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Here's to A Fresh Start: 5 Science-Backed Strategies that will Catapult Your Academic Success

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

Fresh new kicks. A blemish free backpack (but not for long). Crisp college-ruled paper and the only pens acceptable for note taking (Pilot G2). The smell of late summer and the certain slant of the sun. Back to school sure evokes some of my best memories. And even today, when I’m years beyond the classroom, this time of year finds me extra motivated and ready to challenge myself.

Turns out that’s actually for good reason.

Researchers have found that The Fresh Start Effect, as they call it, can help us to achieve big things and adopt effective habits as we usher in a new temporal period. In short, the Fresh Start Effect is renewed motivation at the start of a new phase or landmark time period; it’s no wonder that, for example, the New Year or a birthday is the perfect time to tackle a big goal, and it’s no wonder that I look back so fondly on the start of each school year as a time of hope, promise, and . . . well, fresh starts.

What better time than now, then, to explore some of the best strategies that are sure to make teens stand out in the classroom?

But here’s why I’ve chosen these particular five strategies. They’re not only actionable and easily employable, but more importantly, they’re also rooted in science.

So let’s dive in:

  1. Note taking: It’s the world we live in. Gone are the days of the scratch of those Pilot G2s on college-ruled paper. Teens are generally more apt to take their notes on some sort of device. But here’s the thing: Pen and paper note taking is actually more effective than device note taking, and the former increases retention. Turns out the act of writing helps us to better connect to what we’re learning. For those teens who find it quicker or easier to use a device in class, they can consider taking advantage of the memory boost from written notes by rewriting their notes by hand as a study technique.

  2. Morning Routine: Starting the morning off on the right foot can make all the difference with regard to how the rest of your day goes. Research tells us that one of the absolute worst ways to wake up is to dive head first into “the grind” by checking our phones immediately. It’s so jarring. So why do we all do it? In the same vein, so many of my students tell me that they wake up already in a hurry; sprint out the door, timing the traffic lights on the way to school; and land at their desk seconds before class starts. As the school year approaches, practicing a consistent, intentional, and less rushed morning routine can have tangible lasting effects on students’ well-being throughout the day. (For more on this topic, check out this great video overview of some of the fascinating research coming out of Stanford’s Huberman Lab.)

  3. Sleep: It’s no secret that adequate sleep is critical to students’ ability to perform at their peak. (And really, doesn’t this apply to all of us?) That said, in my experience, when chatting with their teens about how important 9 hours of snooze time really is, parents generally default to “having energy throughout the day” as the reason. But these conversations have a gaping hole. What they’re missing is this: Beyond stamina, sleep does have a tangible impact on a student’s actual classroom performance. You see, it’s during sleep that short-term memories consolidate into long-term memories, and it’s also when existing knowledge is integrated with new knowledge. So when a teen doesn’t get enough sleep, his or her memory formation and retention—and thereby academic performance—suffers. And here’s another thing: An argument that I hear often is that teens can recover on weekends if they just sleep in. Not so. Sleep science tells us that that’s simply not true.

  4. Goal setting: The Fresh Start Effect motivates us to adopt new habits, so let’s talk goals. In my opinion, goal setting is one of the most empowering ways to kick off a new season. Goal setting helps teens to develop an intentional mindset, to think through exactly how they want to grow and stretch, and it helps them to identify a roadmap to achieve. Despite the effectiveness of goal setting, few students take the time to sit down and plan out their goals, but the reality is that when goals are clearly written out (and then displayed in a place where a student will encounter them often) they’re more likely to do the work. Take advantage of the Fresh Start Effect by setting goals pertaining to the habits that you want to adopt this year. (This is actually more effective than focusing on habits you want to ditch.) Bonus tip: Reassess those goals at the start of the next term (i.e., at the start of the next semester or trimester) to identify what you did well and what you can tweak or change moving forward.

  5. Study breaks: Simply put, marathon study sessions just don’t work. But when we’re pressed for time or have a lot of information to sift through, they seem like a good idea. Instead, try this: Use a timer to alternate 25 to 30 minutes of study time with 5 to 10 minutes of break. (Read more about the Pomodoro Method here.) Weaving consistent breaks into study time keeps students fresh and engaged. Bonus tip: Plan some rewards for yourself during the breaks. Maybe it’s a quick scroll through your phone, a favorite snack, or a check-in with your best friend—whatever feels like a treat.

Fresh starts really are the best. So as the sun starts to slant a little differently and the weather makes a slight shift, as you slip into your new kicks and pull on your only temporarily blemish-free backpack, use the new phase to cue some habit changes that could impact the trajectory of your performance this entire academic year.


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