Teaching Good Study Habits

1 09 2009

by Sylvia Rimm,Ph.D.

The key to your child’s success

Perhaps the most important skill your child can learn in school is how to study effectively. By learning how to take notes, read for content, actively listen and study for exams, your child will not only achieve more in school but she’ll take these skills with her to college and into her career. Bad study habits, on the other hand, interfere with learning. If your daughter loses confidence in her abilities as a student, the resulting insecurity might cause her to limit her future options in college or the workplace.

Clearly, it’s in the best interest of your children to teach them good study skills–but changing bad habits can be challenging. Some children have no difficulty letting go of their bad habits; others consistently fight any change. Either way, with the right techniques and plenty of perseverance, it is possible to transform a study-phobic child into an organized, efficient student.

Read on to learn how to cater to your child’s particular learning style and to find tips on creating study schedules.

A Time and a Place

The key to your child’s success

Good study habits begin with an appropriate time and place for study. Setting a routine time for study is key. Find a time that fits both your schedule and your child’s. Study time may need to be flexible in families in which parents aren’t home when kids come home from school; however, some general rules can guide you in setting a proper time and place.

How responsible is your child? If he accomplishes homework independently and studies in a timely manner, there’s no need for you to specify a time for study. On the other hand, if he hasn’t studied enough, you should help him structure his time. The amount of time will vary with their grade and school requirements. Elementary school children should study from 15 minutes to one hour; middle school children need one to two hours; and high school students require between two and three hours each evening.

If your child isn’t used to spending time studying, use a timer and hold her to a specified and agreed upon amount of time. If she says she’s completed all of her homework far before the allotted time is up, have her use the remainder for review, organizing notes or doing extra reading for future book reports or for pleasure. Remind your kids that the timer and prescriptive study times are only a temporary measure to help them manage their study time independently. For children who love to read, permitting them to do pleasure reading during study time may be counterproductive. Writing or math study could complete their study time. Inform them that when their achievement habits improve, you’ll be more flexible and allow them to set their own study schedule.

There should be a break immediately after school for children to have a snack and some physical and social activity. Children often believe they should use that break to watch television. However, television will put them into a passive mode, and they’re unlikely to want to stop watching to begin studying. It’s better to insist that television follow study and homework. Your children may say, “But I need to relax after school.” Assure them that they will get to relax. Exercise is both relaxing and energizing and more appropriate after a day of sitting in school. Certainly, having time to chat or clown around or play is appropriate for after school, but television is not.

In determining the right time for study, keep in mind that kids need something to look forward to after study. If possible, at least part of children’s study time should take place before the evening meal, leaving time for play or television after study. If the study time is set late in the evening, study will be less efficient and there won’t be time afterwards for play. With only bedtime to follow, kids aren’t motivated toward efficiency. Homework or study may also become an excuse to stay up late if it is scheduled just before bedtime. (For some reason unknown to adults, few children enjoy going to sleep!) They often look for ways to stay up as long as adults are awake.

Having a designated study place is equally important for helping children learn efficiently. A desk in your child’s own room, with a STUDENT AT WORK sign posted on the door, is ideal. Many kids have desks, although they may be cluttered with junk. If kids don’t have their own rooms, there are other good alternatives: the kitchen, dining room or basement are reasonable places as long as no one else is in the same room, and the kids are out of listening and viewing range of the TV while they’re studying.

Different Learning Styles

The key to your child’s success

We know that children’s learning styles vary. Some children learn more efficiently visually, others are more effective listeners and prefer auditory learning, and still others learn best by tactile senses or through hands-on activities. Stories that involve feelings or emotions enhance learning for most children. Using all four styles can encourage your children to utilize their strengths and improve on their weaknesses.

VISUAL LEARNERS should use writing, copying, drawing or collecting pictures to reinforce their memory.

AUDITORY LEARNERS can best improve their memory by listening to and talking on tapes, as well as oral repetition.

KINESTHETIC LEARNERS learn most effectively when manipulating counters, markers or flash cards.

All kinds of learners benefit from making up stories, rhymes or mnemonic devices. These techniques involve children’s feelings, which help improve their memories. Let your children discover what works best for them.

Keeping Track of Assignments

The key to your child’s success

Sometimes the best way to keep track of assignments is to simply set up a system with your child. For example, use a full-size spiral notebook for assignments. Each day’s assignments can be on a fresh page. The page is torn out when all assignments are complete. The advantages are: 1) The notebook is less likely to be lost because of size; 2) the child derives satisfaction from tearing out completed pages and showing them to parents or teacher; and 3) the new assignments are always on the top page. One disadvantage is that it’s somewhat wasteful of paper.
Some other ideas:

• Assignment notebooks that students consider cool are more apt to be used.

