Studying for tests is never easy, but for students with weak executive-function skills it can be particularly challenging. Compounding the problem, teachers rarely offer explicit instruction in how to prepare for exams and quizzes. In fact, most students cite “going over my notes” as their go-to study strategy even though studies show it’s generally not an effective approach. Instead, science suggests adopting a straightforward and engaging approach such as those listed in the guidelines below.
For many kids who struggle with executive functions, prepping for test day must include overcoming difficulties with planning, prioritizing information, maintaining focus, and time management. Helping your child Incorporate these elements into their approach will provide the framework they need to succeed.
- Make a plan: As test day approaches, have your child identify four (or more) specific days and times that they can schedule a study session.
- Be specific: Many students find it difficult to start studying because success and time are both undefined. To make studying more accessible, your child should identify a specific strategy they will use during each study session as well as an estimate of how long it will take to complete.
- Write it down: They should record those times and their specific goals for each session in their calendars.
- Mix it up: The more variety they incorporate into their study session, the better it is for retention.
Creative Study Strategies
Share these strategies with your child, encouraging them to use several to help “mix it up.” Depending on their strengths and preferences, some will work better than others, but eventually they’ll find a set of strategies they’ll be able to rely on.
- Study Guide in Phases: Ask your teacher for multiple copies of the study guide. Complete it once with your notes, and then test yourself to see how much you can fill-in without your notes.
- Reorganize Notes: Often times class notes lack clear organization because we don’t know what’s coming next. Re-write them based on what kind of organization best represents the content (chronologically, by topic, by type of information, etc).
- Cheat Sheets: Imagine you have to catch a friend up on the most important information for this test. Make a one-page cheat sheet to help them out.
- Write a Test: Deciding what questions you’d include if you were developing the test helps you clarify what’s most important. Writing the “wrong” choice for multiple choice questions also helps solidify details.
- Poem/Song/Mnemonic Device: These are classics and have the added benefit of mapping new information onto melodies or other structures that can support recall.
- Concept Maps: Mind maps create visual representations of the connections between ideas. The more you incorporate shapes, colors, and drawings, the more you’re giving your brain to hold onto in relation to the content. After you make your mind map, compare it to your notes to be sure you didn’t leave anything out.
- Venn Diagram: Pick a related topic and really compare and contrast. This might work well for consolidating your understanding of an historical empire or a new scientific process.
- Color Code: Too much color coding can be distracting, but if you’re strategic it can be helpful. A great first step to preparing for a test is to go through your notes and mark ideas green if you know them well, yellow if you’re shaky, and red if you need to ask for help. That way, you can spend the rest of your time on the concepts you most need to review.
- Symbols: Annotating notes or text with symbols both ensures that you won’t mark up too much information for it to be helpful and gives your brain something visual to process. Favorite symbols include “?” for ideas that are confusing or “!” for content that surprises you. Try to identify about 4-5 symbols for a single study session.
- Post-Its: For a twist on flashcards, put information on post-its and organize them on a wall. You might arrange key dates in order, match definitions to key words, or sort ideas into “don’t know,” “learning”, and “know.”
- Drawing: Creating images that represent ideas is powerful. One great way to do this is to draw portraits of historical figures and include at least three accessories that represent their life and impact.
Speaking & Listening
- Voice Memos: Record voice memos of key information and listen to the memo on your way to the bus or in down time between activities.
- Voice to Text: Turn on the voice to text feature in a Google doc and talk through everything you know about an idea. Check what you said against your notes to see what you missed.
- Paired Studying: Studying with a friend leads to questions that you might not have thought of and includes both verbal and audio processing of ideas.
As your child learns the strategies that appeal to them, reinforce the idea that multiple, shorter study sessions allow them to study more efficiently. After each test, invite them to reflect on what worked well and what didn’t with the goal of knowing themselves as a learner. In time, you’ll be able to support your child in having a clear approach to learning for each subject area.
Jenna Prada, a certified teacher and administrator, is the founder of the Learning Link and the Director of Executive Functioning & Special Education at Private Prep.