Being a Great Student

These articles all relate to taking personal responsibility for creative learning.

Accepting Responsibility for Your Learning

by Dahlia Miller
October 2010

“Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”
Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 - 1964)

Who is responsible for your future? Who is responsible for your success? You are! While there are definitely supporting players, you are the leading actor and the director of your life. You can choose to learn, to grow, to be a leader or not. It’s really up to you.

Caveat: Taking responsibility is a wide topic. Here we’ll focus on accepting responsibility for our own learning.

Just What Is ‘Responsibility’?

One way to think about responsibility is seeing it as our ability to respond to things (i.e. response-ability). This is our ability to express our free will through action. It’s how we interact with the world around us – something happens and we respond. If we want to change how things are, we can be pro-active rather than re-active. This requires taking a look at each situation as it arises and deciding our most appropriate response to it. This is how we became ‘response-able’. Meaning, we choose our responses; we aren’t just tossed about by the waves of circumstance.

We’re all different people, so how you respond to a situation may very well be different from how I respond to it. We all have different emotional responses and different thoughts, and we will all likely have a slightly different take on the best way to deal with or respond to a situation. Even how capable we think we are of responding will be different. But we can still all enable ourselves to respond. We can all be response-able.

To be response-able, we take action in some way after consideration; we don’t just sit back all the time to see how things play out. We become more response-able through practice, success, modeling, and experimentation with different responses to our actions. To experiment, we try a response and see what happens. Based on the reactions to our actions, we can do the same thing again in future or try something different.

But that’s not all there is to it. Responsibility is not just about our ability to come up with creative and appropriate responses to situations. It’s also about consistent follow-through. It’s about giving people a reason to trust that you will do what you say you will because you have a track record for doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done.

Other people’s versions of you are made up of the sum total of how you act, talk and generally behave around them (filtered through their own concepts of course).

It helps if we feel that others are open and receptive to our responses. But really, despite others’ willingness, or unwillingness, to accept our actions, we still need to be pro-active rather than re-active (as long as we are considering the safety, health and feelings of others). Our circumstances will change eventually if we practise having different responses.

Really, who else can assume responsibility for you? Whose responsibility is your education? Your future? Your success? Your choices in life? We need to accept the authority for our own choices. Our education, our success, our future – these are all things that we need to create for ourselves.

This type of approach requires us to be active participants in our lives – not passive recipients. It’s not enough to criticize the TV for its poor quality programming; we need to turn it off.

Sure we have all at some point in our life looked to ‘shift the blame’ or point a finger at others. But how far does this really fly? We can cry, blame, complain, or make excuses, but ultimately these responses make success harder to achieve. And they don’t really make the current situation feel or actually be any better, do they?

If we believe that we have free will, we’ll recognize that we have choices. Everything is a series of choices. It’s up to us whether we engage or not. So even if someone is not being so supportive or even seems to be blocking your progress, you are still responsible for how you respond. Knowing you need to eat it, what kind of cake will you make with the ingredients in front of you?

Being responsible doesn’t mean you can never make mistakes, or that you’re bad if you do. It does mean accepting the consequences of your actions without shifting blame. And when we do make mistakes, we can look for another way to do things next time. (Not just set up a victim-mentality for the rest of our days.)
What Are We Responsible for?

Stepen Covey divides the people in the world into three categories:


Group 3, the people you can impact, is the people around you in the world. They see your choices and may decide to model some of their behaviours after yours or not. Group 2 is your family and friends. You can make direct suggestions to them and they can choose to follow your advice or not. Group 1 is comprised of the one and only person you can change: you.

Lots of people talk about change, but they often are talking about how others ought to change. Few people talk about changing themselves, and even fewer people actually follow through on changing. Yet this is the only way – no one else can make you believe something or change your attitudes – only you can. So, no one else is responsible for your beliefs, attitudes, emotional responses or actions – only you are.

Being responsibility for our learning, means taking responsibility for our:

  • homework (bringing it home, doing it, handing it in, meeting deadlines)
  • academic choices (studying for tests, reviewing, paying attention in class, having all the supplies we need)
  • support sought (asking questions, selecting a supportive peer group, getting extra assistance)
  • attitude (believing in ourselves, being willing to learn)
  • interactions with others (adjusting our tone of voice and body language)
  • confidence (celebrating successes, rewarding effort, recognizing or ability and growth)
  • growth (being willing to take on new and exciting challenges, learning from mistakes)

Why Be Responsible?

