Want Your Kid to be a Better Student Next Fall? Here’s How to Spend the Summer.

I have a part time gig at a community college teaching young people about business, psychology and statistics. I have been doing this for almost fifteen years and have a good idea of what makes students successful in college. Here are a few tips and suggestions.

The students who do well in my classes are the ones who have a concrete goal. They know what job they want, or what industry they want to be in.

So the very first thing to do is sit down with your adult child and ask them what they want to do. If they do not have a clear idea, suggest some alternatives to college.

So spend a year traveling.

Travel is no longer the extravagance is was for Baby Boomers and GenXers. Travel is now relatively inexpensive, and many young people are taking advantage of seeing the world. Students often tell me about their summertime adventure in Europe, Asia or the Mid-East.

This is not a trend isolated to the students in my courses. In his optimistic book, The Way We’ll Be, pollster John Zogby finds that young people use their passports more than any other generation.

It is very likely that your adult child has international travelers in his or her network of friends. For them global travel is normal. The idea of spending the summer in Oman may seem far-fetched to you, but such trips are typical for Millennials.

Alternatively, maybe your kid can go to work.

Learning how to work is harder now than in the past. That might be something else Boomer and GenX parents do not understand. Back in their day, young people learned how to work during high school with part time or summer jobs.

They picked farm produce, worked at gas stations and fast food places. More entrepreneurial young people solicited landscape jobs in their neighborhoods, washed cars, did baby sitting or cut and delivered firewood.

Today it is more difficult for high schoolers to find work. New laws intended to protect young people form exploitation limit the number and kinds of jobs available to young people and there are unintended consequences.

Although the teen unemployment rate is now lower than it has been in some time, so too is their labor force participation rate. There may be few teens who are unemployed, but that is because even fewer are looking for employment.

Instead, high schoolers spend their summers preparing for adulthood by taking classes to strengthen poor academic skills, doing volunteer work in their communities and attending SAT preparation courses.

The most common complaints I hear from small business people is that young people have no business etiquette. They talk on their cell phones while customers wait to for service. They cannot write, have only the most basic of math skills and have no clue about how to dress when interacting with the public.

Young people have to learn these things just like their parents’ generation did, only now they have to wait until they are out of high school.

Don’t forget the military.

It is harder to get into the military these days because things have become so technical that some technical training is often necessary just to join. Nevertheless, you should talk to your kids about this option. It might be that a year in technical training with an eye to joining the service later might be an option. Do not forget high school and college ROTC programs. Call your local recruiter for current information and advice.

Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett is a vocal proponent of military service as an option to college. In his surprisingly forthright book, Is College Worth It?, he points out that a stint in the military not only provides training and experience in a wide variety of fields, but also helps pay for higher education during enlistment and afterwards.

In my classroom, students with a military background stand out as mature, focused and motivated to learn. Time in the military provides the experience and values employers look for, as well as the means to complete formal education after discharge.

If your young person is insistent on college, spend this summer getting ready.

First on the list is journaling. And not on a laptop. By hand. With a pen.

The problem with laptops is that they lend themselves to distractions if the student cannot engage himself or herself in classroom activity. In other words, they get bored with what the teacher is talking about and surf the net instead. Studies find this is the primary reason for laptops actually decreasing academic performance.

Laptops offer more disadvantages than just acting as a distraction. When students use laptops to take notes in a lecture they usually just transcribe what they hear. Information flows into their ears and their fingers type the associated words. It is a sterile, mechanic process that does not really involve the cognitive areas of the brain.

Physically putting pen to paper does some interesting things in the brain. The motor cortex is obviously involved because that is where the directions to the muscles needed to write originate. However, the brain is a networked organ and many other areas become involved as well. This is important because the best learning occurs when the most brain areas are involved.

Manual writing allows connections between concepts to occur to a far greater degree than just pounding on a keyboard. Writers are better able to reflect, process and synthesize information when writing than when keyboarding.

Five hundred words a day is not too much to ask. In fact, if you are asking your child to journal every day for three months it would be a good idea for you to do the same. Not only are you acting as a positive role model for your child, but you are also enjoying all the benefits you are preaching. So start writing.

Next, the best students are the most well read.

People who do not like to read books, just for the simple pleasure it brings, are at a huge disadvantage in school. This is because a wide range of knowledge is so important when getting new information.

When we learn something new, we associate it with things that we already know. If I told you that the Russian invasion of Afghanistan led to civil war in 1863, you might have a hard time remembering that fact unless you already knew about the American Civil War. It was happening at about the same time, so the two events have something in common. If you also know that the Soviet Union again invaded Afghanistan in 1980, you would have another event with which to associate the 1863 invasion.

That is why simply knowing things is so important. It is not just that you can regurgitate a fact you remember; it is far more important to use the knowledge you already have to leverage the new knowledge coming your way.

So get your child to commit to going to the local library and checking out one book a week. Any book is fair game as long it is non-fiction, (with the exception of literary classics). Maybe put a book report in the journal.

Again, this would be a good thing for Mom and Dad to do as well.

Keep up with current events.

Today’s headlines are tomorrow’s long-term trends, so staying aware of the news is a good habit to develop.

The payoff for school next September is being able to demonstrate to teachers and everyone else that your child knows what is happening and can relate it to the topic of the class. If you are taking a class in geology, knowing a little about the eruption in Hawaii would be a good way to cement an association between a class lecture and previous knowledge.

Something related is looking for associations between disciplines.

Academic disciplines are not discrete topics that have not relationship with one another. Help your child make connections between science courses like chemistry and liberal arts classes like political science, for example.

Knowing a little about chemistry is good knowledge to have when candidates are running on platforms offering solutions to the opiate drug problem we now face. Knowledge of psychology and sociology is valuable in an era of school shootings and terrorism.

Be careful about online classes.

In small doses and for the right classes online coursework is a good substitute, but do not go overboard on them. Researchers from the State University of New York, working with academics at Furman University recently concluded an exhaustive study of the efficacy of online education at the community college level.

They found that students who took more than 40% of their courses, online were far more likely to drop classes, fail or take an incomplete.

The kind of classes your son or daughter takes online is crucial. Generally, it is a good idea to avoid online Science, Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) classes because there is no immediate support. Unlike traditional classrooms, students in the online environment cannot raise their hand and say, “Wait a minute! What are you talking about? This makes no sense at all.”

I have taken graduate level statistics classes online as a student and I have taught them in traditional classrooms. Traditional classrooms are much better for these kinds of courses.

An online setting might work just fine for a course that is heavy on reading and writing, like history or English. Take your son or daughters abilities and gifts into account when thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of online versus traditional settings.

Start Early

Many of the things I am suggesting are just good habits for any child growing up in a literate society. It is best to start your child down the road to knowledge and education in toddlerhood.

That is not an exaggeration.

Developmental psychologists have proven beyond doubt that children in homes with books do better in all aspects of formal education. But it is not because books sitting on a shelf somehow send out smart waves to kids wandering by.

It is because parents read to their kids when they are very young, buy them books when they get a little older and talk to their kids about what they are reading all the time.

One other thing…

…The best way to learn something is to teach it. By teaching your kids the love of knowledge you are doing yourself a big favor as well.

These books were referenced in this article:

Bennett, W. J., & Wilezol, D. (2013). Is college worth it?: A former United States Secretary of Education and a liberal arts graduate expose the broken promise of higher education. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson.

Zogby, J. (2008). The way we’ll be: The Zogby report on the transformation of the American dream (1st ed.). New York: Random House.

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