How Kids Can Spend Less Time Studying to Get Better Results
Many of us have those fond memories now, not so fond at the time, of sitting in an overcrowded library or cafe with caffeine-driven, sleep-deprived students in pajamas and pillows in hand ready for an all-nighter, cramming during finals week.
Oftentimes, we equate long hours of studying as being a model straight A student.
When I was a child, my parents made me sit at the kitchen table and study for at least 3 hours a night.
However, as explained in Cal Newport’s book How to Become a Straight-A Student, highly successful students actually study less than their peers. These students have figured out how to spend the time used to study effectively. Research shows its not the amount of time spent studying, but the techniques used that leads to real learning.
Work Accomplished = Intensity of Focus x Time Spent In this era of social media and digital distractions, it is easy to do what is known as pseudo-work, especially pseudo-study.
There is no such thing as successful multitasking, because much of the time multitasking is wasted on context switching, where the brain has to restart and refocus. Therefore, a student that is studying for AP Biology, but also checks his texts and scrolls through Instagram has a low intensity of focus, say a 3. Though he spends 3 hours “studying” his work accomplished is actually only a 9.
On the other hand, a student that takes steps to solely focus on AP Biology has a high intensity of focus, say a 10. Though she only spends 1 hour studying, her work accomplished is higher than the distracted classmate that studied for 3 hours.
Highly successful students have learned to not be pseudo-workers, where it looks like they are working hard, spending a lot of time working at a low intensity with numerous distractions. These students use shorter periods with higher intensity without any distractions from email, social media, etc., and the studying is more effective and leads to greater achievement gains.
Our cousin, who led a very balanced life during medical school, graduating at the top of his class and is finishing up his residency at Harvard, attributes his success to using proper study techniques that are based on empirical data.
Part of the Everyday In order to inculcate this habit of studying in our young children, we recommend modeling high intensity focus by making it a family activity.
Decide as a family on a time before dinner where everyone will work distraction free.
We all could use this time to do distraction free tasks such as reading a book, preparing dinner, learning a new language.
Due to will-power/ego deprivation throughout our work/school day, do not start immediately when everyone gets home, but provide a short break to prepare. Make a habit of setting a timer of 30 mins or less for the break before the high-intensity work. Without a timer, it is easy to sit distracted and mindlessly in front of the TV for hours until dinner.
If necessary, turn off the modem or router, unplug TVs and game consoles and place all digital devices in a central location where they cannot be reached.
Set a timer for exactly 50 minutes and everyone completes their respective work until the timer goes off. If our child needs more time, have them take a 10 minute break and then set the timer for another 50 minute high-intensity focus session.
When our children are in college and even in high school, distractions such as events and parties occur later in the evening. Therefore, we must instill the habit in our children to complete their work early in the day.
In addition, when our children complete their work earlier, the evening can be used as family time and we can even help them develop an evening routine with an appropriate bedtime, depending on our chronotype as well-elaborated in When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink.
Since most people have better cognitive ability earlier in the day, we recommend that early mornings on weekends are blocked off as time for children and even the whole family to complete cognitively demanding tasks such as studying and writing. This will hopefully translate in college where it is important for our children to use their mornings wisely. In addition, studies have shown that a consistent wake up time improves concentration and productivity as well as emotional stability. It is important to again not stress the amount of time, but the intensity of focus at short intervals of time.
Beyond the Power of Yet Research by Carol Dweck and the growth mindset have shown that children are able to bounce back from setbacks, and they are more willing to take on new challenges, when we praise them for their efforts instead of focusing on their intelligence and talent. At the same time, we need to go deeper than just saying “try your best”.
Many of of us used learning techniques based on intuitive learning theories throughout our academic careers, which are time consuming and just give the illusion of mastery or what many refer to as fluency. The idea of fluency is that our children become familiar with the ideas and information in preparation for the test, but forget it a week later because it never led to long term learning.
These ineffective techniques include: -Studying for long periods of time -Studying on a single subject for a long period of time and repeating phrases over and over for memorization also known as massed practice -Reviewing one topic repeatedly until perceived mastery before moving onto another topic also known as blocked practice -Reading and rereading text -Highlighting or underlining important concepts in a text and then reviewing -Reviewing notes
As parents and educators, we need to couple the idea of working hard with empirically proven techniques.
What Are High-Intensity Study Habits? Researchers have found that the following techniques incorporated in kids’ daily study habits increase sustainable learning and retention. These techniques are difficult and require more effort and they slow down learning and initially the learning gains seem to be smaller. However these techniques lead to long term mastery.
Research proven techniques are: -Creating flash cards that can be used for spaced practice and self-quizzing -Pre-test: answering questions, even incorrectly, before learning the content enhances future learning. -Spaced practice: space out study sessions to different days has been shown to improve retention and recall, unlike massed practice, spaced practice feels more difficult. If using flash cards, create different piles as intervals to review the flash cards, those cards that were answered immediately place in a pile to review 3 days later, answered with some difficulty place in a pile to review 2 days later and those that were answered incorrectly place in a pile to review the next day. -Self-quizzing: though testing has a negative connotation in this era of standardized testing, however testing is a form of active retrieval practice. Encourage your child to make test questions for themselves as they learn a new concept, thinking about the types of questions that their teacher might ask on a quiz or test. Incorporate these quizzes into their study sessions, emphasize that they must answer every questions even those that they believe they know well. -Interleaving practice: similar to massed practice, we rely on blocked practice, study a set of problems such as multiplication problems as a group until we feel mastery. However, this often gives us the illusion of mastery or just fluency. A more effective method of studying is to study a set of problems that are related but not the same all mixed together. For example an interleaved math practice would have addition, subtraction, multiplication and division questions mixed in one session. -Paraphrasing and reflecting on topics and key points: many of us have read paragraphs in a textbook only to realize that we did not retain a single concept presented in those paragraphs. To combat this issue, utilize intention learning strategies which include relating what is being learned to prior knowledge, elaborate what is being stated so it can be explained to a five year olds and reflect and ask additional questions regarding the content.
Couple books that explain these effective learning techniques in more detail are Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel and How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey.
By replacing ineffective techniques with those that lead to mastery, our children will be the ones in college in the library before finals week actually reviewing for finals and preparing to sleep at their normal bedtime rather than cramming and pulling all-nighters in a hall full of caffeine-driven, sleep-deprived psuedo-A students.