Amazing things can happen when we step into the driver’s seat in our lives:

  • we gain wisdom through experience
  • we gain confidence
  • we feel more comfortable with our future
  • we become leaders
  • we give others space to grow when we do what we say we’ll do

Taking responsibility makes a lot possible in our lives.

How Can We Take Responsibility for Our Learning?

A wise man created a simple formula for taking responsibility for our learning:
1. If we don’t understand, ask.
2. If we don’t know, learn.
3. If we make a mistake, correct it.

Is it really that simple? Well, it can be.

If we want to take responsibility for our learning, we really need to step forward and ‘take it’. If we’re young, we can watch and learn from others, then try things for ourselves. The same goes for when we’re older, but maybe we can come up with some new ideas on our own.

It’s sometimes scary and not easy to be responsible. We all fear the unknown, and we’d all sometimes like to just step back and let others do everything for us. But if we allow fear or immaturity to rule our choices, then how will we grow? Our challenges are opportunities for us to be successful in the face of challenge.

Try new approaches – experiment with life.

Here’s an approach to experiment with: don’t offer excuses, ever, unless an explanation is requested. Instead just say sorry and say what you’ll do now or next time to avoid the same problem.

Finally, a few simple steps to creating success:

  • engage
  • trust yourself
  • do the work
  • celebrate

“Man is not the creature of circumstances. Circumstances are the creature of man.”

Being Successful in the Middle School Classroom

September 2003

This month’s issue of The Smart Connection is an interview with Jane Spies a Smart Tutor Referrals tutor and teacher with 6 years experience in middle school classrooms.

STR: Can you define “success” in the middle school classroom?

Jane: Well, what I immediately think of when I think of success in the middle school classroom is when students are prepared for class; they’re organized; they’re on time; they attend school regularly; they do their best, and they have a positive attitude. Also surrounding themselves with supportive and positive friends will help lead to success.

STR: How can students prepare themselves for class in fall?

Jane: Be rested. Have supplies ready. Read over the summer to work on vocabulary. Review basic math facts.
Ask questions at the school if you have any concerns. If you’re new, go and check the school out before it starts.
Set goals for the year – think back about last year and look at what you want to improve. If you struggled in Language Arts last year, then set the goal of working to improve that.

STR: After classes have started, how can students get organized?

Jane: The first thing is to make sure all of your supplies and materials are together before you start working. Put everything in a binder. If you have a Social Studies binder, put all of your Social Studies work in it.

Put the name and the date and the title on all your work so that you know in what order things go in your binder.

Keep all of your notes and assignments for one subject in one area so you can find your homework and review for tests more easily.

Also fill out your agenda, planner or homework book regularly so that you know what to do for the next day or the next week. This will help you to use time wisely.

STR: Is it a good idea for students to have a separate binder for each subject?

Jane: That really depends on your teacher. Some teachers will want things in duo-tangs, some teachers will want things in binders. But if you use a binder, if you have more than one subject in there, use a divider – label things.

STR: What tips can you offer for doing homework?

Jane: Set a specific time of day each day to do homework – maybe after a snack or a break. Some kids come home and they do homework right away after school. That works for some people, but I know for myself, I like to have a break first.

Ask questions and seek help if you don’t understand. Teachers are often available if your parents can’t help you – ask your teacher.

If you’re away, make sure you get missed homework, notes or whatever you’re missing.

Prioritize homework – do the most difficult first. Make sure homework gets done on time. If something’s not due until Friday, and you’ve got something else due tomorrow, work on tomorrow’s homework first.

STR: How can middle school students study for tests most effectively?

Jane: : Study without distractions - somewhere where you won’t be interrupted or in a quiet place where you can’t hear the TV. Some kids work better with a little bit of noise, but most kids need silence and no distractions.

Find out what is on the test. Teachers will usually tell you, but if you’re not sure, go ask. Find out what kind of test it is too – because if it’s a written answer test, you’ll probably have to do a lot more memorizing than for a true-false or multiple choice test.

Write down your key terms. Read over your notes. Practice. Memorize.

STR: What can parents do to support their kids to success?

