The difference between successful and unsuccessful students

I have taught with top-ranked and low-ranked universities in Japan. I have taught the best and worst of students. I have taught in five different countries in Europe, Australasia, and the Far East. I have taught for all of this century so far, and so I have noticed some differences between successful and unsuccessful students. Here is a list of differences I have seen; a list you could learn from.

People meeting, by Eric Bailey 2014, CC

People meeting, by Eric Bailey 2014, CC

Successful students:

  1. Ask questions. If they don’t know, they can’t learn, or they can’t complete a task.
  2. Have colours. Their pencil case has many different coloured pens and highlighters. They all the main stationary supplies with them.
  3. They have the book, or a copy of the book. Even if they didn’t buy the textbook, or forgot it, they still bring their own photocopy to class.
  4. Are organised. They plan and organise their schedules so they have time to do homework, do assignments, and study. They are almost never late with submitting work. If there is a problem, they ask for help.
  5. Don’t have or don’t overdo part-time work. They focus on their university success. So they rarely come to class sleepy or exhausted.
  6. Work with others and learn together.
  7. Can use technology (computers especially, see essential tech tools for students).
  8. They read.
  9. They learn how to study. Simply reading a book isn’t enough. You need to know your learning style, and then how to use that (see Multiple Intelligences).
  10. They love learning. They want to know more. They ask questions.

Unsuccessful students:

  1. Forget everything. Their books, their pencil case, their handouts, everything.
  2. Never ask questions. They assume everything they need to know is given by the teacher. They don’t take responsibility for their learning.
  3. Have to borrow a pen or pencil.
  4. Are late to class.
  5. Ask to go to the toilet at the start of class (most of us stop this at age 8).
  6. Work part-time jobs until late at night, and so they
  7. Sleep in class.
  8. Their part-time jobs stop them from studying, doing homework, and passing classes.
  9. Work alone.


Which do you want to be, successful or unsuccessful? How habits do you have from the successful list?

Advice for living away from home

Living away from your home country is not easy at first. Some people thrive, some people dive (badly). You don’t want to be one of those who have a terrible time and go home broken. To avoid such a scenario is not difficult (I won’t say easy). So, here are 5 things to consider following when living away from home.

1. Skype (or similar)

It might seem strange to include this on such a list, but communication with people back home is important. Skype is on this list not just for you, but also for your parents and siblings. Avoid talking about the negative stuff when you talk with them, even if it is hard, but focus on the little highlights. However, using Skype can be hard for older people who are not computer savvy. For them to be confident and independent with it, you cannot install it onto their computer, they need to do it themselves. You can stand behind them and instruct them step-by-step, but resist the urge to touch that mouse. They need to invest in the time and energy to work out how to get it, install it, and run it. Knowing something of how to install and get it to work by themselves, means that they have better computer skills, and can do more without you around at home to help. Technology moves on, and Skype will eventually be supplanted by something else. At least they will have the basic skills to install and run that. They will have problems, and you can help them with the Myriad of YouTube videos out there.

2. Cook for yourself

Really, this makes a huge difference. Doing “self-care” improves your mental and physical health. Preparing food with fresh ingredients means that you’re not putting chemicals like preservatives and artificial flavours into your body. Taking the time to make something, means that you are guaranteeing that you have control of your nutritional intake. Be sure to always include fruit and vegetables, carbohydrates, and protein. Spending time doing these things is a ritual, which has its own psychological benefits.

Vegetable Food Cooked on Frying Pan, CC Andrew Weber (n.d)

Vegetable Food Cooked on Frying Pan, CC Andrew Weber (n.d)

3. Save money

This is especially important for young teachers and students living away from home for the first time. I’ve seen young teachers fall into serious depression, basically because they are stuck in a bad work situation, and don’t have the financial means to get out, and they drink their money away. Some times you might have a bad work situation, or a family emergency, or something. You need to have enough money for a ticket back home, and enough to survive until your next pay check (assume two months). Other people consider a family or personal emergency that they need to pay for. Have a safety net to bail yourself out. I heard an interview with a young homeless lady in London, who said that most people, even the high street bankers prior to the 2008 economic meltdown, are only one or two paychecks from homelessness. Don’t be that person.

4. Make friends

It seems like an obvious thing to do, but some people just don’t. You need at least two groups of friends. You need expat friends and local friends. It’s great to explore a new city or a new country with other people like yourself. However, it’s also great to get inside-knowledge from the locals. Party with both groups, go places with both groups, and enjoy life with both groups. You will have a more fulfilling time.

