September 24, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It took me a really long time to get organized. Not this morning or this week—I mean since high school.

I was one of those irritating kids who pretty much winged it through my early grades. I never had to study. Maybe running through spelling words a time or two before a test, but really, hardcore, sit-down-and-learn-this studying wasn’t my thing. And since my grades were always good, no red flags for my parents.

Until high school.

I started taking French and honors classes. There may be a few subjects you can “wing,” if you just pay attention in class, but I’m here to tell you that, for most people, foreign language is not one of them. Neither is The Odyssey.

So, at the age of 14, I was finally introduced to the concept of “studying” and being fully prepared for class. It was an eye-opener. And truth be told, it took me a while to catch on. I tried really hard to be organized like my friend Judy, who always had her notes in order, her assignment book filled in with little checkmarks by the completed items. She graduated second in our class of 384. My efforts always seemed short-lived.

It’s not that I was a bad student. I managed to graduate in the top 10 percent of the class, but I just wasn’t as successful as I could have been if I had started high school with some established study skills.

High-school Spanish teacher Theresa Jensen says the biggest challenges for kids who don’t know how to study isn’t their natural ability. It’s generally organization and planning: “They tend to wait until the last minute when it’s really too late to internalize anything. Then, when they finally focus, they don’t know what to do. They’ll passively look over their spotty notes or the book. They’ll try to quickly memorize vocabulary or rules, but learning a language [or any subject] is so much more than just memorizing words.”

Jensen says she can tell which students are studiers and which aren’t. “The studiers pull out old vocabulary lists; they take notes without being told. They write things down in an assignment notebook and sometimes bring in their homemade flashcards. I can [also] tell which kids have logged onto our class study website and which haven’t.” And she says the most obvious indicator is who performs well in class and how prepared they are.

So as school is steaming full speed ahead, what can you do to help your student be a “Judy” and not a “Bev?”

The number one suggestion is to teach organizational skills early on. Also don’t use good grades as the only indicator of your child’s progress in school. Elementary teachers generally hand out assignment books or sheets, and parents are asked to sign them so the teacher knows that the child is getting his work done. Make your child responsible for bringing the assignment book to you to sign (rather than you asking for it); and as you do, ask your child to tell you more about their work. Even in early grades, encourage your kids to take responsibility for writing down their assignments and checking them off as they are completed.

“Good study skills start with simply being organized,” says Jensen. “I’ve seen high school students over the years who end up in special study halls because they are failing three classes. Why? Not because they can’t learn, but because they are so unorganized. They don’t even know where to start. They lose assignments and papers and don’t know where to find the answer. They don’t know what the teacher expects of them.”

Harder still for those students who have always had an easy time getting excellent grades and suddenly begin bringing home 2s, 3s, and even 4s (a.k.a. Bs, Cs, and Ds). Confused parents may be quick to blame their teenager for slacking off when, in reality, the student is doing exactly what they have always done. It just doesn’t work anymore.

The best advice? Start your child early with a regular, established study time and place that works for your family. Encourage and teach consistent organizational skills. Even helping little ones learn to put toys and clothes away in the right places counts.

Older students can make sure they are using their assignment book consistently. Having teachers check the book weekly and make notes for a while can help clarify and demystify expectations. The student should have one place for keeping important papers, and set aside specific time for study several times a week, even if there’s no assignment due the next day. If these things aren’t helping, it’s probably time for the student to let the teacher know he’s struggling and get the teacher’s recommendations.

Sending your student to college with solid studying and organizational skills is a powerful gift. And it’s far more efficient to strengthen weak study skills before you start paying per credit hour.

For more suggestions on helping develop study skills visit greatschools.org or childdevelopmentinfo.org.

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