How to study (real tips based on research and real classrooms)

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Hello and welcome to the Executive Function Podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Kesty…a very proud teacher this week as I made an open invitation for Saturday School with me—a bonus time to complete work and study—and I had 22 students show up. That means their commitment to their own success beat out sleeping in, going somewhere fun, and staying up late the night before. Timing, of course, has something to do with this, as it was the last Saturday School of the semester, but still…the kids are alright!

Speaking of end of the semester, it’s also time for final exams. And this is a time of high-pressure and little time, so this episode is going to be focused on an allusive set of skills that we hardly ever teach yet always require: how to effectively study. I’m also going to post this episode early, so it can help as many kids as possible before finals. And I need to thank my former student, Sam, who reminded me that I was telling kids to study without teaching them how to study. Sam, your question made me a way better teacher. Thank you for being brave enough to ask it!

There is a lot of scientific research out there about how the brain learns and retains information. I’ve tested out a lot of the findings with my students, and I’m bringing you the top strategies for studying. We’re going to learn tweaks to what your child is already doing to make their efforts more efficient and effective. Oh, and I will reference finals in this episode because it’s what’s on my mind right now, but if your child is too young for official “end of course” exams like this, don’t worry. These strategies work for all studying, from 2nd grade math tests to the SATs.

The first strategy comes right from brain research: the brain is tuned in to mistakes. As adults, we know the feeling…you’re pulling into your driveway and realize, with horror, that you don’t remember driving home. It was like you were on auto-pilot, not really thinking about the task. That’s an example of your brain not attending well to a task because it’s not new or exciting. If you had an easy drive, there was no need to produce “brain juice” (neurochemicals) to help you focus, so you and your brain just coasted on home. Now think about the typical study advice: reread the book. That’s the school equivalent of a boring drive. Your child’s brain has seen it before, so again, there’s no need to produce focus juice to help them stay engaged in active learning. Their eyes may move across the lines of text and pull into the last sentence of the page, only to realize they don’t remember reading anything. So, the first strategy for studying is to NOT reread the text. It’s a waste of time.

Instead, use your child’s brain’s tendency to pay attention to mistakes to their advantage. Rewrite previous test questions they missed, look at potential misunderstandings, and correct them. Don’t spend too much time looking at what they’ve already mastered. Instead, focus on the “areas of almost,” where they have maybe part of the problem or concept and need just a little boost to achieve mastery. A great way to use mistakes for learning is through flashcards. If time allows, have your child write out the flashcards for themselves (this act of creating questions and answers can be hugely beneficial). If not, you can help them scribe a few or go online to have a flashcard app create the cards for you. (Pear Deck’s Flashcard factory is a really fun one for teachers to use, or Quizlet and Brainscape for home use). When your child reviews the flashcards, have them place each card into one of three piles: got it, almost, and I don’t know this one. After the first round, the “got it” pile stays on the table, while your child repeats the process of trying the cards and sorting them after answering. The idea is that they sort based on what needs repeating; the harder ones are repeated for increased exposure.

Another great use of time is to take the practice tests. If a teacher gives a practice test, chances are the problems on the practice are structured the same way or at least cover the same material as what will be on the test. Practice tests do the work of deciding what to study for your child. After a practice test, look for patterns of problems your child missed. You can best your support time helping your child clarify any misunderstanding they have with the material.

The next strategy is supported by brain science as well: study in smaller chunks. I can imagine this strategy is annoying, as sometimes your child only has the last-minute opportunity left. I get it. Even if it’s finals week, you can use this strategy by breaking up study times and mixing in different tasks. This is for two reasons: first, brains attend for a limited period of time, so we need to mix up how our kids study to keep their neurochemicals flowing for them. Second, brains can only soak up so much before they are saturated and need either an opportunity to rest or to apply the learning. Lots of studies have shown that a quick review before bed works magic; kids’ brains work on the information during sleep and retain a lot more than if they had crammed all night and not slept much. Having a chance to apply the learning helps kids connect new learning to things they already know—which is another proven way to support retention! When I’m reviewing with my students, I try to mix up how we process the problems. Sometimes they use white boards, sometimes regular paper, sometimes they rotate through centers and even write on the tables with erasable marker! It’s the same content, but because it’s processed in different ways, their brains are better able to focus and engage. As a bonus, they’re not bored, so they’re a lot more pleasant to be around!

