Most children have to learn how to study, and some need to learn how to learn. If the material is difficult or boring, if they have trouble sitting still or are easily distracted, staying focused and retaining information is a challenge.
A program on NPR’s Science Friday offers some great study skills for getting the most out of study time without feeling tortured. Brain research shows it’s possible to train your brain to learn more and be more creative. Here are the highlights from the program, and they are skills that anyone can master. In fact, your kids will probably be relieved and excited to try some of them.
Is there anyone who hasn’t experienced this? You’re taking a test and all of a sudden your mind goes blank. You studied, but have no idea how to answer the question. Then you go to your next class and the answer pops into your head. What’s going on?
We all have these times when we try so hard to remember something and we just can’t get to the information in our head. The harder we try, the more frustrated we become. It seems that the brain has two neural states: one for focus and one for resting. When you’re focused, stuck and going around in circles, you can’t see other approaches to a problem. The brain needs to shift into its resting state. This allows it to tackle the problem again, refreshed and open to new insights.
Need some inspiration? How about Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison? The solutions, masterpieces and inventions didn’t come without struggles and challenges. Their brains needed down time, too. The story is told that Edison would fall asleep holding a fistful of ball bearings. When he was fully asleep, his fist unclenched, the ball bearings dropped and woke him up, and he had an answer, or at least a new way to think about the problem.
So what are the best study skills for kids to refresh their brain and learn more effectively?
1) It’s called the multi-sensory approach. It works! As a foreign language teacher, I know all about this one. The more senses you use, the more you will retain. Period. See it, say it a gazillion times, listen to it, touch it, move it, move around and through it, smell it. Make up a story about it. Make every kind of connection you can to it, even if it only makes sense to you.
2) Step away from the problem. Don’t sit there, hour after hour, and still have no results. The same assumptions are running through your mind. You may be stuck because they are incorrect assumptions, and you need a new perspective and new ideas. Take a break with a refreshing drink, some movement, or even a short nap. Your brain is still working. Something will shake loose while you’re on that break.
3) Sleep on it. Your brain makes new connections while you sleep. ”It’s as if you go to sleep with one brain and wake up with an upgrade overnight.” Six hours of sleep is really the minimum requirement for your brain to function well. While you sleep, your brain cells shrink, and allow fluids to flow through and wash away toxins. You have a fresh mind in the morning! You don’t want to take a test with a “poisoned” brain, do you?
4) Put ‘play’ back into learning. Play is natural for us. At least it is for very young children. They experiment, get messy, try it one way, then another. Remember Tinker Toys, Legos, and Lincoln Logs? How about doodling, pretend play, Play Dough and clay? Work it and rework it. Knock it down and start again. These kinds of activities will have your neural synapses firing like crazy.
5) Bed, bath and bus. All of these give you a break from brain fatigue, and put it into the resting states that allow you think more creatively… and come up with that darn solution!
6) Leave your study area. Trade your desk for the back yard, or the library for a football field. A brief change of scenery (and some fresh air) may be just what you need.
7) Get off your behind and move! Stand up, walk, or pace the room. All kinds of movement and exercise are valuable. Exercise allows neurons to grow and survive, and helps you learn and remember better.
8) Avoid cramming. Does cramming work? Yes, but only for the short-term. You’ve shoved lots of information in, and when the test is over, it quietly disappears. (After the final exam in my one and only calculus class, I promptly forgot everything I had studied… because I never really understood it to begin with. All the last-minute studying did help me pass the exam, but I didn’t truly learn the material.)
9) Tame procrastination. Many of us are procrastinators. Why? Mostly because we’re avoiding something that is unpleasant in some way. Take math, for example. If math is difficult, you look at the math problem and the pain centers in your brain activate. You avoid the ‘pain’ by avoiding math and paying attention to something else. What can you do about it? You can trick your brain by setting a timer for 25 minutes. Work for 25 minutes and be in the flow of the work. Don’t focus on the aspect of it that causes the pain. Then take a break for 25 minutes. Going back and forth this way minimizes the urge to avoid the task.
10) Accept failure as part of learning. In English class, revisions are expected. Scientists revise hypotheses and testing methods. The first try is rarely the finished product. You have no idea how many rewrites and tweaks I do for every article. The Founding Fathers didn’t do a draft of the Declaration of Independence and say, “Okay, we’re done here.” Thomas Edison discovered 1,000 ways not to make a light bulb. Most efforts are not failures. They are the normal process of going from point A to point B.
Fern Weis is a Parent Coach and Family Recovery Life Coach. She works with parents of teens and young adults who are going through difficult situations, from the homework wars to addiction recovery, and all points in between. Fern helps parents release guilt, end enabling, and confidently prepare their children to thrive and be successful through life's challenges. FernWeis.com | 201-747-9642