This morning I received an email typical of some I receive from parents a few times per year. It read as follows:
My son has just gone into junior cert and badly needs help to plan study and homework. He seems to waste lots of time with the book open and nothing sinking in. I feel if he could just be more motivated and organised he could be getting better grades. We also are to blame for not keeping a check on his work and its causing such worry. Any ideas where we could go from here? He has bags of books, folders and notes all over and I’m not qualified to help him. Help!
My reply would be something like this:
You have hit the nail on the head. It comes down to motivation and organisation, and putting good habits or systems in place.
The natural tendency of many students is to spend too much time reading long sections of their textbooks without any real engagement, highlighting some of the text in the belief that this makes it stand out in their memory or copying text in their own handwriting. Unfortunately, these are the most inefficient ways to work.
Instead students should read shorter passages, then close the book and answer questions on what they have just read. Unfortunately this is the less likely thing most students do if left to their own devices. This is the reason homework is given, (or should be). School textbooks generally have questions at the end of each chapter or section of a chapter. Having a quick read of these questions before reading the actual text can be helpful because the student can then read with the purpose of finding the answers to those questions rather than just passively read without direction. If the textbook does not have questions, the student should close the book and spend a minute or two recalling in their own mind what they have just read, and make up and answer their own questions.
Should the student come across a question they can not answer after a genuine attempt, then ask for help at the first opportunity, be it from a teacher or classmate etc. Do not leave questions unanswered, because further lessons may be based on this information.
Several short bursts of activity will be more effective than a few marathon sessions.
Students also need to revise the work they did last week and a month ago to implant it successfully in their long term memory, so part of their study schedule should include quick revisions of work done earlier.
Eliminate distractions when studying. Watching TV, taking phone calls from friends or checking social media while studying does not work. You do one or the other.
Students need to accumulate facts, vocabulary and definitions before they make connections between them to develop understanding. Making flash cards can be helpful for learning short definitions. Drawing out mind maps can be helpful in finding connections between facts and seeing how one thing relates to another.
Before starting a study session have everything you will need readily available. (Pens, paper, textbooks, calculator etc.). Having to go search for something you need will break your concentration on the current activity.
These are some of the basics to take account of when studying. There is no magic bullet, so single big thing that will solve the problem in an instant. Instead, it is the repeated applications of the basics, over and over again that leads to success. This requires perserverance, a quality often in short supply in an age of instant gratification.