How to use your school time

by Matthew Leitch

Why read this

This article for school students is about how to make best use of your time at school, regardless of how easy or hard you find school learning. It is a rational alternative to encouraging slogans about 'mindset', 'attitude', 'grit', and being 'positive'.

It makes sense to put some effort into study if it is valuable and to study in ways that improve the value (reducing the negatives and increasing the positives). The outline of this article is as follows:

Your life as an adult

How to have a good life

Most people look at this from two points of view: (1) contributing to society and (2) their own selfish interests. The two views lead to similar conclusions.

Contributing to society

When you become an adult you will be expected to do your fair share of work in our society. That may mean looking after your children, running a company, farming, serving food — anything that helps others to have good lives. Most people have a number of jobs during their lives. We all need to find the right roles for us. That means doing something that suits our strengths and weaknesses.

What matters is to do what you can that's useful.

Self interest

You do not have to be an academic superstar to have a great life in the UK. The UK is an advanced and generous country. If you just want to be comfortable, safe, and maybe raise a family then all you need to do is:

Doing these things takes some focus and determination and not everyone succeeds, but it's not necessary to have a job, let alone a high-paid career in a glamorous industry. However, if you can work to help others but don't even try then you may be treated unkindly because you are not doing your fair share.

If you want to be treated more kindly, enjoy some luxuries, and have money to support your family better then there are two extra things to do:

There are millions of useful jobs being done by quite ordinary people. Your job does not have to be glamorous or high-paid. As long as you have enough, the amount of money you have will not have a strong effect on how happy you are. For happiness, it is more important to stay healthy and have good relationships with people than to get more money. Having good relationships with people is mostly achieved by choosing who you spend time with and being rational, kind, and fair.

Something else that helps with happiness is to do jobs that suit you. It is much better to be doing well and secure in a useful job than to be struggling to get and keep a more glamorous job.

Finding roles and competition

Most of life involves cooperating with other people. We get things done best by working together, sharing the work out so that each person does what they can best contribute to. However, when a role is to be filled there is often competition for that role because more than one person wants to do it. The good news is that your competitors at these times will be people with similar abilities to you. Typically, people you cannot compete with will not be going for the same jobs that you will go for. You will not knowingly go for jobs that would not suit you.

The amount and speed of learning that a job requires is an important consideration. All jobs involve some learning, especially at the start, but some jobs involve much more learning than others, and different types of learning. Some jobs that you should only consider if you like school work include being a computer programmer, a lawyer, a writer, an actor, an architect or other designer, and a town planner. On the other hand, if you are good at school work then jobs with a lot of learning will bring you more pleasure because they will be more interesting for you.

If that kind of pressure to be learning fast all the time is not attractive to you then you will go for roles where you have more time and help to develop the abilities required.

There is also a tendency for people to find that they work alongside people who are similar to them. You have already experienced this with ability sets at school, but in the adult world it is not as obvious. For example, lawyers are not put in ability sets but lawyers work mostly with other lawyers, so they have a lot of contact with people like them. Of course they also have contact with their clients and assistants, who are likely to be less like lawyers.

Accurately assess the value of study effort

The effort you put into study should be based on an accurate and well-informed assessment of the value of study to you, taking into account negatives and positives. If doing nothing is the logical choice then that is what you should do, but almost nobody is in that situation. Obviously one benefit from school study is the qualifications you can gain, and these on their own are reason enough for some people. However, there are some other effects to consider that are not obvious and make study valuable even if you find school work a struggle.

School helps you find your adult roles in life

It will be important to choose job roles in future that suit you. School helps you learn what you are good at and not so good at. In particular, it is a chance to show yourself what you can learn to do that might be useful later.

For example, if you are good at school work but not very strong physically then you probably would not do well in jobs that involve heavy lifting, like working on a building site or fighting in an army. What you could do perhaps is help to organize building work or design equipment for people who fight. Do something that you can do quite well. If you are strong but not good at schoolwork then the opposite applies. If you don't like writing essays then the last thing you would want is to work as an author or journalist, which is like having to write a long essay every day.

