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I’m diving into our second of three monthly listener Q&A episodes. If you’ve sent in a question, thank you and if you haven’t and want to, then email it through to email@example.com because we have one more episode coming up on the first Tuesday of November. I’m selecting the questions that I think will be most helpful to share and respond to here on the podcast, and if I don’t answer yours here, then I’ll reply personally to you with a response on email. Now, I’m going to answer two questions on today’s episode and the first is from AH - they just gave their initials, AH, and they wrote:
My son does very little study at home. He doesn’t seem to be set much homework. What could he be doing that will help him improve his grades (he is mostly sitting on C’s but I have no doubt could be doing better) and his confidence, especially in exams?
So, definitely listen up if your teen doesn’t get set much additional homework or study and wants to know what else they could be doing to maximise their results and develop their exam technique or build their subject knowledge, OR even if they do get set homework but they like to go over and above and you want some ways to make sure they really maximise their performance by taking on some independent study of their own - but also aren’t slaving away on things that aren’t necessarily giving them all that much benefit.
And to that point, the first thing we have to keep in mind here is that hours studying does not = results.
By that I mean that more hours does not directly equal more marks.
That is going to be good news for some and bad news for others.
But it means that we have to make sure that any extra time and effort your teen puts in is strategic and has a clear outcome; a specific way it is going to benefit your teen and their results.
It’s probably easier to start off with what I recommend students DON’T do, BUT that see a lot of students DOing or a lot of parents thinking their teen should be doing.
Don’t let them just write up or copy out notes.
Don’t have them re-reading a novel or re-watching the movie they’re studying multiple times.
Don’t have them doing extra reading or wider research. There is never any need to go beyond the syllabus if we’re just focused on marks and criteria for assessments or exams.
Now - in saying each of those, there’s nothing WRONG with doing those things if it’s just for pleasure. Like, if they love the novel and want to re-read it, go for it.
Or, if it’s because you want them to do extra reading for other reasons, like to build their awareness of world events - just so that they can have more knowledge or can hold conversations socially about those things, in which case for sure, go ahead.
Or let’s say they have a passion for a subject or an interest and just love finding out and researching more about it, then of course, go for it.
Just don’t have them do those things THINKing that they’re going to lead to higher grades when it comes to exams, essays, assignments or coursework.
Just copying up notes is a very passive and time-consuming activity. It doesn’t take any thinking which is what makes it passive. And writing things out in full takes a long time.
Now, if they want to review that information, perhaps to check their understanding or lock it further into their long term memory, that’s no bad thing, but copying up notes is a bad way to do it. It’s just not effective. So, what they COULD do instead is condense the notes or, even better, convert those notes into a different format.
For example, turn an events timeline from History into a simple storyboard, or challenge themselves to condense two pages of class notes into 5 key bullet points, or take the novel and produce a character web.
They already have the info so they don’t need to worry about ‘losing information’ by doing this. What this WILL do is force them to process that info, which means that not only will it test their true understanding, but it will also mean more of it will be stored in their long term memory. Just reading or writing or repeating information as is, doesn’t do that. We have to actively process the information.
The last thing either of us want is students doing extra study that isn’t going to pay off for them.
That just means they end up getting burnt out, or denting their confidence or self-belief or motivation. Because if they’re putting in more time and effort but not seeing a result from it, that’s when things start to spiral downwards.
Okay, let’s take the example of re-reading the novel. Again - don’t re-read it, do something with it. Ask them, or have them ask themselves - what is the purpose of re-reading it? If it’s to understand the actual storyline and events, then have them write out a storyboard as they go. If they get confused and they’re not sure what’s going on, then that will highlight that they need to go ask their teacher a question, or look up an online study guide or get some support to help them get clear. (And if they totally know what’s going on, then they need to question whether they need to re-read it at all).
Now, again, it’s not that re-reading the novel is a bad thing to do. I know that students often get told to re-read a text more than once, But they need to know WHY. They need to do something different each time. For example, they can focus on the main characters and the key themes or message of the text. And again, if they need some clarification, they need to take action to get those nailed down.
Here’s one way I got a student to do this recently. I had them draw up a big two-way table. Like a full A4 page or even a double-page spread and put the one or two key themes along the top - there really shouldn’t be more than two - maybe absolute max three. And the main two or three characters down the left hand side. So now they have a big sheet with a grid with plenty of space. And as they re-read, they note down key events, quotes or specific language devices, quotes, literary techniques the author has used into the relevant boxes. And what this means is that not only is your teen having to process that information to decide which box to put it in but also it is a way for them to logically and visually lay out the information in a different way. They’ve transformed the information. Plus, they are creating a resource that will come in useful for answering a future essay or question or to help with revision. Because the contents of this grid will then be their evidence to choose from and that’s exactly why I say focus on themes and characters. Not the chronological series of events, which is the trap many students fall into when having to write about a text. They spend a lot of time or a lot of their word count recounting or retelling parts of the storyline. Now, in short response questions in class or homework that are testing their knowledge and understanding of the text, this might be required, but every essay or extended response question that I’ve ever seen is always focused on either themes or characters. So those are things I’d have your teen focus on when reading or reviewing a novel - or a Shakespeare play, or a movie, pretty much any type of text.
But what I really want you to take from this is that this is thinking ahead - what will I need to do with this? What is this leading to? How will I use this? - and then strategically choosing actions or activities that will tactically feed into that, is going to give tangible outcomes. And like the example I just shared - ideally with multiple benefits.
Don’t let your teen just review or repeat or do something for the sake of it. They never want to simply repeat something that’s already happened or do it twice in the same way.
