by Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.

As the beginning of the school year approaches, some parents get queasy feelings in their stomachs and feel rushes of adrenaline every time they see advertisements for school supplies. Their students did not do as well as expected last year, perhaps even failing courses, and they wonder if this year will bring more of the same. Phrases from last year’s painful parent-teacher conferences echo in their heads, and anxiety mounts as they ponder what they, and their children, can do differently. For families that do not have a strong academic backgrounds, the task can seem insurmountable, and the possibility for change very slim. Yet changing the study habits of children and teenagers, and even college students, is not complicated or impossible. It requires persistence and perseverance on the part of the student, opportunities to learn practical and creative study habits, and good classroom behavior. Parents need to play a strong supporting role reinforcing these habits and behaviors.

My father, who retired after forty years of teaching college English last year, always said, “Being a good student is ten percent talent, and ninety percent sweat.”

As I enter my fifteenth year of teaching college students, with some additional experience teaching elementary, middle school, and high school students, I find that I agree with him completely. In the sections that follow, I provide suggestions for high school students gleaned from our collective experience, as well as ideas we have gathered from colleagues along the way.

Making Sure Your Student is Healthy: Before School Starts
A trip to the doctor for a physical ensures that your student is in good shape for the school year. Topics the doctor should cover with your child include nutrition, sleep habits, sexual activity, potential drug and alcohol use, and depression or hyperactive behavior. More subtle health problems may also show up that can affect school success. For example, a young woman in college experiencing great difficulty with memorization and more tiredness than usual one semester discovered that she was suffering from severe anemia, due to a demanding cross-country training schedule.

Next, several weeks before school starts, encourage your son or daughter to begin to get on the school schedule. If he has been getting up at noon every day, now is the time to move the alarm clock back gradually, so that he does not experience the equivalent of jet lag for the first few days of school. Cooking a great breakfast on week days and making sure the smells waft up to his room may help!

Discuss healthy lifestyle habits with your child in a relaxed moment. Key points for school success include getting enough sleep, keeping as regular a sleep schedule as possible, exercising, and eating well. Studies show that getting off schedule by as little as two hours has the same effect on students’ alertness as the jetlag caused by changing a time zone. Exercising regularly, even if it means just taking long walks, helps mental focus, overall health, and good sleep patterns. Make sure that a sufficient and healthy breakfast is part of every day. Collaborating on the grocery list is one way to ensure that your teenager can find nutritious, even if unconventional, food that he or she likes every morning. Remove soda pop from the grocery list. Share articles you find on good health habits – you can put these unobtrusively on the table, or in other obvious places, rather than making your child feel lectured or badgered on the subject.

Getting Organized
Being organized is crucial for school achievement in both high school and college. Assignment due dates vary from class to class, and students should note both individual class assignments and test dates in an organizer so that they can plan for adequate study and test preparation time. Many high schools now provide organizers, and some even have on-line homework checklists for each class so that parents and students can follow the students’ progress in each class. If the school does not provide an easy-to-use organizer, the minimum for preparedness should include a calendar with space to write assignments for each class, and to post test dates. A small pocket-sized notebook that stays with the student is helpful for writing daily memos, such as: “Don’t forget to pick up library book for term paper.” Many students are now comfortable using computers to keep track of their schedules and work, but I have found that most students need a back-up system. Some teachers and professors will not accept excuses that begin with, “My computer crashed,” or “I lost the computer file I needed”.

Cardinal Rules for Study
Most teachers and professors assign every homework task and every book to read for a reason. They give due dates because they follow a schedule of instruction, pacing the information and learning that has to take place over the course of the semester. They also have multiple classes they are grading, and have a personal schedule for grading each assignment, because they have busy lives too. To fail to turn in home work on time is to be discourteous to the teacher and to fellow students – it is not just about that student! To neglect to do assignments and reading is to disregard the reason that teacher was hired – because she has the expertise to help the student to learn that subject well.

