5 Things Every Student Should Know About Learning

Students everywhere are gearing up to dig in, reinvigorated by a spirit of “New Year, New Me”—which can, sometimes, inexplicably collapse only a few weeks into the semester. Older students and adult learners may struggle to summon any bravado at all to face, yet again, another series of academic challenges. Indeed, anyone learning online must continually dig deep to embrace more screen time and get the most out of learning. How can students feel and maintain a real sense of empowerment in their learning as they head back to school?

Continuing our series on Back to School Tips, Tricks, and Shifts, we have compiled a list of “5 Things Every Student Should Know” (about learning) that might just change your academics for the better. These are the kinds of things people mean when they say “work smarter, not harder.” As a classroom teacher, I shared these facts and ideas freely with students and wondered why more teachers didn’t.

This list was built to help students better navigate their classes, yet teachers, administrators, and parents/caregivers have roles to play in spreading and reinforcing these strategies. This list may be of more use to students in middle or high school, but adults, language learners, independent learners, students of writing, and students in higher education may find these concepts valuable (with some adjustment).

Preview the 5 Things Every Student Should Know
  1. Get your hands on the class pacing guide. No, seriously.
  2. Get your hands on the grade-level & subject content standards. No, seriously. 
  3. Talk with your teacher early and often. Yes, each of them. No, seriously.
  4. Not everything is graded. Yes, seriously. 
  5. Using resources you find online is not cheating. Yes, seriously.
inspirational quotes on a planner
  1. Get your hands on the class pacing guide. No, seriously.

This may not be the most exciting advice, but it might be the most important thing a student can do. If you want to succeed in your class, you need to think about time as your teacher does, and it turns out that your teacher has already split all of the learning for the class into chunks spread out over time. A couple days to cover X; a week to cover Y; and a few weeks to cover Z because Z is really important. That same teacher also (probably) had to create an actual document showing the schedule and sequence of units and lessons, called a pacing guide. Like a table of contents for the academic calendar, this document can help dictate your schedule for the next few months. In fact, with the course pacing guide, you may even be able to get out ahead of your learning by seeing how things connect and what’s coming up.

A class does not learn one thing over 15 weeks, it learns 8-12 things over 15 weeks, and the pacing guide tells you what you’ll be learning and when. Granted, the class pacing guide may go out the window at some point during the academic calendar, but most teachers try to set a plan and stick to it. Students with access to that plan ahead of time can better understand where the train is headed and any stops along the way. You don’t have a year to learn ancient history; you have a week for this, a couple of weeks for that, a month for this. Just as a cyclist needs knowledge of the route map ahead of the race to plan where and when to conserve energy, when to push hard, or when to brace for a sequence of challenges, students also need the academic pacing guide to help structure their time, if only to plan which weeks/weekends are likely going to be for studying or relaxing. Remember, the pacing guide isn’t set in stone (by any means), but it gives you a sense of the big landmarks, projects, and due dates that will be fast approaching.

  1. Get your hands on the grade-level & subject content standards. No, seriously. 
checklist in a white bondpaper

Even if the teacher is not a strict adherent to any department or course pacing guide, they are likely paying close attention to the content standards for your class and grade level. When I taught in the classroom, I often found and printed a copy of the content standards written in “student-friendly language” for that subject and grade to discuss as a class during Week 1. While students may not realize it, teachers don’t pick random topics out of thin air when they create lessons. Instead, they are addressing specific standards that have already been selected for them to teach to you each year. Rather than react to class, students have the power to actively research the content standards to get ahead in the game.

Again, there is a significant payoff here for any student who is willing to explore the specific standards for each class. Which of them do you already know well? Which could you strengthen by watching a 15-minute YouTube video? Which of the standards are completely unfamiliar to you, and how could you find out more about those? 7th-grade math suddenly becomes a lot clearer when you realize there are only so many concepts you are required to learn, all of which can be researched easily with a quick Google search. The student is, after all, intended to demonstrate mastery of grade level standards by the end of the year, so be proactive and take time to familiarize yourself with them.

teacher proctoring his students during an examination
  1. Talk with your teacher early and often. Yes, each of them. No, seriously.