To get the best from this aspect of school work you need to make an honest attempt to do well. When you are an adult you will probably be tougher, more determined, and more disciplined than you are now. That will be because of becoming more mature but also because adult life has real pressures and responsibilities. Therefore, if you try to do your best now, at school, the results will be more indicative of your potential in future.

The important thing is to do your best so that the results are a better guide to what you might do in future and your exam grades will help you get to the roles that suit you.

School is for preparation, not competition

If school was a competition to find out who is smartest then it would not take long to see that most people are not going to win and might as well give up. But school is not a competition. Teachers are required to help everyone.

Through your life you will not compete against people who are significantly different in academic ability to you. As you go through life you will find you spend more and more time with people who are about as smart as you. As an adult most people who do the same job as you will be about as clever as you. For example, if you are super-smart and heading to a top level university you are probably one of the smartest people in your school but when you get to university you will find most people are super-smart like you. When you get a job suited to people like you then most of your workmates will also be super-smart. Similarly, if you struggle with school work it does not matter that many others do not struggle. You will not be competing with them for jobs. Instead, other people wanting jobs you want will be like you so, on those occasions when there is some competition, your rivals will be very similar to you and even a small advantage could help you.

Regardless of how academic you are, school helps make you a productive adult, able to work with people like you, in roles that are right for you.

Teaching could be much more relevant but it still helps prepare you for adult life

Most people realise that what is taught in school could be much more relevant. Why learn to solve quadratic equations? What's the point of learning to analyze Shakespeare? Unless you are going to be a teacher there really is no use for those particular skills in adult life. Far too much of what is taught in schools is useless material and there are many useful things they could teach instead, such as skills with money, the law, looking after houses and cars, shopping, choosing food and clothes, setting up computers and phones, running meetings, and planning journeys.

But still school learning makes a big difference to how productive you are later. How can that be?

What school learning does is make you faster at learning, and that is crucial for adults. For example, most jobs have some tasks where you have to collect numbers, or use numbers, and you might even have to use a computer to do calculations. The procedure might be simple or complicated, but almost everyone has to fill in forms and do some basic calculations from time to time. The time you spend on learning maths at school makes you quicker and better at learning these number-related tasks. This is true whether you struggle at maths and will not do much in future or you excel at maths and will do lots of it in future. Even if you complete an advanced level university degree in maths you will probably find that your first job requires you to learn something new. Similar improvements in learning speed apply for other subjects.

There are seven reasons why you get faster at learning through school work:

  1. Stimulus: If you are using your brain strongly most days it will be fitter and more alert generally. The brain is not like a muscle, but it does have some of the characteristics of muscles and responds to exercise.
  2. Savings: If you learn something but do not use it for a while then you will probably find you cannot remember it anymore. But that does not mean the knowledge has completely disappeared. You can re-learn it more quickly than before. This saved time is called ‘savings’ by psychologists.
  3. Chunks: Some of what you learn in school is just little bits of knowledge. They are not complete skills or facts, but they are the tiny building blocks of skills and facts that psychologists call ‘chunks’. When you need to learn something new those tiny building blocks let you build new knowledge much more quickly. The more chunks you have the faster you learn. Chunks can stay in your memory for years, ready to help you when you are an adult. Chunks help you think faster and more easily too.
  4. Vocabulary: The terminology you learn at school for many of your subjects (e.g. in science, mathematics, geography, economics) can stay with you for many years and is another reason why school learning makes you a faster adult learner.
  5. Learning to learn: Yet another reason you get faster at learning particular types of material is that you learn what to pay attention to, how to organize it, and in what order to tackle details.
  6. Filtering: When you learn as an adult there is often nobody to teach you. You have to teach yourself through experience, reading, and listening to people. Knowing basic points you learned in school can help you filter out the nonsense and focus on information that is true and helpful. This is an enormous advantage.
  7. Learning management: Done the right way (see below), school can be an opportunity to learn how to plan your learning efforts and use revision techniques for a lot more than exam preparation.

