There’s a moment from my teaching career I remember well.
Like many English teachers, I gave a weekly vocabulary quiz. Each week I’d give a list of 15 words, and each week I had a fill-in-the-blank quiz where students would need to find the word that best fit into a sentence. I eventually stopped doing this when I realized I was just doing it out of habit and not because I necessarily thought it was a good practice, but that’s not what this story is about.
One time, about six weeks into the school year, a student came to talk to me about her vocab quizzes. She was getting low scores, and she was frustrated. She told me that she’d spending hours each week preparing, but it (obviously) wasn’t helping. She looked up each word in the dictionary and read through the definitions carefully. She repeated this a few times through the week, and made sure to do it right again the morning of the quiz. But she was still getting scores in the 40s and 50s.
“Stop doing that,” I said.
“What do you mean?” She was confused by my answer.
“If you’re studying in a way that isn’t helping, then stop doing that. Let’s find a way to study for the quiz in a way that helps.”
She seemed skeptical as I explained ways that I knew some other students prepared, mostly by looking for sentences with the word so they could understand it in context. That’s how the quiz worked, after all, using the words in context.
She left hopeful, and almost immediately her quiz grades shot up into 90s.
I forgot about the whole conversation, but later in the year she brought it up. What really stuck with her, she said, wasn’t the tips I gave her about how to study, but that I told her it was ok to stop what she had been doing. When she was younger, she’d been taught that reading and re-reading definitions is the “right” way to improve your vocabulary. She found it refreshing that a teacher told her to stop doing it the “right” way if the “right” way was ineffective. That’s what she thanked me for.
(Considering the school we were at, I know that I wasn’t the first or only teacher to encourage students to think openly about what works best for them. I think it was simply the bluntness of “stop doing that” that broke through.)
With that story in mind, I want to encourage you to stop doing the things that aren’t making you a better student or happier person, even if those things are generally considered good. You already know you should stop giving in to your “bad” habits; we all know that. But if a “good” habit, like my student’s thorough re-reading of dictionary definitions, isn’t helping you, then please let it go.
The only thing I ask is that you give a new habit or practice time before you abandon it. The new way of studying for the quiz didn’t work for her instantly, but it kicked in after a few weeks. Don’t give up on something that may be helpful just because it doesn’t have immediate effect. But once you’ve been doing something long enough to know for sure that it’s not helping you, stop doing that.
If you’re studying for tests in a way that isn’t helping you do well on tests, stop doing that.
If you’re a part of a club or sport because it “looks good to colleges,” but you’re not really participating or getting anything from it, stop doing that.
If you’re pursuing a path that makes you deeply unhappy because you think it must be better than confronting your family about their expectations for you, stop doing that.
If you have a system for keeping yourself organized and keeping track of what you need to do but you constantly feel unorganized or miss deadlines, stop doing that.
If you’re only considering “elite” colleges but find yourself anxious that you may not get accepted to any of them, stop doing that.
If you’re only considering less-selective colleges to play it safe but find yourself anxious that you may be selling yourself short, stop doing that.
If you’re going through the motions of preparing for college but know in your heart that you don’t want to go to college, stop doing that.
If you’re avoiding thinking about college because you’re afraid you can’t afford it but know in your heart that college is the right thing for you, stop doing that.
Doing the right things, and doing them the right way, is good for you and the people around you. But please take account now and then to make sure the things you’re doing really are good, and that you really are doing them in the right way.
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