As we gear up to start a new semester and put last semester’s exams behind us, it is a good time to review effective study strategies to prepare for the exams this semester assuredly will bring. Many parents tell me that they think their child does not know how to study. Certainly students with attention problems tend to utilize passive study strategies rather than implement more effective, active techniques, but plenty of other students share in these challenges. We can help our children by ensuring they utilize active study strategies that will enable them to apply the information on the test but also to retain the information over time. Of note, some of the strategies I discuss below are taken from an article in the APA Monitor entitled Seven Cognitive Principles Identified in the IES report by Pashler, et al (2007).
So, what are passive versus active study strategies? Passive strategies are strategies such as simply reading over notes once or twice and being finished with studying or using flash cards but not changing the order of the cards so that the student memorizes the routine rather than the actual words and their relevance. Active strategies involve doing something active with the information in effort to facilitate retention, comprehension, and application. For instance, when learning rote information (e.g., lists of facts, names, dates), students should devise strategies to make the information meaningful such as with acronyms, songs, visualizations, associations, etc. Some information cannot easily be placed into a context and flash cards may be the best strategy, but the order of the cards must be switched around while studying. With other types of information, active study strategies involve discussions about the material, with attempts to answer questions like “why, why not, how, and what if” rather than simply “who, what, where, and when”. Students can also re-teach information to others (e.g., parents), as doing so ensures comprehension and helps the student practice retrieval. Students should also build time into their study schedule to be tested and re-tested by others, as frequent re-testing helps students practice the retrieval skills they need on the exam. Students should also practice manipulating the information into the test format such as practicing writing short answer questions or answering mock fill-in-the-blank questions. With math, problems should be practiced in grouped and mixed problem sets in efforts to practice the retrieval and application skills necessary for the exam. Students should be aware that it is best to study in spaced sessions rather than a crammed session and that engaging in a final review before bedtime is useful because sleep helps to consolidate information in memory. Finally, students should be encouraged to meet with their teachers prior to exams to find out which material is most critical to focus on, to better understand the exam format, and to discuss helpful memorization strategies.
It would be helpful if parents discussed these active study suggestions with their children at a time of low stress and thus discussed them weeks before rather than the night before an exam. Students may need their parents’ help with creating an effective study schedule that includes built-in time for discussions or re-testing by parents, as many students struggle with planning as well as active studying. Remind your children that you are there to help them prepare for tests as needed and that these active study strategies can result in improved test performance but also ultimately can have a lasting positive impact on their course performance (particularly in classes where material builds upon itself) and their overall fund of knowledge. These study skills can be learned and integrated into your child’s arsenal of positive study habits, so start early with your child so they can more automatically engage in these active techniques.