Jane: Be informed about what’s going on in school. Ask your kids about their homework. Ask them to show you their homework or their projects each night. Students at this level will usually have homework every night.

If necessary, help monitor homework that is to be done. Check the planner.

Talk to teachers about any concerns. Go into the classroom and check it out. Get the kids to show you their desk. This is the best way to stay informed.

If a child is sick or away, pick up homework for them after talking to the teacher. (Make sure that you give the teacher enough time to pull some work together for your child.) Talk to the teacher if you know the student is going to be away – be proactive so that your child will know what is going on so they won’t get bombarded with work when they get back to school.

Encourage them to keep a positive attitude when things get rough.

Find out where your kid is at. Don’t wait until the report card comes. Ask your child, sit down and talk with them. Ask them how it’s going in school. Other things may come up too when you listen, like bullying. So it’s important to take the time to sit down with your kid to find out what’s going on in school.

STR: What is the single most important thing that a student can do to be successful in the middle school classroom?

Jane: Have a positive attitude. You can problem-solve the rest of it.

Engaging Creativity in Learning and in Life

by Dahlia Miller
September 2008

“While we have the gift of life, it seems to me that the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die – whether it is our spirit, our creativity, or our glorious uniqueness.”
Gilda Radner, Comedienne (1946-1989)

Our minds enjoy repetition – we’re so stuck on repetition, that we’ll repeat habits, even if they’re uncomfortable. We’ll stay inside our ‘comfort zone’ even in new situations. We’ll repeatedly approach new challenges and problems with the same mind-set or concept, even if our approach isn’t providing the desired response.

Lulled into complacency and a sense of familiarity, we start to truly believe that what we think about the universe is the full extent of reality. But how could it be? How could it be that we already have a complete understanding of all phenomena, all events, all things, all ideas? How could our perspective be complete if it didn’t include the unknown? Stepping out into the great unknown, with a sense of fun, we can explore the world around us and step into our potential.

Using our imaginations as we learn, we tap the highest levels of our intelligence. ‘Playing at it’ rather than ‘working at it,’ learning becomes its own reward.

Have you ever seen the faces of people who have lived to be over 100 years old? They typically seem so totally engaged in living their lives. Like babies, they appear to be excited and stimulated by everything around them. They nearly always have huge smiles on their faces. They look nice to be around.

Boredom, on the other hand, can sink in from not seeing the potential in each new moment, because of familiarity, or because of fear (of stepping outside our comfort zone, usually). Actually, fear is something that we make up. It’s our choice whether to fully engage or not.

As a child, I used to wonder what it would be like to work as a writer for Walt Disney or for The Muppet Show, Monty Python or SCTV. I envisioned the ridiculous and hilarious time the people behind the scenes would be having coming up with new material for each new show. I imagined them bent over from laughing so hard holding a pen in one hand and a handkerchief in the other wiping tears from their eyes. How much fun would that be: working with a group of writers, each spurring and inspiring the other to new heights of humour! What a great job. “But gee,” I would wonder, “How did they learn to be so creative, spontaneous and fun?”

From the Muppet show:
Heckler #1: Was that joke good or what?
Heckler #2: Oh, did you like it?
Heckler #1: I was asleep. That’s why I was asking if that joke was good or what.

Couldn’t we be ridiculous more often? Couldn’t we inspire each other with questions and answers that require us to think in new ways or from new perspectives? Couldn’t we use the gift of our imagination to amuse ourselves and others more – or to express ourselves more deeply? What kind of impact might this have on our ability to think creatively? (I’m talking mostly about using humour here, but certainly the same points apply to the creative expression of beauty, design, and passion in art, dance, speaking, engineering, cooking, sculpture, wood work, mechanics, music, sewing, etc. – basically any way that humans creatively express themselves and communicate.)

What might happen if we took the same familiar essay topic “What did you do for your summer vacation?” and turned it around… “What would you have done this summer if you had been a fly?” “What would you have done over the summer if you had known you would have to write this essay?” Or for the brave, “What did you do on your summer vacation when you thought no one was looking?”