My last studying tip is not relating to studying at all…well, not directly. Hydrated bodies have more effective brains, so be sure your child has enough fluids for the few days before testing, and have them bring a water bottle during tests. Recent studies have shown that dehydration negatively impacts memory and focus…definitely not what we want our kids to experience!

So, your child is game on with flashcards, focusing on the materials they don’t know yet, studying in chunks and a little bit before getting a full night’s sleep. Sounds good so far, so how do we support the kids on test day?

First, don’t make it too much of a big deal. Have your child eat a typical breakfast (to avoid any stomach issues or sugar drop offs). Encourage your child in the morning, but talk about other things as well. Too much support can feel like pressure for our kids. (This is Definity one I’m still trying to remember!)

Have your child pack water and snacks. If the teacher will allow it, mints and gum are also great supports during tests, as the mint flavor and act of chewing helps alert students who have to sit for long periods of time.

When finals are over, celebrate of course! Then, take some time to reflect on how studying went. Have your child write down some of the strategies that worked and a few that didn’t, so you’re not starting from scratch next semester. All of this hard work is teaching your child that they have influence over their learning and their lives! It’s good stuff…even though it’s stressful.

Alright, I feel like I scienced you a bit today. But, I love being the bridge between research and practice. Why not use studies to improve our lives? In review, when you’re helping your child study this week, remember:

*Don’t reread the text. It’s a waste of time.

*Do spend time attending to almost-mastered materials and study patterns in mistakes.

*Take the practice tests.

*Use flashcards, and again, focus on the ones that aren’t automatic at first.

*Make smaller chunks of time for studying. Review material before bed to allow your child’s brain to simmer on it during sleep.

*After a study time, allow your child to apply or connect their learning. Maybe teach a sibling or play a game with the learning. Or, just take a break. A full sponge can’t soak up anything else. It’s okay to plan and use breaks.

Finals week can be challenging for all of us: students, parents, and teachers. Staying aware of our stress and using our time with the best strategies will help us get through it together!

Time for the pep talk, so grab that finals-taking child of yours:

Well hello, kid,

Finals are here, huh? I can bet you’re a mix of feelings right now: a little stressed, a little excited to be almost done, and a lot exhausted. Me too! Well, I’m here to help make finals run smoothly for you with some tips for studying (and PS your grown up already listened to these, so you’re on the same page now!)

*First, don’t waste your time rereading the text. Your brain will fall asleep (your body might too). If it’s not new or active learning, chances are it’s going to waste your time. So skip rereading.

*But do focus on your mistakes. Your brain gives your more “brain juice” when you make a mistake, so use this to your advantage! Pile the flashcards you miss separately so you can repeat them. Or rework the math problems you missed instead of doing all of the tests again. Save yourself time and use your brain in the best way. Studying can feel better when you know how to do it!

*Study in small chunks. Your grown up who listens to this podcast promised me they wouldn’t make you cram for hours. Your brain gets too full and your body too sleepy if you work for too long. Set a timer, study, then take a break when the timer goes off. Your break can be leaving the room, eating, moving around, or taking the information you just learned and explaining it to someone. The idea is you don’t keep learning new stuff but give yourself some time to let it soak in instead.

*Review a little before bed. There’s some brain magic when you sleep that takes your learning and tattoos it into your brain. So go through your flashcards or look over your practice test before you brush your teeth for the night. Your brain’s got it from there!

*Take care of your body and stay hydrated. Scientists recently discovered that if you don’t have enough water in your body, your brain doesn’t work as well to remember or focus. That would be the worst thing during a test, so drink some water, my friend.

Alright, dear grown ups and kids alike, best of luck during your tests! I know you will give it your best! Thank you so much for listening and sharing this with others. We’re growing our reach every week, and I’m hearing from so many people that these ideas are relieving stress at school and home! That feedback is pretty much the best gift I could get this Christmas!

If this show is helping you, please let me know by leaving a review and sharing it with your friends and teachers. We’ll be back with a new episode after Christmas. Until then, sending you all my love!