• Don’t use small assignment notebooks. They almost always get lost.

• Teachers sometimes prepare special assignment forms that children can place in their loose-leaf notebooks. Teachers should assign time at the end of the day for children to copy assignments in the appropriate place and gather necessary books.

• Some children find it helpful to use double-sided folders for each subject. Unfinished work goes on one side. Completed work is saved in the other side. On the weekend, children review their folder, save what they need and toss the rest.

• Children can be permitted to create their own assignment-reminder strategies. Some children are very inventive, and once they invest themselves in their own devices, they’re more likely to remain committed.

Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., is the director of the Family Achievement Clinic at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and the author of 12 books.

When Bright Kids Get Bad Grades

1 09 2009

by Adria Steinberg

In elementary school, no one worried about Rhonda. Her sixth-grade teachers found her bright and capable and expected her to do well in junior high. Although sometimes anxious in class, Rhonda was aware of being one of the smartest kids–especially when she go another 100 on a spelling test or was the first to finish a math packet.

But seventh grade was more of a trial for Rhonda than anyone had predicted. Some B’s slipped onto her report card, and her attitude toward school changed dramatically. Most upsetting to her parents was her declaration, after getting a 75 on a pre-algebra test, that she was not good at math and would probably put off taking algebra.

Most teachers and parents expect a child’s grades and achievement test scores in sixth grade to be fairly accurate predictors of success in junior high. But, as Rhonda’s story illustrates, this is not necessarily the case.

Why do some bright children start avoiding academic challenges when they reach junior high and stop liking some or all of their classes? Carol Dweck of Columbia University has discovered three areas in which students who continue to meet or exceed expectations differ from those who become “underachievers”: their beliefs about intelligence, their responses to difficult academic tasks, and the rewards they look for from schoolwork.

Born or Made?

Most children, according to Dweck, start out with an “incremental” view of intelligence: they think a person gets smarter by learning things and trying hard. But by third or fourth grade kids have encountered–and many have begun to hold–an “entity” theory. According to this view, you are born with a certain amount of native ability that determines how smart you are.

The question is whether these beliefs about intelligence affect students’ performance in school. Although Dweck has found a difference between the ways incremental and entity theorists approach academic tasks, she has not found a link between beliefs and elementary school grades. But there is evidence from a recent study that such a link develops when students move on into junior high.

Dweck and Valanne Henderson of the University of Illinois questioned 229 entering seventh grades about intelligence. Nearly two-thirds (139) showed a consistent preference for either an entity or an incremental theory. The researchers then used another measure to divide the students in each group into those with high and low confidence in their own abilities.

Comparing students’ grades and achievement test scores in sixth grade with their seventh-grade report cards, Henderson and Dweck found some surprises. They expected that entity theorists who had been low achievers would remain so. But in fact many of those who had performed well in sixth grade–and had entered seventh confident of their abilities–were now receiving grades below those predicted by previous performance.

Meanwhile, incrementalists maintained their performance at a level equivalent to or better than their elementary school grades. Even those who had not done especially well in sixth grade–and had begun seventh with low confidence–matched or exceeded their predicted performance. Perhaps most surprising, the low-confidence incrementalists earned higher grades than the high-confidence entity theorists.

In fact, students who held entity theories and had high confidence at the start of seventh grade showed the most pronounced decline of any group. When Henderson did a follow-up study of these same kids at the end of eighth grade, she found continued low performance. They had not recovered from the seventh-grade slump.

I Think I Can’t

To explain this decline, Dweck looks at the way children answer the question “When do you feel smart?” Incrementalists cite times when they put effort into something, when they don’t understand something and then get it, or when they figure out something new. In contrast, entity theorists point to times when a task is easy for the, when not much effort is required, when they do not make mistakes, or when they finish first.

Insofar as learning involves putting effort into challenging tasks, entity theorists are caught in a serious bind. What they do to feel smart and what they must do to learn new things are at odds.

For the past decade, Dweck and her colleagues have investigated why and how some children end up in this bind. Dweck has identified two distinct, coherent patterns in the ways children approach difficult academic tasks.

In the maladaptive or “helpless” pattern, children define themselves as having failed soon after reaching a difficult problem, usually attributing their difficulties to a lack of ability and predicting poor future performance. In one experiment they even had distorted recall of past successes: more than a third believed that if the earlier problems were administered again they would have trouble with ones that in fact they had successfully solved.

