By Kate Jones
Parents and carers often struggle with knowing the best way to support their child’s learning and revision. In this article, Kate explains what they can focus on to help their children make better progress.
As we head back to school, parents, carers and families will want to know how they can best support their child with their learning. Often, despite being well intentioned, parents can lack knowledge as to what the effective and ineffective ways of learning and studying are. Below are five evidence-informed suggestions to share across the wider school community to support families supporting their child’s studies at home.
- Don’t panic about forgetting
It can be very frustrating when content from lessons is forgotten, for both the teacher and student, but we have come to learn and understand that ‘forgetting is a friend of learning’ (Bjork and Bjork). Forgetting is an important and natural part of the learning process and an awareness of this can help us to revisit previous content to interrupt and counteract forgetting. However, parents aren’t often aware of this and when their child forgets information they have been taught in school this can cause panic and alarm.
Whilst we don’t need to share with families in-depth knowledge of cognitive psychology, some of the information about how learning happens should be shared, especially when it comes to forgetting. Parents should be reassured that if their child can’t recall something then they need not worry and we can overcome this ( see point 3 as to how this can be achieved).
- Re-reading, highlighting and underlining are not effective
Parents can become confused when their child hasn’t performed as well as they hoped for on a test or assessment because they watched their child re-reading for hours and saw all their beautifully highlighted and underlined revision notes. What went wrong?
Whilst any revision is better than no revision, there are some strategies research has shown to be more effective than others. Re-reading, highlighting and underlining are not deemed as the most effective study strategies, despite being very popular and widely used by students (Dunlosky et al 2013). These methods provide a false sense of confidence and an illusion of knowing. If parents see their child re-reading and highlighting their notes they should advise them to stop doing so and instead use more effective study strategies instead.
- Testing is incredibly helpful
Testing has many negative connotations with stress and mental health implications but retrieval practice (harnessing the benefits of what is known as the ‘testing effect’) is a very powerful and effective teaching and learning strategy. Instead of re-reading and highlighting, students should be self-testing and quizzing to find out what they can’t recall and where the gaps are in their knowledge.
Parents can also actively support retrieval practice. A great example of this is by encouraging the use of flash cards, with a question on one side and answer on the other side. A parent, or any member of the family, can ask the question on the flashcard and check the answer on the back. No prior subject knowledge is required as the answers are provided to give instant feedback. It is worth putting correct answers in one pile and incorrect or questions where answers couldn’t be recalled in another pile to revisit. This links in with point 1, forgetting happens and that is part of learning. Retrieval practice (unlike highlighting and re-reading) shows clearly what information and content can be recalled and where the gaps are so revision can focus on that until it does become recallable in the future, with further retrieval practice.
- Avoid cramming – space it out
Some students might argue that they learn best under pressure and at the last minute, but this is not a good strategy for anyone to adopt. There are many problems with cramming, also known as ‘massed practice’. Firstly, cramming shortly before a test increases stress and pressure as there is a lot to learn in a short amount of time. Also, research consistently tells us that spacing out learning is beneficial and effective for long term learning and recall. This basically means doing little and often in contrast to large chunks at a time. This does require being organised and committed but it is very useful for families at home to be aware of.
An actor, musician or athlete wouldn’t prepare for a performance or sporting event the night before. Instead they would have a schedule and routine to follow building up to a point. The same can and should be applied to learning.
- Turn the music off and try to provide a calm, quiet environment at home
Again, many students believe that listening to music actually helps them learn but does it really? Music can be very motivating, especially when exercising but what about when learning and revising? There have been numerous research studies carried out and the key findings basically suggest; no. Learners shouldn’t listen to music when studying (to the disappointment and likely disagreement of many students).
A research study (Perhman and Currie, 2014) found that students revising in quiet environments performed over 60% better in the final exam in contrast to the students who listened to music whilst studying. That is a very significant outcome. This is important as families can aim to provide a quiet environment for study and remove distractions, most notably mobile phones.
Kate Jones is Head of History at The British School Al Khubairat, Abu Dhabi. Kate is also the author of Love To Teach: Research and Resources for Every Classroom and the Retrieval Practice collection. Kate can be found on Twitter and Instagram @KateJones_teach.
 https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/  https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/dunlosky.pdf  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/acp.2994