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5 Ways to Improve Study Skills

5 Ways to Improve Study SkillsAs students gear up for state tests and finals, it’s time to start taking a look at how they study. Knowing how to study not only helps boost students’ performance on major exams, it also helps them go into the exam with confidence. Even students who already know how to study can stand to re-evaluate their skills to make sure they’re maximizing their brain power. These strategies for improving study skills will not only help students learn how to study, they’ll also help make their study time more effective.

1. Start Early

Despite its popularity, cramming for an exam rarely works. Focusing on a lot of the same information at once may make students feel confident that they know it, but it usually doesn’t stick. Instead of cramming for exams, students should start studying early and gradually review the information over time. This helps them learn and review a range of information at once and in smaller amounts, making it easier for the information to stick. It also removes some of the stress because they can get a good night’s sleep the night before the test rather than staying up all night studying.

2. Find Your Optimal Study Environment

Sometimes students know the basics of studying, but they don’t do it in the best environment. They may think they can study with the TV on and music blaring or while sitting in the library with their friends, but that’s not always the case. Students should conduct an honest and thorough evaluation of their study environment to see whether it’s really working for them. One way to do this is to read a paragraph in the normal study environment, test what they remember, and then switch to a quieter environment, read another paragraph and see if they remember more or less.

A few questions to ask when finding the optimal study environment include:

  • What do I hear around me? Does it distract me from what I’m reading/doing?
  • What do I smell around me? Does it make me feel positive or negative?
  • How is the lighting? Is it too dark? Too bright?
  • Am I comfortable? Too comfortable?
  • Do I have all the resources I need around me?
  • What objects/sounds/smells/etc. take me away from my studying in this environment?

Answering these questions will help students determine whether their study environment is working and what they need to add or remove to create the optimal study environment.

3. Learn How to Study

Of  course students can study all they want in their optimal study environment, but it won’t do any good if they don’t know how to study. Studying involves more than re-reading highlighted notes or flipping through a stack of flashcards. offers a guide to help students learn how to study. The guide covers aspects of studying such as creating a study plan, taking effective notes, managing stress, and learning how to effectively study and brush up on your skills before a test. While the guide has been designed for college students, many of its principles also work well for students in middle school and high school. Too often students get to college without knowing how to study, so it’s good to teach them how to study while the stakes are lower and they have their parents and teachers around to support them.

4. Think Positive

When students have trouble with a subject and develop a negative attitude, no amount of studying will work. Instead, the negativity will overpower most of the learning that takes place. The goal of studying is to help students learn to master difficult concepts and become more confident in the material and they must approach studying with that mindset.

Parents and teachers can help encourage students to think positive by encouraging them with phrases such as “I know you can get this” or “you’re almost there.” Adding motivational quotes, posters, or other positive pictures and phrases to the study environment can also help students subconsciously think more positively about themselves and their abilities. When studying, students also shouldn’t start with the most difficult material they need to learn. Instead, they should start with easier material so they experience success early on and, therefore, are more motivated to keep going.

5. Use Study Skills Worksheets and Organizers

Study skills worksheets and organizers, like those found as part of Help Teaching’s free printables collection, can help students learn the key words, vocabularies, and strategies needed to become better at studying. These worksheets will also help students by helping them with concepts such as creating a study calendar, learning what foods to eat while studying, and even just getting a handle on the vocabulary related to studying.

Focusing on the details involved with studying before actually looking at the material can help students vastly improve their study skills and, therefore, improve their performance on major exams. The following resources offer more advice to help students make studying more effective:

  • covers the basics of studying and offers other resources, such as inspirational stories and funny jokes, to help students de-stress and feel confident while studying.
  • The How to Study Infographic from Rasumussen College breaks down the basics of studying, including research-based facts on the optimal studying strategies.
  • Study Guides and Strategies provides hundreds of free guides designed to help students learn to study and provide them with material to study related to major subject areas.
  • organizes its study skills by subject, showing students that sometimes they must study different for a math test than a science exam.

Have some study tips or resources that you love? Share them in the comments.

Building Executive Functioning Skills throughout the School Year

Do you have a student who frequently forgets to bring materials home or hand in homework? Have you ever wondered why a student who seems to grasp a concept is unable to apply the idea to new topics? Do you worry that the chaotic state of your child’s room is the physical manifestation of his scattered mind? Chances are these students are still developing key areas of their executive functioning skills.

