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Christine Carter, PhD

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Study Skills 2010: Not What You Think They Are

Posted: 09/16/10 09:00 AM ET

Benedict Carey wrote in The New York Times on September 7th:

Every September, millions of parents try a kinds of psychological witchcraft, to transform their summer-glazed campers into fall students, their video-bugs into bookworms. Advice is cheap and all too familiar: Clear a quiet work space. Stick to a homework schedule. Set goals. Set boundaries. Do not bribe (except in emergencies).

I'm a big believer in habits and routines as a route to happiness: Turning chores into routines means we don't have to constantly nag our kids to do unpleasant tasks, which is good for their well being and ours.

That said, I'm also one of those artsy types who is easily distracted by things that seem more novel or fun—so much so that my kids, I must admit, have never had much of a homework routine.

I know this isn't good, and so I've begun this school year by pounding the homework table. "This year, we are going to get serious about doing our homework!" I've made this pronouncement repeatedly—before conceding that, yes, we can play checkers first (just today). I even got both of my kids their own desks, which I thought was a critical part of Study Skills 101.

Then I read this well-researched article in The New York Times, and found, much to my relief, that I do not need to inflict the study skills of my youth on my own children. Here are the key takeaways that will influence how I Walk The Talk this week:

  1. Kids do NOT need to do their homework every day at the same time in the same place.

    We human beings actually learn BETTER if we vary the environments in which we study. Cracking the books at the dentist's office is perfectly fine, especially if we study the same thing later at the kitchen table. Cognitive scientists believe that studying something in multiple environments increases the neural connections in our brains associated with what we are trying to learn. More neural connections equals more learning.

  2. A little every day is better than cramming.

    Yes, we know this already. But did you also know that you don't need to study MORE if you just do a little bit each day? Clearly I'm not serving my daughter well when we crack the week's spelling list at breakfast the day of the test. She might ace the test, but she'll know nothing the following week. "It's not like they can't remember the material," psychologist Henry Roediger III says, "It's like they've never seen it before."

    Here's why this obvious tip makes life easier: Stress is not a happiness habit. Cramming causes stress. Spending 8.5 minutes a day for four days practicing spelling in a peaceful way is better for learning AND our family's happiness than spending a harried 34 minutes cramming at breakfast and in the car on the way to school. One more tip on this one: Study all the words (or types of problems) each day, rather than a few at a time. For why, read this.

  3. Embrace testing as a fabulous learning tool.

    I usually cringe when I hear how schools more and more are being asked to "teach to the test." While I'm still not a proponent of this pedagogical movement, it turns out that the test itself has some teaching value.

    Students do better when they study for one period of time (say, 20 minutes) and then spend another 20 minutes taking a test on that material rather than studying for a full 40 minutes. This is because the act of recall changes the way we know something. So quizzing Fiona on her spelling in the car IS a great way for her to study. Older students should be encouraged to ask for practice tests with which to study.

In conclusion, this week I am going to start my kids in on a homework routine and stick to it. We'll study a little each day, but not necessarily in the same place. And I'll be on the lookout for ways to quiz the kids to help cement their learning—so we can spend more time outside playing, and less time on homework!

What study habits do you see as essential? What homework routines work for your family? What makes homework more pleasant in your household? What makes it a battle? Please try the tips above along with me, and let us know how they work!

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Centerbest known for her science-based parenting advice. She is the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and she teaches an online parenting class for a global audience.

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