If elementary school was the ultimate indicator of life’s future success, then my kids would be set. I hit the academic jackpot with three children who never had to study, but still made the top grades in the class.
While other moms were investing in expensive tutors, we were breezing through without even trying. In the early years, we were the lucky ones, but our luck ran out. Kids like mine, who coast through elementary school, are in for an uphill battle later on because they don’t know how to study.
My oldest child probably could have slept through fifth grade and still aced every test. Studying was non-existent in our house, because it just wasn’t necessary. School was easy and he had no reason to devote extra time because the A’s flowed in effortlessly.
But then he hit middle school and it was like running headfirst into a brick wall. Suddenly, the A’s didn’t come easily. In fact, sometimes the B’s and C’s didn’t either. My intuitively “genius” child became a frustrated teenager who was not equipped to handle complex subject matter. For the first time he was challenged in school, but he was unprepared to respond. He had no study skills.
Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck warns that kids who do well in elementary school without trying are more likely to lose confidence and motivation when the work becomes more complicated. Dweck points out in her article, “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids” for Scientific American, that “a focus on ‘process’ – not on intelligence or ability – is key to success in school.” Children who learn that effort equals success are better off than those who are used to succeeding simply because they are “smart.”
Very few children can breeze through school forever, and the earlier they learn how to study, the better. Creating the habit is key and gets more difficult as your child grows older. The kids who had to learn study strategies to survive second grade math are now better prepared to tackle Algebra than my former elementary school whiz kid. Being smart isn’t enough, and now we are playing catch up.
When my son’s first subpar grade appeared, I immediately went into panic mode. I began battling him to study so he could get his grades back on track. He reluctantly reviewed for each test, but the grades didn’t rebound. I dug deeper into what my son was actually doing when he was studying, and discovered that he put in the time, but in the wrong way. He memorized his notes and underlined some key concepts, but that’s about the extent of what was going on at his desk.
Dr. John Dunlosky, a psychology professor and Director of Experimental Training at Kent State University, identified the best methods for studying, and debunked some of the most common ways children prepare for tests. According to research published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Dunlosky determined that many popular study practices aren’t very effective. Re-reading and highlighting do little to promote long-term retention and understanding, and rarely yield A’s when the subject matter gets tougher. Dunlosky says the best two study tips are quite simple: 1. Don’t cram; 2. Take practice tests.
Schools don’t teach study skills, so it’s up to parents and kids to come up with a system that works. After we recovered from the initial shock of some less-than-stellar grades, we regrouped on how to study more effectively. It has been a battle of wills with a stubborn teenager, but we are making progress with some simple steps.
Spread it out. Research says that studying more frequently, but for shorter periods of time, is best. Procrastination and cramming are so tempting, but we all know they are wrong. Keep a weekly calendar for each child, and overlay it with extracurricular commitments, so kids can map out their week of studying.
Re-work the homework problems they missed. It’s easy to be happy when homework grades are near perfect, but those couple of missed concepts might be significant at test time. Homework is the best indicator of what will be on the test.
Take practice tests. Many teachers’ websites include links to online quizzes. If yours do not, then search online for new questions that test the concept they are learning.
Don’t rely on memorization. Have them create note cards with their own definitions, instead of copying what’s in the book. That way they aren’t just memorizing, but truly understanding.
Turn the student into the teacher. Have them explain the concepts to you, in their own words. If they can’t teach it, they probably don’t understand it.
Acing third grade is great at the time, but if it happens without studying, they may pay the price later on. Even if your eight-year-old Einstein understands the life cycle of flowering plants better than you do, you need to force study time so they get into the habit early. Then, with a little luck, the middle school and high school years might be a tad easier. At least the academic part.