These neurological processes help us perform daily tasks that require organization and self-regulation. The ability to manage our executive functioning skills develops throughout childhood and the teen years and often needs to be explicitly taught and practiced. Don’t assume your student has mastered these essential skills; rather, look for opportunities to nurture them and help set students up for success in and out of the classroom. After all, executive functioning skills are some of the foundations for learning.

September: Time to Organize – Organizational Skills

Developing systems of organization from the first day of school is a crucial part a successful school year. Teachers and parents should think of themselves as organizational coaches and help students master basic strategies for managing materials and ideas.

  • Backpacks are the mainstay of student organization from kindergarten through college. Help students develop the routine of emptying their backpacks at the end of each day and sorting materials into those that stay at home, those that return to school, and those that will be recycled.
  • Provide time at the end of each class or day for students to fill-in planners. Many schools provide paper planners, but students who tend to lose materials may benefit from an electronic planner app.
  • Provide time at the end of each week for students to clean desks and lockers.
  • Checklists are wonderful tools for organization. Have students tape school-to-home checklists in their lockers or keep home-to-school checklists in folders in their backpacks.
  • Organizing information is just as critical as organizing materials. Teach note taking styles like Cornell Notes and how to use graphic organizers.

October: Setting Goals

Students have been in school for a month, you know them a bit better, and parent conferences are on the horizon. It is time to set meaningful academic, social, and/or behavioral goals. Students should be included in the process of setting goals; after all, they are the ones striving to achieve them!

  • Keep goals specific and meaningful. For example, “I will spend ten minutes at the end of each school day filling in my planner and prioritizing my homework,” is an achievable goal for a student who is struggling with remembering homework assignments.
  • Guide students in setting goals and have them complete goal-setting worksheets. Have students review their progress on a regular basis.
  • If achieving goals were easy, we wouldn’t need them. Be a role model by setting a personal or professional goal and sharing your achievements and setbacks with your child or students. Likewise, setting a goal as a class or family can model the process with the safety of knowing it is a group effort.

November: Make a Plan and Stick with It – Planning & Prioritizing

The natural extension of setting goals is seeing them through. However, it is one thing to set a goal; it is a different thing to come up with a plan to achieve it. With the increased expectation that students complete long-term research papers and project-based learning assignments, learning how to plan a strategy for completion and see it through is more critical than ever.

  • Give students a few minutes at the end of each day to prioritize their nightly homework in planners by numbering assignments from first to last. Starting with the most difficult work is often a good choice so students are mentally fresh.
  • Help students create step-by-step timelines for long term assignments. Encourage brainstorming and outlining prior to writing.
  • Share scoring rubrics with students before they begin assignments. Rubrics provide a visual map of expectations and are perfect starting points for planning projects, writing assignments, and encouraging students to reflect critically on their work.
  • Engage students with games and activities that involve strategic planning, like chess and capture the flag.

December: But I Don’t Have Time! – Time Management

Our children are busier than ever. They juggle full school schedules, sports, lessons, and clubs, not to mention friends and family. Mastering good time management strategies becomes essential as students move into middle and high school and demands increase.

  • Students need to develop a sense of how long it takes to complete homework. Ask students to track the time each assignment takes by writing the total time they worked on an assignment in their planners next to each subject. This will enable students to estimate more accurately the time required to complete work and plan accordingly.
  • Most schools adhere to a recommended time for homework each night, typically ten minutes per grade level. If you child consistently takes longer then the recommended time to complete work, even with good time management practices, consult with her teacher. A trial run of modified assignments, that either reduces the workload or grading only the work completed within a set time, may decrease student frustration and increase learning.

January: Procrastination – Initiating Work

Getting back into a routine after a vacation can be a challenge for any of us, but students who have weak task initiation skills may find it particularly difficult. Use these tips to help students avoid procrastination and get started on tasks.

  • Ask students to write down the task they need to accomplish, estimate the time it will take to complete the work, and track start and finish time. Start with small tasks that are readily achievable.
  • Use verbal and nonverbal cues to signal the start of new tasks. For example, prompt students with keywords like “now” or “first” and gently tap your fingers on their desks.
  • Build in breaks. Let students know that after they have worked for a set time they will have a fun break activity. Younger students or those with attentional difficulties may need to start with short 5 – 10 minute effort times. Make brain breaks a part of your daily classroom schedule.
  • Don’t punish students by taking away recess. Exercise is crucial and often students who struggle in the classroom need these movement opportunities the most.

