This week is the start of school, and I’m approaching it, as always, full of hopes and dreams about organization and fewer battles over homework. I know the inevitable tension will come into play soon enough, but I am enjoying these few moments of unbridled optimism, and trying to find ways to make it last.
For my newly-minted teenager entering eighth grade, this year has to be about study skills. Study skills are things grown-ups talk about all the time, but we are never all that specific with kids what they mean. And since eighth grade is the last year when you get a bit of a pass before high school and the run towards college, getting a set of effective study methods mastered is going to be key.
What do I mean by study skills?
Each one of us has a slightly different learning style. Some people are auditory learners; others are visual; others are somewhere in between. But knowing how you learn best is important in deciding which tool from the Study Skills toolbox to apply.
1. Extending your memory- In order to remember the loads of information school expects you to have readily on hand, re-reading a chapter in a book is rarely the best or only study method to employ. The bottom line is we remember information more readily when we use it and transform it in different ways. This means you should try:
a. Making flash cards and drilling the information- This works best for short pieces of information, like spelling words, dates, state capitals, and the like. Part of the learning process is also in the making of the flash cards- writing the information, looking up definitions, etc. This is part of the process of using the information and transforming it- so if you think you are helping your child by making the flash acrds for them, you are wrong.
b.Outlining- this is something that was really useful in law school, and I wish I knew about it much earlier in school. Basically, what you do is take all the information you need to know and re-write it, transforming it into a heirarchy of information. So for a semester’s worth of material on property law, I would have headings based on certain principals like Who owns the land? followed by principals and cases underneath that illustrate those points. For my middle school son, Outlining works best for topics like science and history, when you have a lot of facts you have to start to inter-relate and find larger themes.
c. Time lines- This is great for history in particular, because it helps sort out the sequence of dates and helps you identify patterns in what happened when, why, and why we should care. Again, by using the information you’ve read and transforming it into a different form makes it more likely to stick.
2. Some subjects do require Drill and Kill. For some classes, often math, or spelling, requires a more simple form of studying or practice I refer to as drill and kill. The only way to get better, is often to see more problems and practice the way to attack them.
a. Practice problems- fortunately, there are tons of websites now that will generate practice sheets of math problems at all levels, making studying and practicing for math classes easier than ever. You can check out my del.icio.us bookmarks; hit the math tag, and you’ll get many sites that will give you more math sheets that you ever want, elementary through high school.
b. Spelling- for spelling, we have a week long process here at home. Day 1- pretest- what words does the child already know? Any one they have problems with they need to write out on the white board twice. Day 2-re-test; look to see if there’s something unusual in the pattern of the strange words; spell them out loud; break them down into chunks and roots, to make the sub-parts of the words easier to remember.
3. The Secret Study Weapon of them All- Context!
The one thing school does a crappy job of is putting knowledge into a bigger context for kids. I remember so well, sitting in class and saying to myself- when am I EVER going to use this stuff when I am a grownup? This question is a good one, but it also provides a wall between a kid and their willingness to get the information they need to engage in the classroom. So whenever I see kids hitting that wall, I try to tell them why learning fractions is important, when you use them as adults, etc. And sometimes the answer is as easy as this:
A recent study in the UK shows that the average person used their math skills 14 times a day, and their literacy skills 23 times a day. It also showed that people who had weak skills in these areas experienced a lot of stress, including trying to find ways of get out of work or pas it on to others to make up for their weaknesses.
This helped a bunch of my tutoring students to see that all this school stuff was used later on, and helped, at least temporaily, to keep them motivated to learn.
So let’s do our kids the biggest favor of all- let’s tell them why school is important, give them the big picture, and make what they learn meaningful. That’s the greatest gift of all.
by Whitney Hoffman
Photo graciously provided by Bukutgirl, through a Creative Commons license, some rights reserved