While there are always one or two students in every class who just seem hardwired to excel in school, the reality is that most kids have to learn the organizational skills, test-taking strategies, and executive function skills that will make them strong students. Schools that explicitly teach their students the study skills and habits of being a successful student provide their students with a distinct advantage.
Fay School shared with us that they believe that academic excellence can be a learned behavior, and our seventh graders begin the year by taking a comprehensive Study Skills course in the fall term that prepares them for the rigors of Upper School and beyond.
So many students think that they just need to work harder. We want to teach them to work more effectively.
– Sarah Remsberg, Fay’s Head of Upper School
Here are some of the elements of a good study skills course:
Executive function skills
When it comes to academic success, strong executive function skills are arguably more important than innate intelligence. Strong students excel in these self-management skills: task initiation, organization, planning and prioritization, goal-directed persistence, and time management. At the beginning of the course, each Fay seventh grader takes a quiz that identifies his or her individual executive functioning strengths and weaknesses and then spends time examining how these manifest in their daily academic lives. For example, a student with weak organization skills might have difficulty finding an assignment in the wads of paper spilling out of their notebook. Armed with this valuable information, students set personal goals for the year and share them with the class. The students’ goals tend to range from specific action items like “I want to estimate how long homework assignments will take so I can make a plan,” to metacognitive goals like “I want to understand how I think and learn to learn better.”
Getting and staying organized can be a challenge for middle schoolers, and throughout the course, students have to periodically check and evaluate their binders and notebooks to ensure that materials are neat and easy to access. “This is a skill that students need to be explicitly taught,” says Fay’s Director of Learning Services Sally Supinski. “Some students need help determining what to keep, what to throw away, and how to organize it all.”
Organizing time can be equally daunting. In class, students talk about “time on task” and how that affects their ability to manage their workloads. Each student completes a worksheet estimating how much time is devoted to evening activities: eating dinner, doing homework for each subject, getting organized for the next day, and getting ready for bed. At home, students track how long they actually spend on these tasks, with eye-opening results. “Sometimes kids get overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to do,” says Sally. “ It’s good for them to see that if they are spending an hour on math homework, maybe they need to go in for some extra help.”
Managing stress and anxiety
Seventh grade is a Fay student’s first experience with a traditional end-of-term exam period. Anticipating this event, teachers work with students on how to study efficiently, calm exam anxiety, and be ready to perform their best on test day. “We give students clear strategies for how to prepare for a test, figure out what the teacher is going to ask, and study and retain that information,” says Fay Learning Specialist Liz Williams. “We want to help students figure out which strategies will work best for them.” Drawing on ideas familiar from Fay’s Wellness Classes, Study Skills also incorporates mindfulness exercises to help students calm, clear, and focus their minds before beginning an exam.