Holy Grail of studying: How to learn more in less time

WASHINGTON — For some kids, knowing how to study comes naturally.

They’ve learned, presumably through trial and error, what works for them and employ those strategies without a second thought.

But that’s not the norm.

Instead, most students (especially those who are smart, and never really had to work too hard to get decent grades) have never developed effective learning skills. Because of that, study sessions tend to turn into long, drawn-out events filled with lots of highlighting, re-reading and Snapchat breaks.

Thankfully, learning skills are just that: skills.

That means there are things that you can do, as a parent, to help your child develop those skills and become a much more effective student, both at home and in class.

Focus, Motivation, and Skill

A lot of times I hear from parents who are concerned because their son or daughter’s previously exceptional performance in elementary school has somehow turned into a massive struggle as soon as he or she graduated to middle school.

This is exceedingly common.

When it was easy for them to breeze through elementary-level schoolwork, they never actually had to develop the study skills necessary to learn difficult material independently. But as kids get older, expectations increase, and without the right skill set, they can fall behind.

In order to do well in school, even when it starts to get more challenging, kids need three things: focus, motivation, and skill.


As a parent, you can actually create an environment ripe for focus. What does that mean in practice?

Help your child find the right place for homework and be sure, as much as possible, distractions are limited. There are some great apps such as Rescue Time, Forest and Self Control that can all help with focus as well.


All kids are motivated, they just might not be motivated to perform exactly how you want them to. There is no magic switch for motivation, but the easiest thing parents can do is to notice effort.

Lots of research shows that when parents praise their kids for working hard, instead of being smart, it increases their level of academic motivation.


We don’t teach study skills in school much, and that’s a shame, because they quickly become the building blocks for everything your child learns from then on out.

Side note: When I was a teacher, I’d go to elaborate lengths to create beautiful study guides for my students, but it didn’t seem to occur to me back then that they didn’t know how to use them. Sometimes teachers don’t know either!

The study skills kids (and parents) should learn today

First, realize that they should be practicing for tests in the same format the test is given.

For example, if your fourth grade daughter is studying for her spelling test, you wouldn’t want to say the words and ask her to spell them out loud to you, because she doesn’t say the words out loud on the test, she writes them.

Simulate the testing situation, mix up all the words, and give her a written spelling test.

The same concept works for older kids. When kids receive a study guide, research shows that they’ll learn and retain the information best if they complete it three times. However, the first time around they typically do it in class, only to promptly turn around and repeatedly re-read it at home.

Studying done, right? Not quite.

Re-reading has been shown in multiple studies to be one of the most ineffective ways to study. But most students didn’t get the memo. In fact, 84 percent of middle and high schoolers say they primarily study by rereading, even though it’s been shown to be a virtually useless study activity.

Instead, have your child get blank copies of those study guides. Fill one in from memory and then look up the answers to ones you don’t know. Now, just review that information. Pull out the next blank copy, and do it again. Students will find out that they know more each time. The addition of writing really helps individuals commit information to memory. It’s far better than just rereading and ends up saving lots of time.

When kids are busy, how can they squeeze in time to study well?

We all know intuitively that your brain works best when you feed it information a little each day instead of all at once at the last minute.

I mean, you remember all of that stuff you crammed for that Psych 201 class you took back in college, right?

But somehow, cramming still pervades our study sessions, rearing its ugly head when procrastination is at its worst.

So instead, I really encourage kids to use “weird windows,” which are little chunks of time they’d otherwise spend on Snapchat or Instagram.

It might be 10 minutes waiting at the bus stop, 20 minutes at the doctor’s office or a half hour before soccer practice. Even though a lot of kids won’t whip out a text book, they are often willing to study with an app instead.

Quizlet is tried and true, and one that even the most reluctant kid is willing to use. Others will record part of a lecture and play that back during these weird windows and some may even do required reading on their phone during this time.

Using these small pockets of time is imperative, especially for student athletes who tend to get home late in the evening and still have lots of homework in front of them.

This will get all of that new knowledge flowing in bit-by-bit, so your kid can actually retain it for when test day finally rolls around.

Ann Dolin is a former public school teacher and the founder and president of Educational Connections Tutoring, which helps students throughout the D.C. area. She’s the author of the award-winning books “Homework Made Simple” and “A Parent’s Guide to Private Schools.”

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