As an academic coach, I’ve spent thousands of hours talking to stressed out and/or unmotivated students (many of whom contact me right before final exams, totally freaked out!) and one pattern has emerged that is striking —
Students don’t know how to study. Everyone TELLS them to study, schools and parents EXPECT them to study, but no one has actually taught them how.
“But that’s not true!” you might be thinking. “I tell my students exactly how to study for my tests. I give them study guides, quizlet sets and teach fun Mnemonics! We play Jeopardy before final exams! We review ad nauseum in class. Why isn’t that enough?!” If you’re a tutor or coach, you might be thinking, “I even study right along with them! What do you mean they don’t know how to study?!”
I don’t doubt this is true. Many educators ARE giving students a zillion resources to help them study. As I’ve coached your students, I’ve seen into your classrooms, I’ve read your study guides and I’m aware how many of you are putting in a sincere, thoughtful effort into providing excellent, scaffolded curriculum and support.
However — and this is what I’ve discovered as I’ve coached hundreds of stressed out teenagers:
The way YOU talk to your students about their own learning may be backfiring.
That was true for me, at least, for the years that I was a classroom teacher. Once I became an academic life coach, I discovered that I needed to unlearn a NUMBER of bad habits I’d acquired about how to talk to students about learning and studying.
My bad habits as a teacher and new coach backfired. Although my actions were intended to help students become more engaged, proactive learners — instead they created the opposite.
Students became dependent on my creativity and my expert curriculum development skills to do any learning.
Now that I am unlearning these bad teaching habits, I’m watching my students transform their learning, their stress level and raise their grades in unprecedented numbers. If I can do this as a coach, you can do this too.
In the rest of this article, I’ll introduce you to:
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- my free e-book, where I explain the easy-to-teach “trick” I’ve learned to teach students how to study strategically: the 3-Step Study Cycle.
Here are the top four bad habits that I discovered in myself and have observed in other educators:
- We overuse the word “study,” assuming it communicates something of value to our students.
- We teach specific strategies (like flashcards) that worked for us when we were students.
- We focus on “learning styles” as the way to discover how to study effectively.
- We break learning down for students into bite-size, motivating chunks and provide clear instructions for students.
Well hold up, you might be thinking! Aren’t these the tenets of good, progressive education? How can they possibly be bad teaching and tutoring habits?
I feel your pain. I was surprised, too, to discover that certain “facts” of good teaching in which I’d been trained sometimes do more harm than good. Why might that be?
Let’s take a closer look at each of these bad habits that are plaguing well-meaning teachers, tutors, and academic coaches:
Bad Habit #1 – Educators overuse the word “study.”
Imagine the following scene:
It’s Wednesday, 4th-period chemistry. The teacher writes on the board, “Study for test on Friday.” Students make a mental note, “Ok, I better study for that test”; some even write “study” into their planners. Parents, coaches and tutors see the word “study” in the planner and follow up by asking, “Have you studied for the test yet?” The student responds somewhat impatiently, responds, “Yes! Yes! I’m studying.”
Think about it: How many times was the word “study” used? Was anything of value about the learning process communicated in these brief interactions?
I’d argue NO! This entire conversation about studying is largely meaningless. How do students decide what they need to DO to study?! How will they know when they’ve been successful studying, and are ready to take the test?
Because students aren’t actually taught the theory behind effective study and the strategies associated with that theory, they often go home and do one of two things:
- They try to “study” the best way they know how, often by rereading the textbook and reviewing and highlighting notes. Some make flashcards, though this technique is often a time-waster too (more on that later). Or…
- They simply don’t study, either because the actions I’ve described above are unmotivating and uninspiring or because they don’t believe they need to study.
When test grades are published, student’s spirits are dashed. “But I studied!” they say. “How come I got such a bad grade?” The answer is — because they studied in ways that felt effective but are are not actually effective.
As an academic life coach, I am on a mission to banish the words “study” and “review” from the English language. Ok. I know. That’s pretty impossible. But what if educators, parents, and students used it a lot less? How would you talk about test preparation with students if you weren’t allowed to use either the word “study” or the word “review”?! Too often the use of these words allows us to live under the illusion that we are communicating something of value about the learning process when truthfully we are not.
What should teachers, tutors, and academic coaches do instead?