  1. Do all the reading, on time, no matter what anyone else says.
  2. Turn the homework in on time.
  3. Make sure the homework is legible, with name and date visible, so that the teacher does not have to waste time trying to read it, or attributing it to the right student.

If your teenager is having trouble with any of the above tasks, you should first check her home study habits and the area where she studies. Your teenager should have a clean, well-lit desk or table where he can spread out work and keep papers, books, pens and pencils, and math supplies such as a calculator and geometry rulers. He should not watch television, or listen to overly loud music while studying. On the other hand, quiet music can help a student ignore distracting household noise, and classical music has been credited with raising IQ scores. Check your child’s after school schedule and make sure that she has enough time each day to finish all the homework assignments and reading. Finally, make sure that finished homework goes into a binder or folder, and into the backpack your teenager carries to school, rather than getting wadded up or stuffed into a pocket, or forgotten at home. Flat, unwrinkled papers delight the teacher, and give the sense that the student cares about his or her work.

If your teen is struggling and school and there are no problems at home that could be causing stress, you should have your child assessed for learning disabilities, including dyslexia. I find dyslexic students that have never been assessed in every college class I teach. Many have blamed themselves for being slow readers, poor spellers, and struggling writers for years. I usually spot them in their first paper or two, because of classic reversals and consistent errors, and am always amazed that the dyslexia was not caught earlier, and saddened by the unnecessary loss of confidence and self-esteem these students have suffered.

As students master the basics of studying, parents and teachers should encourage them to ask why they are learning certain material, and how it is relevant to them, delving deeper into the subject, and challenging the information with questions of their own. The best students are not passive sponges of information; they assess, challenge, question, and probe for more information. They are active learners.

Cardinal Rules for Behavior in Class
No matter what a teacher may say, it is difficult for any individual to separate good homework from rude or offensive behavior in class. Make absolutely sure that your student knows the boundaries of appropriate behavior, and if teachers mention problems, make sure that your student gets help with repairing his or her behavior immediately. Beyond fixing bad behavior, there are several good classroom behaviors that every student should learn for high school and college. These behaviors can all be summarized under the heading, “participation in class”. A good teacher does not just lecture, he or she engages the students in discussion, answers questions, asks thought-provoking questions, and assesses student participation continuously. “Participation” assessment covers many aspects of classroom behavior, including the following all-important questions that the teacher asks herself about each student (the most important are in bold):

  1. Does the student arrive on time, and is attendance regular?
  2. Is the student paying attention? Does the student sit where he or she can hear and see what is going on? Is the student making eye contact with the teacher?
  3. Is the student doing other things in class – doodling, reading other books, talking, passing notes, sleeping, combing hair or finishing other grooming?
  4. Has the student read or studied the material on time, and before class? (Believe me, teachers can tell when students have read the material).
  5. Does the student listen thoughtfully when other students speak?
  6. Does the student ask questions in class that show he or she is thinking deeply about the subject matter?
  7. Does the student show curiosity, and demonstrate independent and original thinking, challenging the status quo?
  8. Does the student make unfounded assumptions or use good logic, and make analogies and comparisons that show that he or she can think using nonconforming patterns?
  9. Does the student complete in-class assignments efficiently?
  10. Does the student cooperate well with other students when working in a team?

If your teenager masters these basic behaviors and study habits, he will be well on the way to learning more and earning better grades. Parental support is essential in every area from providing nutritious food and adequate health care, to making sure that the student does not schedule too many activities, and has a place to do homework that is conducive to good study habits. Parents can also model good study habits by reading rather than watching television, making time in their own schedules to learn something new, and demonstrating a high value for many kinds of knowledge. Encouraging your struggling student with earned praise and recognition for every small step forward lets your child know that you care about his or her success.

Part Two of this article, Writing Well, covers tips for the mastery of writing skills including outlining, drafting, editing and revising, and increasing vocabulary. Part Three, Taking Tests with More Success, provides many secrets for improving study habits, memorization, and test scores.