Good study skills are an important piece of the puzzle for teachers to impart on their students. It’s not part of the curriculum really but study skills are a big part of what students need to succeed in school.
Teachers must develop a sharp approach to the learning that goes on in our classrooms. Ultimately, what matters most is what students can do independently. To get them there, we help them learn the content or skills but also make sure they can make the material their own; develop confidence; and take responsibility for studying and its outcomes.
In my middle school math classroom, I offer significant support at the start of the year when students are getting used to my style and curriculum. By the end of the year, I transfer preparatory responsibilities to my students (as much as is age-appropriate).
This course of action—a long-term plan carried out over the course of the school year—is transferrable to different age groups and types of content. You’ll need to customize it for your students and classroom situations.
First Quarter: Maximum Support
In first-quarter study guides, I list explicit learning targets and include sample problems that students might expect on the test. I show students how to break up the steps of sample problems on notecards and how to modify the problems just a bit so they can practice.
Students learn to sift through their cards, separating them into piles of “Things I know” and “Things I don’t know.” I guide them in practicing the “Things I don’t know” pile more… giving these steps more attention and emphasis than the “Things I know” pile.
I also help them to connect their piles of “Things I don’t know” with direct advocacy for their own learning: coming in for extra help and learning what questions to ask. Instead of saying, “I don’t get anything,” they learn to say things like, “I understand the first two parts of this, but I always get confused at this point.”
In the first quarter, students can correct their test answers to improve their grades. But their corrections must include an analysis of what was done incorrectly, how they can change their thinking or re-learn the material, and what they’ll do in the future. (These plans might include learning how to study in chunks or coming in for extra help.)
Second Quarter: Taking Responsibility
No comprehensive study guides in the second quarter! Instead, we develop outlines together by searching through notes, identifying sample problems from classroom investigations, and sifting through problem sets.
These conversations are critical. As I help students re-read notes and talk about what was significant, they begin to develop a bigger framework of learning that ties everything together.
I offer voluntary review sessions from day one. But they are not well attended until the second quarter, when students have been able to see their peers reap the positive consequences of taking part. They see a direct link between the work invested and the outcome they earn on their tests.
By the end of the quarter, test review sessions are usually standing-room-only. Students have begun to realize that they must take responsibility for their own learning.
Third Quarter: Building Confidence
I reveal little about what will be on “the test.” I push students to develop and continue to fill out an outline of their work toward the learning targets. Accordingly, this is the quarter when students really begin to develop their confidence.
Recently, I asked a student about her preparedness for the third-quarter test. She said, “I know what you’re going to ask. It’s not a mystery.” Third-quarter student reflections say again and again, “I knew what was going to be on the test and I knew what to study. I did well because I studied.”
When I first started using the strategies I describe here, these responses surprised me. After all, I’d always used learning targets to chunk up the curriculum. What I didn’t realize was that students didn’t connect the test questions with the learning targets (even though the sections of my tests were organized by learning target). I want my students to have good study skills so I needed to change something.