- Quick Tip: Start noticing when you use the word “study” and what you are actually trying to communicate. Play around with banishing the word “study” from your vocabulary for a day or two. What might you say instead? You might even include your students in this game! See how this experiment forces you to talk about learning in new ways.
- Advanced Tip: Want to know the 3 words that I use with my clients instead of the word “study”? Watch the FREE demonstration video that’s embedded here. You might even print out the graphic of the 3-step Study Cycle that I provide in my e-book, post it somewhere visible, and practice using those words with your students instead.
So, what’s the next blind spot I’ve noticed in educators (and of which I was also guilty)?
Bad Habit #2 – Educators teach specific strategies (like flashcards) that worked for us when we were students.
I’m guessing you are one of the many thoughtful teachers, coaches, and tutors who DO teach specific strategies for studying. Perhaps you suggest flashcards or provide mnemonics to help students memorize complex information. Maybe you hand out a study guide with suggestions for how to use it. Some teachers (I was one of these!) even build studying for a test into the curriculum, guiding students through the steps they need to prepare.
Yes! This is all good pedagogy!
Here’s the problem:
First, usually, we pick the strategies that worked well for us when we were students. But not all learners are going to rock the information just because they’re studying it in a way that worked for you.
Also, well-meaning educators often suggest strategies without explaining WHY these strategies tend to work. We assume that the strategy in and of itself is what will help the student study. But even the BEST strategies can fail if implemented in ways that ignore how the brain is built to learn. I know so many students who are bored to death by flashcards, but who use them anyway because they’ve been taught it is a successful learning strategy.
Many educators themselves don’t truly understand how learning happens in the brain. I sure didn’t, before I became an academic life coach. In our teacher education programs, we are taught strategies for engaging students, but we aren’t taught how this fits into a brain-based model for how learning happens.
When we teach strategies without teaching the underlying theory about why that strategy might work, we are creating kids’ dependence on the specific strategies. We are teaching them that the way to study is to throw a random strategy at the problem and hope you learn the information.
What should teachers, tutors, and academic coaches do instead?
- Quick Tip: When you hand students a new assignment, ask students to look it over and reflect: “What is the purpose of this activity? What am I supposed to learn?” and then “How does the design of this lesson help me learn this objective?” The goal here is to help them start to distinguish between learning objectives and the strategies used to achieve that objective.
- Advanced Tip: Teach students the 3-Step Study Cycle. Once they understand each of the three steps, have them reflect about which step of the cycle they are in for each kind of assignment you offer. This tip might not make much sense now, but it will make more sense after you read the description of the 3-Step Study Cycle and watch the demo that I provide, both of which are available here for free.
Bad Habit #3 – We focus on “learning styles” as the way to discover how to study and learn effectively.
Many educators — myself included! — have espoused learning styles as an important factor in increasing student motivation and performance.
When I was a classroom teacher, I had students take learning inventories, and then I would use the results of this inventory to help individualize student learning. For example, I’d have students who tested as “visual learners” do history projects that were primarily visual; students who tested as “logical” thinkers could write an essay or create a chart filled with information.
When I was trained as an academic coach, I was taught to use these same inventories with my clients, and then apply the results to help the students maximize their learning.
In the last few years, however, I’ve stopped giving these inventories. I DO still believe that every person learns differently and that it is important for students to understand — and advocate for! — learning methods that reveal their strengths.
However, I’ve noticed that too much of an emphasis on learning styles makes students less inclined to learn in ways that are *not* their learning preferences. In recent years, brain science has backed up my observations, stating that the most effective learning strategies use all parts of the brain, regardless of whether the students has a specific preference for that strategy.
What should we teach instead?
- Quick Tip: Teach students that the brain needs to learn information in a multitude of different ways. If one method doesn’t seem to be helping them learn, then students should be flexible enough to choose a different learning strategy, even if it’s NOT their preference or dominant learning style.
- Advanced Tip: So that students understand the brain-based reasons why variety is important in learning, teach them the 3 Step Study Cycle (it only takes 5-minutes to teach, as you’ll see in the demo inside this ebook). Then brainstorm with them multiple strategies for studying the same content when they are on their own, using the Study Cycle as a guide.
Bad Habit #4 – We break learning down for students into bite-size chunks.
