The end of the school year is fast approaching, which means students across the country will be busy taking exams and wrapping up their studies and final projects. While this may be a stressful time, it can also serve as a great opportunity to help children and teens develop useful studying and test preparation strategies so that they truly retain what they’ve learned in school. When information has no relevance to a child’s life, it’s easy for them to forget it. That’s why it’s important for children to keep their sense of wonder about learning alive and not fall into the rut of memorizing rote information for a test. The key is to move beyond memorization and help children build a strong knowledge base to make sure that they are prepared for more conceptual learning in secondary school and beyond.
Research shows that the more frequently learned information is activated and used, recalled or associated with existing memories, the more powerful the brain cell networks storing the information become. The development of these stronger connections will help your child recall the necessary memories and knowledge more efficiently. The following “brain-building” activities can help you strengthen your child’s brain networks, which can improve studying and test-taking abilities:
Make learning personally relevant to your child.
When children are interested in learning because it relates to their lives, interests, or experiences, brain scans reveal that more regions of their brains are activated when the information is acquired and recalled. When children make connections between the new subject they are learning and what they already know, stronger links bind the new with the known. You can help your children link new learning to the “maps” of related memories already present in their brains. Find out what they are about to learn or the general topic of a unit and use your knowledge of their interests and past experiences to light up their awareness of how what they are learning connects to their lives and interests. Here are some specific activities and approaches that can help you reach this goal:
Help your child make learning connections.
For example, if your child is interested in flint arrowheads and will be tested on Native Americans, you can ask, “What tools, like the arrowheads we found in the desert, did the Arapaho use to plant and harvest crops, build homes, or make clothing?” You may want to take a walk in a wooded park or trail around your home to investigate what resources your child could use if he had to make his own shelter or clothing where you now live.
You can also try asking your child to create analogies, metaphors, or acronyms to connect new information with what he may already know. An example of an analogy to remember “metamorphosis” is, “The metamorphosis of caterpillar to butterfly is like the changing of the seeds we planted into sprouts.” Children may need some help or hints to develop their analogies. For example, you can ask, “In what way was the American Revolution like the baseball players’ strike? How are human hands like bats’ wings?”
Talk about real world problems.
For example, you can help your child with math by applying it to a household project. You can ask “If we want to paint your room and we know the walls and ceiling are all the same size as the floor, could we measure the floor to see how many square feet we need to paint? Let’s try it and see if we can figure out how much paint we would need and how much it would cost.”
Connect learning with current events.
If your child is studying for a test on the Bill of Rights, instead of rereading them over and over, ask, “If you were a Supreme Court Justice what would you use from the Bill of Rights to guide your decision about the rights of bloggers to report hurtful, unsubstantiated rumors?”
Ask children how they can apply what they’re learning outside of school.
Questions can include, “How might learning the proper use of commas be important if you want to write a series of books like the Harry Potter series? How do you think your aunt uses the information you are studying about electric circuits when she designs hybrid cars?”
Show your child the value of what she is learning.
You may want to ask questions like, “Why might this information be useful or important to you if you were an explorer, aircraft designer, choreographer, soccer coach, or computer game animator?”
When reviewing, try different ways of engaging your child.
You can simulate a television interview show where you are the interviewer and ask your child questions as if she is the guest experts on the topic.
Have your child “teach” someone else what she’s learned.
Ask your child to teach a sibling or other family member at the dinner table or during a car ride. Or have your child write a letter to a friend or relative detailing what surprised her and what new information she learned at school that day. You may also want to have your child summarize the day’s lessons in a “historian log” or “scientist journal,” complete with personalized artwork, diagrams, souvenir postcards, or photos from exhibits or places you visited related to the unit of study.
Help your child experience learning through multiple senses.
When you use several of your child’s senses to stimulate learning, the information is stored in more circuits throughout the brain. Encourage review of what your child reads by asking him to draw up diagrams or acting out the particular story. If your child learned about planetary movement from a textbook, he can experience it through another sense by moving balls of different sizes around a beach ball “sun” or circling around a chair while simultaneously rotating his body round and round.
Take the stress out of test-taking.
The best test-taking strategy for parents is to help children approach these assessments with positive expectations, learn from their mistakes, and avoid the stress that interferes with successful memory retrieval. Here are some ideas that can help you get started to work on this important skill with your child:
Have your child visualize what will be covered on the test.
Ask her to sketch or visualize what she thinks might be important to remember on the test. She will benefit from the additional visual, motor, and auditory memory circuits that she will be building through multisensory review.
Provide your child with test de-stressors.
Teach your child about relaxing rituals and mindfulness strategies, like calm breathing and stress-busting visualizations that she can use immediately before or during tests when she feels stressed. Other test de-stressors can be as easy as a shared joke, shared family experience, or meaningful ritual. Start by trying a few options in low stress conditions and when one makes your child laugh or respond positively, help him recognize that joke or ritual as something he can try or remember before a test to open brain flow.
Tell your child they’re more than their test results.
One of the most valuable lessons you can offer children is that they are far greater than the sum of their test results and mistakes are opportunities to learn. Show your children that incorrect answers on homework, quizzes, or tests do not mean they are not smart. Many tests don’t allow children to show what they know, but put excessive emphasis on giving single rote memorized facts that don’t reflect real understanding. Let them see when you make mistakes and learn from them. Help your children realize the value of learning from mistakes early on, so their mistakes guide future successes.
When you use these brain-friendly practices to guide your children’s meaningful learning, they will develop stronger memories for test success and more importantly, maintain their natural enthusiasm to understand and investigate the world around them. You will be their guide and partner as they become smarter in school and wiser in the life skills of critical thinking and creative problem solving.
This post is dedicated to my first grandchild, Gus, born March 6. He came early and I was lecturing out of the country when he was born. Although I missed his arrival, I am enthusiastic about the increasingly powerful learning strategies that will come from educators “translating” future neuroscience research to promote the joy of learning for him and all children.