Sure students need to learn to think within the lines, to answer logical questions logically and prepare for structured essays and exams. High school students are competing on an international playing field for university entrance. But what are the universities really looking for? What are employers (and society) really looking for from young people? It’s not just the ability to memorize and respond to questions in a test setting (although of course this is a useful skill that is applicable in a number of real life settings like responding quickly in a disaster situation, for example). In addition to good test writers, universities, employers and society are looking for well-rounded people: people who can think spontaneously and creatively to respond to situations as they arise. How can we help young people to learn to think spontaneously and creatively? We can start by asking them questions that help to spark their imaginations.

There is so much external stimulation in kids’ environments these days. But have you noticed how bored and uninterested many young people and young adults seem? With so much coming at them, I believe one reason they’re bored is because they hardly need to generate any stimulation for themselves.

Have you heard of the psychology experiments done in the 1950’s around sensory deprivation? People were paid to stay in a sensory deprivation chamber for several days. The chamber was sound-proof, scentless and padded. People wore thick suits with stiff arms and heavy gloves and socks (so they wouldn’t feel much). They wore earmuffs and translucent goggles that let in light but prevented them from seeing any shapes or patterns. Then they were asked to lie down on a cot in the chamber (leaving only to eat and use the bathroom). The participants began to hallucinate after just a few hours of near-complete sensory deprivation. With nothing to see, hear, smell, taste or touch, their 6th sense, their minds, started creating things to stimulate them.

What does this tell us? Well, it’s sort of the opposite of the situation for the majority of young people today. Most people these days are so over-stimulated by their environment (mostly through media and technology), that perhaps, their minds are not finding occasion or reason to imagine. Through lack of use of their imaginations, they are becoming bored.

Our global reality continues to change at an accelerating rate. Change is certain.What we can prepare our students (and ourselves) for is to be creative and spontaneous: to respond appropriately and with the full extent of ability to each new situation. This can’t be done with simple rote memorization or the same old attitude/approach to learning/teaching.

Spontaneity can’t be copied, but it can be taught and learned. Here are a few points to get you started thinking about creative ways to engage with learning:

  • Socrates never answered questions; he only asked them – forcing his students to stretch their minds and imaginations to find their own answers.
  • Teaching very structured formats (for writing or painting, for example) can allow creativity to flow, as in the case of poetry or ‘knock knock’ jokes.
  • Thinking of things from a different point of view, shifting perspective, can inspire new ways of approaching situations. Try imagining yourself as a cloud looking down on a problem, or as an insect looking up at it, or as yourself 25 years older looking back at it…what new thoughts spring to mind?
  • Moving or observing everything in slow motion is a fun yet surprisingly challenging way to see things differently.
  • Work with what’s happening, like an ‘improv’ comedian. Step into the moment: look around you where you are, take each situation in unquestioningly and see what there is to work with.
  • Notice the box you are standing in and step out of it – to the left, to the right or straight up.

“The future is uncertain…but this uncertainty is at the very heart of human creativity.”
Ilya Prigogine, Russian Nobel Laureate chemist (1917-2003)

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
Scott Adams, Cartoonist (1957 -

Gratitude and Learning

February 2010

This first newsletter for 2010 focuses on gratitude and its impact on learning. The article is an interview with Sarala Godine and Delaney Tosh, Victoria-based creators of the gratOodle, a simple counter to help track feelings of gratitude as they come up through the day.

STR: What is gratitude?

According to Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California, gratitude is “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life.”

Sarala: To use an old cliché, gratitude is a way of seeing your glass as half full instead of half empty. And you can train yourself to do that. Some people have a natural tendency to see the glass as half empty. Seeing emptiness, you’ll have a cloud over your thinking.

Delaney: Gratitude is a way of savouring your life and enjoying what’s there. It’s a strategy for happiness, a great way to move out of worry and concern. You’re not able to carry a sense of gratitude and carry thoughts of worry at the same time.

Studies that compare those who reflect on gratitude to those who don’t have proven these benefits to gratitude:

  • fewer physical symptoms,
  • feeling better about their lives as a whole,
  • more optimistic about upcoming events,
  • more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based),
  • higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy,
  • more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another,
  • greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality,
  • more positive attitudes toward school and their families.

STR: How can gratitude affect one’s ability to learn and to be open to new ideas?

D: When we’re focused on worry and concern, thoughts go to the challenge and difficulty and what’s not working. If you can find something to be grateful for, you’ve opened your thoughts in a new way. You can then learn something new about the situation. You become less cluttered in your thinking and enhance your ability to see opportunities, learn new things and try out new strategies.

