In the DC Metro area we are quickly reaching the end of January. For students in Fairfax County and surrounding school districts, this means lots of unit tests or cumulative midterms. These tests are typically a large component of students’ quarter or semester grades, meaning preparing for them is crucial.
On our blog, we’ve written a lot about the best study skills (two of my favorite articles on the subject are: “The New Science of Learning: How to Learn Less in More Time” and “Study Tips for Final Exams“); but what we haven’t covered is what students should avoid doing while studying.
So what is the most common study trap students fall into when preparing for a big test?
If you guessed procrastinating, cramming, or any other variation of putting it off until the last minute, then you would be correct. Many students fail to do something we call “backward planning,” and instead cram right before the test.
Now, if you’ve ever talked to any teenager about their studying habits you’ve probably heard something along the lines of, “I work best when I’m under pressure,” or “cramming really works for me.” Both of these phrases were some of my favorites when I was in high school. It wasn’t that I was lazy, but I genuinely believed that staying up until 3 am the night before a test trying to cram as much information into my head as possible worked: because it did. Well actually, it did on things like quizzes or chapter tests; but when it came to cumulative exams like midterms or finals, it didn’t. I blamed it on “being a bad test taker.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but there are scientific and psychological reasons why cramming worked for small tests like quizzes but not for big all-encompassing cumulative exams. It’s simple, when you cram all that information is stored in your short-term memory. The next day, when you take the quiz, you’re able to dump it all out and do seemingly well. However, when you have a large test that requires retracting information from your long-term memory, cramming just doesn’t work.
Research shows that if, especially for large tests, you distribute the same amount of studying over multiple days rather than one or two days, you get much better results. Part of the reason this is true is because you’re sleeping on the information. Sleep allows us to consolidate information and transfer it from our short-term memory into our long-term memory. Also, breaking up studying allows for repetition, which is necessary for successful studying.
But how do you break the vicious habit of cramming if your child is a chronic procrastinator?
Firstly, it’s important to understand why people procrastinate. Almost 99.9% of the time when people procrastinate it’s a sign that they are feeling overwhelmed. They likely just don’t know where to begin. Think about it, doesn’t the idea of learning four months worth of calculus or chemistry feel overwhelming?
The key to helping your child overcome procrastination while he or she feels overwhelmed is to make the bar to entry low enough that anyone could accomplish the task. Let’s say your son brings home a three page Algebra II study guide. If he has a history of putting off Algebra homework until the last minute, work with him to get started right away. That doesn’t mean he needs to complete the entire study guide the night he receives it. Getting started can be as simple as writing his name on the paper and doing the first problem. For most people, adults or teenagers, just getting started is the biggest hurdle.
Now let’s say your child isn’t procrastinating. She’s putting in a ton of time and hard work to prepare for her tests, but all this effort isn’t reflected in her grade. What could be happening?
It could be a lot of things. But the most common issue is that she’s probably trying to “multi-task”. Survey her study environment: is her cell phone in her hand, is Facebook or twitter open on her computer, does she have headphones in her ears? All of these things could be splitting her focus.
When I was home over Christmas, I walked into my sixteen year old brother’s room. He was “studying” for his AP US History exam. He sat on his floor, computer open to Netflix, iPhone open to a text message with notifications popping up every two seconds. His text book was open on his lap, but that was the only indicator that studying was going on. My brother is a straight A student, but he was caught up in the teenage lie of multi-tasking while studying.
There’s been a lot of research on the role of multi-tasking while studying. Studies have shown that people don’t multi-task, instead they just task-switch. They jump, very quickly, from one task to another. But research suggests that this decreases your focus. Your brain is trying to take in information from different sources. In my brother’s case, it was trying to understand the significance of the Gettysburg address, while also trying to comprehend how Leslie Knope was going to get that lot filled on Parks and Recreation, while also trying to interpret and respond to the text conversation my brother was a part of.
The takeaway is, if your child is studying and not seeing results, try lessening distractions. This can be challenging since so many assignments require a computer to complete, but try encouraging your child to utilize one of the procrastination and distraction blocker applications.
With midterms right around the corner, try encouraging your child to avoid falling into some of these study traps. However, if you’re met by resistance or if your child fights you on the studying issue, try bringing in an outside professional. All of our tutors specialize in helping students study the right way.