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Building Study Skills: A Four-Step Plan

October 2, 2013 / by Marsha Ratzel

Study skills. They're part of the hidden curriculum, those strategies that students must learn in order to succeed. No high-stakes test I've ever seen measures "study skills" discretely. But they are the hallmark of high-achieving, confident students.

How do we teach such strategies? We can't just plan a unit on study skills, and call it done.

Instead, teachers must develop a sharp approach to the learning that goes on in our classrooms. Ultimately, what matters most is what students can do independently. To get them there, we help them learn the content or skills but also make sure they can make the material their own; develop confidence; and take responsibility for studying and its outcomes.

In my middle school math classroom, I offer significant support at the start of the year when students are getting used to my style and curriculum. By the end of the year, I transfer preparatory responsibilities to my students (as much as is age-appropriate).

This course of action—a long-term plan carried out over the course of the school year—is transferable to different age groups and types of content. You'll need to customize it for your students and classroom situations.

First Quarter: Maximum Support

giving students responsibility quoteIn first-quarter study guides, I list explicit learning targets and include sample problems that students might expect on the test. I show students how to break up the steps of sample problems on notecards and how to modify the problems just a bit so they can practice.

Students learn to sift through their cards, separating them into piles of "Things I know" and "Things I don't know." I guide them in practicing the "Things I don't know" pile more... giving these steps more attention and emphasis than the "Things I know" pile.

I also help them to connect their piles of "Things I don't know" with direct advocacy for their own learning: coming in for extra help and learning what questions to ask. Instead of saying, "I don't get anything," they learn to say things like, "I understand the first two parts of this, but I always get confused at this point."

In the first quarter, students can correct their test answers to improve their grades. But their corrections must include an analysis of what was done incorrectly, how they can change their thinking or re-learn the material, and what they'll do in the future. (These plans might include learning how to study in chunks or coming in for extra help.)

Second Quarter: Taking Responsibility

No comprehensive study guides in the second quarter! Instead, we develop outlines together by searching through notes, identifying sample problems from classroom investigations, and sifting through problem sets.

These conversations are critical. As I help students re-read notes and talk about what was significant, they begin to develop a bigger framework of learning that ties everything together.

I offer voluntary review sessions from day one. But they are not well attended until the second quarter, when students have been able to see their peers reap the positive consequences of taking part. They see a direct link between the work invested and the outcome they earn on their tests.

By the end of the quarter, test review sessions are usually standing-room-only. Students have begun to realize that they must take responsibility for their own learning.

Third Quarter: Building Confidence

I reveal little about what will be on "the test." I push students to develop and continue to fill out an outline of their work toward the learning targets. Accordingly, this is the quarter when students really begin to develop their confidence.

student math workRecently, I asked a student about her preparedness for the third-quarter test. She said, "I know what you're going to ask. It's not a mystery." Third-quarter student reflections say again and again, "I knew what was going to be on the test and I knew what to study. I did well because I studied."

When I first started using the strategies I describe here, these responses surprised me. After all, I'd always used learning targets to chunk up the curriculum. What I didn't realize was that students didn't connect the test questions with the learning targets (even though the sections of my tests were organized by learning target).

Fourth Quarter: Reviewing for Themselves

By the time fourth quarter rolls around, I do little to support study skills other than lead conversations.

We focus on the list of learning targets and students write their own review questions. Each generates questions to share, then they build their own individual study guides.

I prepare students for these conversations by showing them how to create concept maps of learning targets that will be assessed.

See the photograph above for an example. We had 8 learning targets, so students divided their paper into quarters. As classmates offered practice problems, they filled in their study guides. They also used these spaces to make notations of important formulas or facts to remember. (Every student's study guide looks a little different.)

I see a big drop off in attendance in the test review sessions by fourth quarter. Students feel like they are prepared if they have created and are using their study guides. They're right—their grades don't drop. I'm excited when they get to this point because I know that future teachers may not offer study sessions, and they need to be ready for that.

Want to improve your students' study skills? Gradually turn over responsibility to them, and help them build skills that reinforce hard work, preparation, and practice.

Topics: Assessment

Marsha Ratzel

Written by Marsha Ratzel

Marsha Ratzel is a National Board-certified teacher in the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, where she teaches middle school math and science. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality's Collaboratory and Powerful Learning Practice, she writes often about her teaching practice at Reflections of a Techie.

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