What is the Biggest Studying Mistake Kids Make?

Study Mistakes
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.


The Effect of Music on Studying: What the Research Says

I am a person who hates silence. No matter if I’m driving, cleaning the house, or grocery shopping; chances are I’m listening to music. My resistance to silence has cost me hours upon hours in the library as a student convincing myself that I could write an analytical paper and listen to Third Eye Blind simultaneously. Even as I write this, I’m tempted to pull up Pandora. But plugging in and tuning out always leads to the same thing for me: distraction and lots of wasted time.

The New Research on Music and Studying

For a long time, research suggested that it was possible to listen to music while studying as long as that studying was based in rote memorization and not critical thinking. So when students said things like, “Mom, I can totally study chemistry and listen to Jay-Z at the same time, it’s research proven!” parents believed them. But new research coming out of the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, United Kingdom, has proved otherwise.

This study looked at the human ability to memorize and recall information in the presence of different sounds. The participants in the study were tested while listening to different sounds: silence, music they said they enjoyed, music they said they didn’t like, a voice repeating the number three, and a voice reciting random single-digit numbers.

The study found that participants had the hardest time recalling memorized information when they were listening to music, regardless of the genre of music or their preferences towards the music. The participants also struggled to recall information when listening to random numbers. However, participants had the easiest time recalling information when they memorized the information in silence or while listening to the number three on repeat.

While this new study does not dismiss the effect music can play on a person when performing rote tasks such as taking out the trash or washing the dishes, it does argue rote memorization and music may not be the perfect pairing.

But why is it possible for students to listen to the new Drake or Mumford and Sons album when they run a mile or do chores, but not while they study? According to Stanford Professor Clifford Nass, the human brain uses the same part to listen to song lyrics as it uses for word processing, which is being engaged when studying. This means that when a student is listening to their iPod while studying for a history quiz, the brain is trying to multi-task resulting in the student acquiring far less knowledge than they would have if they had studied in silence.

How Music Can Help

While this may be bad news for music lovers, there is a silver lining. There has been some research that listening to classical music for 10 minutes before a test, rather than cramming results in higher test scores. The reason is that the music stimulates the brain and there is a temporary jump in cognitive functioning.

Music has multiple uses in the field of education. Studies have shown that students who play musical instruments beginning at an early age become stronger critical thinkers and enjoy math more than those who do not. Music can be used to help students learn material (think Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just a Bill”) and also can be used as a primary source for students who may be struggling with secondary social studies. A study of music can allow students to develop self-discipline and cultural understanding.

What to Do if Music is Interfering with Homework Time

The research has shown that music has a place in education, but it’s not a place that necessarily extends to homework time. Try asking your children to unplug during homework time, even if it’s only for twenty minutes, and see what a difference it makes. If your student is resistant to this suggestion among others, it might be worth considering bringing in a professional tutor who can work with your student to improve his study habits and provide structure. Students are often much more receptive to suggestions that don’t come from mom and dad.

Even in the busiest households, where silence is rare, sometimes nothing can be more crucial to academic success than a little quiet time. So leave the music to cleaning, chores, gym time, and car rides and encourage your students to unplug and tune in during homework time.

Tutoring Tips – Ace That Test!

At one point or another we have all crammed for a test, or at least felt as if we weren’t as prepared as we should have been.  While cramming typically is not a recipe for success, there are ways to go about studying that will take less time and improve retention.

First, the underlying philosophy of this three step process is organization.  When your study process is organized, it becomes an easier task.  Secondly, studying must use a variety of learning methods to provide a well rounded understanding and promote real subject matter retention.

Step 1:  Read it.  Whatever the material – from science to civics – read for understanding.  With math this is not so easy, but reviewing problems and solutions is an excellent way to complete  this step.  Identify the pages in the text book that the test or quiz will cover and read them.  Use active reading strategies such as writing margin notes or summarizing content at the end of a chapter.

Step 2: Write it.  Have the student create her own practice test based on the content of the upcoming test.  For example, the student may go through her margin notes from a text book chapter and make questions on the key points. With math subjects, we substitute problem solving here.  The student can take problems from old assignments, compile them into a single test, complete the test, and review the answers.  Once the student has the test written, we move on to step three…

Step 3:  Say it.  Working with a parent, tutor or even a sibling, read the questions aloud to the student.  If the correct answer cannot be given, give the answer and then move on.  After the test questions are all answered, any troubled areas can be reviewed.  Do this until every answer is correct.  Of course, after the child has read the material and written the questions and answers, he or she will likely already know the material.

If your student follows this process for a test, even as a supplement to his regular study habits, he will greatly improve his chances of acing the test!