Teaching & Learning: The First Step is Being Ready to Learn

In Psychologist Daniel Willingham’s 2009 book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, he titled a chapter “How Can I Help Slow Learners?” His strategies included praising effort rather than ability, reminding students of the positive effects of hard work, demonstrating confidence in them, considering failure as one of the natural outcomes of the learning process, and, my favorite, not taking study skills for granted. My only argument with Willingham is that these strategies can benefit all learners, whether slow, fast, or otherwise.
We can imagine that our students have in their toolboxes all the study tools we want them to have. But we know this is not always the case. Even those girls and boys who are proficient with many study skills need explicit explanations and demonstrations for their skills that are less developed.
Of course, “study skills” is a catch-all term that can include disparate tools, such as how to cite sources, submit assignments on time, determine what questions to ask teachers, pull one’s weight on group projects, and so on. However, in conversations with colleagues and through experience with hundreds of students, three domains of study skills consistently prove paramount: organization, time management, and assessment preparation.       


Study skills workshops occur at my school, the International School of Amsterdam, during the final week of the summer break, prepping students for the upcoming year ahead. Students may sign up for these workshops (we limit them to 10 students per grade) as there is no mandatory attendance. The interest in study skills varies across grades, with older students more cognizant of potential benefits. To begin the workshops, we ask students, “What system of organization do you use?” The most common responses: binders, accordion files, and notebooks.

The kind of system is important, but of even greater importance is that students use one. Our slogan is Choose It and Use It. This is especially true for students whose backpacks serve as a black hole of crumpled papers and blunt pencil shards. Should a student determine the system employed is not leading to success, he or she must be flexible and choose another.
After the system is sorted, we consider how to keep track of assignments. Phones are in the pockets of most kids in middle school and beyond, so this is often their tool of choice. Using the calendar feature allows for alerts and reminders. Particular apps can do the same while giving students the satisfaction of checking “completed.” If students use laptops in class, the calendar feature can also give them reminders and alerts. A notes program, such as Stickies, can remain on the home screen and serve as a task list. However, using an agenda might be an even better option. Research tells us that what we write down we remember with greater fidelity than what we type. This “offline” tool might even lead to less distraction. 

Time Management

Once our students know what to do, the next potential obstacle is doing it. As with organization, phone and laptop calendars provide day and date structure with reminder and alarm options to further action. I suggest weekly or monthly calendars so that students have an understanding of what is to be done not just in an afternoon or evening, but what is coming down the pipe. Because so many of us are visual, a bigger calendar will draw and sustain more of our attention. The one in my classroom fills one large white board, and my students know that I rely on it to meet my responsibilities as a teacher and head of our department.
On Friday afternoons, I often sit next to students in order to encourage planning for the weekend. I rip a piece of paper in two. On one, I ask students to list school responsibilities they want to get done over the next couple of days; on the other they draw Saturday and Sunday boxes. “Before you write in your assignments,” I say, “fill in all of your social engagements, family time, sporting events, and slumber parties.” With particular students, I urge them to include the specific times of the day and the duration of the schoolwork sessions.
For long-term projects, students will benefit from breaking such multifaceted assignments into “bite-size chunks.” Some students will do this without even realizing it, but for those who find themselves the night before with teary eyes as they try to do everything at once, show them 1) how to “chunk,” and 2) where to put those chunks on the calendar.    
Note: Organization and time management exist within the same schoolwork universe, so they can be taught in conjunction with one another.

Assessment Strategies (The Original Study* Skill)

Kids have a lot going on both in and outside our classrooms. Just as we acknowledge and embrace “the whole child” when helping them to shape weekend schedules, we want them to use their time wisely when they prepare for exams and quizzes. Here are three ways to do exactly that.               
Distributed Practice
Distributed practice is the opposite of cramming for tests. Instead, study sessions are spread across days in order to increase retention of the material. Roughly speaking, study sessions should be separated by 10 to 20 percent of the time that you’d like to remember something, so if you wish to remember something for a quiz in a week’s time, separate study sessions with a day or two in between. For students who need to remember learning for longer periods, distributed practice shows a solid response for semester and end-of-year final exams. Not surprisingly, teaching this strategy should occur once we are confident our students have functional time-management skills.
Practice Testing
If distributing practice is the “when,” then practice testing is the “how.”  Or, if one of our students were to ask, “What practice am I distributing?” we would reply, “Practice testing.” Also described as self-quizzing, this strategy has proven to be more effective than rereading and “looking over [one’s] notes.” Indeed, it is the casting about in our memory that encourages the memory to last. Not only is practice testing an efficient way to ensure that memory is robust and long-lasting, but it’s also a reliable way of evaluating whether you need to continue studying.
Many of our students will benefit from explicit suggestions for how to self-quiz. Provide them review questions and problem sets. For vocabulary, suggest flash cards. In the textbook, direct them to end-of-section/chapter/unit questions. If the quiz involves writing, our students must practice doing the same. As teachers, we can model these strategies just as we can provide opportunities for our students to build them into habits away from our classrooms.
This is a wonky education word that translates to “mix up” the learning. Solve multiplication and division problems within the same study session. Run through vocabulary and verb conjugations. By practicing different skills in the same time period, we help our students to more accurately determine what type of problem they face so they can apply the right strategy to solve/answer/evaluate/analyze it, thus encouraging transfer of skills.
We have students on every centimeter of the organization continuum. One of our less-renowned but sneaky-important roles as educators is that of executive function coach, charged with moving as many students as we can toward the successful, independent end of that continuum. Showing kids how to organize themselves, to manage time and to more effectively prepare for exams will help slow learners, fast learners, and learners in-between.
*When I presented these strategies at a conference, teachers from the same school told me that the verb “to study” is not allowed in their classrooms. One of the teachers explained, “We want our students to be more intentional when they do their homework and prepare for tests. ‘To study’ does not provide clear direction.” Rather, students were expected to speak of the specific activity in which they would engage, be it “complete the review packet” or “annotate the rest of chapter six.” Specificity of language can provide clearer expectations that should, in turn, help each student to be more efficient and effective.
Geoffrey Richman
Geoffrey Richman

Geoffrey Richman is head of upper school learning support at the International School of Amsterdam. He was previously director of the Academic Resource Center at The Lovett School (GA).


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