Between kindergarten and twelfth grade, students are expected to learn how to study, schedule their time and complete sizable assignments without procrastinating. Yet these skills often aren’t taught explicitly. With the increased self-sufficiency necessitated by virtual education, educators and parents can help students learn and manage their goals more effectively by directly teaching study skills.
Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, studies the application of cognitive psychology in education. He recently spoke at a Learning and the Brain conference about the science behind study techniques.
“Kids are more on their own now than they typically are,” Willingham told MindShift. Students need to independently log in to class on time and maintain focus in their home environments. By explicitly teaching how to avoid distraction, combat procrastination and study effectively, educators entrust students with the necessary skills for educational challenges faced both virtually and in person.
STRATEGIES FOR AVOIDING DISTRACTION
When studying or in virtual class, students may keep their phones nearby and subsequently get distracted by notifications. They might decide to respond to a notification, figuring it can be handled quickly, and then be sucked into a digital rabbit hole. This could amount to missing parts of class or wasting time set aside for homework. Coupled with potential noise distractions, at-home learning environments can test students’ attention spans.
TIP 1: Change Your Space
Willingham encourages students to ask themselves: “Have you made your environment as distraction-free as you can?” While many students’ options are limited during virtual learning, selecting the best location in a home comes from carefully considering one’s personal sources of distraction.
If notifications constantly grab students’ attention, they can turn them off on their phones and laptops. Should a phone’s proximity be a temptation, they can place their phone in another room during class or study time. Non-virtual disturbances, like noise, can be curbed through noise-cancelling headphones or inexpensive foam earbuds. Charting their most common sources of distraction encourages students to be more cognizant about their personal obstacles and take more active roles in their learning.
TIP 2: Don’t Choose Distraction
“Multitasking almost always exacts a cost. So if you add a second task, it is going to reduce the efficiency of that first task,” Willingham said. While students likely recognize that they put less effort into their work when they choose to also watch TV, text or play music, they may underestimate the impact of multitasking on their task’s accuracy and duration. “It’s very clear that multitasking is not helping them, even though they mostly think it’s fine,” he said.
According to Common Sense Media, 51% of teens and 34% of tweens (ages 8 through 12) watch TV while studying. More than 70% of teens and tweens believe that a TV playing in their environment won’t affect their homework. When it comes to social media, 50% of teens use it while studying, and 69% of teens and tweens believe checking social media won’t impact their work.
Among the forms of multitasking, data is more varied when it comes to playing music while studying. Different studies’ results range from no effect to detrimental impacts to benefits. “Listening to music does distract, so it is taking away from cognition. But the other thing listening to music can do is it can energize,” Willingham said.
Music can boost the autonomic nervous system with emotionally uplifting tracks that can increase heart rates and blood pressure. This can be useful for athletic and potentially academic motivation. The impact of music may be based on the student’s interest in the task and the challenges of the task itself — a student could choose to press play based on their needs and situation.
TIP 3: Ask “Do You Want Social Media, or Enjoy it?”
Though the brain’s dopamine-carrying mesolimbic pathway was initially theorized as related to situations of pleasure or reward, research from the past decade suggests that the pathway has less to do with reward and more with repetition, regardless of the happiness provided by the task. Over the past decade, social media also became more societally ubiquitous, with more people spending more time online — though not necessarily because social media provides pleasure.
Willingham encourages parents and teachers to ask students whether they enjoy social media, or simply want it — and if they find that divide meaningful. When he posed that question to teens and tweens, many said, “ ‘Once I’m on, it’s really not that fun. It’s just like there’s lots of drama. It’s a lot of stuff. It’s not interesting. It’s people posing. And yet I still feel really compelled for some reason to get on there,’” he said.
The suggestion that there’s a difference between wanting to go on social media and actually enjoying being online may be significant to students. The next time a social media notification appears, they may pause. If they recognize that while they feel pulled to scroll, they don’t typically enjoy the time they spend online, they might choose to not pursue that distraction.
TIP 4: Plan Breaks
If students find themselves constantly distracted, they might just need a break. Data shows that brief breaks rejuvenate students, allowing them to return to schoolwork with heightened concentration.
