How to get good grades in school?

For the majority of my school and undergraduate years, I was a top 5% student. I don’t think I was exceptionally intelligent. I sucked at pretty much any skill that is socially believed to be a prerequisite for academic success – studying late at night, multitasking, building study groups, figuring out what not to study, befriending teachers, etc.

If you asked me why I succeeded, I could give you an answer but my answer lacked a framework, so not everyone could apply it to their situation. Now I have a better answer. Thanks to Charles Duhigg and his revolutionary book on the power of habits. This is my answer:

I was good at making plans, and more importantly sticking to them. Once the teacher declared the syllabus and the scope of each topic (my cue), I was good at the following routine,

  • making a detailed list of everything that needed to be done to prepare well for this exam
  • converting that list into a detailed but easily doable plan that allowed for my capabilities – stamina, memory, speed of reading, note-taking, and distractions
  • sticking to that plan or revising it, but always finishing it

The key point is the word ‘doable’, and once good results started coming in, the habit stuck. Sticking to the plan was more important than whether my plan was the best among my peers, or whether my plan had the right stuff in it. In fact, there were times when I discovered reference books or problem sets on the day of the test. Missing some material mattered once in a while, but across all courses it was a statistically insignificant. With every exam (and its results), I got better at making plans. For example, my plan accommodated the fact that I hated Physics – so study when willpower tank is full.

Now imagine if I had shared my plan, or posted it on Facebook (did not exist in the 90s). It would have made no difference. I remember sitting at the back of the school bus and making plans for senior students who requested I put my skill to use for them. Although I personalized the plans for others, they never stuck to them. As Charles Duhigg explains – meticulously making a plan yourself doubles your commitment to it and my experience showed that even a 5% lower commitment results in poorer grades.

For kids looking for academic success, I’d recommend starting with a self-aware plan. But don’t get carried away; the real world needs different habits so be humble and take risks to build real learning.

Notes: There is a small set of habits that help students do well in school, planning is one of them. For example, some of my classmates were good at making notes, and some were good at studying on a daily basis, while others used group studying to enforce discipline. Typically during the ages of 10-14, one of these behaviors must turn into a habit. Parents need to be attentive and supportive to make it happen. Once the child’s behavior produces good grades, he/she automatically craves this ‘reward’ each time, thus creating the habit loop. 

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