S: It’s like if a car gets stuck in the snow and keeps spinning its wheels, it’ll go nowhere. If we are stuck in a rut and don’t change our attitude, we will see things from one perspective only. When we’re excited about life and feel grateful it can allow us to see things in a whole new light. This helps us to become more creative.

D: I use gratitude in my coaching with business and corporate clients. I notice people tend to stay stuck in a problem when they keep looking at it from the ‘problem’ angle and seeing it as a problem with a negative impact. Through the coaching process, I get them to look at what they might be learning in the experience, what they might be grateful for or what the benefits might be in the ‘negative’ situation. (Essentially this is asking people to look for what they are grateful for even in a negative situation. And it’s always ‘the learning’.) Once they start to explore the learning and what’s there for them, they are then able to go back and see other options for how they can be or other actions they can take to move toward a solution. It works like a charm every time.

D: Coming from a perspective of looking for what you’re grateful for in every situation, you’re able to formulate other ideas for what to do.

S: And feel a whole lot better in doing it since your load feels lighter.

D: A friend recently did a study of the brain that I participated in. He hooked people up to measure EEG activity (recording overall
activity of the millions of neurons in the brain). This study was interesting. They measured our brains as we were playing a game where we had to find objects. What I noticed is that each person had a strategy and used it every time no matter what. Then the experimenters changed the way the game worked. Everyone tried their old strategy first and of course it didn’t work. We all tend to be habitual; wanting to do things the same old way until something knocks us out of the pattern.

Taking it back to gratitude, I think that if we can look at situations in a new light, and find what it is that we are happy about, or at least grateful for, in any situation, we can take ourselves out of that patterned way of thinking and, therefore, be open to learning.

Dr. Alice Isen at Cornell University discovered that, “Happy people [are] better able to engage their imaginations, less constrained by assumptions. They [are] more flexible in their thinking, perceiving unusual but sensible ways of categorizing material and relationships between categories that at first glance seem…unrelated.”

D: There’s actually different activity in the brain when you feel grateful and happier, more enthusiastic, alert, engaged in life.

When we’re unhappy or stressed, our higher level brain functioning shuts down and our body engages in fight or flight responses. Our frontal and pre-frontal cortexes are all about strategizing, but when you are stressed, the flow of energy is shifted to the limbic system which regulates your flight or fight responses. Being in this mode doesn’t serve you well when you’re sitting down to strategize or when you’re in a stressful situation like a test.

When we notice what we’re grateful for, we stop ourselves from getting stressed. We’re better able to strategize and to pay attention to what is happening and what people are saying.

STR: How is gratitude important to students, parents and educators?

S: Having discussions with kids about gratitude, helps children learn not to take things for granted. It helps them to cultivate deeper values and notice things they had not paid attention to in the past.
D: Imagine classrooms of students acknowledging themselves. They’d be more likely to perform random acts of kindness. We have the capacity to create a classroom of more engaged, more helpful kids through teaching gratitude.

S: Students and parents can start to focus on what they’re good at; celebrating and giving permission to build self esteem.

D: Several years ago, a Port Moody principal, who is now known for her ‘Bullybeware’ program, developed a code of conduct for her school. One of the strategies was to provide regular and timely recognition for positive behaviours and contributions to the school’s culture. It seemed to me that essentially, everyone was engaging in expressing gratitude for what they wanted more of in their school’s culture. The purpose was to support everyone in developing better self-esteem and respect for others. The net effect was a school that captured a lot of attention for their success with reducing the incidents of bullying in their school.

S: I used to run workshops in schools on the
topic of bullying. Low self esteem is definitely one of the factors in bullying. If we can help kids to recognize their positive qualities, their strengths, what they can be grateful for about themselves and others, their self esteem will improve. This way you focus on strengths.

D: At exam time – how do you cope with that situation? What strategy are you using? Being grateful for all the studying you’ve done, you’ll be less likely to go to a stressed space.

STR: How can one cultivate gratitude?

