Study skills 101

How to help your child get a handle on studying

Toronto marketing professional Graydon Lau has more than a few regrets when he thinks back to his test-taking days in school. It wasn’t that he was a bad student: Lau pulled in decent B grades. The problem was his habit of cramming. “I was a procrastinator — still am,” says the 44-year-old father of Taylor, 13, Mackenzie, nine, and Cameron, four. “Looking back at all the headaches and heartaches, I don’t want my kids to suffer like I did.” So he and his wife have made it a priority to instill good study habits in their school-aged kids.

With tests entering the school curriculum as early as grade one and building to exams in high school, it’s more important than ever for parents to help their kids learn effective study skills. Of course, there can be a fine line between offering support and stressing them out. “It’s not about pushing kids to get 100 percent, but pushing them to raise their own standard,” says Vivien Hui, director of the Kumon Math and Reading Centre in Richmond, BC. When they’re given the right tools and techniques, students are empowered — and motivated — to study independently.

Not sure how to get started? Here’s a cheat sheet of winning strategies to help students of all ages develop strong study skills.

Make “study” an action verb

Preparing for a test shouldn’t be a passive activity of reading and reviewing. The more creative and action-oriented kids are when studying, the more likely they are to recall the information during a test. Toronto mom Rosemary Greisman thinks that’s why her kids, Noah, 17, Greta, 16, Hannah, 13, and Lea, 12, study for science faster and better than other subjects; the fact that they’ve done experiments helps them remember the concepts.

Similarly, it’s easier to remember information generated by your own mind, so it can help to summarize chapters, organize notes under various headings or map connections between ideas. Or try having your child read a section and explain it to you in 10 words or less. Some kids might benefit from “teaching” the material to a friend or study partner. For math, Hui recommends taking mock tests, which some teachers and textbooks provide.

Younger kids might respond to acrostics (such as Never Eat Soggy Wheat for the points of a compass) or funny songs. “I made up a song for spelling: ‘There is no a in they,’” says former primary school teacher Carol Henderson, who’s currently president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. Once they’re introduced to tricks like these, children will eventually build on them and figure out their own ways of learning, she says.

Know your child’s learning style

Active studying packs even more of a punch when you tailor test-prep techniques to the child. First, identify your child’s learning style — visual, auditory or tactile. (If you’re not sure, ask the teacher to provide some insight, or go to Todaysparent.com/learningstyle and take our online quiz “What’s Your Child’s Learning Style?”) Then try study tips that are geared to that style. For kids who learn visually, highlighting passages, drawing charts or using cue cards are the techniques most likely to help them study effectively. Younger children frequently fall into this category, says Hui, which is why we often hear parents urging them to listen or pay attention. “It’s not that they’re not listening when you ask them what 2 + 3 is; it’s just that they can understand it better if you write it down,” she says.

Auditory learners like to hear the material, so when they study, they should say (or sing) things out loud, and record and review information on tape. Meanwhile, writing notes out repeatedly and tracing words while saying them are good study methods for tactile learners.

Whatever your child’s learning style, you can’t go wrong by injecting a bit of fun into study time. “We play a game-show-style quiz and answer format — it beats just asking questions and pulling teeth for an answer,” says Lau. “Sometimes we have a dollar-store timer set to get a little drama involved. Taylor loves the challenge.”

Help them plan their time

With the number of hours some kids devote to after-school activities, simply finding the time to study can be tricky. Parents can help by marking tests on the family calendar and creating a study schedule. “If you see a test is coming up on Wednesday, suggest your child study a third of the material on Saturday, a third on Sunday, a third on Monday, and Tuesday you can help her review,” says Hui. By spreading the material over several days and reviewing lessons while they’re still fresh, students commit the information to long-term memory, which improves their chances of remembering it even if they’re nervous during the test.

Also, instead of trying to block out a full hour of study time (which a seven-year-old won’t sit still for anyway), try to build in incidental time, says Henderson. She suggests using magnetic letters on the fridge to practise spelling while you’re preparing a meal, have kids explain a challenging concept to you when you’re in the car, or do basic math while setting the table. “How many knives are there? How many forks? How many spoons? How many are there all together?”

Offer motivation

Some kids are self-starters, while others need incentives to crack open a book. You can foster a positive attitude about studying by doing your own “studies” (reading, paying bills, doing paperwork) at the same time as your children. It also helps to provide kids with a quiet study space at a desk or table — free from distractions, such as TVs or iPods.

For older students who refuse to study or whose effort is underwhelming, the natural consequence of inadequate studying — doing poorly on a test — can teach a valuable lesson, finds Greisman. While she’s happy to help with time management or studying when her kids ask, Greisman believes they need to show some independence. “They have to be their own bosses. I’m OK with them failing too — that’s real life, and it’s how they will learn.”

Turn to the teacher

If you notice that your child is having difficulty preparing for or writing tests, don’t be shy to discuss it with the teacher. “It’s not about helicopter parents arguing about marks, but rather asking if there’s anything to be concerned about or what you can do to support your child,” says Beverly Beuermann-King, a stress and wellness expert based in Little Britain, Ont. And the teacher will be glad to hear from you, adds Henderson. “We love when parents come in and ask how they can help their children,” she says. “It shows you have an interest in your child’s learning.”

Ultimately, that’s the goal for all parents: to see their child is learning and becoming independent. Lau couldn’t be more pleased that straight-A seventh-grader Taylor has better study skills now than dear old Dad ever did. “She knows when her tests are and she’s doing her study notes on little recipe cards,” he says with pride, adding that Taylor is very self-motivated. Best of all, he adds, studying is “not a mad-dash panic.”

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