This gives us a more specific meaning for a ‘growth mindset’. We can increase our capability by learning more skills and facts, but we can go further and increase our learning ability by learning to learn and improving our learning management.

It also becomes clear why school material is worth studying even when the particular details are not likely to be useful.

The value of school learning depends on how you use it later

When you start a new job as an adult, or even while at school, there are usually opportunities to get good at your job more quickly by using your study skills. Even if the employer gives you some instructions or training there may still be things you can learn that make you more effective. Being more effective can bring you more encouragement from your employer, more opportunities, and more money.

For example, suppose you get a job stacking shelves in a local supermarket. You take a trolley of boxes of stuff and put the products out on the shelves where they belong, according to the location codes on the boxes. When you start the job they give you a tour of the store and show you how to do the job. They show you how best to lay out particular products. It's not quite a simple as you expected.

At this point you have a choice. You can stop deliberate learning and just trust that familiarity and your supervisor will eventually make you more competent. Alternatively, you can deliberately do something more to boost your ability. For example, you could start to learn which items are in each aisle, maybe even making revision cards for yourself. You could notice how different types of product are displayed as you walk through the store. You could revise the advice you were given about how to lift heavy objects safely and how to work on low and high shelves. Pretty soon, if a customer asks ‘Can you tell me where the tinned fruit is?’ you will be able to say ‘Yes, aisle 7 next to the baking goods. Would you like me to show you?’ And, because those instructions are so easy to follow, many customers will not need to be shown and you can complete your shelf-stacking more quickly while still helping customers.

Competent employees tend to get favourable treatment, more opportunities, and the chance to train for more skilled but better paid jobs.

The ability to manage your own learning (i.e. plan things to learn and use revision techniques) can make a huge difference in your career in any job, so if you do decide to make that effort then the skills you learn at school will be more valuable.

Some school learning makes you more interesting, likeable, and impressive

Some things you can learn at school are quite interesting, relevant, and help you understand how the world works. Knowing them, as many of your friends do, helps you keep up with conversations, understand jokes, and come up with your own ideas. Stimulating your brain daily helps keep it alert and lively, making you more fun to be with. This is usually more important than having the right clothes and other stuff.

Study in the most beneficial, easiest way

The value of study effort, including negatives and positives, can be improved by studying in an efficient way.

Whoever you are, at least some effort is the preferable approach

Even if you hate school and do not care about learning, making no effort at all is not the easiest way to get through it because of boredom. School is several hours a day of sitting still and not being allowed to have fun because it will distract other students and annoy the teacher. If you do nothing in that time it is boring.

In addition, you may find you have to go to extra sessions for people who are struggling, or not progressing as well as expected, or don't seem to be trying very hard.

Making no effort at all also earns students hassle from teachers and maybe parents too. They know that adults are expected to do their fair share of the work of our society and that school is preparation for that. A student not bothering to study is a student refusing to do their fair share. That is why the hassle adults give is justified.

The easiest and pleasantest way to get through school is to find something interesting in the lesson and learn something using the smart techniques explained below. To avoid the depressing, tiring experience of being stuck or failing, learn enough that you can often succeed. For example, you may not care about solving quadratic equations but solving them is more enjoyable than failing to solve them and much less boring than doing nothing at all.

More likely there are some subjects you like and some you do not. In that case, the easiest way to get through the subjects you hate is still to put in at least some effort so that you avoid boredom and failure. For subjects you like – especially if they are part of a bigger life plan you have – putting much more effort in is the right approach.

It always makes sense to be efficient

Assuming you are going to make at least some effort and probably think learning in school is worthwhile for some or all subjects, it pays to be efficient. That is, you want to maximise learning but also minimise the time and effort you put in and, crucially, minimise the time you spend feeling stuck, tired, frustrated, bored, panicky, or confused. You want to feel ok while you make progress, learn skills, get smarter, and get through homework quickly and easily.