  • Notice what you’re grateful for
  • Express gratitude to the people around you
  • Notice others’ contributions to our lives
  • Itemize things you’re grateful for
  • Look for how your glass is half full
  • Look for what can be learned in situations
  • Discuss it: at the dinner table, with friends, in the classroom
  • Keep a ‘Best Possible Self’ diary
  • Journal
  • Use a gratOodle

S: Gratitude is an action; it’s like exercise. If you just think about being fit, you won’t get fit. If you want to be grateful and bring happiness into your life you have to train yourself to notice all the things you have to be grateful for in a day. The more you notice the more you find and the better you feel.


by Dahlia Miller
April 2007

“Flogging will continue until morale improves.”
Anonymous Joke

Where does motivation come from? It’s a spark of energy and excitement that isn’t easy to describe. Besides, what motivates one person might not spark any interest at all in another. Of course we are all different – but not that different. We all want to feel confident, interested, recognized for our abilities and engaged in useful work.

For students, motivation is especially important. A student’s work takes many years to complete. Full-time study often requires students to study a subject they don’t have a natural liking for. In order to learn, students must constantly push themselves outside of their comfort zone. These, and many other factors (including personal and parents’ expectations) can test a student’s persistence, interest-level, drive to achieve and self-esteem.

Motivation can come from inside or outside a person. Motivation through fear (for example, fear of a parent’s reaction, fear of a low grade, fear of rejection from friends, fear of failure) is an example of external motivation. This type of motivation doesn’t last. Fear can motivate, but the motivation to act disappears if the source of fear is removed. One cannot spark a person’s desire with force. Internal motivation, on the other hand, comes from within and is generally considered to be more durable and self-enhancing.

Students who are motivated, are interested in what they are doing. They keep working even if they encounter difficulties. They obviously enjoy their work. There are lots of different pieces to the motivation puzzle. It’s easier to be motivated if one has a healthy lifestyle – eating well, exercising often, and taking time to be with friends.

High self-esteem also contributes to motivation – if you think you can do it, you are more likely to want to try. Having reasonable expectations of one’s performance, and positive support at home contribute to a student’s motivation level. Personal interest in the course also helps, as does the enthusiasm of the instructor, and the instructors’ interest in the students. Courses that cover material relevant to the student at an appropriate level of difficulty (with appropriate examples) are more likely to inspire motivation. As well, variety in learning activities and active involvement of students with the material make it easier to get geared up to achieve.

Some Reasons Students Become Unmotivated:

  • They aren’t sure of the next step.
  • They are unclear about what they are being asked to do.
  • The goal is not their own.
  • They think they won’t be able to achieve the goal.
  • They think they won’t receive enough of a reward.
  • They are trying to escape an authoritarian parent or teacher.

Sparking Motivation

True motivation comes from within, yet it is possible to spark a student’s internal fire of motivation. There is a process to motivating others, though. It takes time and patience. It also takes skill to help a person to grow.

The first step to motivating a student is to talk with him or her. Sit down, ask what is important to him/her, and then use your listening muscles to hear what is being said.

Questions you’ll want to find the answers to in discussing motivation include:

  • How does your student feel about the topic and studying?
  • What is important to your student?
  • What does your student think s/he is capable of accomplishing (i.e. any false ceilings)?
  • What is your student expecting to happen with the topic and his/her learning?
  • What does your student think are the sources of his/her lack of motivation?
  • Again, what is important to your student?

The more you understand your student, the better you’ll be able to appeal to his/her true interests and values.

Tips to Creating an Environment that Sparks Internal Motivation

  • Gather information about the student’s interests, energy and confidence– talk with parents, teachers, but most importantly with the student.
  • Discuss your student’s current level, ability and motivation.
  • Discuss your student’s concrete goals. What does s/he want to have learned, by when, and how will s/he know if the goal has been achieved?
  • Consider the best approach for your student. Talk with your student about your ideas. Lay your plan out on a timeline; starting from the present, show the steps you’ll take together to reach his/her goals. Having concrete goals and clear steps can help to alleviate vague fears.
  • Express your belief in the process and in your student’s ability to succeed. Knowing that someone else believes in you can be a powerful motivator.
  • Be sure that your student sees the benefits of changing his/her habits, if necessary. (Remember it has to be a benefit from the student’s point of view.)
  • Brainstorm rewards for accomplishments. (A bit of conditioning comes in handy when you are working with someone to facilitate a change in habits!) Match your rewards to your student…do they want time off, a treat, a pat on the back, to play a game, money, tickets to a concert, recognition…

