2022 A Level exams: Setting goals and developing effective habits

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Goals are important and we all have them – and January is a very popular time to discuss them. In Year 13 your goals are likely to be things like “Do well in my A Level exams” or “Get my place at university”. They may be more precise, such as “Achieve an A in History”. You may be surprised to hear that even students who don’t work hard, fail to apply themselves and miss the many opportunities of the next few months will have exactly the same goals as those who achieve amazing things each summer. So what’s the difference?

The start of the year always feels like the perfect moment to set goals – everyone wants their life to be a little better, happier or easier. However, by February the new fitness regime has come to an end, learning Italian has stopped at ‘pollo per favore’ and the savings account has already been raided. What’s the difference between having goals and genuine success?

A few years ago I had my own resolution to lose weight and get fit. I quickly realised that it wasn’t going to be as easy as I had hoped. I began the process with the best intentions, genuine dedication and eventually had some success. However, I wish I knew then what I know now – and I’d like to share a bit of that with you.

Goals are good for setting a general direction – you want to do well in 6th Form? Start by turning up, doing the work set and listening to your teachers. However it is clear that in reality this just isn’t enough. You need systems and processes to make any real progress.

Another resolution I made, as well as getting fit, was to read more books. Therefore, I got an audiobook subscription so I could listen while I went for a run. Thanks to James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, I now know that this is called “Habit Stacking” – I had started and established a habit of running, so added a second habit of listening to audiobooks. However, you can Habit Stack with the very ordinary things you do already – if you usually make a cup of tea as soon as you get home from school, why not also do a 10 minute key word test at the same time? Why not read an article or revision overview for one of your subjects on the bus to school in the morning (instead of just sitting on your smartphone)?

Aristotle’s work on virtues is frequently summarised as “We are what we repeatedly do, Excellence is not an act, but a habit”. When I wanted to get fit, I wanted to be a runner, not just someone who goes for a run – there is an important difference. Actions lead to habits, which lead to a shift in character.

If you want to be a successful student, you can’t just do the odd successful thing. It has to become a way of life. Day after day, week after week. Yet creating a new habit is hard – there is always a plateau of latent disappointment1 – we never see success quick enough for our liking. It is important to recognise that there is always a valley of disappointment to begin with – “I studied for an hour a night this week, why didn’t I get top marks in that essay?” – however getting 1% better every day really helps in the long run. Why not look up the GB cycling team and their principle of marginal gains?

So what does this look like for exam preparation?

James Clear – a real expert on habits – says we need to transform our goals into systems with a four step process which I’ve contextualised for your exam preparation:

  1. Make it obvious – Discuss your plans with teachers, peers and family – if possible have a clear work area at home, leave materials out and accessible. Produce a revision schedule early (ie now!) and stack habits together – ensure 30 minutes revision just before sitting down for dinner for example.
  2. Make it attractive – Establish a positive study group with friends so work is social as well as productive, attend revision sessions available to you with class mates – but also set up some tangible and enjoyable rewards such as a cinema trip or Xbox time.
  3. Make it easy – “You don’t train for a marathon by running a marathon every day!”2 Start small and build up, reduce distractions (put your phone in another room) and share your timetable with family so they can support and encourage you.
  4. Make it rewarding – Use small, daily steps towards success and reward yourself as you go. Focus on establishing yourself as a hard working student rather than getting preoccupied with a particular grade.

It is really important to be systematic in tracking your progress – incorporating mile stones and

rewards. One of the most crucial pieces of advice in this system is “never miss twice” – if you can’t do work on one particular occasion, just make sure you bounce back with the next session. Stick to your plans and your rules, and don’t keep changing your timetable and systems (this is procrastination – move your planning into practice).

To manage your motivation, try to isolate the elements that you can control. Be really specific about what you need to do and focus on that issue. That may mean looking at one particular topic or skill – it will rarely be the whole subject! Accept your role and responsibility in the situation – “losers look for blame, winners look to themselves3 – and focus on the things that you can change and take action.

There are some things that will just happen (and there has been lots of that in the last two years!) and it is important to be in control of your response, and don’t panic. It is key to remember that you are not naturally born with an abundance of motivation – you have to work at it – but motivated people are generally happy people and do reach their goals. I’ve been motivated by reading David Goggins, Jocko Willink, Ant Middleton, Ross Edgley and many more. You are capable of many incredible things.

A clear focus on systems and processes enables progress – remember everyone has the goal of doing well in 6th Form – but who will be the ones who celebrate success?

Thank you to Mr Greg Thornton (@MrThorntonTeach) for his help and inspiration.

1 James Clear – Atomic Habits

2 Daisy Christodoulou – Making Good Progress

3 Jake Humphrey & Damian Hughes – High Performance: Lessons from the Best on Becoming your Best

Andy Lewis is a Deputy Head Teacher at Bonaventure’s Catholic school in East London. He is the author of a number of books, including the Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies A (9-1): Catholic Christianity with Islam and Judaism Revision Guide, regular blogger and expert speaker at a range of regional and national teaching events.