I was not a Straight A student in high school. In fact, while I took a number of Advanced Placement courses in English, Physics, Chemistry, etc., I rarely earned As let alone Straight As despite completing the assigned work and studying hard. Well. . .as hard as one could study after football, track, and baseball practice and after playing guitar in a number of metal bands. . .Although I tried hard, I just never thought I was ever going to be Straight A material.
To add to my woes, I probably had/have ADHD though I have never been diagnosed, and in fact, I ran into an old baseball coach a few years back who reminded me that during batting practice one day, he literally yanked me out of the batting cage and asked, “ Suh. . .son. . .do you have the ADHD?” As my coach tells the story, I replied, “What’s that,” and then he says that I wandered off before he got a chance to answer. . . .
Moreover, I really resented tests and thought it was a worthless way to measure one’s intellect. But in the back of my mind grew the thought that maybe earning Straight As was not about mastering the subject matter as much as it was about developing the self-discipline and concentration skills necessary to achieve excellence according to someone else’s (the teacher’s) criteria. Looking back, this was the most profound realization about Straight As: the self-discipline, the concentration skills, and pushing one’s self to go on even though one is beyond exhaustion prepares one for the tough criteria that a teacher, a professor, a boss, judge, a jury, etc. may have when measuring one’s performance later in life. Once I acquired this realization, I stopped expending energy trying to discredit the idea of Straight As and started in earnest trying to learn how to earn earn Straight As by the rules created by the education system and by life in general.
Fast forward to college: I narrowed down my sports to one: baseball. And I only played guitar in one metal band—I was ready to finally settle down and see whether I could be a Straight A student because I heard you needed good undergraduate grades to get into a good law school. So I developed the following sure fire way to get Straight As in college as I now realize it was just as applicable to middle school, high school, college, and graduate school. In essence, I reduced my haphazard approach to one that worked irrespective of the subject matter and irrespective of the difficulty of the material being taught. In fact, during my junior and senior year of undergraduate studies—as well as during my third year of law school—I had professors ask me to tutor younger students who literally went from being last in their class to earning the best grades in their class each semester thereafter.
So here is the formula I learned that enabled me—and later, many others—to earn Straight As:
Step 1: At the beginning of each term, go to each teacher or professor and introduce yourself and tell them you want to do well and earn an “A” in their class and ask them what you need to do to study properly to earn an “A” in their class. Then, shut up and listen without interrupting while taking notes. The teacher/professor will be so flattered a student actually cares to do well in their class that they will open up and give you all of the information you need. When they have told you everything, then you can ask questions and summarize what they told you to make sure you are on the right path. You can obviously substitute “your boss” or a “judge” or a “jury” etc for the phrase teacher/professor in this or any step below as these are not just school skills, but rather, they are performance life skills.
Step 2: Attend all classes and take excellent notes. Ditching class and getting notes form someone else is NOT a substitute for attending class each day and taking notes. Remember, you are building up self-discipline and concentration skills here as well as actively listening and taking notes in a manner which reflects what your teacher/professor is emphasizing in class.
Step 3: Read or do the assigned homework in an active manner. The most helpful thing for me was to first read quickly through an assigned chapter without taking notes so that I got the “lay of the land.” Then I would go back and carefully re-read the chapter while taking what I called “Sam Notes” which are my own notes which explained the subject matter in terms I could actually understand. This step is critical to actually understanding the material. If you truly understand the material, you don’t have to memorize a whole lot and the subject matter will make sense. If you put the subject matter in your own words, you are taking complex ideas and simplifying them. This means turning the most complex ideas into simple to understand and short sentences. It is only by reducing the subject matter into it’s simple, constituent parts that true knowledge occurs. Otherwise, we are merely rewriting a textbook in our own words and that is not what we are trying to accomplish here. Finally, write in your own words in one paragraph (what I called a “Sam Paragraph”) what that chapter is trying to convey. Again, the act of writing is what reinforces what you just read in an active manner which you will remember long thereafter (at least hopefully long enough for the test!) as opposed to just merely reading through a chapter as fast as you can just so you can say you read it.
Step 4: Cut and paste your class notes and your own reading notes together so that they flow together in an outline. This sounds like way more work than it actually is. This helps you integrate what the teacher/professor is teaching in the context of the homework assignments so you can see the “birds eye view” instead of getting bogged down in a bunch of separate, disjointed sentences/ideas. Again, if you take a couple minutes to make this fit all together, you will engrave in your mind’s eye these concepts in a memorable way.
Step 5: After the first week of doing the above, take your integrated class notes/reading notes into your teacher/professor’s office or class room during their office hours (or after school) and show them your work and explain to them that this is how you are studying and ask if you are preparing correctly for their class and for earning an “A” on their exams. You will be surprised just how much the teacher or professor will open up: they will not only give you feedback on how to tweak your approach, but they will also clue you in as to what they feel is important to know on tests. In fact, you can ask them: how would this information hypothetically appear in a test? Believe it or not, I have had professors open up and tell me what they believe is important for tests as I have also had professors show me prior years’ exams and/or “grading grids” (e.g. a check list of points they use to grade exams) so you get a good feel for what to expect on their exams. You will now have some extraordinarily helpful tips which will fine tune your approach to taking notes in class, taking reading notes, and integrating those notes together for studying for exams.
Step 6: Every two weeks or so thereafter, repeat Step 5 above (e.g. taking your lecture/reading notes into your teacher/professor and saying something like, “I took your advice the last time we spoke and here are my notes and how I have been studying the past 2-3 weeks—am I picking up on what I need to know for the upcoming exam, and if not, can you please help me tweak what I am doing so i can earn an “A” in your class.” Keep doing this every 2-3 weeks throughout the semester/term.
That is it. Yeah, I know, pretty simple, right?! You now have my “secret formula” for how to get Straight As which proved valuable not only for me, but for the many other students I helped both during my school years and in the years since. In the process of following these steps, you will hopefully realize that as important as earning Straight As might be to your future, even more important are the self-discipline and concentration skills that you will develop and sharpen which will serve you well throughout the rest of your life.
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