7 Secrets to Better Grades: Part 3

If you’ve been following this series from the beginning, you’ve already seen that raising your grades begins with setting goals.  You’ve also read about how to make plans based on those clear goals. There is one more vital ingredient in this recipe for success, though.

I’m sorry to say that just knowing how you want to change and having a plan for change are not enough. Challenges come up, and we may feel like scrapping the whole endeavor. We may encounter set-backs we didn’t foresee and get completely discouraged.

That's why the final part of raising your grades is all about how to keep going when the going gets tough. What will you do when you'd rather hang out with your friends than stick to your study plan? How will you fight the temptation to give up when you get back that low quiz grade? 

The answer lies in the last three secrets: Get Motivated; Make a Habit; and be Accountable. Once you read about how to use these tools, you'll have everything you need to start your plan for higher achievement!

5. Get Motivated

You might think, “Hey, I am motivated! I want to raise my grades!” Motivation is a funny kind of thing, though. True motivation has to be specific.

Making a change is tough. You have to be really clear on why you want something in order to overcome the natural inertia we all have. We tend to keep doing what we do unless we have a really clear reason for doing something different. Routine is just easier!

Motivation is not just wanting something. Your motivation is actually—as its Latin root suggests—what moves you to do something. You might want to learn how to run cross country. But wanting in a hypothetical way won't get you out in the rain and the mud to practice.

Your motivation is your very specific reason why you want to achieve this goal, plus a visualization of what it will look like when you do. What makes you want this so much you are willing to go after it, even though you know there may be challenges?

Sometimes motivation can be very personal and emotional. Other times it is pretty straightforward and uncomplicated. You don’t have to share your motivation with other people. You just have to be crystal clear on it for yourself. Hold on to that motivation when you get discouraged. When you feel like maybe the hard work isn’t worth it.

Just like goals, motivation has to be a specific, clear picture. But unlike your goals, your motivation doesn’t have to be a positive statement; it can be based on a “don’t want” statement.

Motivation can be a carrot in front of our noses, something we move toward. Or it can be the stick we don’t want to get hit with. (Not literally of course; this is an idiom about a donkey pulling a cart!)

When you were making your goals, I didn’t let you look at the negative because it was going to take you off task. Now that you’re establishing your motivation, knock yourself out! Conjure up an image of having to sit inside a stifling classroom in July taking summer school because you didn’t pass English. Picture your friends going to see a good movie or eating at your favorite sushi restaurant while you sit home and do homework.

On the other hand, you can bring to mind a picture of how thrilled you’ll be when you’re accepted into Honors English or asked to write for the school paper. You can picture all the articles you are dying to write and the literary magazines your teacher can help you submit your work to.

What is most important is to find thoughts that actually motivate you. If you are easily discouraged, steer clear of negative images that might bring you down. And if you tend to be a big dreamer—imagining how an A in English will lead to you being invited to the White House to read your poetry—you may need to tone it down a notch so that you stay within the context of your goal without getting distracted.

Practice focusing on different motivating factors until you find one that really moves you. You’ll know it when you think of it: you’ll actually want to jump up out of your seat and start working on your goal!

6. Make a Habit

Remember when I said that something that’s a routine is easier? That’s why the best way to make a change in your life is to make a habit. When you get in the car, do you have to think about putting on your seatbelt, or does it just happen? How about brushing your teeth at night?

A habit is a behavior we do automatically, or nearly automatically, with regularity and with very little thought.

The cool thing about a habit is that once you build it, it sticks with you. If you take the time to build your class participation habit, for example, it will serve you long past the current semester.

A habit will take longer to build if you only get to practice it once in a while. If your habit is centered on a test skill, such as writing a topic sentence for each short answer question you encounter, it will take longer to make this habit stick because you don’t have tests every single day (hopefully!).