Black Coffee Breakfast, CC by Burst (n.d)

Black Coffee Breakfast, CC by Burst (n.d)

5. Have a hobby

Most people would not think of putting such an item on a list like this, but it is equally important. When you are not working or studying, you need something to do. You need something to occupy your mind. TV and video games cannot be included. I’ve seen people use video games to fill their free time. They still suffered depression, homesickness, and guilt at the lost time spent not exploring the city or country. Use your time to read, develop your painting, poetry, photographic, or other skills. Study more about education. Be productive. Have something to show for when you can’t get out on those rainy days. I met someone who was producing a blog to document all the castles in Japan. He has a goal, and an excuse to get out. There was also a final product to show; and a sense of pride for his efforts.

Painting, CC by Jadson Thomas (n.d)

Painting, CC by Jadson Thomas (n.d)

5 Things: Exam advice

Exams are almost upon us, and I wish you all the best of luck. I didn’t like preparing for and doing exams, and so it amazes me that Japanese people seem to love exams. Why does this country have SO many exams for everything? Elementary school entrance exams, junior high entrance exams, senior high entrance exams, universities, companies, companies, promotions, languages, hobbies, and more! It is like Japanese people do exams as like a hobby or as an addiction! Anyway, here are five things that all students should take note of during the exam time.

Photo CC from ZeLIG, at

Photo CC from ZeLIG School, at

1. DON’T be late to your exam. It is a stupid thing to say, but every year, someone comes late or misses the exam. Why? They study late and so they sleep in; or they don’t check their timetable. It might be a snowy day, or heavy rains and so trains are delayed, sometimes up to two hours late. If it’s a snowy day, leave early. Make sure you’re in the room 20 mintues before the exam begins.

Last day before final exam. By Svein Halvor Halvorsen,

Last day before final exam. By Svein Halvor Halvorsen,

2. DON’T study late. Every year someone sleeps in and misses their exam. Worse, they come to the exam and fall asleep before they finish question one. Exam invigilators don’t wake up stupid students who sleep in exams. Also, it’s vital that you give your brain a rest, so please go to bed before midnight. Sleep is really important to help make memories and consolidate information. See these TED talks:

3. Wear gloves in winter before the exams. Yes, you must keep your fingers warm and ready to write. I’d also recommend two layers of socks so if your feet are warm, your whole body can be comfortable, too. If you have a cold, please bring tissues and blow your nose. Nobody likes someone who sniffs during an exam.

4. Revise, revise, and revise. I’ve told most of my classes at the start of each semester that they must revise the class within 24 hours, within a week, within a month, and so forth, because of the forgetting curve (see Wikipedia). I really, really hope this week isn’t the first time you’ve seen some of your notes since you wrote them way back months ago! I study and work with music, especially music without words (like jazz or classical), because it helps to focus my brain. It works for some people, but not for everyone. I also like to work / study at a café, because the people around me somehow stops me from thinking about checking my email, Twitter, doing blog updates, and so forth. I just focus on the work I am meant to do. Find your best study environment.

5. Relax. People who go into exams nervous and stressed didn’t have time to relax, and their brains will probably freeze in the exam. Go for a 20 minute walk around your neighbourhood the night before your exam; walk by yourself or with a friend. You need time away from technology and books, and usually 20 minutes is the minimum.

Walking on cobblestones, by Peter Thoeny at

Walking on cobblestones, by Peter Thoeny at


6. Write your name in English. Actually, write your name in the Roman alphabet. I really don’t understand why Japanese students write their name in Chinese characters on an English test. It’s an ENGLISH TEST!  What if I wrote my name in Korean on a Japanese test?! Yes, I can speak and read a little Korean.

Bonus 2. Eat and drink well. Make sure your body is operating smoothly and at peak condition. Do not eat fatty, oily, or processed foods. Processed foods contain chemicals designed to kill bacterial cells (and yours). Only eat fresh food made with real vegetables. Eat lots of colours of fruit and vegetables. Keep your favourite snacks handy as a reward for studying or completing tasks. Do not forget breakfast, your brain needs energy. Drink lots of water. Do have one or two cups of coffee only in the morning to help make your brain alert and functioning more.

Finally, best of luck and enjoy your holidays 🙂

Dinner by Tarciso, CC at

Dinner by Tarciso, CC at

5 Things every new teacher needs to know

Unless you’ve just emerged from the cave, or live in other parts of the internet, you’ll know that Buzzfeed loves numbered lists. There are social marketers on the internet who do research on what attracts our attention, and weirdly, people love numbered lists. Of course, new teachers need to know more than just five things, so other than knowing how to unjam a photocopier is and learning where the toilets are, here is a short list. I’ll do more in the future.