The most efficient patterns of study are not always obvious. Doing exactly what teachers ask for is not a good strategy. Instead, put a little time into some extra activities so that you save time and frustration on homework and in class.

Getting on top of subjects and staying on top is the easiest, quickest way to get them done. Big causes of wasted time and frustration include:

In these situations you are sitting there achieving nothing while time passes and you feel bad. Study tactics that minimise these bad experiences are important. Having success first time is usually less time-wasting and tiring than having to go back and try to fix problems much later, either on your own or in extra school sessions.

  1. Use the textbook/website: Often, the textbook you have, or one you can buy or borrow, explains the material better than your teacher. Academically very able students can sometimes do better working from the book than attending classes, but that is rarely an option and quite risky.
  2. Listen carefully in class instead of taking notes: If you have a good book or website then you do not need to take notes in class and can concentrate on listening to what is said and thinking about it. Instead of writing notes and imagining that you will read them at some point in the future, listen and learn immediately without being distracted by writing. If you are keeping up with study then you may find that you can understand and think about almost everything teachers try to explain. If you are not on top of the subject then you will need to be selective and just focus on some of the things your teacher says. Either way, use a book as reference and in lessons focus your mind on learning, not writing.
  3. Read ahead: Using the best explanations available, read a day ahead of your teacher's classes. Even if you do not fully understand the book, your pre-reading will mean that the teacher's explanations make more sense. Listening to your teacher and checking for mistakes is then a useful revision of your knowledge. The worst outcome is to sit through a lesson while a teacher talks gibberish and you wait for a chance to work it all out later.
  4. Revise before tests: Tests are useful for rehearsing and so strengthening your memories. They also help you focus on what you really need to know for the final exam. Revise before tests so that the time and effort you spend in the test builds your memories. Spending 90 minutes getting almost everything wrong in a maths test is 90 minutes wasted.
  5. Do not work too long: It is better to work effectively in shorter bursts (30 minutes) than to sit for an hour or more gradually getting tired, aimless, and inefficient. Some people use a kitchen timer to get an alarm after 30 minutes, but your phone is better. Do not do more than 10 sessions of 30 minutes of focused study in one day. You cannot do more for more than a very few days and afterwards will need some days off to recover. Sitting in classes is different. It's much less intense, with many slack periods where nothing much happens.
  6. Revise all the time: Most school subjects (especially maths and foreign languages) are easy if you can remember what has already been covered but hard if you have forgotten. The lessons tend to build on what has been learned before, perhaps a day before, but sometimes weeks or even months before. Think over what you have read and heard on the same day if possible, perhaps turning it over in your mind as you travel home from school. Simply re-reading the day's notes ready for the next day can make a big difference. Testing yourself or otherwise practising retrieval is much better for creating long term memories, though a bit more effort. Consolidate new material within 24 hours and come back to it over the weeks and months. This again reduces the risk of being confused in class and being stuck on tasks.
  7. Solve study problems and push for understanding: If something does not quite make sense, or you are struggling to master a tricky bit of logic, think about it and try to solve the problem that day. If you have to miss some school time then try to fill the gaps as soon as you can.
  8. Go slow to get fast: Some mental skills, particular in maths and foreign languages, are intricate. To get them you need to have just the right knowledge in your head, and get it working smoothly. It is something like putting together the parts of a wrist watch. Taking your time to patiently learn and master tiny details is often the way forward to faster progress overall.

Two key steps for efficient learning are to (1) notice every detail that you need to learn and (2) practise retrieving information so that the memory is long lasting and comes back to you when you need it. In the steps above the initial noticing of detail happens when reading (ahead) initially, when listening carefully to teachers, undistracted by taking notes, and when solving problems with particular points you did not understand fully first time. The retrieval practice happens when you learn something new (because it builds on old memories too), when you evaluate what your teachers are saying (because you are comparing it with what you have already read), when you mentally review what you have seen during the day and try to resolve confusions, fill in gaps, and come up with something better, and when you do problems, answer questions, and revise for tests.

