Smart Learning


A major part of successful learning at school and beyond can be attributed to simple organisation. Having intelligence and academic skill is important too, but these gifts will not deliver success unless the student learns to manage and develop them through consistent organisation and time management.

The costs of disorganisation are high; too many students fail to reach their academic potential simply because they overlook the importance of organisation in helping them to accomplish their goals. And it’s not just about their schooling – disorganisation will handicap them in many other areas of their life including their employment and personal relationships.

One of the most fundamental tasks of education is helping students master the skill of organisation. And it is a skill. Though some may be more naturally gifted or attuned in their personality to the rigours of organisation, it is possible, and indeed necessary, for all students to learn the basics. Whether you are a parent, teacher or mentor, one of the greatest gifts you can give the children in your care is the skill for learning ‘smart’!

Developing virtues or character strengths is of critical importance in helping children enjoy learning and become proficient in it.


Children and adults need to feel valued and capable if they are to be successful in their lives. Praise and appreciation is a key part and can communicate very effectively that the child is valued. Unregulated praise however can be detrimental to long term development as it lacks the solid foundation of tried and tested competency. It is important that children be given the opportunity to try, and fail, and try again so that they can build a sense of self-value based on competency rather than unearned praise.


Success in any endeavour takes focused and often sustained effort. Feelings such as tiredness, boredom, impatience, frustration and discouragement can thwart a person’s desire to succeed. Students who develop mastery over such feelings will accomplish their academic and life goals with greater ease.


It is important for students to know their strengths and weaknesses so that they can plan around them. Self-awareness helps a person to read their body and mind so that that they can respond appropriately when under stress or at their peak. Symptoms indicating that their body or mind is hungry, fatigued or sluggish need to be recognised so that they know when to take a break. Similarly, recognising when they are most alert and energised can help them plan to use that time for important study rather than recreation. Understanding what motivates them can help students to manage the fluctuations in their enthusiasm.

Virtues in Practice

The development of these virtues starts with toddlers and continues until adulthood, when students should be self-managing. In school years, parents and teachers are critical in creating the environment that allows the student to practice these virtues.

Getting the Basics Right – Primary School Students

  1. Have a Routine for Homework. Young children cannot be expected to remember a complex series of tasks such as all the things they should do before dinner (eg put their bag away, have afternoon tea, get changed, do four different homework activities, put the homework away, set the table, etc). Routines help make these complex tasks easier for kids to remember.
  2. Limit Recreational Activities. Parents need to be careful not to over-schedule their children’s recreational activities as it can interfere with the development of the key virtues needed for successful organisation and study. Moreover, children need unstructured free play where they can be creative and imaginative and learn the skills to interact with other children without adult managment.
  3. Home Chores. Though they may not like it, it’s imperative that kids be given age-appropriate household chores. Chores develop self-discipline and self-value through the valued contribution the child makes to the family.
  4. Reward Desirable Behaviour. It works for dogs. It works for seals. It works for humans too. If you want to encourage a particular behaviour, reward it appropriately. Praise, stars, stickers, a small treat. Keep the reward proportional to the accomplishment.
  5. Appropriate Extension. It’s great to give children tasks that they can accomplish easily to consolidate their confidence and self-value. They also need to be given extension tasks so that they learn new skills and develop the virtue of self-discipline.
  6. Let Consequences Bite. Parents who do not apply consequences when children disobey or fail to follow the family rules do their children a serious disservice. Have consequences. Apply them consistently. Apply them wisely and compassionately.
  7. Use Homework Lists. At this age, students need help from parents in structuring their day to day homework as well as their forward planning. Use their school diary to make a list each day of the homework and other tasks that need to be done. Get them to ‘tick’ the item when it’s complete. If they can’t complete an item, transfer it to the next day.
  8. Emotional Literacy. One of the most effective ways to develop a child’s self-awareness is to encourage children to articulate their feelings and the feelings of others. Establish a habit with your child of reflecting on his or her experiences to build emotional literacy and self-awareness.
  9. Regular Snacks. Humans work best when they have a steady level of blood sugars. High carbohydrate snacks like sweets, fruit and crisps tend to spike the blood sugars which then crash as the body overcompensates. Use high protein snacks like cheese, milk, nuts, eggs, meat.
  10. Time it. Thirty to forty minutes is about the maximum time that a student at this age can stay focused. Structure regular breaks if the task is a long one. If children are distracted and restless, give them a timer and let them set a time goal (eg read for 15 minutes) or a time challenge (eg see how fast they can complete the maths mentals).