February: I Can’t Take it Anymore – Emotional Control

It is the depth of winter and the novelty of a new school year has long since worn off. Many students, parents, and teachers alike have reached their breaking points. It is time for all of us to focus on developing our emotional control skills.

  • Consult with the school counselor, most have some type of mindfulness training. Ask for classroom tips or invite her into the classroom to teach your students relaxation and anxiety reduction strategies.
  • Dim the lights, get your students comfortable, and play a guided relaxation audio like this free one for children.
  • Present typical scenarios where students may become frustrated or upset, such as playground confrontations, transition times, and test days. Have students take turns role-playing these situations and suggest simple go to phrases or methods for handling each scenario.

March: Bend that Mind – Cognitive Flexibility

Think back to your own student years where you were required to switch from subject to subject every fifty minutes, translate a math word problem into a numeric equation, then recognize a theme in a novel and write an essay using supporting details. All of these situations require students to shift from one way of thinking to another within a relatively short period, how exhausting! Those who struggle with cognitive flexibility are more likely to hit learning roadblocks and have difficulty finding alternate solutions to those problems.

  • Give students the opportunity to shift their thinking by announcing transitions ahead of time, following a set schedule, and including them in decision-making processes about schedules and routines.
  • Stretch their cognitive flexibility by asking children to think outside the box. Classroom warm-up times are perfect for challenging thinking with shifting activities including: visual word puzzles; word searches; optical illusions; puns, jokes, and riddles; board and card games like Spot It; and even some strategy-based online games.
  • Always guide students in making connections between big ideas and details. Some of us are bottom up thinkers and others are top down, either way, recognizing the interconnectedness of themes and details across subjects is essential to learning.

April: Thinking about Thinking – Metacognition

Educating a child is in large part, about training the student to think. Metacognition can be a difficult skill to foster because it asks students to reflect upon their own work. All of us want to succeed and reflecting critically about ourselves can be a difficult and emotional process.

  • Have students draft “How I Learn Best” letters to next year’s teacher reflecting on what they have discovered about their learning styles over the year. See to it that the letters make it into the hands of next year’s teachers.
  • Requiring students to submit study strategy reflection forms with tests and projects encourages them to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts and contemplate how they can adjust their tactics to improve upon work quality the next time.
  • Encourage students to check over their work and require them to make corrections after assessments. Teach editing skills and require re-writes of papers.
  • Reflect on your own teaching or parenting methods periodically. If a student isn’t progressing toward a goal as you would like, examine what you can do differently to support her in obtaining that goal.
  • Praise children’s efforts, not their abilities. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, is a must-read for parents and teachers.

May: What Did I Forget? Working Memory

Working memory is the keystone bridging long and short-term memory. Students with weak working memory skills will struggle with retaining and applying the concepts they learn. As final exams approach, even those students with strong working memories may reach their upper limits of retaining information.

  • Find the memorization strategies that work best for your subject and teach them to your students. Give students the time to practice and develop these techniques into habits. Read Help Teaching’s Memorization Strategies Checklist for some suggestions.  
  • Permit students to write information, like mnemonics and key words, on the test before answering questions. This frees up working memory and allows students to focus on applying what they studied with the knowledge that they can still refer to the information as needed.
  • Students with diagnosed working memory weakness may require classroom accommodations like the ability to audio record lectures, have copies of teacher notes, or access to word banks on tests. Parents and teachers should work closely to develop and implement these accommodations. 

June: Bringing it Home – Strategies for Summer Vacation

Routine, routine, routine. The structure of the school year has been removed and children, especially those with weak executive functioning skills, require predictability in their routines. Develop the routine for summer, from set meal and bedtimes to consistent daily childcare, and stick with it. Keep systems in place that were used successfully during the school year. For example, if your child does well with a planner, work together to fill out a family calendar at the start of each week with where she will be each day and what activities are planned. Simply giving your child the control of knowing what each day will bring will hopefully minimize meltdowns, anxiety, and disorganization. Mostly, praise your children’s efforts, acknowledge their progress, and enjoy your time with these fabulous people.

Be sure to check out our study skills worksheets to support your teaching needs.