February 26, 2014

Why Study Skills Matter

As many of you know in addition to homeschooling my kids I now tutor students for the ACT (college entrance test), Study Skills, and College Readiness.   One of the things that still continues to surprise me is how unprepared students are for taking major tests and managing their time and study habits.   I work with students of all academic abilities and from a wide variety of schools and VERY few have developed good study skills.  Some feel they don't need it, others feel it is a waste of time, some want to do better but don't know how to start, and teachers have little time to teach it in the classroom.  I don't blame teachers, they have a hard job in front of them right now, and developing study skills is not possible given all they have to teach.  I do blame the schools though, every freshman in high school should be required to take a study skills class, if not taken in junior high.

Growing up I had a Catholic school education and a very good one at that.  I recall a large part of my freshman year was devoted to study skills.  Our teachers required us to learn how to take notes, outline, plan assignments ahead of time, and manage our time.  We took classes that helped us learn vocabulary, Latin roots, and how to read texts efficiently.  Maybe it wasn't a separate class, perhaps it was just incorporated into every class, but I know it was a large part of my high school education and it was ingrained in me.  At the time I probably did not like or appreciate it but as an adult I have come to realize what an advantage that gave me and I try to pass it on to as many students as possible.

Some students are "natural' test takers, others never seem to "need" to study and manage to get by without developing study skills.  This will catch up with them in college, or later in life when they are trying to balance a job and all the time management skills they need.  I actually find my students who have to work at developing study skills and take the time to invest in them are better prepared for college then some of the "naturals" who just believe everything will always be easy for them.  If you have one of these "naturals"  I encourage you to require them to learn the skills and develop them now even when they feel they don't need them - because some day they will and others will have them in place and be prepared.

If you have a student who struggles with tests, time management, assignment completion, or school/works/sports/social balance it is even more important for them to learn these skills as soon as possible.  Once they get the study skills and time management in place everything else has a tendency to improve as well. I often get asked where can I go to develop these skills?  If you have a class in your area or a good tutor some time with them will be well worth your investment.  If not, the internet does offer a lot of resources.  Below are a list of the most important skills your student needs and a few ideas about how to develop them.  You can start working these skills around the age of 12 and they should be well in place by the time they are 15-16 years old.
  1. Time Management 
  2. Organization of Supplies 
  3. Assignment Management
  4. Homework Contracts 
  5. Note Taking in Class
  6. Note Taking from Textbooks
  7. Study Aid Building 
  8. Studying and Practicing for Tests 
  9. Short Term Goals and Rewards
  10. Long Term Goals and Rewards 
Time Management
This is first and most important learning the importance of time management, not just as it relates to school but to overall life balance.  Teach your student to use a calendar and to plan atleast two weeks out at a time.  Consider all the things a student balances including: homework, sports practice and competition, work schedule, social schedule, church, and other obligations.  Many students prefer calendars on their phone or mobile device to a paper calendar.  These offer students the convenience of always having them with them and they can sync with parent and team calendars if you use something like google calendar.  The Pomodora technique can be a good starting place for many people struggling with time management.

Organization of Supplies 
Students should be encouraged to use an organizational system that works for their brain, not their parents.  Some parents love folders and bins while their student loves binders and shelves.  The specific organizational choices are not important, what is important is that some are made and kept up with.  The more ownership a student has in this process the more likely they are to follow through with using it.   I find most junior and senior high students either prefer a single binder with subdivisions or a separate notebook and folder for each subject.  Consider having a long term homework storage folder on their desk at home so they don't need to keep a years worth of paper in their binder or notebook.  I find these work very well for long time storage - you tape a piece of paper to the front and write what is in each number.  One of these could last a student through most of high school.

