Schools Helping students study smart

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Many years of teaching senior students has taught learning specialist REBECCA TAYLOR that we can’t just tell students to study hard, we need to help them study smart. Here are her tips for imparting good study habits.

Before a student even begins to tackle the content of their subjects, they need to learn how to approach their studies: how to manage their time, develop good research skills, and organise their notes. For Year 11 and 12 students, having strong organisational practices becomes more important than ever.

Over time, I have found that students seem to understand less and less about getting organised to study. As teachers, we tell them all the time that study is the key to good VCE results, but we often don’t demonstrate what that means. If you are new to teaching senior classes, I want to share a few tips to help set your students up for a successful year.

Just last week, two students told me that they were already struggling to keep on top of their work each week and falling further and further behind. I have come to realise that it isn’t just a Year Level Coordinator’s job to talk about this issue at orientation; our students need to have it modelled to them by their classroom teachers – in a way that sets them up for success. This means working with their personalities and lifestyles, not against them.

Teaching good organisational habits enables positive learning – and makes everyone’s lives easier – students, parents and teachers!

My tips to helping your senior students get organised

Try one or all of these ideas to help your students get organised. Remember, the key is to work with the personalities and learning styles of your students, and to explain the real-world significance of understanding these tools. Teaching them good organisational habits enables positive learning – and makes everyone’s lives easier – students, parents and teachers!

Using a wall planner

Wall planners are great as they are visual and most kids these days love visuals. It’s not as cumbersome as a diary and they can put it up anywhere they work.

Wall planners are expensive at the big-box stationers, so I begged a not-for-profit to print some up for me. They need to be the ones with blank large squares. I then spent the first lesson of the year teaching my students how to use them.

Firstly, we brainstormed the events that get in the way of us doing homework. No judgement! Things like our birthday, our mum’s birthday, our best friend’s birthday, our dog’s birthday… Also, the next day after these ‘birthdays’! If they play sport, if they coach sport, they train or travel for sport. If they work a regular shift at Dominos or have a regular night of gaming.

Then we get a big black marker and scrub these days out completely. These are the designated ‘write-off days’. Days we know that teens will sleep longer, dawdle, procrastinate, or take forever doing their make-up. No homework is getting done on ‘write-off’ days.

We also scrub out family holidays (no one is studying in Bali!), weekends at Nan’s, public holidays and student-free days. These are all guilt-free, pre-planned ‘write-off’ days.

What time is left for study? Not much – and that’s the point! The planner is a visual prompt to show students that time is precious. In a single glance they can see that, in no time at all, the year will almost be over, and exams will be looming.

At this point, in red, write in the key VCAA dates and other deadlines set by your school calendar.

For visual learners, this is incredibly powerful. If there’s a write-off day close to a major deadline, they know they will need to work hard on the other days to stay on schedule. If they find some time and/or motivation to study on a write-off day, then it’s a bonus study day!

Tell students that when teachers say “study each night” they actually mean “tidy up your notes”.

Using OneNote

Many students have trouble organising their Google or Word Docs, and they have no idea about using filing systems on their computers. My advice: show students how to set up OneNote. Create a different coloured tab for each subject with a new digital page for each day’s notes down the right-hand side. Demonstrate step by step or watch a YouTube how-to clip for students.

The beauty of OneNote is that students can embed documents, worksheets, videos or YouTube clips straight into their page. They will no longer have the excuse that their computer didn’t save their work, as it automatically saves as they go. It even has ‘speech to text’. And, again, this tool is perfect for visual learners and it models real-world practice. It helps them understand the kind of administrative skills they’ll need in their further studies and at work.

Daily tidy-up

Tell students that when teachers say “study each night” they actually mean “tidy up your notes”. Take 10–15 minutes every night for each subject to go through the day’s notes and tidy them up. Finish sentences that didn’t get finished. Add the little anecdotes you remember from the teacher. Jot that idea your friend had or finish the mind map. This small, incremental habit of tidying up your day’s work does not seem like an overwhelming task, but it provides a useful quick revision of the day’s learning.

The old adage that you can establish a new habit in 30 days may help your students set up good routines.

Chunk your time

Explain to your students that there is never, ever a magic block of time for study. It’s an illusion. Instead, teach them to chunk a task. Identify the times they feel most awake (which, statistically, is the morning). While eating their Weetbix on Saturday morning, spend 15 minutes drafting a paragraph of that essay. Then walk away. Come back mid-morning and tidy up the paragraph. While waiting for Mum to pick you up after sport, speak the next paragraph into your phone. Transcribe it later that night. These small pockets of time will eventually lead to a task completed, without the overwhelming effect of trying to find one large, elusive chunk of time that never comes.

Habit trackers

The old adage that you can establish a new habit in 30 days may help your students set up good routines. ‘Habit trackers’ can be found on any Pinterest board about ‘bullet journaling’. Again, they are a visual tool to help people keep track of how often they have done something towards a completed goal. For instance, you could cross off squares on a page every time you read your Compass feed or checked your lesson plans for the week. You could create a habit tracker for the 15-minute tidy up, or just to eat better food or to exercise. Even for the amount of times you went to bed early! Students love when things are gamified, especially boys. If you can make it competitive, all the better.

These are my best tips following years of teaching senior students. If you’ve got any to add, leave a comment!

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