When I did my teacher training, I learned of the importance of breaking tasks down for students to help them be successful. I mastered the art of creating engaging, complex curricula for students, as well as how to break it into discrete, doable parts with clear instructions so that students wouldn’t get lost in all the details.
This is an important teaching skill! I don’t knock it, and I hope you continue to do it!
However, a side effect of this kind of teacher-intensive curricula is that it can accidentally foster dependence rather than independence in students.
Students depend on the instructions. They wait to be told what to do, for the adults to initiate action.
I can’t tell you how many of my clients have answered my question, “Why didn’t you take notes in class today?” with the, “My teacher didn’t tell me to.” Argh! I stifle my frustration at this answer with, “Your teacher shouldn’t have to tell you to take notes!! You should know what’s good for your own learning, and be able to take initiative on your own!”
The side effect of our willingness as educators to break learning into digestible parts is that the teens themselves don’t have to learn to do this for themselves. They’re off the hook and don’t need to understand how successful learning happens for them. Instead, they mindlessly follow (or resist) the teacher’s instructions, a habit that is not conducive to lifelong learning.
Even tutors foster passivity and dependence in students. I’ve had several students who’ve told me, “Oh, I don’t need to study for the Spanish test by myself; I’ll just do it with my tutor.”
When students rely on their tutors and teachers to guide their study process, they are abdicating responsibility for their own learning. So what should teachers and tutors do instead?
Here’s a quick tip you can apply immediately:
- Quick Tip: After you teach a lesson, ask students to reflect on what they just learned and how they learned it. Ask them to notice the ultimate learning objective, and how you structured the learning to help them get there. Invite them to remember that when they are studying at home, they are in charge of designing their own learning process.*
- Truly Highly Advanced Tip: Check out my list of 7 types of struggling students, including each student’s “study blind spot” and “study solution.” This will help you hone how you work with specific types of students to help them study more strategically, including which step of the Study Cycle each kind of student needs more practice with.
*You may notice that this tip is very similar to the one I made for Bad Habit #2. This is purposeful! It is helpful to ask students to seek out the learning objectives both (1) before they complete a worksheet or assignment and (2) after they have engaged in a learning activity. The more often you have them reflect about what kinds of learning strategies help them achieve what kinds of learning, the more self-sufficient they will become at being able to structure their own learning when they are at home studying.
Is It Really This Simple to Help Students Break Through Passivity and Become Strategic Learners?
Yes! In my experience, most students are eager to learn how to become more effective learners. However, adults make it seem so complex! When they are introduced to a simple, easy-to-understand model for how to learn strategically, they rise to the occasion.
That’s why I’m such a fan of the 3-Step Study Cycle. I teach it to all my clients now, and I’m watching them become creative, engaged, skillful learners as a result. In fact, just a week ago a college freshman who’d been getting C’s and D’s on most of his tests this semester, came to his session with his eyes beaming. Here’s a summary of our conversation:
Student: Guess what?! I got an A on the test!!!!!!!
Me: OMG! Seriously?! Wow!!! How’d you manage that?!
Student: I followed the study cycle. And I worked really hard to hone my notes*. In the past, I could usually narrow the multiple choice answers down to two that seemed similar, but I never knew what the right answer was. This time I totally knew! It was clear to me because I’d taken the time to encode the stuff I didn’t know in new ways*.
I’m so proud of this young man for working so hard to understand how to study strategically and raise his grades. He clearly worked hard! In that respect, it’s not simple to become a strategic learner; it involves hard work!
However, it is simple to teach students how to study strategically. And in my experience, it all starts with a 5-minute conversation that I fondly call the 3-Step Study Cycle. I’m such a believer in this process I’ve discovered that I wrote up an instruction manual for how to teach it to students, and I’m giving it away for FREE:
In this short instruction manual, you’ll receive:
- suggestions for how to talk to students about the difference between homework and studying
- an overview of the 3-Step Study Cycle, a brain-based model for effective and efficient learning
- a video demonstration of how I teach the Study Cycle to students
- 5 different sets of learning tools that help students apply The Study Cycle more effectively
- the 7 types of struggling learners, and which study tools work best for which learners
Phew! That was a lot to take in! If you have questions or observations for me about any of these bad habits, please feel free to post below. I look forward to engaging with you.