Super-smart learners often study a bit like this. Their memories are organized and precise. They don't forget much. They understand most of what they read and hear, think things through (maybe while walking home), read ahead, answer many questions quickly, and think about their subjects often for their own reasons (even when there's no homework). Without seeming to work hard they get more done, easily. Every part of this makes the other parts easier to do.

Other learners can copy some of this behaviour and get its benefits, despite thinking more slowly, making more mistakes, and having less retentive memories. We can all read a few paragraphs of a good book ahead of lessons. We can all think about our subjects in odd moments, revise often, and try to get study problems solved soon. The payoff is in getting more of learning done in lessons, not struggling over homework, needing less revision time before tests, and needing less time to fix problems.

Get help with very hard study problems

Occasionally a study problem is so serious that you feel you cannot make progress at all. Perhaps an entire school subject is confusing, impossible to remember, or test scores always seem to be poor no matter what you do. This can be so bad that it is best to give up and put your efforts into other things. However, for English, Maths, and in some other special cases, giving up is not an option.

Instead, get some help. Teachers are not normally expected to do this. They teach classes rather than spending hours with individuals. A really good tutor, a super-smart friend or relative, or a very patient parent might be able to help. You can also try to make progress yourself, perhaps searching the internet for inspiration.

I personally failed dismally to learn French at school and it made me unhappy. I also struggled with all subjects that involved writing essays because I did not understand what I had to do to get marks. Happily, I was good at maths and science. It was only later, as an adult, that I realized the fundamental mistake I had been making with French and discovered how to tackle writing as a technical skill. Now I am the author of two published books and countless articles. I have also learned what gets marks in essays because I have been the marker for many university students.

As tutors, we (The Ridgeway Expertise Company Ltd) have been able to help many students with study problems. Occasionally, the solutions have a dramatic effect. Help understanding how to get marks in writing subjects is very often a breakthrough. We have also had some cases where students change the way they are trying to learn mathematics and consequently start making progress after many months (or even years) of being stuck.

Avoid sleep debt

Sleepiness is not the same as tiredness or boredom. Sleepiness is caused by lack of sleep. Lack of sleep can happen in one night (e.g. because of a party or an all-night hike) or can build up slowly from half an hour a night over a few nights. The total lost sleep builds up and is called ‘sleep debt’. Many young people carry large sleep debts without realising it.

If you feel sleepy in school or while doing homework or revising then you have a sleep debt and should get more sleep to clear the debt. It does not mean you are tired or that the work is boring. Even extremely intelligent people with strong self-control can find that their minds are fuzzy and they lack self-control if they have a significant sleep debt. A long lie-in or a very early night can be quite helpful. You can still have fun, but if you have a late night make sure you can lie in the next morning.

Having a sleep debt can also make you moody, even if your life is going well and you have nothing to be moody about.

Stay calm and think carefully

Study at school takes time and energy, is sometimes challenging, and exams involve an extra effort with a lot riding on the results for some students. But, regardless, you are not in any physical danger and the effort you must make is to sit calmly, thinking carefully. That's it. Sitting calmly, thinking carefully is the best thing you can do. Just do a few hours of that each day and you cannot do better.

Imagine the worst case scenario for a moment. You have an illness for a few weeks. Your teachers are incompetent and hate you. Your parents haven't a clue. Your whole career plan depends on you getting high grades in some exams. On top of that there are some important topics you find confusing and have not made progress with. What do you need to do? There is nothing helpful that involves an intense physical effort. You can't physically fight your way out of this or run away from it. This is an intellectual challenge so, logically, you need to maximise your intellectual ability. Sit calmly and think carefully about your plans. If there's someone you can talk to for help then do that, sitting calmly and thinking carefully about what they can do for you. Do some study each day, thinking carefully about what you are learning. Remain calm, get plenty of rest and sleep. Don't waste time on worry. There is nothing better you can do.

Summary of conclusions

In summary:

Company: The Ridgeway Expertise Company Ltd, registered in England, no. 04931400.

Registered office: 29 Ridgeway, KT19 8LD, United Kingdom.