Thursday, November 12, 2009

Selling study strategies (Math studying strategies pt. 1)

My school is very big on teaching kids strategies to help them succeed. This makes me happy because I feel that there are a lot of strategies for learning and test taking particularly in math that may have been obvious to me, but aren't obvious to many kids.  With my 9th and 10th graders, I focus mostly on how to effectively learn in class from your teacher and review strategies for test taking.  In 12th grade, I like to specifically take a decent chunk of time to model, explain and discuss how to learn and study from a math book.  I believe this is an essential skill as it is inevitable that at some point in college students are going to need to learn directly from the book.  This may be due to the fact that they didn’t understand the lesson, they misunderstood a portion of the lesson, or they missed a class entirely.  Surprisingly, many kids don't understand how to read from a math book or even how to study for math at all.  I feel certain that we have all had the experience of hearing a student say, "Well you can't really *study* for math..." or "I just look over my notes to study for a math test."

So, in my senior classes I take a chapter from one of our tests, and exclusively read through it together with the students.  We focus on figuring out what the book is saying, and how to organize and study the concepts in preparation for college courses.  I started this process today in class; and to be honest, we covered very little math material.  Nonetheless, I really believe that today was infinitely more important for them than any single math topic could ever be.

I'll talk about my specific process and strategies in upcoming posts, but I want to intentionally stop after I make my next point because it's very important:  I think many teachers go about teaching study skills in the wrong way.  There are a lot of great teachers out there providing countless useful studying strategies, and I'm not saying those strategies aren't equal to or more awesome than mine.  It's essentially the introduction that in my experience (as a student) needs improvement.

My selling of study strategies goes like this:
"Studying strategies are for people that don't want to study a lot! I promise you that at some point you're going to want to learn a lot about something in life whether you just have a strong interest in a topic, want to learn a specific skill, or just want to get a better grade in a college course.  I never liked studying. I wanted to spend my time going out with friends, playing video games, enjoying a nice sunny day, but definitely not studying! However, I still wanted to do well in my classes. What I realized is that if I used effective study strategies, then I really didn't have to study nearly as much in order to understand the material and be successful.  So again, good studying strategies are used because you don't want to spend that much of your time studying!"

At this point, I have their attention.  To really drive the point home, I give an example from my own experience.

"My first year in college I was in the First Year Science and Engineering dorm.  My floormates had mostly gotten 4.0's in high school, and there were a decent number of valedictorians.  With my mere 3.5, I was feeling a little intimidated.  Throughout the first semester I was always trying to get my friends to go out and do fun things, but was frequently met with "I've gotta study, you should try doing it sometime, Sweeney." This happened especially in the weeks leading up to exams. As the semester came to a close, a number of my friends were convinced I was going to fail.  What happened?  I was one of three people on my floor to make Deans list. (There was a dinner for us, so I knew).  I ended up doing better than a lot of intelligent classmates who had studied much more than I did.  Why?  I'm not a genius, and (as all of my students know at this point) I have a terrible memory!  The reason for my success was that I used effective study strategies and knew my strengths and weaknesses as a student when I did study."

I had pretty high hopes when I first decided to share this concept with my students a few years ago, and I wasn't disappointed.  They can't argue with the logic that good studying = less studying.  Many students just don't study. To me, it seems like if students feel they have to study a lot only to still maybe not do well, they're just going to choose to not study.  When I suddenly present this third option of studying not that much, but doing it really well it's effective enough to give me their attention and eager discussion of strategies for a few periods.  I can't be sure how much of the strategies we go over will stay with them, but at least I know for certain they're getting in there.


  1. I look forward to your next few posts, then. I was the type of kid who never really had to study, so I never developed good habits or strategies. I'd like to help my students now, but I don't know what to suggest.

  2. I am interested in your next posts as well. I teach 8th grade and trying to stress the importance of study skills and strategies is never ending.

  3. I think one of the toughest things for a lot of teachers to relate to is that many who chose teaching as a profession really liked school. I liked my friends and some teachers, but for the most part didn't enjoy the grind of studying for tests, participating in class, writing essays, and certainly not doing homework. There were some topics I liked, but mostly I just did the work I needed to earn good grades. Math was pretty easy for me, so as long as I did my homework assignments I really didn't study for any tests or quizzes unless we had to memorize a formula. I hated memorization (still do, actually) and didn't really develop any study skills to make life easier for myself until I failed an 8th Grade Latin exam and realized that I better change my work habits. Motivated, as you were, by wanting to minimize study time I found that for me writing things down (on notecards or in some other formats) seemed to help things sink in, but as a student I would have appreciated practicing the art/skill of studying. Whatever time you spend on that now, you'll probably save 1,000 times that over the course of your life.