For most courses from middle school through college, exam scores determine at least 50 percent of a student’s final grade. So it’s critical that every student knows how to do well on tests. As many parents are frustrated to learn, teachers rarely have the time to teach study skills. Even if they do, they’re likely to emphasize such tried-and-true methods as highlighting texts or rereading class notes—methods, it turns out, that aren’t that effective after all.

Of course, the first step toward helping your child do better on tests is to ensure they’re paying attention in class. You might be shocked to learn how distracting today’s classrooms can be, especially if a school allows cell phones or advocates “flipped” classrooms that emphasize group work and watching instructional videos.

Teachers in these environments don’t have the time or resources to ensure that all 30 students are paying attention, taking notes, writing down testing dates, and turning in class assignments. Also, if your child attends public school, make sure you’re signed up for a Powerschool account so you can monitor their assignments, grades and attendance. If your child isn’t doing well, review their notebooks and planners to find out if they’re writing down due dates and keeping their notes and handouts organized; don’t hesitate to contact the teacher for a conference.

Even if your child is a good student “citizen,” it’s unlikely they know how to study effectively. A recent wave of cognitive research has led to consensus on the handful of strategies that really work. You can empower your child by sharing these five strategies, which scientists have recently proven to be the most effective way to learn and retain information:

Elaborative interrogation, or answering why a fact is true: Students who get into the habit of asking, “why?” while reading a chapter in a textbook, reviewing a handout from their teacher or doing online research will be better able to retain the material than those who simply process information without engaging in self-questioning. “Why” questions seem to work by helping learners integrate new facts with things they already know. An easy way to explain this to your child: Have them pretend they’re babysitting a curious 3-year-old who’s always asking “why” questions. Sure, preschoolers aren’t very likely to ask questions about cell mitosis or the reasons for the War of 1812, but coming up with them anyway will help students make important connections that passive reading doesn’t encourage.

Self-explanation, or explaining what a section of text or an example problem means to you: This strategy is similar to the one above in that it asks students to be active rather than passive consumers of information. According to researchers, self-explanation—taking the time after every few pages of a chapter or when finishing an article to explain what they learned—prompts students to draw conclusions and make connections with what they already know.

Such explanations should go beyond summarizing to reveals gaps in understanding. The more difficult the material or the harder the text, the more beneficial this strategy is. A good way to help students conceptualize this process: Pretend that their teacher will ask them to explain the concept or problem they’re learning to the class.

Practice testing, or testing yourself on the material you’re trying to learn: Taking tests helps students ace tests. There’s no way around it. This is a good thing: Practice tests give students valuable feedback about what they know and what they still must learn, whether it’s algebra 2 or Spanish 2. When you answer a test question, you must actively search your long-term memory,” writes Dr. Winston Sieck in his blog Thinker Academy.

“Doing so creates more and better pathways to the answer. This makes the answer easier to find the next time around. Scientists sometimes call it ‘retrieval practice.’” Many textbooks feature questions in each chapter or unit; encourage your child to do these, especially if the answers are provided. And here’s where flashcards—one of the few tried-and-true methods confirmed as effective by science—come in. Kids who are more digitally inclined can use a free online service called Quizlet to create their own digital “flashcards.” The bottom line: Testing before the test means better results.

Distributed practice, or spreading studying out over several sessions: Students are famous for cramming; think back to your all-nighters in the campus library. But science proves that it’s much more effective to study in small chunks over a period rather than all at once. Cramming is ineffective in many ways; for one thing, our attention spans are limited.

For another, the process of spreading one subject out over several days forces the memory to have to restart at the beginning of each study session, which, as counter-intuitive as it seems, is a good way of strengthening the brain’s ability to retrieve information, scientists say. While there’s no way to really prevent cramming, you can help your child get into the habit of studying a little every night.

Interleaved practice, or mixing different kinds of subjects/problems together when studying: This strategy surprised scientists. They used to believe students should study one thing at a time. Recent research turned that notion on its head. Now, scientists say, studying more than one concept or topic during a single setting helps improve understanding and retention, whether the subject is physics or art history. In one recent study, for example, students were asked to learn the painting styles of 12 different artists by looking at six samples of each artist’s work.

Some participants were shown each artist’s paintings consecutively, while others viewed all 12 in mixed order. When tested later, the students who had seen the paintings in mixed order were better at matching them with the correct artist than those who had studied each artist’s paintings in one group. The reason, it seems, that when students mix things up, they are better able to compare and contrast, which leads to deeper understanding. How to apply this: Encourage your student to not only study a little bit every day, as in the suggestion above, but to study for each class, or within each class, different problems, rather than setting aside specific days for different subjects. This advice is especially applicable to students with A-B schedules, who have core classes on alternating days.

Source: “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology,” by John Dunlowsky et al. From Psychological Science in the Public Interest, January 2013.



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