How To Get Better Grades
Many parents ask us how their students can earn better grades. Over the years we’ve developed a time-tested list of study habits that students can employ to start getting better grades. Since we know not every family has the time or resources to work with a private tutor, we wrote this detailed guide—and are giving it away for free—in the hope that it will launch more students on the path to success.
Who am I to tell you how to get better grades? My name is Eric Earle and I am the founder of Tutor Portland. The truth is that these study habits were forged and tested in the field long before they were used with clients here at Tutor Portland. As a kid, I used to struggle with math and science because I thought that they were “hard” subjects… and I didn’t invest enough time studying or have the right game pan to succeed.
I built mental roadblocks and barriers that stood in my way. After a life-changing trip to India in my twenties, I decided to become a doctor. I went back to school—after having graduated with a psychology degree (and proudly never having taken a math or hard-science course). I earned straight A’s in the most challenging math and science courses in college—Organic Chemistry, Gen Chem, Physics. This is my story. These are my lessons!
1. Time Your Studying Precisely
When I went back to complete my post-graduate work, I was armed with a new tool: a five dollar Casio wristwatch. I wore it to my first day of class. After chemistry class I grabbed my backpack and headed down to the library. I sat down and got out my textbook. I got everything ready and situated. Then I clicked a button twice on Casio wristwatch.
The watch was now in stopwatch mode.
I clicked it one more time and the timer started. About 10 minutes through studying I felt like getting out my phone because I remembered that I had to text a friend. I clicked my wristwatch.
The timer turned off. It was my goal to time my studying exactly. If I stopped studying, I stopped my timer. That’s how it went.
This made me think very carefully about when I would take breaks. The next time I wanted to take a rest, I reached for my watch.
But then I thought to myself, “well, if I take a break, that means I have to stop my timer.”
I didn’t want to do that. So I kept studying.
When I was done studying for the day, I clicked my timer. I looked around the library as I slung my messenger-bag backpack over my shoulder. I saw a girl on Facebook. Another person was on their phone.
All over the library people were checking social media. One man was on Amazon. A girl was scrolling through fashion websites. Another person was buying shoes from Nike.
These people think that they are in the library studying, I thought to myself. But they don’t know the exact extent of the work they are putting in. I looked at my watch again to confirm. I had studied—pure studying with no distractions—for 45 minutes.
I began developing a keen sense of exactly how long certain assignments took—as I progressed term by term through my post-graduate years.
“Ok. It will take me 1.5 hours to write that lab report. 6 hours to study for this exam and earn an A, with a big margin of safety.” This helped me in innumerable ways.
First, instead of thinking of exams as being “hard” or classes as being difficult… I started thinking about classes, exams, and assignments purely in terms of the number of unit hours it would take me to complete them successfully—in the top 1% of all students. This radically altered my mindset and put me on the path towards having a growth mindset about math and science.
Importantly, this habit allowed me to plan and budget my time. There was no more waiting for the night before an exam, like I might have done in my undergraduate college years. Now, I knew that chemistry exams took 12 hours to earn an A. Biology exams took 6-8 hours. And physics generally took 15. So, when I knew that studying took this amount of time… I would never wait until the night before the exam. I started studying that weekend. Or even the weekend before.
2. Maintain a Margin of Safety
Think about an elevator. The maximum weight limit that they record isn’t the actual limit that the elevator can hold. All elevators are designed with a margin of safety in mind. This is critical because things do and will go wrong. I remember when I was in my third and final term of general chemistry. It was Sunday afternoon. I had an exam on Monday morning. General chemistry is a course which takes time and effort to succeed at.
And I really love chemistry!
Therefore, I had been studying intensely for this final exam. I studied for, I think it was, 10 hours on Saturday. I really wanted to crush that exam. I thought to myself — well I probably already have an A — but I want to crush this and keep studying so that I really ensure success. Sunday I studied more in the morning. By the afternoon I was starting to feel a little stressed. So I went out for a nice long trail run. I was absolutely in heaven. Then I stepped on a pebble laying on the trail and my foot everted, twisting outwards. I heard a loud — it sounded like a gunshot — pop. I yelled out in pain. I had to sit down. It didn’t feel good. This had happened in the past, and I was always able to walk it off. But not this time. This time I knew I had broken something.
