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Teaching Study Skills: Ideas That Work!

Professional Development

Faced with poor student performance on tests and assignments, teachers often recognize that the root of the problem lies not in the material or in how it is taught, but in how students choose to study it. Some students lack experience with effective methods of study; they measure the effectiveness of their studying by the length of time they spend in front of a book -- not in their comprehension of it. Harsh reality sets in when grades are dispensed! Discover how teachers in the trenches are introducing students to better ways of studying effectively. Included: Three educators share their tips and tricks to improve study skills!


Tips for a Successful
Breakfast Club

Kathy Dekmar shares the following advice with those who would like to hold morning review sessions similar to her Breakfast Club.

* Allow students to be kids.
* Don't set so many rules that it becomes an unpleasant experience for students.
* Be sure students review the material prior to the "extra" time, so there is direction and focus, and discussions are on-task.
* Don't be frustrated if small numbers take part in the beginning. Any change for the better is a good change.
* Don't make it a punishment.
* Share with parents -- through e-mail newsletters, open house communications, quarterly reports, and any other type of communication -- that this opportunity is available.
* Review school rules about entering the building prior to the homeroom period. Students might need a pass or you may have to discuss the new study time in advance with hall/door monitors.
* Keep track of the success/improvement of attendees and commend them on their efforts.
* Encourage, encourage and encourage!

The need to improve student study skills has driven some teachers to find unique and creative ways to persuade students to move beyond simply reading material to fully understanding it. Kathy Dekmar's current students may not be familiar with the movie that lent its title to her morning study sessions, but they are certainly well acquainted with the positive results the sessions achieve.


"Many middle school students don't know how to study," Dekmar told Education World. "They read over notes, skim the text, and develop study questions they already know the answers to. I've found that our review sessions are a positive experience for students; they challenge one another and direct one another in locating and explaining answers. In the past, I used the lunch period to meet, but that didn't offer much advantage to the morning classes. I tried after school, but many kids were busy with extra-curricular activities or family responsibilities, and just couldn't stay. The process of elimination had me try the morning. I then added food and an identifying name --The Breakfast Club."

Throughout the school year, Dekmar introduces her seventh grade students at Brooklawn Middle School in Parsippany, New Jersey, to note-taking and test-taking strategies and study skills tricks that complement her American history curriculum. During meetings of The Breakfast Club, students use those techniques and demonstrate them to one another, often sharing homemade flash cards, practice test questions, matching games, and more.

"The students know they can come into the classroom at 7:30 am," said Dekmar. "Many bring donuts, bagels, juice, and milk to share. We set up a buffet table and the kids help themselves and clean up. During the half-hour time period when we are together, they work in groups or pairs and review previously taught information using a review sheet and their own study techniques. Toward the end of the time, I ask rapid-fire questions and the kids answer. They are actually allowed to shout out the answers. (All formality is out the door during this session.) I also answer private questions and clarify misunderstandings. At 8:00 am, all students are dismissed until the homeroom bell rings. That gives me time to organize my class before first period."

Dekmar reports that more students join in her breakfast review sessions every year. They enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, engaging dialogue about subject matter, shared food, and the confidence built through the reviews. She has seen evidence of students teaching one another how to study and remember information. The entire process has become a student-directed and facilitated activity with positive and measurable results.

"Through their observations and experiences at The Breakfast Club, students appreciate that it is cool to study and that the techniques work," Dekmar stated. "They also recognize and appreciate the additional time I allow, which fosters a positive and caring relationship between my students and myself. And students who participate have noticeably higher scores than those who don't."


Social science teacher Linda Bryan is another middle school educator who has observed a lack of study skills among her students. Her students often equate studying with spending time in front of a book -- and their study patterns reflect it.

"Kids have some odd ideas about teachers and the material," Bryan said. "They still believe in luck. They think that some kids get good grades because teachers like them. They don't connect practice with success. They believe that natural athletes become professional athletes; that smart kids naturally get the good grades; and so on."

Bryan, a teacher at Maplewood (Minnesota) Middle School, fears that that kind of misguided logic leads her students to believe that only poor students have to study and that working for something is somehow a badge of dishonor. So she emphasizes to her students the importance of study and discusses effective studying behaviors. Bryan also encourages students to use odd moments -- such as waiting in the lobby, using a curling iron, or riding in a car or bus -- as stolen study time. "What? You've never taped a vocabulary list to your bathroom mirror?" she jokes.

"I've taken to asking kids to list the ways they should prepare for a quiz," Bryan explained. "In class, I ask students, 'What study methods would work for this material?,' and we brainstorm. On a quiz or review sheet, I sometimes ask them to respond individually to the question, 'What methods did you use to study this material?' If a student does poorly after claiming to have used all the methods, we have a talk -- because something is wrong. More commonly, the low-scoring student will write something like, 'I didn't have time to study' -- which usually translates to 'I didn't try very hard.' When that happens, we talk about what might be a wiser way to prepare for the next quiz."

Many Ways to Study

Social science teacher Linda Bryan encourages her students to try many ways of studying to find those that work best for their individual learning styles. She also discusses with students the most effective ways to study specific subject matter, and recommends to students that they

* practice with flashcards;
* ask someone to quiz you;
* read;
* reread;
* highlight your notes;
* summarize;
* read your notes;
* read your notes aloud;
* organize your papers so you are working with everything you need;
* outline or make a graphic version of written work (lists, columns, Venn diagrams, etc.);
* do a project;
* quiz yourself;
* write memory work over and over until you feel confident;
* use a worksheet as a quiz by covering over the answers and re-doing it;
* look over old quizzes and try to figure out why you're making mistakes;
* look over the returned assignments for the unit;
* answer study guide questions;
* tell someone else what the topic is about;
* look up the parts of the assignments that you didn't understand the first time.


Patricia Meloy, a Spanish teacher at Barrington (Illinois) High School, says that "inspiration" led her to holding preview sessions for new units as a way to enhance students' study skills.

"By previewing upcoming material, slower students were able to anticipate what was coming up in a lecture," Meloy stated, "and to raise their hands along with the quickest students. It taught them that the book in their possession could offer them the same advantage it offered the 'smart' kids -- if only they would open it and take a peek at the next day's lesson. It taught them that they didn't have to have a teacher walk them through a lesson. And it taught them how to use the textbook as a manual. In class, they seemed to have developed a new-found confidence."

Meloy held her preview sessions before or after school. Students saw them as a great way to get ahead, and often took advantage of them at times when they knew they were going to be absent from class.

"Preview sessions are an excellent way to plan lessons for new teachers or for anyone using an unfamiliar textbook for the first time," explained Meloy. "Holding preview sessions helped me see where students needed more models than the book provided; develop better model sentences for grammar; and develop a non-threatening relationship with students who were anticipating failure -- or at least a struggle with the material. We worked as a team, and the students came to see me as a facilitator in their progress, not as a gatekeeper."

Because of their success, interest in preview sessions diminished over time, and Meloy eventually found that they were not necessary. "Students became able to ask the questions they needed answered in class instead of sitting mute in the back row," she said. "Through the lessons, they adopted a more active role in their own progress."