Okay, so let’s address that extra reading or wider research one. Students won’t be examined on content beyond the curriculum or syllabus, so there really isn’t much benefit to be gained from this from an academic perspective. I’ve told the story before of me reading and writing notes on extra case studies for Geography, only to try to show-horn them into an answer in the exam to try to wow the marker, when instead, getting really good at describing or explaining or analysing or comparing existing case studies would’ve been a much better use of my time and energy. (And I know now that I wouldn’t have gotten any marks for those shoe horned examples in the exam either.)
So, instead, if your teen is already at a good or higher level in their subject knowledge, I would instead have them work on building their exam technique, or actively revising the content they've already covered, or using practise to hone their essay skills - like dissecting the question or creating a fast but detailed plan or making decisions around structuring their points and body paragraphs.
Now, I will caveat all of this about not just doing wider reading with something another parent asked me in a different question, but it’s tied to this, so I’ll answer it here too, which was about widening vocabulary and getting to grips with different genres, more styles of writing. Jen asked:
How do I efficiently and effectively extend his vocab and have him get better at writing in different styles.
****Another great question. And yes, the usual way I see parents trying to instill this, by getting their teen reading different types of texts can be a way to do this. But again, be clear on what you want to achieve, so Jen, give your son something to look for and take action on. For writing different styles or writing according to different genres or audiences - as he’s reading, have him consider or jot down - Is it being written in first or third person? What is the opening sentence like? What about the conclusion or final sentence? Are there any patterns? In other words, what can he take from this reading and use for himself. Not what direct words he could use of course, but the things he notices - how can he take some of the elements or features or patterns on board? If he can’t pick these out he won’t be able to take them on for himself. And sometimes these things can be hard to truly identify and carry forwards. For example, they can be subtle things like contractions vs full words - that’s vs. that is.
And for vocab - we don’t just want him reading over or just coming across new words. That doesn’t mean that he can use them himself or even that he understands them in what he’s reading. So, maybe he can he have an exercise book where that he writes in new words he comes across and then looks them up for definitions or meanings and examples of use.
This is where he’ll be able to take something away and use it in his own work. Now, for sure, this will slow down the reading, and in fact no longer is it just reading, right? But it will make it more effective, and this is where I think we need to distinguish between reading for pleasure, AND reading for a purpose.
Because I also know that many students don’t particularly love reading. Some do, and that’s great if but some don’t. I have to admit that I actually got put off reading from about Year 9 upwards, because I really didn’t enjoy or couldn’t get into most of the books we studied. I felt like I was basically forced to read dull or heavy-going books. So I wouldn’t enjoy the actual reading, but having some sort of purpose or structure to the study of the text, having some actions and steps helped. I still got the reading done and I did the tasks. And so having some clear actions or strategies for reading with purpose might also help if you have a teen in a similar situation.
So overall, my message here is that yes, doing additional study can be super-helpful to your teen understanding and remembering what they are learning in class, preparing for an assessment or revising for an exam. But, we don’t want them aimlessly ‘studying’ - in inverted commas. Just doing activities that feel like they should be productive, or where the only tangible outcome is that they feel good for having spent some time on something study-related.
So, whether it’s you making some requests or suggestions on them doing some extra study, or if they are looking for some ways to get ahead of the game or extend themselves, or just consolidate so that they feel really confident, don’t have them do ANYTHING until they’ve considered why they’re doing it. Make sure the direct pay off is clear. And so, to round up, here are a few questions you can consider, or they can ask themselves to figure out what those activities could be or whether an activity they’re already doing is as effective it could be:
- First of all ask - what is this helping to develop or build - subject knowledge or the skills in applying that knowledge?
Then, how specifically will this help? What will it do or produce?
So, if it’s to do with consolidating or building subject knowledge - How does it relate to the syllabus content? Is it active? I.e. is this processing or transforming the information in some way? How can it be more active or get the same outcome more efficiently?
How will this knowledge be used? Is it research for an inquiry, or is it revision for a topic test or exam?
And even, take a step back and ask - is it the subject knowledge that’s holding your teen back? Or would they be better off spending their time and energy on building their skills of applying their existing knowledge with things like exam technique, essay strategy, understanding criteria, dissecting questions?
How will you know the time or activity has been useful? What outcome will it result in? For example, if you want them to do wider reading, what do you want them to get out of doing that and how will you both know that has been achieved and to what extent?
So before your teen dives into doing any additional study, they need to know WHY they are doing whatever they are going to do with their time. They need to know specifically how and where it will pay off. Otherwise, it may well be time better used on just relaxing, recharging and taking some time out, or on anything else going on in their busy lives.
They don’t just want to be studying for the sake of studying.
So, that’s it for today’s Q&A but before I go, if you’re a repeat listener I have a favour to ask. Would you take 5 seconds to tap to rate this podcast on apple or spotify or where you listen - you can literally do it while you listen to me saying this right now. And if you’re feeling super-awesome, leave a quick review as well. I’d REALLY appreciate it and it helps get this podcast and therefore this information out to more parents - which means someone you’ll never know will be super-grateful to you somewhere in the world and that creates nice karma.
AND we have one more Q&A episode left. So if you have a question you’d like to pick my brain on - big or small, email firstname.lastname@example.org, put PODCAST QUESTION in the subject line and shoot it through.
And then be sure to join me next week because I have a VERY special episode with a super-special guest who I am so pleased to have share their extensive wisdom with you on a topic that I know is crazy-important to so many of you, but is not my area of expertise. So I’ll leave you with that teaser. Have a brilliant week and I’ll see you then.