Learning is about listening, sharing your opinion while considering alternatives, and keeping an open mind to analyze different, often competing, evidence. Learning is also about outwitting obstacles, bravely facing the unknown, and building your path through an often indifferent universe. Teachers are guides on that journey. Talk with your teachers as often as you are able to. Keep it professional, keep it considerate, keep it relevant and brief if they seem busy (as they likely are!) , and make sure to keep thanking them for all they do. Even if you can’t always see it. 

Talk with your teachers when you are succeeding and don’t need any specific help. Talk with your teachers when there was just one little thing yesterday that confused you. Talk with your teachers when you haven’t understood a thing anyone has said for the past week. Talk with your teacher even if part of you thinks they might be out to get you. Bring a friend to chat with them if you think you might need support. Bring another teacher or an administrator if that helps. It is rare for a teacher to ever truly give up on a student—even if it seems like they have—so don’t give up on them. Allow them some wiggle room and benefit of the doubt since they have probably given you the same. A lot of class headaches and heartaches arise simply because students and teachers are not communicating openly and often, and you can end that cycle. You might be surprised by how well teachers can hear you once you use your voice.

  1. Not everything is graded. Yes, seriously. 
red windsock on pole against gray sky

Shockingly, teachers have a lot of discretion when it comes to what they grade and how they grade it, and 9 times out of 10 that discretion weighs against your participation, effort, and overall engagement. You may turn something in, but that does not mean it always enters the grade book. There are a lot of reasons why teachers do not enter an assignment into the grade book, and this often plays in the students’ favor. No, this is not an invitation to ask about each activity in class, “Will this be graded?” This is, instead, an opportunity to liberate yourself from the tyranny of percentages and finally embrace every learning challenge just for the sake of your personal growth! It means that you win some and you lose some but you stay in the game to play again another day! It suggests that grades aren’t everything, and that true learning cannot be graded by anyone besides the learner. 

What if you tried your best on everything no matter what? What if you attempted to fully enjoy every learning challenge just for the sake of the activity? What if you didn’t worry about grades? Better yet: What if you pre-graded everything you handed in (there are plenty of rubrics available) for yourself? What if you focused more on effort, participation, and regulating your openness to learning rather than the pursuit of high marks? What if there is not only more fun to be had this way, but also more to appreciate?

pile of covered books
  1. Using resources you find online is not cheating. Yes, seriously.

Each year, at least one student would look stunned and ask if I was serious whenever I made the above statement. If the book, article, video, or other resource the teacher gave you doesn’t explain something well, find your own! I would teach students how to find resources online, and each year students seemed shocked to do their own research. YouTube is not merely a vessel for entertainment, but it is actually a platform for better understanding practically any academic subject and content standard. Whether you are learning a language, a sport, a writing format, or a cooking technique, don’t limit yourself to what the teacher gave you. Research and preview every math topic you start, every historical period you begin to explore, every scientific unit of study you need to understand, and every book you’re assigned. 

Sure, you’ll get some spoilers, but you still have to read or practice the thing. Now, you’ll know roughly what it’s about, who is involved, and what sorts of things happen. Previewing is a natural human habit that we use often in our regular lives. We preview hikes we choose to go on, films we choose to watch, concerts we choose to attend, activities we choose to enjoy, and restaurants we’d like to visit for breakfast. As you do your own academic research, keep notes or use an organizer to track and refer to websites you visited to find helpful information. This practice alone will almost entirely eliminate the phrase, “I don’t get it,” from your personal usage as you begin to build confidence in any subject.

library high angle photro

A Bonus tip/trick/shift to take you further…

If I could offer one parting idea as a *bonus,* it would be to talk with librarians and study in libraries. Some of my favorite moments in college were spent in the library, and librarians always know much more than one might guess about a wide range of topics. Check out different libraries near you, chat with the staff when they’re not busy, and ask about resources available to students.

While we understand that each of these Tips, Tricks, and Shifts might not apply to every student, we hope that every learner found something inspiring and useful among these 5 (err… 6) ideas selected to help you make and maintain positive changes in learning. 

Check back for our next post as we continue to bring you more Back to School Tips, Tricks, and Shifts to help you improve and succeed on your learning journey.

Be sure to leave comments, like, and share this post, and use our Contact form to ask a question or let us know your thoughts about these 5 Things Every Student Should Know.

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