably need to work hard, and those of you who have a passion for something and/or want to get into a highly selective college may be spending hours on some extracurricular program (or maybe even more than one).

The problem is that there are only so many hours in the day, and everyone needs not only a decent amount of sleep but some downtime in order to recharge effectively. When students take on more than they can handle, the result can be decline in academic performance, damage to one’s health, or perhaps even both. I have known students who developed ulcers or had nervous breakdowns. I’ve known others who started out loving school as freshmen and ended up hating it by the time they were seniors. Sometimes such students were driven by their parents into situations they couldn’t handle, but often they drove themselves into an impossible position.

Remember that it doesn’t do you any good to get admitted to your dream college and be unable to attend because your health is too poor to handle it. It also doesn’t do you any good to get in if you have burned yourself out and won’t be able to perform at college. I put the idea in those terms because striving to get into a top college is one of the primary factors pushing students into overextending themselves.

Some people can handle what it takes to get into Harvard. If you can’t really handle it, this is not one of those situations in which it’s noble to die trying. It’s better to lead a happy and healthy life and go to a college with somewhat less demanding admissions standards.

Some people don’t learn that truth until it’s too late. Please don’t be one of those people.

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(A form of this article was published on August 16, 2016.)

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