This is the time of year when students often face the challenge of preparing for major exams; exams that ask them to synthesize various concepts, recall a wide range of information, and demonstrate competency with a variety of skills. We have coached students throughout the year to develop learning strategies to assist them to absorb, retain, and retrieve important content. Now, they will be asked to pull everything together in preparation for important end-of-year assessments.
Of course, the task students face is not new. Students have faced this annual challenge for generations. However, it can be motivating to students to expand their repertoire of study techniques by incorporating some tips often shared with college-level learners by their professors as these advanced learners prepare for high-stakes career preparation and licensing assessments. The good news is that the tips work equally well for younger students. Here are five time-tested and research-based tips you can share.
First, encourage students to choose or create a focus-supportive environment. The ability to focus is among the most important elements contributing to successful study. The exact conditions optimal to support mental focus may vary from person to person. Some people focus best when they experience complete silence. Others may find music in the background to assist with focus. Some people may benefit from a view of the outdoors. Others may focus best without visual stimulation beyond what they are studying. Some people do their best when isolated from people. Others may benefit from some movement around them such as they might experience in a coffee shop. However, there is wide agreement that cellphones and social media turned off and out of sight contributes to the ability to focus. The key is for the student to find the optimum focus-supportive environment for their needs.
Second, advise students to take frequent breaks – at least every thirty minutes – to think about what they are studying and how best to organize it for storage in their minds. Interestingly, researchers have found that learning breaks to synthesize and organize content and skills can play as important a role in learning as practicing preset processes and completing problem sets.
Third, encourage students to move from one position or location to another occasionally, especially as they move from one element or aspect of study to another. The shift may be as little as repositioning at a desk or table, or as significant as moving to a different room or new location. As we study, our brains absorb more information than we may be aware. While we are focusing, our brains note objects around us, noises we hear, and movements that cross our vision. This information can help to “anchor” memories and assist recall of content connected to the experience. As a result, our attempts to recall what we have studied can be enhanced by memories of where we were when we encountered information, developed a new insight, or reached a conclusion. Shifting locations can ground memories in the environment where they occurred.
Fourth, share with students the benefits of pausing occasionally to explain or summarize what they just read or reviewed. Research indicates that explaining to yourself can be enough to make a difference. Explaining to a “study buddy” can be even more beneficial. The process of explaining organizes information and prepares the brain for storage. This technique can also surface elements and aspects of what is being studied that are not clear and need more attention and clarification.
Fifth, encourage students to draw pictures or create maps to depict connections and relationships among items and elements they are studying. Images are often easier to recall than lists of words or highlighted text. The process of drawing and positioning information also provides opportunities to interact more deeply with content and helps to place information in a more complete context. Later, when attempting recall key concepts and information in isolation, graphics can offer a memory shortcut to information that has been placed in a retrievable format.
Of course, each of these tips require a level of effort and discipline. However, they can make studying more interesting as they add variety and novelty to the process. They also can be motivating because they work.