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Strategies to improve your student’s study habits

By Katie Wetherbee

Recently, a morning talk show featured an organizational expert who spoke on educational issues. The interview focused on managing study time and using organizational tools to enhance success. Color coded notebooks, locker organizers and bulletin boards were showcased as tools for effective studying. Parents were instructed to set up a designated study space for each child. With these tools in place, the expert enthused, students’ grades and attitudes should improve.

If only it were that easy.

All of the recommendations the talk show guest gave were practical; all students can benefit from organizational techniques. However, students must learn strategies that work for them as individuals. These strategies might be different for each subject and assignment. As students mature, they need to adapt their study methods so they can achieve their academic goals. This self-awareness is what educators call “metacognition,” that is, the ability to learn how to learn. As with any new skill, the process of acquiring metacognitive strategies comes more easily to some students than others.

What works for me?

Students need to understand themselves as learners: their unique strengths, weaknesses and style of learning.  While some students may fare quite well with an uninterrupted, two-hour block of time for studying, others may need to schedule studying in 15 minute sessions, with breaks in between. Similarly, one child in the family might thrive on a quiet room for studying, while a sibling may need to be closer to the hub of activity to get help and redirection. Presenting these kinds of options and then asking a student, “What works for you?” can be an important part of developing effective study habits. Students should feel that they have some autonomy when it comes to choosing how they are going to accomplish their work.  Once students begin to experience success with a particular strategy or schedule, they may begin to incorporate it into daily study habits. A college learning coordinator helps her students to compile a “strategy notebook” for easy reference.

Active Reading and Studying: Before, During and After

Learning to break reading and studying into stages is an important step in effective learning. For example, content-area reading assignments can be particularly challenging for many students. Wading through unfamiliar concepts and trying to understand new vocabulary can frustrate even the most attentive student. However, active reading strategies are a must-have, especially in college. Breaking this task into three stages, before, during and after reading, can help a student to sustain attention during reading assignments.

Mary Poppins told her young charges, “well-begun is half-done.” This adage bodes well for studying. Prior to starting an assignment, students should plan how they will tackle the task at hand. To encourage active reading, students might tap background knowledge, asking, “What do I know about this topic?” They can also do a “survey” of the text by reading the boldface words, chapter headings, picture captions and chapter summaries. Like reading a roadmap, the survey gives students an idea of where the text is going. Finally, students will want to ask questions or make predictions about what they will learn from the text.

During reading, the students’ role as “active learners” becomes even more critical.  All too often, students are tempted to plough through an assignment with the goal of crossing it off the list. Instead, students can refer back to the questions they asked about the text before starting the assignment. Have they found the answers? Were their predictions accurate?

After finishing the assignment, students should take a few moments to summarize what they have read. By doing this in writing, the students create book notes that will be useful for exam preparation.  Other strategies include discussing the text with others and creating fact cards to use as a study aide.   

Watching the clock

Effective time management is a must for today’s busy students. When given a long-term assignment, students should be taught to create a “task analysis” of the project. By breaking down the project into small, manageable tasks and assigning completion dates for each task, students may feel less overwhelmed by the magnitude of the assignment. 

Time management strategies also work well on a daily basis. One study skills instructor gives students a weekly schedule and asks that they block out times for school, sleep and extracurricular activities. She then encourages them to assess the leftover time, and then schedule time for studying, eating, and fun. 

It is important to note that scheduling study time doesn’t usually yield long, uninterrupted hours of quiet study. Many students are just too busy to make this a reality. Also, many students aren’t able to sit and study for hours without losing their focus and becoming bored or frustrated. These factors should be taken into consideration when planning study time. Students can learn to use their “marginal minutes,” those short periods of time that are often wasted, to practice vocabulary or completed a few math problems. For example, reviewing study notes before the bus arrives in the morning, or finishing a worksheet in the car while parents dash into the grocery can pay great dividends for busy students. Finally, all students should plan for breaks during study time.

Call in the reserves!       

While all of these strategies have been tried, and many of them researched for effectiveness, parents know the reality of teaching study strategies to their own children can be a frustrating, if not futile exercise. In short, kids often don’t want advice from their parents, especially when it comes to studying.  When the hassle of homework creates sulky silences at suppertime, parents may want to consider enlisting the help of a tutor.  But, buyers beware: not all tutoring programs are effective for all students. Parents should ask about the tutor’s credentials to coach a student in study skills. An instructor who has completed coursework in content-area reading or has had experience teaching students with learning disabilities would be suitable for this type of tutoring.  In addition, the tutor should address how he or she will individualize instruction for the student, assess the student’s strengths and needs and incorporate strategies that will be appropriate for the student’s unique learning style.

If a family’s budget doesn’t allow for tutoring, many schools offer free tutoring by honor society students or community volunteers. And parents shouldn’t discount some of their closest resources: neighbors and extended family. Grandparents often fit the bill perfectly for tutoring. Two local families actually swapped kids at homework time periodically, to keep peace in both households while improving the students’ study habits.

Learning to study effectively takes practice and self-evaluation. Once students develop strategies for mastering content and managing their time, they are more apt to study “smarter;” they will have learned what works for them, based on their strengths and capabilities.   And that is the kind of learning that will make a lifelong difference.
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