It’s becoming more and more common for students to think that they shouldn’t have to work for an answer or a solution to a problem. Since they were young children, the internet has given them instant answers to all of life’s random mysteries. From gardening to cleaning to eating, a tiny device that goes everywhere we go can end life’s most pressing questions. It’s our job to convince them of the value of learning from reading books, a task that requires patience and an attention span that lasts longer than a few seconds.
We’ve all read unoriginal writing that recycles a combination of our lectures, online resources, and class conversations. For students to truly think creatively, they need to put in the hard work, not just look for quick, instant answers. They need to do their own thinking, and teachers need to explain when and how that thinking should take place. It’s something we should build into our lessons, but also explain so the path to success is not a mystery.
Here are the seven steps to academic success:
1. Read and listen
All good writing and thinking starts with reading and listening. It’s important to stress to students that both reading and listening requires the same process of thinking and documenting those thoughts. Reading and listening are not passive activities, but involve a mental interaction with the words.
2. Think independently
Students shouldn’t merely write down what they read or hear. Quoting a text or lecture has value, but it’s how a student makes sense of the information that matters. Notes should be should be short and quick, and not distracting. We want students to react to the material, not just mindlessly write down facts.
3. Take organized notes
Scaffolded notes help students stay focused and on task. It helps them prioritize the information that matters most. If they zone out or get distracted, they know what they missed and how to get back on track. Every conversation should have a guiding question or objective so students can stay grounded and eventually participate in even more meaning-making when they study.
In math, studying means practicing more or going over practice problems. In the humanities, it means revisiting those independent thoughts that were worthy of a note. This doesn’t have to be an independent process, but a good conversation with a classmate. It can be valuable and effective when a student explains their ideas out loud or writes down new ideas derived from their old ideas.
During prewriting or brainstorming, students finalize and organize their thoughts moments before they must demonstrate their learning. They imagine what direction they will take, and this helps them write in a logical manner that moves from one place to another. With a quick visual, students can create a graphic organizer or outline their main topics and evidence. This moment before the performance involves looking over many pages of notes to see the big picture.
6. Write, perform, create
Most often students should demonstrate their learning through formal analytical writing, but they can also express their creative thoughts, well, creatively with a podcast, short story, poem, video essay, or film. If students go through all the previous steps, writing should be easy. Students will avoid writer's block if they've already done the thinking that goes into creation.
7. Revise and review
Finally, students consider teacher feedback, review their writing, revise their work, and set goals for the next project or assignment. They need to know what worked and what didn’t. If a company creates a product that no one buys, everyone talks about what to do next. They don’t just shrug their shoulders and move on to the next thing. They fix what’s wrong and learn from it.
This process is a microcosm of what happens in any field. We read and listen to the great minds that came before us, engage in a collaborative process to fully understand their work, and then set out to do our own thing. Keeping the status quo is inevitable if students take the easy route by taking in facts and not doing anything with them.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers