Average Students: Finding Success, One Class at a Time

Stress in high school is not limited to the college-bound. This teacher sees how average students feel great pressure, too.

We hear a lot about the stress that high school students are under. The pressure to get good grades, to achieve high test scores, and to participate in a wide variety of clubs and activities can be overwhelming. Because of the pressure to get into prestigious colleges and earn scholarships, we often associate high school stress with high achieving kids as opposed to average students.  After all, these are the ones who are pulling all nighters, going to tutoring, and trying to juggle a hectic schedules.

9 study tips for average students

However, in my experience as a teacher, I’ve found that there is another group of stressed out students whose school-related angst escapes the notice of many teachers and parents. Average students and under achievers are also under a tremendous amount of stress. But for these students, that stress seems to manifest itself in the form of apathy.

Imagine being an average student in a world of high stakes testing and grade-dependent accolades. The pressure to stand out and to be deemed advanced, gifted, or an honor students can begin as young as kindergarten. It’s no wonder that by the time some of these kids reach middle school they have opted to settle for good enough. Unfortunately, many of these students are capable of more, at least in some subject areas. But as they can never measure up to top students, they have long since quit trying.

[More about teen stress and how parents can help, here.]

Still worse off are the struggling students. These kids have grown up in a system that stresses college and career readiness. But they aren’t cut out for college (that’s okay, not everyone needs to be), and they can’t see how writing annotated bibliographies and solving quadratic equations is ever going to help them in a career. Often times these students just want to pass, get their diploma, and get on with their lives. They happily settle for Cs and Ds, just so they don’t have to retake any boring classes.

Unfortunately, I have not cracked the code on completely overcoming stress and apathy in high school. But there is something that I encourage all my average students to try to help alleviate the boredom or the feeling that they are just wasting their time.

My theory is this: Many of these kids have just skated by for a very long time. The average students have settled for average, even in classes that they could have excelled in. And struggling students have all but given up. Kids from both groups have forgotten (if they ever knew) what it feels like to work really hard and to succeed in school. They’ve forgotten that learning is supposed to be hard but that, in the end, hard work feels good and learning can be fun. I am convinced that if these kids will give all they’ve got to just one class, for one semester, they will not only improve their grade (which is not at all the point), but that they will also love the sense of satisfaction they get.

This is my prescription for apathetic high school students. It might seem radical (at least to the kids), but in the end, I think they will find it was worth it.

1. Choose a class to “specialize” in.

Take some time to think about the class that you want to devote the most time, energy, and brain power to this semester. I recommend choosing a core class like math, history, science, or English. It shouldn’t be a “blow off” class. Choose a class that challenges you but that you are interested in. If you aren’t interested in any of your classes choose the one that is least boring to you.

2. Choose your seat.

Sit in the front of the class or near the teacher’s desk. Under no circumstances should you sit next to your good friends.

3. Take notes.

This might be intimidating if you aren’t in the habit of taking notes or if you don’t have good note taking skills. Life Hack offers some solid strategies and advice. Don’t worry if you struggle at first. Even if your notes aren’t the best, your effort to take notes will mean you are paying attention, and that will likely improve your understanding and retention.

4. Review your notes.

Ideally you should read over your notes right after class. Even a couple of minutes helps. Definitely look over your notes each evening. Spend fifteen or twenty minutes going over them, and jot down any questions you have for your teacher.

5. Participate in class.

Listen. Ask questions. Answer questions. Offer insights or ideas. The more engaged you are the more focused you will be.

6. Do ALL the homework and reading assignments.

Seriously. Every word. Every question. Do not cut corners. Try to do well on your assignments. Ask for help if you need it.

7. Study for your tests.

Again, if you aren’t used to this, you might not know where to start. Ask you teacher how she recommends that you study. Ask her for a study guide. Make flash cards. Study with a partner – but only one who is also serious about the class. And don’t cram. Be sure to begin studying several days in advance. Here are some other great tips.

8. Talk to your teacher.

Stay after class. Come in before school. If you need extra help, ask for it. Talk to your teacher about what you are learning. What interests you? What questions do you have? How can you learn more or get more information? You don’t have to do this every day or even every week, but once in a while, make a point to show your teacher that you care about his class. It isn’t brown nosing. It is showing respect and giving him the opportunity to give you additional insight.

9. Don’t focus too much on your grades.

There’s a good chance that you will make a good grade in this class, but that really isn’t the primary goal. The goal is to work hard, learn something, and gain a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Parents might have a difficult time convincing their average students to follow through with this program. Admittedly, it sounds a bit geeky. But it is my personal experience (Algebra II, junior year) that even the flightiest student will come to appreciate learning if she follows through with this.

[More about “must-do’s” when your teen reaches senior year here.]

I tell my students that they’ve really got nothing to lose. Knocking themselves out in one class won’t require a life-altering amount of time. They don’t have to turn into bookworms. And if at the end of the semester, they do not like the feeling of giving it all to a class, then they can go back to getting by. But if they do find that they like the feeling of trying and of learning, then consider giving 100 percent to two classes next semester.

It is easy to assume that average students and under achievers just aren’t as driven as their over-achieving peers. That may be true. But their apathy just might stem from the same stress that top students are feeling, and they deserve the same help and attention to cope with that stress.


Dear Parent of High School Freshman

Dear Parent of High School Sophomore

Dear Parent of High School Junior 

About Laura Hanby Hudgens

Laura Hanby Hudgens is a part-time high school teacher and a freelance writer living with her husband and children in the Arkansas Ozarks. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Grown and Flown, Parent.co and elsewhere. You can learn more about her at Charming Farming, where she occasionally blogs about faith, food, education, and family life.

Read more posts by Laura

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.