Some students excel in school quite easily, scoring high on tests without requiring additional tutoring or assistance. On the other hand, some students struggle in school, barely passing tests despite receiving extensive tutoring. This difference is not necessarily because the first group is smarter than the second. Rather, the distinction can stem from one key difference between these two types of students.
Consider two students I have taught in the past. One student attends all tutoring sessions, pays attention in class, and completes his homework. He also does extra practice provided by his tutor. Although he possesses prerequisite knowledge and is intelligent, he doesn’t achieve outstanding grades in school – he is above average, but never at the top.
Another student also attends all tutoring sessions, but has fallen behind slightly, so he works diligently to catch up. He takes note of areas he didn’t comprehend in class and seeks clarification from his tutor during tutoring sessions. Instead of the tutor assigning him homework, he requests extra practice on topics that he lacks confidence in. Although he previously struggled in school, he is now at the top of his class.
What is the crucial difference between these two students? It’s the level of self-awareness they display. The first student is good at following the tutor’s instructions but fails to recognize his own knowledge gaps or weaknesses. In contrast, the second student continually assesses his understanding, addressing any deficiencies. He reflects on his knowledge and skills, taking steps to remedy any problems he has.
What is self-awareness and how is it important?
Self-awareness is the ability to recognize one’s thoughts, emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and motivations in various situations. It’s a type of metacognitive skill that is necessary for efficient learning. Self-awareness allows students to objectively analyze their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Self-aware students can make necessary changes and avoid obstacles that may hinder their learning progress.
Self-awareness helps students excel in school in several ways:
1. Identifying strengths and weaknesses
When students are self-aware, they can recognize their strong and weak areas, guiding them to choose the best learning strategies and subjects to concentrate on. For instance, if a student knows they lack a skill in a particular area or haven’t memorized specific facts, they can improve their weaknesses by practicing more or reviewing their notes.
2. Goal setting and planning
Self-awareness allows students to set realistic and achievable goals for themselves based on their understanding of their capabilities and current learning progress. Students can arrange their study schedules according to their strengths and weaknesses in order to accomplish their goals. Study plans created by students themselves tend to be more efficient than those designed by others, particularly at the high school or university levels.
3. Better self-management
Students who possess a high level of self-awareness can effectively control their emotions and thoughts. For instance, if a student recognizes that they are experiencing excessive stress, they can set aside personal time to engage in enjoyable activities and reduce stress. When a student understands the factors that distract them or cause procrastination, such as social media, they can actively avoid these distractions. If a young student is aware of their fear and anxiety before a test, they can use strategies such as deep breathing or free writing to calm themselves down.
4. Improved decision-making
By understanding their strength, weakness, learning styles, and thought processes, self-aware students can make better decisions for themselves. This includes decisions about choosing which projects to do, coming up with study plans, choosing classes, and even choosing college majors.
5. Able to ask help when needed
Being self-aware enables students to communicate effectively with teachers, tutors, and peers. They are better able to express their needs, ask for help, and share their ideas and opinions with others. When they have trouble in a subject area, they can proactively ask their teacher or tutor to help them, for example.
How students can improve their self-awareness and how parents can help
Research has shown that students with higher levels of self-awareness tend to perform better academically. Children who are aware of their emotion can do better in school, have fewer behavioral problems, and fewer health problems.
So, how can parents help their children improve their self-awareness? There are several strategies that you can try.
1. Help Your child develop a habit of “noting down”
When your child is studying, encourage them to take notes on anything they find challenging. For instance, if they are reading a geography book and come across a paragraph they don’t fully grasp, have them place a sticky note on that section. If they are working on a science assignment and can’t do a question without assistance, tell them to put a star next to it. Before a test, if they have an outline, ask them to mark the topics they feel confident about with a check and highlight those they’re unsure of.
This practice of “noting down” helps your child build a habit of self-reflection. It also serves as a reminder for them to go back, review, and ask questions about their weak areas later on.
2. Encourage constant self-test
A student may not always know what they understand or don’t understand while studying. To help with this, they can continuously test themselves. For example, if a student is preparing for a math exam, they can attempt a practice question without referring to their notes. If they’re studying for a history test, they can try to remember essential historical facts. If they’re unable to recall the necessary information, they’ll know they need to study more in those areas.
3. Encourage self-reflection
Before a quiz, test, or exam, encourage your child to reflect on their preparation. They can ask themselves questions like, “Am I ready for the test?” “Which areas do I need to practice more?” “Are there any concepts I don’t understand yet?” Asking themselves questions helps develop self-awareness, an important skill for a good student.
After your child receives their quiz, test, or exam results, encourage them to look at their results and reflect on it. They can ask questions like, “What did I get right and wrong?” “How could I have prepared better for the test?” “What would I do differently next time?” “Am I happy with this result?” This way, your child can connect with their thoughts and feelings while objectively analyzing their performance and coming up with ideas for improvement.
4. Communicate with your child
As a parent, you can help your child ask important questions like those mentioned above. For example, after your child receives a test result from school, you can ask questions such as, “Did you do as well as you hoped?” “What parts did you do really well on?” “Which areas do you think you can improve in?” “What test preparation strategies worked well for you this time? Which ones didn’t work as well?” “How did you feel when you got your test back?”
The key is to be non-judgmental. Children are sensitive to what their parents think. If they feel like you are blaming them or expecting them to say something specific, they will just tell you what you want to hear. That’s not helpful. Instead, encourage your child to objectively analyze their feelings, thoughts, strategies, planning, and execution. You want your child to open up, explore their thoughts, and share them without feeling judged.
Avoid asking accusatory questions like “Why didn’t you do well on the test?” Focus on working together with your child to improve their performance. Ask questions that get your child thinking and talking, and offer suggestions after listening to what they have to say. This approach will put your child in the driver’s seat, taking responsibility for their own learning.
5. Model self-awareness
Parents can model self-awareness, so their children can learn strategies to become more self-aware. For instance, when reading a history textbook with your child, you can say out loud, “I wonder what this means. I should look it up,” or “I don’t think I understand this term,” or “How should I write down what I need to review later?”
Do this frequently in front of your child, so they can learn how to ask themselves questions. Asking questions about their own thoughts, knowledge, or emotions is a crucial part of being self-aware.
Investing time and effort into developing self-awareness skills can greatly improve a student’s academic performance and learning experience. With the right support and guidance, students can cultivate these skills and excel in their educational endeavors.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.