Among the creative and maddening reasons children come up with for not studying, one familiar reason might be worth addressing: They don’t know how.
Researchers and experienced educators have found that often students don’t have good study habits and skills, or that they rely on strategies that don’t work, frequently at the urging of teachers and parents.
“It is somewhat shocking how many students just don’t know how to do it, which frustrates them and can turn them off to enjoying learning,” says Henry Roediger, a professor of psychology and brain science at Washington University in St Louis and co-author of the book Make It Stick. “It’s something that needs to be taught in third or fourth grade and reinforced throughout their school years.”
Busy teachers, however, may not be likely to add those lessons, so it often falls to parents. Nate Kornell, another researcher on the topic and a psychology professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, says helping your child study can be a good opportunity to learn about their coursework, progress and abilities — and a way to get to know them better.
Roediger, Kornell and other researchers have found that some popular approaches to studying — such as rereading, highlighting or summarising material — are not very effective, especially long term, while other techniques, including spacing out study and self-testing, are. They’ve also found that when students learn study skills, their performance increases significantly — as does their attitude about a subject.
Here are suggestions from experts on how to teach children to study more effectively:
Set it up
The ideas here are familiar. Establish a regular time and routine for homework — a pattern that can be started early in elementary school, with scheduled reading time or structured games, says Christine Martin, an early childhood educator and author of the book You’ve Got This! Keys to Effective Parenting for the Early Years. And despite competition for attention and time from technology and activities, parents should be firm about rules, including about minimising distractions and choosing appropriate settings for study.
Parents should think carefully about their role. Don’t help too much, and resist the urge to nag, which can make students dread studying. Martin suggests establishing the rules and schedule with student input, offer help when needed and monitor the results by having students show them their work, or by checking grades or asking for teacher feedback.
Space it out
John Dunlosky is a psychologist at Kent State University in Ohio who has done research on learning techniques. In one study with other researchers, he ranked 10 popular approaches using various criteria and he found that spaced practice — or studying a subject then taking a break and studying it again — was one of the most effective.
This suggests that a student who studies a topic for an hour on three days over the course of a week will know the information better than a student who spends three hours on it in one night. That may be because forgetting some things between sessions causes you to relearn them more efficiently and deeply, Kornell says.
Mix it up
Coaches and music teachers have long known that their students benefit from practising a mix of skills in one session — scales and rhythmic work, for instance, or hitting fastballs and curves, then catching grounders.
Roediger says the same can be true for academic work. When a study session involves a mix of topics or approaches, it helps students “discriminate among the types of problems and select the right method for each”, he says. Spending blocks of time studying one subject or type of problem in a vacuum, experts say, doesn’t let children see the relationship between topics, or teach them to distinguish between problems and solutions.
Bring it back
Researchers seem enthusiastic about retrieval — being quizzed about material you have studied, either by yourself or others — as the most effective studying technique.
Some educators recommend that students eliminate material they know while studying so they are reviewing less material and can focus on topics they are struggling with. But experts say a desire to make quick progress may prompt them to eliminate material they think they know but actually don’t fully understand.
Make it deeper
Kornell talked about an experience with his daughter, who as a young teenager had planned to memorise terms to study for an upcoming test about plant reproduction. He encouraged her instead to learn the material well enough to teach it to him. Doing that paid off on the test, he says, and enhanced her long-term understanding and interest in the subject, because teaching material is more engaging than simply being tested.
He says that, because of children’s busy schedules and the education system’s focus on testing, students too often just gather facts for quick recall rather than engaging in deeper learning about a subject, and that’s a mistake.
“It’s like climbing a mountain,” he says. “It’s hard, but there is such a payoff. It’s magical when they know these skills and it works.”
— Washington Post
James Paterson, a freelance writer and illustrator, is a former school counsellor.