Planned breaks are more effective than spontaneous ones, however. Scheduling breaks ensures the pause remains brief and that students return to their work. The Pomodoro Technique provides one example for this, though Willingham stated that there’s no need to follow the specific time allotments of Pomodoro precisely.
Knowing when a break is coming up can also influence motivation: when a student feels tempted to give up, seeing that their next break is in five minutes or less may encourage them to keep up their work until that break. Achieving goals improves self-esteem, allowing students to feel positively about their ability to regulate work habits.
TIP 5: It’s Still School
When students arrive at their virtual classes in PJs, under bed covers and in varied states of wakefulness, they might not as easily accept that they’re in a school setting. “For some kids I know, learning at home doesn’t feel like school,” Willingham told MindShift.
In-person school environments are structured to allow for effective learning and to minimize distraction. Outside that context, students may find paying attention more difficult.
When parents and guardians emphasize that virtual school “is still school,” Willingham said, they can help their students structure their mindsets to tune out disturbances. By encouraging students to prepare for virtual school similarly to how they’d prepare for in-person instruction — by eating breakfast, getting dressed and showing respect for their teachers — parents can help achieve that mindset.
A workshop for parents may be helpful to that end, but educators should be mindful that parents might be more willing to hear this message from another parent. Someone who’s also been dealing with the challenges of raising a child during a global pandemic can help foster a dialogue that feels honest and realistic.
WHY WE PROCRASTINATE — AND HOW TO FIGHT IT
There are three main reasons why students procrastinate: the task is “boring”; the task seems overwhelming or impossible; the task provokes fears of failure, causing a student to self-sabotage. Willingham suggests these ways to address and prevent procrastination:
TIP 1: Start work in class
Simply beginning the work makes headway against procrastination. Data from exercise studies show that people tend to underestimate how much they’ll enjoy a given task. Once they begin, they often find that task less boring or overwhelming than predicted.
Teachers can initiate this process by devoting the last five to ten minutes of class time to beginning an upcoming project or paper. Starting the project means that a student is more likely to continue outside of class. This also allows students time to directly ask the questions they need answered in order to begin.
TIP 2: Use a planner — and make it a habit
When students aren’t told to plan out their work – or shown how to schedule — they tend to struggle. Scheduling portions of a hefty task allows the task to feel more manageable, meaning it won’t loom over students’ heads until the last minute. Teaching students to use a planner means not only teaching them to write down the dates of big exams and projects, but also reminders and scheduled work or study times for chipping away at the task. Repetition and enforcement helps planner usage become a habit.
Much in the way that large-scale construction projects tend to finish over-schedule and over-budget, people tend to underestimate how much time is required and how many resources are needed for a task. This is because humans generally discount roadblocks they find unlikely — but if there are 50 low-probability events for a given task, there’s a higher probability one of those events will occur.
“Tell students, ‘When you’re doing your planning, whatever time estimate you come up with, double it,’” Willingham said.
By thinking in terms of time, rather than task, students can pace themselves and prepare for the unexpected. Many students may look at their planners, see that no assignment is due the next day and think they get the night off, only to find themselves staying up late the next night with multiple tasks. Instead, if a student commits to working every day for at least 30 minutes, they’ll have a cushion if anything surprising pops up.
TIP 3: Practice Breaking Down Tasks
Students need to learn how to break up large tasks into bite-sized chunks. While they’re fully capable of doing this, they might not know how to go about it. Demonstrating and teaching this concept directly can help guide students toward success.
One way students can practice is by working in small groups to brainstorm strategies for dividing up tasks. This allows teachers to give feedback about different strategies’ efficacies and allows students to crowdsource new approaches. “It’s the perfect kind of thing you could do in a Zoom breakout room,” Willingham said.
Self-sabotaging, also known as self-handicapping, “is the idea that you procrastinate knowing that you’re setting yourself up for failure,” Willingham said.
Separate from the other two reasons for procrastination, self-sabotaging comes from a student’s fear that even if they tried their hardest on an assignment or test, they wouldn’t succeed. They procrastinate in order to give themselves an excuse for a failure they fear is inevitable. A bad grade can be blamed on their “choice” to procrastinate, rather than seen as a true metric of their ability or knowledge.