Assignment Management
Students need to learn how to manage lengthy assignments without procrastination.  Many high school teachers try to help them plan with deadlines along the way (resources, thesis, outline, first draft, final draft, etc).  These are important habits to develop and should start around the age of 12.  In addition to balancing a single long term assignments students need to learn how to manage multiple assignments at the same time with pre-planning instead of tyranny of the urgent dictating their schedule.  I find a simple table that shows all the subjects and then two weeks worth of due dates is a simple easy way to visually see all your upcoming assignments and help you plan.   Students should list all tests, quizzes, major assignments, and anything that has to be handed in.  This works much better for most students than flipping through a calendar and trying to visualize when each thing is due - students who work from a planner tend to look at the next day and maybe two days out when doing homework.  Students who can see two weeks ahead can start to plan better.

Homework Contracts
Homework contracts are a proactive way to teach your student to take control of their schedule and time.  I use these with my study skills students to help them pre-plan their homework.  Students look at their schedule on Saturday or Sunday for the following week and then agree to set aside a certain amount of homework time for the week and pre-plan WHEN they will do homework and how much they will do each day - BEFORE they have all their assignments for the week.  How does this work?  Well Maria says on Saturday I have swim team every day for two hours, I want to go out on Thursday and I have an event Wednesday night.  I will likely have about 10 hours of homework so she plans no homework on Thursday or Wednesday so she knows she has to fit in 10 hours on the other days - she does not like doing homework on the weekend so she plans for 3 hours of homework on Monday, Tuesday and Friday with one hour on Saturday.  Another student might plan a different schedule.  The key is on Monday night when she has finished her homework due on Tuesday in just 1.5 hours she has to keep working for another 1.5 hours on homework due later in the week since she will not be doing anything on Wednesday or Thursday.  Students fill in the squares on the contract for the number of hours they will do each day and share it with their parent and/or tutor for accountability.  The idea behind this is the student is more in control of WHEN the homework gets done by working ahead and in the times that work best for them rather then the tyranny of the urgent.  At first a student may resist but

Note Taking in Class 
It is important students learn how to take notes in the classroom.  Many teachers are now better about giving handouts and powerpoints to students which has led students to abandon the art of taking notes.  This is not helpful for the student in the long run, even though it feels like it is improving their circumstance in the immediate class.  Students need to know how to take notes in their own words and to pay attention to what the instructor thinks is important.  Students can still use the handouts the teachers give them when studying but they need to avoid relying on the printed notes and learn to take their own notes to train themselves for college and for classes where instructors are not so generous with the notes.  I like the Cornell method of notetaking and recommend it for all of my students.  Cornell notes offer pre-made study aids and the student is doing double duty when taking notes - learning and pre-making study aids that make it easier to study for the tests later.  Just like organization the notes must be done in a way the student likes and will follow through with.  However, I do typically push Cornell on students whenever possible as it seems to be the best for most students in the long run.

Note Taking from Textbooks
Few people learn to take notes from textbooks until college or graduate school and this is unfortunate as it is a powerful learning and studying tool.  I teach my own children this helpful habit in 7th grade and I generally teach high school freshman I tutor this.  Students who take AP classes with this habit in place have a huge advantage as they know how to manage large amounts of reading and filter out the most important parts.  I have students use the Cornell method again for note taking from textbooks and often have them work with a timer so they learn how many minutes it takes to outline a typical section or chapter in a textbook.  This helps them plan how long it will take to do this when doing homework.  I teach students to pre-read and then read and take notes at the same time, then review the notes daily (in less than 5 minutes a class) to best prepare for a class.  Students who develop this habit at an early age tend to handle complex classes with much more ease and less stress than students who do not have this habit in place.

