(I Studied) The Routes I Took
by Chris Ouellette
Director of Learning Support, Emma Willard
Happy November to you! I hope that your spooky season went smoothly as you supported our youth! We recently received our mid-term grades for the first term, and it's no surprise that this is the period when an increasing number of students proactively reach out to schedule meetings to discuss and enhance their study habits. Before I embark on sharing my insights with these young individuals, I took the time to seek out inspiring quotes on the subject of studying. Whether the wisdom originated from notable figures such as Malcolm X, Gandhi, Abigail Adams, or KRS-ONE, the underlying message remained consistent: achieving a successful education requires dedicated effort and profound thinking. When considering how to impart my guidance to students, I draw inspiration from the words of Jay-Z who aptly reminds us that "nobody's built like you, you design yourself."
We recognize that every learner is unique, with individualized systems that work best for them. However, it's all too common in the independent school environment to find systems that tend to favor a one-size-fits-all approach. Students are often encouraged to participate in structured study programs, allocate more time for teacher meetings (even when teachers are unavailable), and are advised to put in extra effort to create flashcards or dedicate more time to reviewing their notes. Independent schools frequently impose the same structures on all students who have earned a C- or below during a reporting period. If I cannot deconstruct these review structures in favor of transforming them into personalized conversations, I must redirect my attention towards reforming these one-size-fits-all systems. While we should strive to individualize our approach as much as possible, there are a couple of slight shifts I recommend each student take a look at attempting:
Length of Time
Many students come in to tell me that they are devoting hours and hours of time towards studying for a specific test, and oftentimes they report finding success that doesn’t match those hours of studying. I almost always ask students if they are cramming or spacing. Most of my students end up sharing stories of filling the two to three nights before a big test with multiple hours devoted solely to studying (memorizing). I choose to share with them that they may find better results if they shifted to studying using the spacing technique. Exactly what it sounds like, spacing is centered on multiple smaller study sessions spread out over more days:
(Hendrick and Caviglioli, innerdrive.co.uk)
One of the interesting pieces that I encounter are the student reactions to the idea of only studying for 30 minutes at a time. I ask students to do a quick search which yields results on our ability to maintain focus at anywhere from 10-90 minutes before a break is needed. I then remind them that it is whatever works best to maximize their results, and we move on.
Students often report receiving instructions to reread their notes or review practice problems if they wish to prepare for the next assessment. However, we understand that these approaches are rather passive when it comes to engaging with information. To significantly enhance retention, it's crucial to adopt a more active approach. Some quick and easy recommendations I provide include trying to summarize each concept from memory, attempting to teach a subject to someone else, or partnering up for quiz-style studying. One of the newer concepts I've discovered and started recommending is the idea of interleaving which involves mixing up your study of concepts within a broader topic. Instead of studying each full concept within a topic in a linear fashion, you intertwine concepts with each other:
(Busch, Watson, Bogatchek, @Inner_Drive).
This approach helps students accomplish three specific things. First, it provides an opportunity for discrimination learning, allowing them to identify differences between similar things. Second, it assists in remembering the similarities between different things. Third, it naturally creates spacing within concepts (Busch, Watson, Bogatchek).
There are numerous changes that students can make to improve their study habits. They don't necessarily have to make major shifts, especially if they are uncomfortable doing so. However, the willingness to adapt their habits is just as crucial as acquiring new tools. If a student can recognize that their current habits aren't yielding success and can also identify which adjustments might be comfortable to try out, then they are well on their way to achieving success.