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Typically, children spend their days in school being filled with all types of information that they are told to then go home and “study.” The problem with that is they are often not taught HOW to study. That, coupled with busy schedules and other circumstances, makes for a sometimes frustrating experience and disappointing results.
But now that both learning and studying are expected to happen at home, it is more important than ever for students to work on developing strong study habits.
Here are four steps for studying that we teach in our Learning Applications (LeApps™) curriculum at The Independence School. Based on current research in brain science, parents should feel confident in encouraging their students to try these techniques when studying for their next test.
STEP ONE: DO A BRAIN DUMP
Significant improvements in retention and understanding occur when retrieval practice is used, recalling and using the information rather than just re-reading the same content over and over again. An example of this would be a “brain dump.” Several nights before the assessment is scheduled, students should take out a piece of blank paper and “dump” all of the information they know about the topic onto it. This does not need to look pretty. Its purpose is to be functional. It should contain drawings if possible. Students should stop “dumping” when they have exhausted the information they know. This strategy results in what cognitive scientists are calling the “testing effect” or “test-enhanced learning.”
Other examples of retrieval practice include playing a game of tic-tac-toe (answer a question correctly and you get to mark a spot on the board) or Scattergories with your child, using content as the medium. These games allow them to practice their retrieval of the content without looking at notes or textbooks.
STEP TWO: ORGANIZE CONTENT
Soon after a brain dump, students should begin organizing their knowledge into categories. They should compare the content they produced by retrieval to the actual content they need to know. A good preliminary way to organize content is to have students group material into items they understand well, understand somewhat, and do not understand at all. This can be color-coded, highlighted, or identified in any way the student deems appropriate. The brain is a natural organizer. Once a student identifies these categories, they can more readily give attention to the areas that need it most. A smart student knows what they don’t know!
STEP THREE: PRODUCTION
Actually doing something with content is more effective than just re-reading it. Studies show that students experience what is known as “illusions of competence” when they read content from their notes or text and assume they understand it simply because they recall seeing it or hearing about it previously. Creating a product such as flashcards, foldables, or re-typed notes makes the learning more permanent because the brain is processing the material as it creates the product.
STEP FOUR: CHANGE UP THE ROUTINE
Students often fall into the pattern of doing the same thing each time they prepare for an assessment. They always use Quizlet, or they always have a parent quiz them orally. These techniques may work when children are young and have a limited repertoire of strategies. As they mature as learners, however, they should come at subject material from various angles. Trying new techniques is an important way for them to grow their arsenal of strategies and improve their skills as a student.
A FEW FINAL NOTES
We have all heard the adage that you should prepare for assessments over time rather than cram information into your head the night before a test. Current brain science overwhelmingly supports the idea that less (each night) is really more in the long run. Because our attention spans, particularly those of young students, are limited, the use of spaced repetition is more than just an idea. It is a proven technique to aid in retention and understanding. Have your child monitor the time they spend on one subject by setting a timer for less than 10 minutes and have them focus on one specific task in that short amount of time. They might draw and label a map to prepare for a geography quiz, for example. In that short time, they will actually focus more than if they are given a seemingly unlimited amount of time to just “study” geography.
Also, be aware of your language when helping your child prepare for assessments. Telling them to “study” is too broad of a term for them to understand. Instead, be specific. Use words like “draw” a picture of the water cycle, “re-tell” why the North American Trade Agreement was created, and “create” a diagram that shows how to tell the difference between a direct object and a predicate nominative. You will be surprised at how much more focused and well-prepared your child will be.