Tips For Creating Motivating Tutorials, Classes & Homework Time

  • Use positive feedback and encouragement often. Be specific and brief when discussing mistakes.
  • Tutorials ought to be a safe environment to make mistakes. Be sure to give work that is appropriate to the student’s level and then encourage experimentation.
  • Help your student feel valued as a learner and an important part in the learning community. When possible allow your student to choose what will be studied.
  • Build on your student’s strengths. You might, for example, use your student’s strength in math to build self-esteem and willingness to challenge in reading.
  • Break each task into smaller tasks – completing small steps can foster a sense of accomplishment.
  • Celebrate the small and big steps along the way. People love to be loved. If we’re getting a lot of positive reinforcement for doing something, we’re much more likely to want to keep doing it.
  • Hold high but realistic expectations. Emphasize mastery and understanding rather than grades.
  • Help to set up schedules or prioritized lists to keep your student stay on track.
  • Be enthusiastic about the topic and about learning.
  • Make it fun.
  • Be interested and interesting. Offer interesting exercises and topics for discussion; give your undivided attention. Take the time to mentor and model a healthy relationship to learning – be curious and look for answers.
  • Give clear directions or clarify what is being asked. When people know what’s expected of them, they’re more likely to try to meet expectations.
  • Offer helpful support along the way – help find solutions (rather than simply presenting the solutions). If you notice your student having difficulty with something, offer assistance in working through the problem.
  • Show the relevance of the topic to the world beyond the textbook. It can be especially great if the work can be related to one of the student’s values or interests.
  • Help your student find personal meaning and value in the material – help your student see success as a valuable aspect of his/her personality.

“Help people become more motivated by guiding them to the source of their own power.”
Paul G. Thomas

Teacher’s Pet: Wanna Be One?

by Dahlia Miller
December 2004

“One pound of learning requires ten pounds of common sense to apply it.”
Persian Proverb

Some people might call it “sucking up” but we prefer to refer to it as “modeling positive student behaviour”. Being a teacher’s pet pays off.

The fact is teachers are human. They like what they like, and they don’t like what they don’t like. Teachers like to see a spark in their students’ eyes. They eat that up. Of course, teachers want to be objective; they look for the best in all their students. But the bottom line is, they are human. They respond better to what they like.

What does this mean for you? It means that, if you know what your teachers like, you can give it to them and they’ll like that. They’ll smile more favourably on you and on the work that you submit to them. You’ll be paving the way to better grades*.

You don’t have to suck up to “model positive student behaviours”. We’ve interviewed over a hundred tutors on what qualities or behaviours they like best in students.

Below is a list of attitudes and actions that teachers go ga-ga for. Use them and watch as your relationship with your teacher becomes easier.

Teachers Love Students Who (Are):


  • Want to learn
  • Have a goal of becoming more educated
  • Looking for help or instruction
  • Studying by choice


  • Study hard
  • Try their best to learn


  • Hand in completed work regularly
  • Come to class on time


  • Come to class with all materials
  • Ready to work


  • Ask questions
  • Think about what they’re learning
  • Consider different angles to look at new information from.
  • Consider: Why is this topic being taught?; What might come next?; What’s the bigger picture?; Investigate more on the topic

Work With (not against)

  • Have a friendly attitude
  • Adaptable to change
  • Willing to try new things
  • Participate in class
  • Get to work when work is given
  • Create positive rapport with teacher
  • Respect classmates and teacher
  • Honest
  • Suggest approaches that work for them. Ask questions to get the answer in the best way (for example, ask the teacher to draw an example, tell a story, explain the basic rules, etc.)


  • Set goals and check back on them
  • Have notes, assignments, quizzes and other course materials organized in binders
  • Have time in schedule for study and review

Take Care of Themselves

  • Exercise
  • Sleep
  • Eat good food
  • Drink lots of water
  • Have fun
  • Get involved with friends, sports, interest groups, music, community


  • Take notes in class
  • Do homework
  • Study for exams
  • Not distracting others in class
  • Review notes
  • Keep up with class readings
  • If miss a class, get notes from a classmate who takes good notes

This is a long list. Luckily, most of the things on it are just plain good for you and many of them take little effort. The choice is yours.

“Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.”
Chinese Proverb

*We offer no guarantees on this outlandish claim.

