Improve your study skills in 10 not-so-easy steps

Study skills

With the school year just starting, it's important to build study skills that will last through the year. Here are some tips to help create good habits now—TEN not-so-easy steps to develop self-discipline as well as become a strong student and an independent person. When December rolls around, you and your child will want to have great study skills to call upon to identify problems, plan projects, and meet deadlines.

STEP ONE: Identify your strengths
What is your favorite subject? Where do you excel? What makes that subject fun for you? What skills do you have that make you good at it? 

STEP TWO: Write them down
Sing your own praises. Make a list. Why? First, just to make yourself feel good. Second, to build some confidence. Third, and perhaps most importantly, to see how you can apply your strengths in subjects that do not come as easily. 

STEP THREE: Identify your challenges
What is your least favorite subject? Why do you find it hard? Don't stop with "I just don't get it." Get specific. Identify exact places where your understanding breaks down. This isn't as fun as identifying our strengths, but it's even more important. Challenges are the places where we can experience the most growth--and it's that growth ultimately that is the most satisfying part of learning. 

STEP FOUR: Write your challenges down side by side with your strengths
And then ... 

STEP FIVE: Pair them
Pair them how? Identify a strength that will help you overcome a challenge. Let's work through an example together. 

Strong subject: Art Strength: Turning raw materials into art
Challenge subject: Math Challenge: Applying algebra to solve problems
     This strength-challenge pair makes sense because you must take several steps in a specific order to turn raw materials into art. Likewise, you must take several steps take in a specific order to apply algebra to solve a problem. How does this help? It helps you identify the specific origin of your difficulty. It's not planning or following steps. Its--probably--understanding how to the use the "raw materials" of algebra--the xs and ys, the symbolism. That is helpful information because it tells you where to spend your time--perhaps in using your understanding of raw materials in art to develop your understanding of the raw materials in algebra. For example, you might pair x and y with two colors you are mixing to create a third color you need for a painting. 

STEP SIX: Using what you've learned--devise a study plan
Here's the hard part, the part that requires discipline. The part that's like eating from the Food Pyramid: yes, 80% of your "study" diet needs to be your academic "fruits and vegetables" if you are going to keep your "brain" healthy. What does that mean? The whole point of identifying our strengths and challenges is to figure out how to divide your study time. You should spend 80% of your study time on your challenges and 20% on your strengths. 

STEP SEVEN: Do spend time with your strengths.
It's important to note that I did not say 0% of your time on your strengths. I said 20%. You--we--need to spend time working on our strengths not only to make them grow, but because they are what--at least in the short run--what make us feel good and feel good about ourselves and our abilities. We also want to keep honing those strengths so that we can apply them in areas that do not come as easily. On the first pass, set that time aside as a reward--that is, put in your 80% challenge study time first, then reward yourself with the 20% of your strong stuff. Yes, its just like clearing your plate of all the fruits and vegetables before reaching for dessert. 

STEP EIGHT: Do not spend all your time on your challenge.
Again, it's important to note that I said 80% not 100% of your time on your challenges. First of all, that would be misery and you would totally burn yourself out. Secondly, you want to set limits to protect yourself and to see what you can accomplish within those limits. If you can't complete every single problem successfully within the 80% limit, keep track of how many you can. Your goal is for that number to increase, not to increase the amount of time you spend with subjects that are challenging for you. 

STEP NINE: Set realistic and specific study time.
There's not really a right or wrong answer to this, but I'll suggest this starting place: multiply the grade you are in by 10. So, in Grade 5, you would spend 5 x 10" = 50" minutes a night studying. By Grade 10, you would spend 10 x 10" = 100" or a little over an hour and half studying every night. Does that seem like too much, not enough? Then feel free to adjust it. The key is this: study time is just that. It should be concentrated and then over. It's very much like practice for a game. You run wind sprints, you practice specific skills, then you go home. You don't linger around the field because it makes you feel like you're practice. Sitting down with a book in front of you is not studying unless you are actively engaged in trying to accomplish something. Less is more. Try to figure out the least amount of time you need, not the most. Also, take off at least two nights a week. One during the week and at least one on the weekend. Our brains like our muscles do grow when we rest them--not forever--but for a day at a time--yes. In order to take those nights off, though, you have to plan that you are going to do that. You have to plan ahead. In order to limit your time, you have to plan. If you only have 20" a night work on your strong subjects, you need to be clear about what you are trying to accomplish before you sit down. The moment you sit down you should be fully engaged with trying to accomplish the goal for the night. You want to plan and plan and plan until planning and strategizing becomes second nature--until planning becomes something you start doing from the moment you receive an assignment. So, when you're given an assignment, the next thing you do after you write it down is you start breaking it down into the steps you are going to use to accomplish it as you work on it steadily--but not gruelingly--night after night. 

STEP TEN: Find the joy--think about the big picture
You'll notice that I haven't talked--much--about specific subjects. The goal is not to sit down with a tutor to get through an exam, but to work with a tutor to develop such strength and independence that you don't need him anymore. The goal of planning is not to make your life so rigid that you can't find the joy. Neither is it to sit down, grit your teeth through your time, and check off a box on your schedule. The goal of creating a schedule and a plan to meet goals and overcome challenges is to develop the "big picture" strength of self-discipline that you can then apply to every aspect of your life--not only to short-term goals--but also to long-term dreams. You want to find the joy of working hard and then enjoying the relaxation that you've earned. You want to find the joy of moving beyond your current limitations and gaining new skills--possibly even skills you thought would be forever out of reach. Yes, we're human. At times, we will grit our teeth. At times, we will sit down just to get ready for a test. But if you want to take fullest advantage of a tutor and fullest advantage of all the things you do well, prepare for your time with him or her by doing all you can before he or she arrives. By working with him or her to help you organize and plan your study life before you mired in the details of a particular assignment. Save for him or her those bumps you have attempted once or twice or three times on your own so that you have an inkling of where you're getting stuck. Give him or her the time and space to work with you in a "big picture" way--where they draw upon the self-knowledge and self-discipline you are developing to help you not only to solve a particular problem but to devise an approach to working on challenges that takes full advantage of all the things you do best. This does not happen in a night. It takes commitment on the part of you and the tutor, but I have seen it applied to miraculous and more importantly deeply satisfying effect as it generates confidence not built upon easy words but on hard-won discipline and personal growth -- Cheers, Robert


Robert R.

MA's math & writing, 5 yrs exp in K-12 sciences, math, English

100+ hours
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