Teachers can likely guess which of their students possess this fear of failure. They can talk with the student one-on-one, telling the student that they will succeed if they put in the effort.
Invoking a growth mindset might be helpful here, as might working together to develop a new strategy for the task. This may involve breaking tasks down or troubleshooting together, and then monitoring that student’s progress with the new strategies. Providing continual support allows the student to feel as though their teacher is with them for the long haul.
HOW TO KNOW WHEN TO STOP STUDYING
Students think they know when to stop studying for an exam: when they feel like they know the material. Humans generally consider ourselves good judges of what we know and don’t know — but we might be worse at this than we think, said Willingham.
In one study, many participants were quick to say they knew how a toilet worked. But when asked to explain what makes a toilet flush, they found they couldn’t. This points to a common misunderstanding of memory. We think that if we quickly scan our minds and see a concept, we know that concept and could explain it if we tried. But sometimes, we’re only vaguely familiar with how toilets work.
“People actually are not so good at knowing what they know,” Willingham said.
TIP 1: Feeling That You Know Something Is Not Reliable
When students assess whether they know a topic, they should consider whether they’re only familiar with it. The scientific definition of familiarity is knowing that one has seen a stimulus before, but possessing few other pieces of knowledge about it. Familiarity allows us to operate quickly — we assume we could say more about the topic if we thought about it. “Partial access” provides a similar fallacy — sometimes when we know a few things about a topic, we assume we know it in full.
Recollection, conversely, involves deeper mental associations and the ability to explain something rather than simply recognize it. While a student may feel they know a concept when they read a line of their notes, close their eyes and immediately repeat that line back, checking back after time has passed ensures that the knowledge isn’t only stored in short-term memory. Students can test whether they know a concept by stepping away from their notes for a half-hour or more and then self-testing.
TIP 2: Studying Until You Know Is Not Enough
Though a student may feel they can stop studying once they receive 100% on a practice test, this score may not ensure success on the actual exam. “What they’ve forgotten is that forgetting happens,” Willingham said.
To protect themselves against forgetting, Willingham encourages students to plan their studying so that it includes time to study even after mastering a self-test. By including a buffer between self-test mastery and the actual exam, students can continue practicing the concept, reducing the likelihood of forgetting material during that time.
This may involve using the scheduling techniques mentioned above. Students can be encouraged to save roughly 20% of their study time for this buffer, meaning that mastery should be achieved by the penultimate night before the exam so that the night before can be used for review.
TIP 3: Creating Study Materials Is Studying
Students might forego creating their own study materials if they find resources online that are similar enough, believing this would allow them to begin studying “sooner.”
“They don’t realize creating their own study materials is actually a really, really effective way of studying,” Willingham said.
Making their own study guides, flashcards or Quizlets not only allows students to review their notes, but ensures the materials they use are on-topic and accurate — as opposed to a readily accessible Quizlet made by a stranger.
TIP 4: “Knowing” Means Being Able To Explain
A student might believe they “know” a concept but can’t explain it. Often, this comes from the idea that the student couldn’t comprehend the teacher’s first explanation of the concept, but with further review, readings and questions, the concept now makes sense — when the teacher explains it. This student wouldn’t feel able to put the concept in their own words or thoroughly discuss it.
Tell students that “knowledge” doesn’t mean that a concept only makes sense when reading about it or hearing it explained – it means being able to explain it oneself. This ensures that students define knowledge with the correct criterion and can more confidently determine when they know a concept.
TIP 5: Use In-class Queries
Quick tests that require students to produce knowledge allow them to check their understanding of a concept. These can involve clickers, Zoom polls or exit tickets, as well as Zoom breakout rooms or small-group discussions based on producing knowledge or demonstrating specific skills. Interactions like this allow a student to see if they actually know a concept or require more studying. They allow teachers to take note of their classes’ levels of understanding, too.
These management techniques can help bolster students working with heightened autonomy during virtual learning. When teachers, parents and caregivers directly explain and model these strategies, they provide students with tools to use the next time they feel distracted, pulled to procrastinate or unsure if they’re ready for an exam. With these tools, students can learn how to address these situations independently — and how to ask for the specific support they need.