The Sometimes Hilarious Art of Self-Celebration

by Dahlia Miller
June 2004

“Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting.”
Katherine Hepburn

Have you ever scored a touchdown in football? Did you do that little dance in the end-zone…you know the one…raise your arm and slam the football down (be it leather or be it nerf), point your toes together, wiggle your knees in and out, wiggle your butt, point those fingers to the sky and boogie down!

What is that about?

Celebration! Self-Celebration!

Doesn’t that dance feel great? It almost doesn’t matter if you battled the length of the field in the championship game or caught the ball on a fluke in a friendly game of touch football when the other guy tripped on his shoelaces. Whatever the circumstances, boogying in the end-zone feels good. And it makes you want more, doesn’t it?

Celebrating our accomplishments can help us to become better people and better students. When we focus on how we are succeeding, we begin to attract more successes into our lives. Celebrating is fun and can bring a sense of lightness to even the most serious of projects.

A friend of mine, a writer whom I consider very successful, has made a fool of herself more than once practicing the art of self-celebration. She has related to me the story of losing herself in some writing she was doing at her busy local library. Forgetting her surroundings, upon finishing the editing of a particularly difficult article, she suddenly jumped up and shouted “Yes!” at the top of her lungs – one of those long-drawn out cries of victory. The quiet-seeking library patrons were not impressed, nor were the librarians. (My friend has not yet been evicted from a library, but she has been warned on more than one occasion.)

Another time, in a very posh restaurant, my friend sprang from her chair to give her companion a spirited high-five. Juice splashed; someone screamed; my friend laughed even louder. The opinions of others don’t seem to faze this friend of mine. Her good opinion of herself seems to matter most to her. Feeling good about following through on her goals is a prime motivator for her. She builds success upon success and has fun doing it too.

Celebration feeds motivation. With high motivation, we have the energy to live our lives well. We also enjoy ourselves more. People who are highly motivated usually do and achieve more. Rewarding ourselves will have a cumulative effect, we will feel more motivated, and we will have the energy to build more positive habits.

Other Effects of Celebration

  • Build on successes – feel a sense of achievement everyday
  • Build self-confidence
  • Have more fun
  • Acknowledge what you’ve done
  • Be happier
  • Charge your batteries – looking for success puts a positive slant on the day
  • Motivate others

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes

When to Celebrate

One trick about this business of using positive reinforcements to build positive behaviours: the reward needs to happen quite soon after the behaviour. If the body receives a reward soon after performing a behaviour, it will associate the behaviour with the reward. (Yes we really are that simple to program.)

For students, many times the built-in rewards for studying (getting good grades, graduating, going on to a successful higher education and career) are very far off into the future. To use celebration as a way to improve your studies, you’ll need to bring those rewards closer.

One way to bring far-off rewards closer is to build upon small rewards in reaching for a big one. For example, if you want to go out to a movie tomorrow night, but have to study for two tests, you could put two quarters into a jar for each 30 minutes that you focus. After each study period, put your quarters into that jar. You can watch the number of quarters in the movie fund jar grow as you study and feel good about your accomplishments at the same time.

Some Specific Times to Celebrate

  • Everytime you do what you set out to do – small and large steps alike (remember immediacy is the key)
  • When you make a plan
  • When you take action on a plan
  • When you stick to a plan
  • When you do something nice - for yourself or someone else
  • Everytime you try something in a new way
  • When you catch yourself being judgemental - of yourself or someone else
  • Everytime you do your household chores – who says you can’t throw the dish towel on the counter and boogie every night?
  • Anytime you want to celebrate!

How to Celebrate

Make a list of rewards to suit you. Here are some ideas for rewards and ways to celebrate your efforts and accomplishments:

  • Give a high five – surprise your parents/ kids
  • Pat yourself on the shoulder – this really works!
  • Say, “way to go,” “hooray,” or another phrase that feels good
  • Put a quarter in a jar every time you study for 1 hour and save up for something you want
  • Take some free time
  • Read a book
  • Listen to music
  • Do art
  • Sing
  • Do the moon dance, the chicken walk or some other equally ridiculous dance
  • Jump for joy
  • Slam that towel down and boogie!
  • Give or buy yourself a present or treat
  • Relax
  • Exercise
  • Play a sport

Remember the key is to celebrate small tasks right away with small rewards as you move to complete a large task. So, get out there and act silly. There is no other life to live except the one you are living now.