Children manifesting a more mastery-oriented, adaptive pattern respond to difficulty by issuing more self-instructions and by planning strategies to overcome failures. In the same experiment, many of these students spontaneously expressed confidence that they would succeed in the future. Twenty-five percent began to use more sophisticated problem-solving strategies than evidenced in earlier, simpler tasks, in all, 80 percent of the mastery-oriented children maintained or improved their strategies as the tasks got more difficult.

No Pain, No Gain

In trying to explain these two patterns, Dweck discovered that the two groups focus on different goals, which can lead them to construe and react to events differently. Those who believe that intelligence is a fixed trait tent to pursue the aim or proving they have it. Setting what Dweck calls performance goals, entity theorists seek positive evaluations of their abilities and try to avoid negative ones.

In one experiment, children who focused on performance goals rejected the chance to learn something new if it involved any risk of error or confusion. They seemed very vulnerable to losing confidence in themselves and thus to falling into the helpless pattern.

In contrast, children who focus on mastery and hence set learning goals are likely to persist in the face of difficulty. They see effort as something that activates ability rather than as an indicator of low ability. When facing challenging academic tasks, they view these as opportunities to get smarter–a much more adaptive response.

Girls at Risk

While most of Dweck’s studies involve the upper elementary grades, she and Henderson emphasize that early adolescence is the period most likely to bring out and solidify maladaptive patterns of achievement. The increased importance and uncertainty of success in junior high create a climate in which students want to avoid academic challenges.

What can teachers or parents do to allay anxiety about school and encourage young people to invest effort and pursue challenging studies? One important step is to recognize who may be vulnerable to the helpless pattern.

Asked to single out children with motivation problems, teachers will generally point to those who are not doing well. But the research shows that fifth or sixth graders can be doing fine in school while at the same time holding beliefs and goals that will later make them vulnerable.

Girls may be especially at risk. In one study, brighter girls were twice as likely as bright boys to endorse an entity theory. Three-fourths of the bright girls, but none of the bright boys, preferred academic tasks easy enough to ensure success.

How to Help

Both performance and learning goals, Henderson and Dweck note, are in everyone’s repertoire. In one study, Dweck influenced a group of children to focus on performance by heightening the evaluative aspects of the situation, and got another group to focus on learning goals by emphasizing the value of the task to be learned. In other experiments she successfully trained children to attribute failures to lack of effort rather than to low ability.

But can teachers have a similar influence on students in the classroom? Carol Ames of the University of Illinois warns against simplistic applications of motivation research to classroom practice.

For example, one lesson teachers have drawn from research is that they should provide children with success experiences and plenty of positive feedback. Although this may often by a good strategy, it is not equally helpful for all children in all situations.

When the work becomes more difficult, children who have come to expect a string of successes may fall apart. In the long run it may be better for students to learn to view their mistakes–and the feedback that accompanies these–as sources of information for future efforts rather than as evidence of low ability.

We spend too much time looking at motivation as an individual trait, says Ames, and not enough looking at “how the organization and structure of the classroom shapes and socializes adaptive and maladaptive motivation patterns.” In her work in the Champaign-Urbana schools, Ames asks teachers to investigate the possible negative effects of such daily occurrences as “public evaluation practices, normative comparisons, extrinsic rewards, ability grouping, and emphasis on production, speed, and perfection.”

What can teachers do instead? Some teachers and researchers are finding that portfolio assessment encourages students to focus more on their own learning and less on how they compare with others in the class or how the teacher judges their work.

This appears to be particularly true when self-assessment is built into portfolio work. Students write comments about their own work as they produce it and then participate in selecting certain pieces–and explaining the selections in writing–for inclusion in their final portfolio.

Charges with the responsibility for tracking their own progress, students become, in an sense, the chroniclers and judges of their own work. Perhaps, if portfolio assessment becomes widespread, more students will be able to retain their initial incremental views of intelligence and avoid falling into a helpless pattern when they reach work that is difficult for them.

For Further Information

C. Ames. “Motivation: What Teachers Need to Know.” Teachers College Record, Spring 1990.

C. Ames and J. Archer. “Achievement Goals in the Classroom: Student Learning Strategies and Motivational Processes.” Journal of Educational Psychology 76 (1984).

C.S. Dweck. “Motivational Processes Affecting Learning.” American Psychologist 41 (1986).

C.S. Dweck. “Self Theories and Goals: Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development. In R.A. Dienstbier, ed., Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1990. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

V.L. Henderson.” Self Conceptions of Intelligence and Developmental Transitions.” Paper presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Children Development, Seattle, April 1991.

V.L. Henderson and C.S. Dweck. “Motivation and Achievement.” In S.S. Feldman and G.R. Elliot, eds., At the Threshold: The Developing Adolescent, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

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