I had fracture my foot a day before finals! On my way back home, I thought to myself — wow, good thing I had a margin of safety!!! Before the injury I had been planning to be study more that evening!
But I didn’t need to. I already had an A.
This was a great feeling. The unexpected had happened. But I was still ready. I felt confident. The next day, I rolled up confidently to class on crutches and with an ace bandage around my foot. I got 100% on the exam.
The lesson to me was clear: it is critical to have a margin of safety in everything that you do. These days, when I study, I go way beyond the point of getting an “A.” I want to crush that exam. It’s like hitting a home run. I don’t want to hit the ball just over the fence. What if something happens? An outfielder could jump up and catch it! Or it could be really windy that day… and not make it over the fence. To me, that’s unacceptable. I want to hit it out of the freakin’ park.
If I’m going to do something—if I sign up for something—I want to be the best at it. And I always want to ensure a solid margin of safety.
3. Email Your Teachers
Organic Chemistry. Just the name of the course causes fear in the average student. For many, it evokes memories of dread and hatred. It is billed as the hardest, most challenging course in college. (Hey—I don’t believe “hard” subjects exist… but that’s what its billed as, more on this later!)
While other people were out messing around during summer, I decided to sit in on the entire organic chemistry sequence. It was being offered in an accelerated format over summer, and I figured this would be an excellent time to just sit in as an observer and learn as much O-Chem as I could.
I also bought the textbook and started reading. By the time September rolled around, I already sat through 80% of the first term and read the entire textbook. I had also sat-in on a portion of O-Chem II. Let’s just say, I was way ahead.
I honestly loved organic chemistry. I loved every minute of it. And my enthusiasm showed. I emailed the professor during the first week of class to ask him about some small detail in chapter 7 (about 80% way through the course). I continued emailing the professor constantly and consistently throughout the term. I asked questions. I corrected mistakes that I found in his notes or in the textbook. I made my presence known! Later, I realized, this was a very smart thing to do! Now, I only recommend doing this if you are honestly passionate about the subject — or at least strongly motivated and driven to succeed in the course.
During the second term of O-chem, I emailed the professor nearly everyday. Well, I mean, I was studying everyday… and many times I had questions, so I would send over a quick email. It was pretty funny. After the first exam, I didn’t send my professor an email for a few days.
This was a fun exchange. And then I quickly fell back into sending massive amounts of emails… because I had a lot of questions! I was curious! More than just wanting to excel on the exam, I wanted to master organic chemistry. I wanted to learn every single detail. I was captivated by it.
Also, it is important to gauge your teachers and see what they can reasonably tolerate. I’ve noticed that there is a wide range in teachers’ willingness to respond to emails. The best teachers are the ones who diligently respond to your emails. I had some professors who would respond to my night and day within hours. They wrote me multiple paragraph explanations over email—even taking the time to draw out molecule structures and show examples with pen and paper. But this is certainly not the norm.
Some teachers were so slow to respond that I gave up and emailed professors from the prior term, or a TA, or tutor. It is very important to gauge where your teachers are, therefore, and send them a volume of emails that they can reasonably handle without it being too much of a burden. I’ve noticed that—usually—teachers who are slow at responding to emails usually either a) lack enthusiasm for the subject, b) try to teach their course with a minimum amount of effort, c) are otherwise preoccupied, or d) are not the most engaging / caring professor or teacher.
This leads me to another good trick that I have discovered. Emailing teachers a week before you are considering taking their class is a great idea. If they are slow to respond to you, this could be an indication that they aren’t the best teacher—and you might want to avoid their course and try another professor. Obviously, there could be other reasons why there were slow to respond… but if it appears to be a habit, then it is best to avoid their course altogether. It is very important to find passionate teachers.
