3 things that high-achieving students do differently than everyone else

And how you can teach your teenager to do them, too.

One of my favorite sayings in life is,

“Smart people learn from their mistakes; wise people let the smart ones make their mistakes for them.”

I think this is why I love learning about the genesis stories of successful artists, entrepreneurs and businesses. Excavating little nuggets of wisdom from their journeys gives me actionable insight that I can apply to my own life, share with you here, and share with our students at Everydae.

Today’s inspiration and wisdom comes from Douglas Barton. Douglas is the founder and Global Chairman of Elevate Education. Douglas and Elevate spent 13 years benchmarking the practices of the highest performing students across the US, Australia, the UK and South Africa in order to identify exactly what drives student performance.

After watching Douglas’s TED Talk, I was elated to learn that what they discovered directly aligns with how we’re helping students at Everydae. I especially love his last point about the rare thing that high-achieving students do differently than everyone else. We’ll get to that in minute. But first, here’s a summary of Elevate Education’s primary findings from their 13 years of research into what drives student performance:

  1. The highest-achieving students are NOT smarter than everyone else

  2. There’s a small set of things that top students do differently than everyone else

  3. These things are teachable and learnable

Let’s break each of these findings down…

1. Your intelligence does not determine your achievement.

Douglas’s research confirms that top students do not always have the highest IQ scores. Even though 50-90% of students they surveyed thought this was true. In other words, there is no direct correlation between how smart you are and how well you do in school.

Instead, the biggest indicator of achievement is how often students practice.

As opposed to reviewing their notes or flipping through flashcards, which most students who were surveyed tend to do, the highest achieving students were the ones who allocated most of their time to conquering practice exams.

However, not all practice is created equal. Which leads us to Elevate Education’s second insight…

2. Don’t just work harder. Work smarter.

In other words, practice does not make perfect. It makes permanent.

Meaning, if you’re practicing the wrong approach, then all that practice does is build a bad habit. Many students think that if they just work harder, the results will come.

But if all they do is work harder without analyzing and improving their approach, then they will become discouraged and disengaged when they don’t see results at the end of the rainbow.

We’ve seen this insight supported by other academic research, as well. For example, small, consistent daily effort is shown to yield better results than the same amount of practice (or even more) if it is crammed at the last minute. According to cognitive scientist Sean Kang, from the University of California at San Diego:

“The more time that a student devotes to studying for an exam, the better prepared he or she will be, but only when the study strategy is held constant. A student who uses an ineffective study strategy (e.g., re-reading his or her notes/textbook over and over) may spend more time studying overall than a student who uses an effective study strategy (e.g. spaced retrieval practice), but the first student may not outperform the second student on the exam.”

As Douglas mentions in his TED Talk, the key to success isn’t working hard, but working hard to do the right things. So what are those “right things?”

One of them we have already discussed — an emphasis on consistent, daily practice over other study methods like reviewing notes or flashcards. One of the reasons that practice is the most effective way to learn is because it’s active instead of passive. It forces students to flex their mental muscle and apply what they’ve learned in a new scenario.

The second “thing” that Douglas and his team discovered sets high-achieving students apart from their peers is self-discipline and resiliency.

Of the students they surveyed, more than 50% said they gave up on their study schedule after only a week. Not surprisingly, those in the minority who were able to maintain their study routines were also the students who performed the best.

What is surprising, however, is the single tactic they all applied to their study schedule that nobody else did. Which leads us to the final, and my personal favorite takeaway from this entire post…

3. Prioritize what you love to do first.

When asked how they create their study schedules, the vast majority of students surveyed said they would block off time in their week to focus on a specific subject. For example, “at 4pm on Wednesday, I will do one hour of Chemistry practice.”

This sounds like common sense, right? Look at what needs to get done, and make sure you reserve time to do it. However, the highest-achieving students in Elevate Education’s 13 years of research took a contrarian approach. Which was to start by reserving time on the calendars for the things the love to do most.

By ensuring that they take time pursue their curiosity and passion, these students live a happy life. Because they’re happy, they’re balanced. And because they’re balanced, they are more self-motivated and resilient.

I must admit, this last discovery made my soul smile. The reason being that scheduling a little bit of joy into your life is one of the major takeaways in our Ikigai and CHIL course (launching in January 2021). This course introduces students to the Japanese philosophy of ikigai, and applies the ikigai framework to help teenagers explore their purpose in life. We then use that as the foundation for college and career planning.

If you’re looking for actionable advice on how to help teenagers tactically develop self-discipline and build a sustainable study (and life) routine, check out this post on Habit Stacking.

And if you want to give your teenager a fun, online self-study tool that will help boost their grades, build their confidence, and prepare them for college and career in as little as 10 minutes a day, check out Everydae. Because the key to outstanding achievement is not talent. It’s persistence.

🥡 The Takeaway:

In summary, if you want your child to be a high-achieving student (without the high levels of stress), do these three things:

  1. Encourage them to actively practice what they want to excel at

  2. Encourage them to spread that practice out over an extended period of time

  3. Encourage them to prioritize doing what makes them happy each day

And remember, success starts with a small step, everydae.


Shout out to Monica, one of our awesome Everydae Parents, for sharing Douglas’s TED Talk video with me. Thank you, Monica!