9 Study Strategies to Boost Grades and Motivation


Did you know that 84% of high school students report that their primary means of studying is merely rereading their notes and textbooks? Unfortunately, this is one of the most inefficient ways to study. Why? Because it’s single-sensory, meaning that the brain is processing information only one way – visually. To truly commit something to memory, learning must be multi-sensory (visual, auditory, and hands-on). This is especially true for students who struggle to focus while reading. Studying should involve seeing it (reading), hearing it (discussion or watching a video, for example) and doing it (writing notes as you read or discuss). Here are nine practical strategies to boost grades and motivation by making learning multi-sensory.


Ask yourself, “What’s important here?”

An easy way students can avoid the “studying by rereading” trap is to jot down notes as they read. At the end of a page of a novel or section of a textbook, ask the question, “What’s important here?” Engaging in this type of self-talk allows students to be more active learners, instead of passive ones. Anytime an individual is taking the information and reformulating it into his or her own words, retention is dramatically increased. It takes less than 30 seconds to jot down thoughts each time this question is asked.


Go Hard Copy or Annotate Online

The simple practice of jotting notes as you review is a lot different now than it was even five years ago. These days, so much of what students read and study is online. It’s not unusual for students to carry very few textbooks around in their backpacks because their books are online now. In theory, this is a great idea, but when it comes down to really remembering what you read, online texts aren’t helpful. In fact, a number of studies have found that comprehension in high school students is compromised when reading is done solely online. Throw difficulties with attention into the mix, and you have double the problem.

annotateStudents can do a few things to remedy the situation. The first is to simply go hard copy. Either print out the pages of the text or purchase a hard copy version of the book. Marking up the text by jotting notes in the margins or by using Post-it notes is extremely helpful. Taking notes while reading allows students to synthesize information into their own words, which aids retention. Some online books are “locked” by the publisher meaning that the user cannot print out pages. If that’s the case, try the editing or note-taking tool that’s provided. Students can also check out some of the more popular software for PC and Macs, which includes iAnnotate, GoodReader, Notability, PDF Expert, Adobe Reader, Foxit Mobile PDF, and Evernote. It’s good practice to take notes electronically or to highlight when needed. But be sure not to rely on highlighting alone. Although it’s pretty, research shows it’s not helpful when it comes to retention of information.


Use Study Guides…the Right Way

Outside of taking notes on important concepts when reviewing for an upcoming test, good students will use a study guide, either one that they’ve created or one that their teacher has provided. Here’s how to go about both options:

Self-created study guides: Research shows that creating your own study guide is one of the best ways to improve test grades. Try to predict what your teacher may have on the exam.  Pull out old quizzes, find important parts of your notes, and ask others in your class what they think is important.  Find the main ideas from these topics and turn them into questions. If you have a textbook, turn the chapter headings into questions and write them down. For example, “Election of 1860: Democrats Split” should be “Why did the democrats split in the election of 1860?” Creating a study guide helps students figure out what they already know, allowing them to refocus their time on what they still have to learn. Knowing what you don’t know cuts down on time spent reviewing what you’ve already committed to memory.

Teacher-provided study guides: The biggest mistake students make when they’re given a blank study guide is to complete it with their teacher, or independently, and then read it over many times to study. Again, rereading is can be passive learning, and it will not stick for long-term retention. Instead, before you complete the study guide, make two additional copies of it. Without looking at the completed version or your notes, fill out what you know. Now, look back at your book or notes to finish the rest. The third time, complete it from memory or better yet, so you’re not memorizing the order of the questions, cut them into strips and rearrange them. Now, complete it a third time on your own for maximum retention.


Distribute Your Practice

Procrastination can be one of the greatest hurdles when it comes to studying. So often, students believe that cramming before a test will have the same result as studying over time. The truth is that this method only results in knowing the material on a superficial level. To have a deeper understanding and to recall the information not just the next day, but the next month, take advantage of a concept called “distributed practice.” It involves spreading out study sessions over time and breaking up the material in smaller chunks. By setting aside time each day to review a portion of the material, you are able to remember the information for longer intervals of time. For example, instead of studying for an hour on Thursday night for a test, you’ll get a better exam grade by studying 20 minutes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.


Study Before Homework

It’s not uncommon for students to put off studying because it’s not really a task they have to do. It’s not graded, and there’s usually nothing to turn into the teacher. Homework is different because there’s more immediate accountability (i.e. it’s checked for completion by the teacher or they have to turn it in for a grade). So, it’s easy to see why studying is put off until after homework is done or not even attempted at all. An easy fix to this all-too-common situation is to set a timer for 20 minutes, and to study before starting any homework. Simply reversing the order of tasks ensures that studying is at least started, and often completed prior to digging into the actual homework.


Make Yourself Accountable

girl-on-laptopMany who struggle with motivation have found that having an “appointment” to study with their peers via Skype or Facetime can provide much-needed accountability. Just the other day, I walked by my high school son’s room because I heard a voice other than his. He and a friend from his history class were quizzing each other for an upcoming test.  I heard questions like, “Do you think she’s going to ask about the causes of the revolution on the test?  How did you create your Venn diagram showing cause and effect?  This is how I did mine (holding up paper).” Whether students study with one another online or in person, having a scheduled time to connect with someone else provides accountability they don’t get from studying alone.


Review Right Before Bed

Studies show that you remember more when you take 10-15 minutes to review what you studied or learned earlier in the day just before you go to sleep.  This doesn’t mean that you should do all your studying just before bedtime, but it does mean that reviewing those notes again just a few minutes before bedtime allows you to process the information as you sleep.


Use a Scent While Studying and Sleeping

Smell is a powerful study tool – it’s true!  Research shows that if you have the same smell when you study and sleep, you’ll remember more.  When you’re studying, plug in an Airwick or have some type of scent nearby.  Put that same scent by your bed while you sleep.  Your brain will associate the scent to the material you studied earlier in the day.  You will encode that information as you sleep.


Sleep On It

boy sleepingAnd lastly and perhaps most importantly, do what you’re mother is always preaching, and get to bed early. Sleep is actually a powerful study strategy because your brain is actually more active at night than during the day.  During sleep, you replay the day’s events in your head.  You rehash the information you learned.  When you distribute the time you spend studying over three nights instead of one, you have that many more opportunities to cement the information into memory. Sleep on it and you’ll remember more.

In the end, there are many highly motivating study strategies that can make a world of difference to your child.  These are just a few I suggest.  Encourage your child to choose one and give it a whirl to see if productivity and grades improve.