4. “Hard” Subjects Don’t Exist
During the coronavirus crisis, I suddenly found myself with much more time on my hands. I was taking three science courses but without other daily activities I was left with extra time. I was also locked down in quarantine. The first week of the term was difficult for me. I thought—wow—the world is really testing me here on my last term. I had been saying organic chemistry was easy—but O-Chem while socially isolated, that’s hard! Later that day though I sat down for a long meditation. And that’s when my life changed. I was sitting there and had the thought, “dang, this meditation is hard, sitting here is hard” …. when I suddenly realized nothing is hard.
I thought about being socially isolated, and I thought—this isn’t hard at all. This is easy. I have a bunch of time on my hand now, I can use this all to my advantage. I suddenly realized that nothing in life is hard, or challenging, or difficult—everything is easy. Now, some things might take an insane amount of time and effort to improve at. Certain experiences may be painful or agony-causing. But nothing is hard. You can succeed at anything. You can do anything. Some things just require more work, more time. I realized that I had been placing limits on myself for so many things.
I used to think:
- communicating is hard for me
- meditating is hard
- I’m bad at math and science, they are really challenging for me
- and on and on and on
I was creating barriers for myself. Putting up walls.
But none of that is true.
Sure, some of those things might require extra energy and time to improve at … but none of them are hard. They can all be accomplished with some work. This mindset shift was liberating. It set me free. Instead of now seeing excuses and things that I couldn’t do … everything in the world now appeared to me as something that could be figured out, solved, accomplished … it was only a matter of time and energy.
5. Study Actively & Test Yourself
Step one in this guide introduced the idea of timing your study hours. That is an incredibly important idea, which alone, is enough to make you successful in any course you take. Sheer volume. Solely relying on the number of hours spent studying will undoubtedly propel you towards success. Still, how you spend your hours is important. You could spend 10 hours reading and re-reading a textbook. And that’s good. You would learn a lot from that.
Or—as I once did—you could print out hundreds of pages of practice problems, a 7-8 inch stack of paper, and complete them all. This would, of course, be more efficient and lead to stronger learning gains. Even further, any time you reached a problem that you didn’t understand you could spend time pouring over your textbook, researching how to solve the problem. If that didn’t fully crystalize your understanding, you could then go to YouTube and watch videos on the subject for an hour or two.
Then you could email your teacher describing your thoughts about the question. You could write something like, “I chose C for this problem. My reasoning was that carbonyl bonds are very polar, which would cause the carbon to be highly electrophilic, with a partial positive charge… I was unsure what effect the chloride would have on the reaction, whether it would be a leaving group in this case… etc… etc.”
Can you see how this approach would yield much stronger gains that simply reading and re-reading the textbook?
With the approach detailed above you would be engaged in active learning. Active learning is when we engage with material. It happens when we attempt to verbalize our thinking about something. But you can “verbalize” your thinking over email! And this is usually sufficient to lead to significant learning gains. Hopefully, your teacher will email you back. And you will get confirmation that your thinking is indeed correct, or tips and pointers on where you went astray, and how to better think about and analyze the problem.
6. Think Problems Through
This is important for nearly any subject. I gained this skill and employed this study habit extensively in mathematics and chemistry. When a teacher handed out a worksheet, I would look at the problems and then sit back and think about them for a minute. I would close my eyes and run the problems through in my mind. I would analyze the problems and try to decipher what they were testing. I would then be able to check my mental simulations of the questions against the answers. This would provide me with a host of information.
Thinking problems though in your mind is great for a number of reasons. Thinking questions through provides with you with a good idea of your current understanding levels. It trains and develops your brain. Doing this will make it much easier for you come exam time. You brain will be trained to see questions and automatically start thinking about the answer and working the problem through in your mind.
7. Don’t Make Flashcards
I think the reason why many students dislike certain classes is because they try to memorize things. That sounds terrible! No fun. I will grant you that in some cases memorization is necessary and must be done. But in many cases it is not needed is actually a hinderance. Take organic chemistry, for example. Most students go into the course feeling confident. O chem starts out kind of slow for a while. And people are saying and thinking to themselves, “hey, this isn’t so bad.” Eventually they get a little bit behind. And then things start falling apart. They try to cram and memorize a few dozen reactions before an exam. And this might help them do well once or twice.