Study Aid Building 
I have mentioned study aids several times in the note taking section.  I am a believer in study aids, especially homemade ones that are based around what you need help remembering.  Clean, easy to read notes done in the Cornell system are pre-made study aids that are very nice and easy to work off of.  When teaching my son to build these I had him read a chapter in his Chemistry textbook and time himself.  Then we did the notes together and I had him time himself reading over his important notes, which covered all the main important facts from the chapter.  He realized reading the chapter in a college level textbook took him about 30-40 minutes.  Reading his notes took about 5 minutes total.  This made him a believer in the value of notes.  When it comes time to study for a unit test covering 5 chapters instead of looking at 2-3 hours of reading to review he is looking at 25 minutes to review only the most critical information and it is easy to digest.  Some other useful study aids are vocab column sheets.   Take a sheet of paper and fold it in half or draw a line down the middle.  Write the word on one side and across from it the definition.  Then the next - by leaving these in columns instead of word - definition you have an easy to use study aid.  You can take another sheet of paper and cover the definition to test your skills.  Then you can cover the word and read the definition and test your recollection.  For most students these sheets are more effective than the flashcards I used growing up and they are easy to create as you read your textbook and notebook.  Just keep one sheet for all vocab in the class through the year.  Whatever study aids you build you should review them daily and weekly for maximum effect.

Studying and Practicing for Tests 
All these good habits won't help if your student will not learn to study and practice for exams.  Part of why students balk at studying is it seems tedious and time consuming.  The easier and more streamlined they can make the process the more they will do it.  Studying should be done in frequent short bursts rather than major cramming sessions.  Reviewing the notes and study aids each day for about 5-10 minutes a class is the most effective way to accomplish this.  Then when it comes time to "study" for the test students discover they already "know" so much because their brain has been reminded of it each day.  Some tests lend themselves to "practicing for", the ACT is a perfect example of this as are AP tests.  Other tests require studying and comparing facts and information and being ready to synthesize it all together on the test.  Students may resist this at first but after they learn they really can accomplish a lot in 10 minutes they are much more prone to continue doing so.

Short Term and Long Term Goals and Rewards 
Some people will disagree with what I am about to say next but I am a firm believer in it.  Life works with a system of rewards and penalties for us as adults and for young children so why do we not feel that is appropriate for our students?  I recommend teaching your student to have both short and long term goals and to set out rewards for accomplishing them.  I understand the philosophy of "the only reward needed for hard work is the satisfaction of a job well done" but in my experience it does not motivate pre-teens and teenagers - rewards do.

Sit down together and encourage your student to have some goals that can be accomplished in the following time frames:  one week, one month, one semester, one school year.  Most students can not think of tangible goals past a year at a time.   Goals should follow the SMART pattern that businesses employ:  Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Bound.  They should then have an equally weighted reward associated with them.   So don't commit to an ipad for a week long goal :)  Some ideas to get you started.

Goal: I will follow and meet the conditions of my homework contract this week
Reward: You will receive an extra hour of screen time each day next week

Goal: I will hand in all assignments by the due date this month
Reward: You will receive a movie date with mom/dad

Goal:  I will get all B's or above this semester
Reward: You will receive $5 per B and $10 per A if condition met - if any grade fall belows a B you receive nothing for any grade.

Goal: I will receive a 4 or 5 on all AP exams
Reward:  Whatever you feel appropriate.

These are not magic ideas or rewards and your child may not like them.  Work with your child to develop reasonable goals and rewards that make sense to both of you.  Rewards are good and meaningful when they are set from the beginning and worked toward as a goal.  This is how life works for adults, so why not teenagers who are learning to be adults?

Final Thoughts 

Pick one or two items from the list above and start working on them with your student.  I also encourage you to have them read my post themselves and to take ownership of this process.  Most students do not want to do this at 12-14 years old but they are very trainable at this age and having good habits in place before they are 15-16 is very important and they will appreciate it and do it seamlessly when many of their other peers are struggling.  These organizational skills apply well beyond high school into college, graduate school and even the workplace.

1 comment:

  1. I have just found your blog, somehow linked somewhere between lesson plans.org and a few other art lesson sites. In any case, I would like to subscribe by email. After having only read two posts, I am interested to start reading through some more of your lesson plans and tips, even from the past. I have two children in the 'public' school system. I am a single parent. My children are complete polar opposites. 1- over achiever 2- developmental delays of sorts. I already found a few core values and ideas I will put into practise for assisting their learning abilities. I really believe in parental support outside of school. In another life I would homeschool;)