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Navigating Tricky Courses

Certain classes require a delicate touch. Whether caused by complex subject matter or an eclectic teacher, students must learn how to adjust their approach on occasion. What’s the alternative? A student plugs away with the same approach that worked for other classes. Grinding away in futility for several months, the student only realizes the error of his ways when the final grades come out. This sounds like a recipe for disaster. Hence, students who adopt a resilient approach to their courses will outperform their peers.

Resilient is the right word here. Resilience is the Goldilocks adjective between rigidity and formlessness. Resilient students can bend without breaking. They can adjust without losing sight of a few fundamental principles. That’s our goal: students who know that the four pillars of Executive Function will serve them well, but know that the application of these pillars will change from grade level to grade level. In effect, we want to use the scaffolding of EF to shape a framework for each new course.

Those last paragraphs were philosophical, so let’s add some practicality via an example. Sarah, our example student, is jumping from ninth grade to tenth. For most students, this transition brings two major obstacles in the form of Geometry and Chemistry. Geometry, with its axiomatic system of cascading formal logic, asks students to approach math in a new way. Successful geometry students must look at mathematics through the lens of language learning, with complex vocabulary providing the foundation for problem-solving. If Sarah approaches Geometry like all her other math classes, she won’t succeed. She needs to allot more time to learning vocabulary and how to apply it.

The same is true for chemistry. It’s not a normal science class. Before students reach chemistry, their science classes are all about terms and pathways. They need to know what the mitochondria does and how it functions in a cell. In a hierarchy of systems, students learn vocabulary words and how they relate to one another. That’s it. Chemistry asks for a bit more. Now, students will see some hierarchies and a handful of relational vocabulary, but the main focus will be analytical reasoning. Students must learn recognition and application. Again, if Sarah treats chemistry like she treated biology, she is in trouble.

So, students need to, first, embrace resilience and, second, know how to analyze a new academic obstacle and adjust their approach accordingly. The sections below identify the principles students should apply when conducting this course-by-course analysis. We provide an arsenal for academic adjustment. Let’s dive in!

Consult the Oracle: teachers, professors, and former all-stars

No academic journey is devoid of setbacks. Students will face hurdles, whether it’s a challenging assignment, a low test score, or personal issues affecting their performance. This is where impression management steps in. Students need to view challenges not as failures but as feedback. By actively seeking clarifications, engaging in discussions with educators, and remaining open to feedback, students can adapt and grow from these experiences.

Another essential element in overcoming setbacks is resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from challenges and persevere. It’s crucial for students to maintain a positive attitude, seek support when needed, and continually work towards their academic goals.

Diagnose the Difficulty & Make a Treatment Plan

Many students know that chemistry is challenging, but very few stop to think about what makes it difficult. The same is true with AP U.S. History. Many students avoid it altogether, and the handful that take the class fail to grasp its unique challenges. We have discussed the uniqueness of chemistry already, but why do you think students struggle with APUSH?

It’s the scope. There’s so much reading that students lose sight of the goal. They either dive into the weeds without grasping the overarching storyline or know the basic plot but lack fluency with the details. The scope requires a macro-micro approach to reading, note-taking, and test preparation. First, students need to know the inflection points and the major players. Then, they need to learn the microscopic details (the acts, the battles, the minor characters, etc.) in reference to these inflection points. Boom! That’s the key.

With each of these classes, notice how much simpler things are when students diagnose the difficulty: why do students struggle with this class?

Once the student knows the problem, it’s easy to devise principles, tactics, and habits. Principles (e.g., macro-micro with APUSH) give students a blueprint for the year. Tactics put the principles into practice in each area of student responsibility: organization, time management, study skills, and impression management. Habits make tactics actionable and consistent. For example, macro-micro is the principle. A tactic would be to create a one-page for each major exam with a timeline, significant players, and inflection points. Habits would include reading each chapter summary before the rest of the chapter and meeting with the teacher bi-weekly to understand how each chapter fits with the others.

It all starts with understanding the difficulty.

Setting a Strong Foundation: win the early battles

Do you know what makes a difficult class more difficult? Underestimating its difficulty, falling behind in the content, and missing out on the “easy grades.”

Every semester, teachers give a handful of easy assignments to start the year. These include lab safety quizzes, book annotations checks for summer reading, nuanced vocabulary quizzes (periodic table quizzes), and review assessments (algebra I review test in algebra II class). Students who don’t have their ducks in a row miss out on these easy grades. They think they’re easy, so they don’t dedicate the proper study time. It’s only the first of class week, right?

This creates a few problems down the road. First, students start the gradebook race on the back foot. They will need to dig themselves out of a hole with more challenging assessments because they failed to crush the easy ones. Second, they waste their time re-learning the foundational concepts of the

Personalized Academic Coaching with SAOTG

At SAOTG, we understand the transformative power of conquering challenging classes with Executive Function. Students who develop the self-efficacy to face problems head-on will thrive outside of the academic context. Our unique executive functioning skills curriculum is designed to empower students in this journey.

If you’re looking to bolster your student’s academic journey with structured, meaningful goal-setting strategies, consider our one-on-one academic coaching.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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