But by the end of O chem there are hundreds of reactions, each with slight variations and possibilities. So, yeah, I could see why that would be no fun to memorize! But memorization here is a hindrance which erodes true knowledge. Instead, it is far better to focus on understanding.
I went through organic chemistry and never made a single flashcard. I didn’t take notes in class, either. And I scored 97% or higher on every exam. I loved the class. People were shocked. How are you doing this? They asked. What I did do was pay attention. I was mesmerized and every atom in my body was laser focused on the professor as he spoke. I didn’t even really look at the board that much.
I just concentrated on him and every thing that he was saying. I focused on understanding every single detail in the course. That way I didn’t need to memorize anything… because I had a deep understanding of it all. I was able to look at molecules and predict how they would react because I knew the principles behind all of the reaction. This made O chem fun. It was fascinating to learn how everything worked and interacted.
8. Study Every Day
Another thing that I did to master O chem was to study for one hour every single day for one year. Guess what I did over Thanksgiving? Studied an hour of O chem each day. How about over Christmas vacation while traveling? I studied organic chemistry everyday. Spring break? You betcha. I never stopped. I kept the momentum rolling. It is incredible how well this works.
Other students would go to class twice a week, sure, but they sometimes wouldn’t review or study organic chemistry for weeks. I remember about 5 days before one exam, someone asked, have you started studying for o-chem yet? I just looked at her for a moment. I didn’t know how to respond for a second because I had been studying o-chem for hundreds of days in a row already.
It’s pretty simple math actually. Most students didn’t study o-chem for 3 weeks and then attempted to cram 3-4 days before the tests. Over the course of those three weeks, I would have (at minimum) racked up 21 hours of studying already. And that learning was all time-spaced learning, which a significant body of research shows leads to stronger and longer-lasting learning gains.
Most of the time I didn’t need to “study” for exams. I never crammed for the o-chem exams. I hardly thought about them and the majority of the time didn’t need to go above my 1-hour per day. Sometimes, if it was a really hard test, I would study for 2 hours or 3 hours. That helped me feel confident and establish a wider margin of safety.
9. Use Spaced Repetition
There is a wide-body of evidence extolling the benefits of spaced repetition. Yes, hundreds of studies have shown that students have superior long-term learning benefits when they practice spaced versus bunched learning. Students spend enough time learning already! They are in school all day long. Why are American students falling so far behind the rest of the developed world in math and science?
I believe STEM education could be vastly improved by incorporating spaced learning techniques! But you don’t have to wait for teachers to adopt these. You can start implementing these in your own study strategies, just as I did with organic chemistry.
That’s one reason why it’s so effective to do things like read the textbook before class. Attend class. And then review both the textbook and powerpoint slides after class, on separate days. Then on other days you can do practice problems. Having a setup like this ensure that your brain is accessing the information on multiple occasions which are spread apart in time.
This is beneficial because the act of retrieving something from memory takes effort. And our brains tend to remember things that take effort! Because our brains are smart and they know that if we keep retrieving something that takes effort… we might as well just learn it and commit it to memory so that next time we have it!
10. Put Your Phone Away
When I am studying I always hide my phone. If I am at home, I will get up and put it in another room underneath some pillow. Out of sight. Out of mind. I want that thing as far away from me as possible. In the library, I will always place it in my backpack and then zip it up. I started doing this after reading about the devastating effects that our mobile devices are having on our ability to focus. Our phones are the gateway to everything now. They function as so many tools. Our calculator. Our business connection platform. Where we send and receive (e)-mail. How we connect with the world. Friendships and family are just one call away.
Our phone is literally our portal to anything that we want to access. And therefore it has a very powerful pull on our brain. Just seeing a phone—anyone’s phone—dramatically deceases our ability to focus. Furthermore, there is evidence showing that even having your phone in the same room as you leads to significant cognitive declines. There is evidence indicating that college students who use their cell phones more often have lower grade point averages (GPAs). Students who used their cell phones more often also had higher levels of anxiety.