1. Be flexible

Life happens, and nobody is a robot. We don’t live in Toyota production lines, and nothing important in life happens according to a schedule. Just go with the flow. If your boss says to you, “I’m sorry I forgot to tell you, there’s a free-talking class and there are eight students. You’ll use this textbook, and it begins in ten minutes”, don’t freak out. Bosses are people who are busy, they have many things going on around them, and they have to deal with a lot of things to deal with. Be tolerant and get on with the job you’re paid to do. I’ve found that some of my favourite ideas occurred when I just had to wing it. I’m not saying my best teaching ideas always came spontaneously in class, but when under pressure, you discover new things. For instance, many, many years ago I discovered that students can just talk. No book, papers, whiteboard, twitter, or topic required. Put them in pairs, demo a small talk situation, and get them to get on with it. Change partners after a few minutes, and repeat. If they finish early, tell them “What?! Do you have such short conversations with your friends at lunch?!!! You must be the boring friend. Ask more questions!” Encourage them to really communicate, beyond what the textbook has trained into them.


2. Smile

A smile goes a long way in smoothing over difficulties. It shows you have patience, and that in the greater scheme of things, it’s not a dire situation; nobody’s going to die. It’s truly the best way of dealing with unexpected things. Also, be nice to the school admin; they’re the ones who build and defend your reputation behind your back. They’re usually under pressure and have a difficult job of it, too. So just be nice to your fellow humans.

A teacher and student laughing. Creative Commons licensed image from

A teacher and student laughing. Creative Commons licensed image from


3. Inspire

Honestly, I hate textbooks. I’ll admit I used them like a crutch when I began teaching, but they are soooooo dry. Textbooks are designed to look great, they have wonderful pictures and great page layout designs, but the actual content isn’t so hot. The topics avoid offending anyone from any culture, and so taboo topics, and other non-mainstream topics are avoided. So, issues like race, human rights, sexual orientations, love, death, and others are never addressed, including key vocabulary and language students might need to deal with related issues. For instance, Japanese students looooooove food. It’s like it’s legally mandated that all Japanese TV channels show 23 hours of people eating food. Yet, when I ask my students what food they like, they reply with “I like お好み焼き”. Who outside of Japan would have a clue what this is? Students should not be trained into an insular belief I see affecting so many. Students and teachers don’t believe they need English, and think that words like shnkansen, kyoumuka, takoyaki, genki, and others can legitimately be used in “English”. Students need to see what real English looks like, and that there is a plethora of ideas out there, that doesn’t exist here in Japan. I’ll admit this is a very Japan-centric post, but I haven’t seen such a mentality when I was in Korea or Taiwan. So, use the internet, and show your students that there’s a huge, huge repository of information and ideas in English, on the internet. There really is much, much more information on the internet in English, than in Japanese. So, inspire them to take full advantage of being bilingual by spending maybe just five to ten minutes a lesson on inspirational things you or they find on the net. Get them to guess what inspirational quotes mean, they’ll use their dictionaries, and learn a new way of thinking about life. You also get to explain some culture specific background that textbooks completely avoid, too. There’s thousands of these pictures being shared on Google+ and Twitter.

Inspire your students to learn new ideas and ways of thinking from English-language inspirational quotes from the net.

Inspire your students to learn new ideas and ways of thinking from English-language inspirational quotes from the net.


 4. Give your students time to think and talk

Some teachers forget that they just need to let go. I’ve seen teachers talk to each student one at a time. If there are nine students, eight students are bored out of their brains waiting for their turn, and the speaking to listening ratio is 10% and 90%. If you have students working in pairs, then the speaking & listening ratio in the lesson is something like 45% & 55% (including 5% is you giving instructions and demos). It’s important to set up a talking or conversation activity, and say, “off you go”. Students will be quiet for a moment. In that time they’re thinking about what they need to do and their first words, and they’ll get started. If not, perhaps you didn’t demonstrate or set up the activity well enough, the level of the activity is too high, or some other problem. The other thing to consider is is that if the room is deathly silent, no one will want to be the first to break that silence. You could consider having the window open to allow the white noise of the traffic to provide some masking noise for the first speakers, or have some classical music playing quietly in the room.

The ideal ratio of language classroom interactions.

The ideal ratio of language classroom interactions, especially for conversation, communication, and free talking classes. To achieve this, have your students talk to each other in pairs.


5. Why not play music in class?

Depending on the class, I’ll play classical music or jazz with no lyrics in a class. Music is beneficial for many reasons. For most people, playing music while studying organises their thoughts and allows them to focus. It also provides a masking noise, so for shy classes, it is easier for the first person to start speaking, and the rest of the class will follow. Depends on the students, it can become an impetus to talking about music and related topics, which is perfect for conversation / communication classes.

Play music in the background of your classes.

Play music in the background of your classes. Not all classes, it depends on the group. Creative Commons license Vasta, at

If you could add a few more things to the list, what would they be?