Tips for High School Students

When a student enters high school, the need for strong organisational skills takes a sharp increase. Multiple teachers, in multiple classrooms, setting assignments independently of each other will mean that the work load becomes lumpy.  Students who fail to manage their time effectively will quickly become stressed and overwhelmed.

  1. Make the most of class time. You may not like school but the reality is that you have to go so you may as well make the best of the time spent in the classroom. Plan to be on time, with everything needed (note paper, pens, text book etc) and ready to learn.
  2. Don’t let questions go unanswered. If you don’t understand something, ask! Teachers almost universally respect a sincere request for further assistance so seek clarification if needed.
  3. Study Notes. To avoid the exam period crunch make summaries and/or study notes on each topic in each subject as it is completed. It is more efficient to make these notes when the subject matter is still fresh, than to leave it to the study break.
  4. Chunking. It can be overwhelming for even the most accomplished professional when the work load piles up. Establish a habit of chunking: breaking large tasks down into manageable ‘chunks’ and set interim ‘due dates’ for each block to keep the momentum on the project.
  5. Be on Time. Whether it’s getting to school, to class or handing in an assignment, being late is the fastest way to lose marks unnecessarily.
  6. Have a Plan. Use the school diary (or your electronic diary) to plan and manage time and tasks.  Don’t rely on memory to recall all the things needed for an excursion the following week – record it! Make note of all homework tasks and tick them off when complete.
  7. Prioritise. Make sure the homework tasks that are due the next day are done first, but take care not to let big assignments slide back creating a crisis later.
  8. Manage Motivation. Some like to tackle the hardest tasks first, leaving the more enjoyable ones for later when they will be tired. Others need to knock over some of the smaller, easier tasks first to reduce the size of the ‘due tomorrow’ list. Use your study breaks and small treats to reward yourself for work accomplished – avoid taking breaks without first ‘earning’ them otherwise they can easily become an excuse to avoid (or procrastinate) study.
  9. Past Papers. When it comes to exam preparation, one of the most effective methods is to do past papers under exam conditions. Practice, practice, practice. Every great athlete, musician and artist began with a talent that they perfected through practice.
  10. Set Goals. Set goals. Review them. Celebrate achieving them. Learn from the ones you missed. (see right for more tips).

Goals to live by

It’s very difficult to maintain motivation if you don’t have goals. These goals need to conform to the following principles:

  1. Positive.  Simply aiming to avoid failure is unlikely to inspire anyone to success so it’s important to frame a goal in positive language. So instead of aiming to “avoid failing the Maths quiz”, make it, a goal to “get at least 51%”.
  2. Specific.  Make goals concrete and well defined. If it’s too vague it’s hard to know if you have really reached it. A time frame is also important, eg instead of “aiming to improve my English”, make it, “I aim to improve my English from C to B this term”.
  3. Realistic. Setting ambitious goals has a place, but if they are too grand, you are likely to get discouraged and give up. If you have a long term ambitious goal like, “I want to get DUX of the school”, ground it with more realistic short term goals, like “I’m second in History, so this term I want to get first. Next term, I’ll focus on another subject”.

Steps to Goals that Work!

  1. Set Goals for Each Term: one for each subject, one for each of your health, spiritual life, and relationships. Write them down in a planner or diary. Check that they are positive, specific and realistic.
  2. Set Goals for Each Week (no more than three): Write them down at the beginning of the week. They may be related to assignments that have been set as homework. Check that they are positive, specific and realistic to accomplish that week. For example: Science assignment – aim to finish research and write part one this week.
  3. Make a Plan for Each Goal: what practical steps will be taken to accomplish it? Write down the steps in the diary or planner at the first possible day that you can realistically do that. For example, on Monday: Do research for Science Assignment.
  4. Check your Diary Every Day: It should have the set homework from your teachers as well as steps for each of your goals. Prioritise the tasks and then do them in order. Tick them when complete. If you don’t finish all the tasks for that day, write them down for the next day.
  5. Review Goals at the End of the Week: If you accomplished them, give them a tick or a star – well done!  If you didn’t quite get them done, study the goals to learn why. Were the goals too ambitious for one week? Did recreation time crowd them out? Be honest! It’s okay to fail – everybody does – but be smart about it and learn from your errors. Do the same for term goals at the end of term.

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Francine Pirola

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