A great strategy for building a habit like this is to create a mental checklist for yourself that you pull out whenever you are about to engage in the activity. This is what new drivers do. A mental checklist for a new driver might look like this:

  • put on seatbelt
  • adjust rearview mirror
  • check side mirrors for cars and pedestrians
  • turn on ignition
  • step on brake
  • put gear shift in “Drive”
  • look both ways
  • ease foot onto gas

Repeating this to yourself before you actually start driving anywhere keeps you on track toward your goal—safe driving—with minimum effort. You aren’t taking out the driver’s handbook or rules of the road each time you get in a vehicle.

Once you have a mental checklist, you can make it even more memorable by creating a mnemonic. Try making a sentence using the starting letters of all the items in the list (think Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally). Similarly, you can create a rhyme, a chant, or a song to make the checklist stick in your memory. Just sing it to yourself (silently!) before you start the short answer section on the test, and you’ll be in the perfect mental state to build your new routine.

Building a habit takes time, but once you’ve established it, a habit is there to serve you for your entire academic career. Or even longer! You’ll have a habit of listening to the discussion carefully and figuring out how you can contribute to it. That is a valuable skill in professional and social situations as well! You’ll have a habit of running through a mental checklist as you begin a task so you make sure you don’t miss any important pieces of a process.

Building a habit means committing to the action regularly. But if you miss an opportunity to practice, it’s not the end of the world. Make the action clearly defined in your mind, and perform it in roughly the same way each time to build the automaticity that will turn this new behavior from something you have to think about to something you can do as easily as brushing your teeth.

7. Be Accountable

You have your motivation clearly mapped out. You know why you want to make this change. But what will you do when you encounter a setback? What if the fear or discomfort of the new routine starts to outweigh the motivation?

Accountability keeps us on track with a positive kind of social pressure (and self-pressure). The difference between accountability and icky, bad, after-school-special peer pressure is that with accountability, we choose our commitment to uphold. The people around us convince us to do what we have already decided we want to do!

We already covered one reason why it’s good to share your goals with Mom and Dad: they will have more empathy for your process. But another great reason to get them on board is so they can hold you accountable. Most of us hate having to admit that we didn’t do what we said we were going to do. When we’re in that moment of choice—raising our hand or not in English—that little niggling thought that we’re going to have to fess up to someone later if we don't follow through often pushes us over the edge to do what is uncomfortable.

In addition to your parents, you can use your friends and classmates as accountability partners. Ask someone you trust to check in with you about your new habit. Be clear—tell this person how often you want to be reminded or asked so that you don’t end up feeling irritated. Then, be honest. Use the knowledge that you are accountable to someone else to further motivate you when you feel like just giving up on building your new habit.

The most important person to feel accountable to is yourself. Letting yourself down can feel like a real bummer. Depending on your temperament, you may have an easy time getting over disappointing yourself, or it may feel like a real blow.

Avoid beating yourself up. You want to be accountable and be honest with yourself about whether you are working on your goals. But haranguing yourself or using negative reinforcement in your own mind only saps your energy. None of us likes to be yelled at when we’re trying to do something difficult—even if it’s only by that voice in our minds.

Instead of berating yourself for every small setback, focus on congratulating yourself on the progress you have made. Create a checklist chart where you get to mark off the days when you have worked on your new habit or study skill. Use bright gel pens! Use stickers! Give yourself small, reasonable rewards!

A positive spin on accountability will make the whole experience of building your new habit a little more fun and a lot more effective because it will be something you look forward to checking in on, rather than something you dread.

Final Thoughts

Those are the seven secrets to raising your grade—in any subject. Do you know what the biggest secret is, though? These actions are not magic. Anyone can do them. Each one requires commitment and work, as well as knowing yourself and your capabilities.

The most successful people—in school and out of school—are the ones who know themselves. They recognize their own challenges and work on overcoming them. They know what motivates them and use it on a regular basis. They build beneficial habits and routines that help them effectively accomplish their goals.

If you can commit to using these seven secrets—defining your goal; breaking it down; making a plan; getting support; getting motivated; making a habit; being accountable—you can achieve the goals you set for yourself. The academic rewards will be huge. But the personal rewards will also be fantastic. You’ll be learning how to get what you want in the world by focusing your energy and your efforts. And that is the secret to not just higher grades, but also higher levels of happiness.