Additionally, researchers have found that the mere presence of your phone decreases academic performance on a host of measures. This found that even having your cell phone in your pocket can reduce your available cognitive capacity. That’s why I always leave my phone in the other room when I am studying. I also leave my phone on silent all the time. I never accept phone calls. If someone really wants to get ahold of me, they can text or leave a message, and I will normally call them back reasonably quickly. I view cell phones as an interruption. Many people let their phones control them. Their cell phones are dictating the pace of their day! You have to take the power back. Seize control of your day!
11. Learn Before Class
There is also research extolling the benefits of learning subjects before they are taught in class. This has also been called “flipped” learning because it is the opposite of the normal way things are done. I remember in my O chem class. The professor knew what he was doing, so he always had quizzes before we learned the material. This forced students to read the textbook before class! Maybe research some Khan Academy.
Ask questions! Engage with the material! The professor said during the term that many students complained to him because of this. I told him that there was a significant body of research showing that quizzes before lecture improve learning outcomes.
This research article states that pre-class quizzes lead to higher in-class exam scores when the material is finally tested.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” he said.
The idea is that pre-class quizzes encourage students to complete the reading before class… and most importantly to think critically about the reading. Then the student comes to class already having thought deeply about the material! Instead of being passive observers, they are engaged. They are thinking through things and seeing how what the teacher is saying relates to their own structures of knowledge. This is powerful stuff! No wonder that it leads to high exam scores.
12. Take Total Ownership
Do you think that—if you do poorly in your class—it was because the way your class was structured, or the way your teacher taught? If you answered “yes” to this… you likely aren’t earning straight A’s. Straight A students realize that the buck stops with them. You are in charge of your learning! Other things can have an impact on you. Some environments require more effort or hard work to function well in. But at the end of it all… your own mental attitude, desire to succeed, and learning strategies are what count!
13. Switch Your Study Medium
When you have exhausted one form of learning switch to another medium. This will help prevent fatigue. It will keep you fresh and allow you to study for longer periods of time. At a certain point, any one medium or method of studying will plateau. The benefits you were receiving will start shrinking rapidly in that moment. That can be demoralizing, further derailing you. Far better to stay ahead of the curve.
14. Stay Ahead of The Curve
I call it “staying ahead of the curve.” If I wanted to start studying at 7 am, let’s say. I would make sure to be at the library and at a computer well before the clock hit 7. This is because I wanted to start at say, 6:40 am. That way, for the entire day, I could try and stay ahead of the curve. What does that mean? Well, as I timed myself, I would try to finish my first hour of studying before 8. Then my second before 9. My third before 10. This was easy to track because my watch would be counting and would be 10 minutes ahead of the minute hand on a regular clock. My goal was to always keep it ahead.
This meant I had to take quick bathroom breaks! Seriously! There was no stopping. No time for breaks. I couldn’t mess around on my phone… because I didn’t want to fall behind that curve. This helped me power many, many study sessions where I put in 5 or 6 hour days.
15. Avoid Interruptions At All Cost
This is critically, critically important. You never what single interruption might side track you and derail you. You’re entire day of studying could be ruined by one small trip to the bathroom! One thing leads to another. Then maybe you go get a coffee. You see a friend and stop to chat. Then you come back and check Facebook. All of the sudden you really don’t feel like studying any more. So you head to the gym. That’s how it works. I’ve seen this happen to me before.
That’s why I always took my studying sessions so seriously. I would allow nothing to derail me. If you have to find some tucked away are in the back of the library, so be it. It’s critically important that you manage your mental state.
Still, eventually you have to develop the mindset that it doesn’t matter if you “feel like studying.” At some point that should become irrelevant. I remember walking to the library many times thinking, “Eric, it doesn’t matter if you feel like it or not, it’s getting done. It has to get done.”
It’s not acceptable to stop when you no longer have the energy or you you no longer feel like studying. Success is about stopping only when the work is done. And you will get a good sense of when you are done—by following rule #1, time your studying precisely!