In classrooms across America, teachers strive to provide engaging lessons, meaningful homework, and assessments, but more often than not, our students aren't learning how to learn. Kids walk out of their classrooms armed with study guides, notes, and chapters to read, but they don't know how to put that information into storage for retrieval tomorrow, next week, and three months from now.

As the end of the school year approaches, tests will be coming at students in many subjects and might be critical in their final grades.

For many teens, studying means merely quickly reading through their textbook or notes. Wrong! Studying should not be passive; it should be a full contact sport. In order to really study, students need to get engaged in the material. This type of studying is very different from merely reading over the material.

The following tips will help your child properly prepare for all upcoming tests.  

1. Set the groundwork

Helping a younger child study for a test might be a piece of cake, but teens usually resist their well-meaning parents' support. When you know a big test is coming up, approach your child early on. Consider asking, "Can you show me how you're going to study?" Remember, the end grade isn't as important as the process. Knowing your child is putting forth effort is key.

2. Use the study guide as an aide only

If you are reviewing test material out loud with your child, be sure that you don't ask questions from the study guide verbatim. Often, students memorize only what is on the study guide without making connections to material. For example, in addition to asking for the definitions for mitosis and meiosis, also ask how they are the same and different.

Helping your teen make connections between important topics helps them develop into a more flexible thinker. This is important because the actual test questions may not be asked the way they are printed in the study guide.

3. Try using 3×5 cards

Using 3×5 cards to read, review, and recite is a very simple study technique. The idea is to get kids to quiz themselves, so they're able to study independently. When your child has a study guide or an old quiz from which to study, he should read the question, cover the answer, and try to recite the correct response. If he gets it right, he checks it off and goes to the next one. If it's wrong, he practices a few more times until he gets it down.

4. Utilize mnemonic devices

Researchers have found that using mnemonic devices can help students improve their memory skills by connecting to-be-learned information to what the learner already knows. One common mnemonic device is HOMES, which is an acronym for the Great Lakes—Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. This strategy is flexible; it can be used with virtually any type of rote memorization. Once students are shown how to use this technique, they come up with all kinds of catchy acronyms to make retention easier.

5. Let your teen hold the cards

If your teen has flashcards that he needs to study, let him hold the cards and quiz you. Studies show that merely allowing the student to hold the cards and take on the role of the teacher increases time on task and retention of information.

6. Draw a picture

Another easy way for a student to increase memory when using flashcards is to add a picture. By simply drawing a picture next to the to-be-learned term, the student is creating a mental image in her mind's eye, which triggers the definition. For example, if the vocabulary word is "docile," her drawing might be of her dog, who by nature is good natured and easy to train.

7. Make a practice test

Long-term memory is enhanced when students take "interactive" practice tests. A highly effective way to prepare for an exam involves creating a practice test. This means that the student generates a sample test of questions he thinks may possibly be on the exam. This information can come from old tests and quizzes, a study guide, or notes. Encourage your child to ask his teacher about the format of the test. Will it be comprised of essay questions, fill-in-the-blank, or multiple-choice? Having this information helps with preparation.

8. Invite a friend over

For some students, small group learning is far more appealing and productive than going it alone. Positive peer influence has been well documented to improve academic success, and as an added bonus, study groups are fun. Group discussion will help your teen absorb new information that she may otherwise miss just by reading.

9. Plan ahead

Practice makes permanent when studying for tests, especially when it's done in advance. Once a deadline for a test is given by the teacher, your child should record it in his planner along with the smaller study tasks leading up to the final date. Breaking a large task, such as studying, into smaller ones over a period of days increases memory retention and decreases stress. 

10. A note about test anxiety

Some students are quick to complain about test anxiety. Although some may be accurate in their self-diagnosis, others are nervous because they haven't prepared properly. Perhaps they've read their notes, skimmed the chapter, and reviewed the study guide, but that is not true preparation. Quizzing oneself until the information is committed to memory is imperative. If an answer is "on the tip of his tongue," it's likely that it wasn't stored into memory effectively and more work is needed.

By encouraging your teen to try out a few of these strategies, you will be helping to create solid studying habits that will help her throughout high school and college. 

Ann K. Dolin, MEd, is the founder and president of Educational Connections, Inc., a comprehensive provider of educational services in Fairfax, VA and Bethesda, MD. In her book, Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework, Dolin offers proven solutions to help the six key types of students who struggle with homework. Numerous examples and easy-to-implement, fun tips will help make homework less of a chore for the whole family.

April 13, 2011