Being test-smart in middle school
Written by Wendy Lawrence
I had one of the smartest teddy bears around. Every time I studied for a test, my bear listened. I explained photosynthesis, recited axioms of geometry, debated the importance of the Spanish Armada. Now, as I advise struggling 12- and 13-year-olds, I remember Big Ted with fondness and use him as an example of one way to successfully study.
Middle school introduces kids to more complex curricula and to teachers with different teaching styles. With middle school also come larger exams, often before kids feel ready to handle them. Luckily, there are many strategies kids can learn to become test-smart.
The best thing about studying for a test is that there’s no single correct way to do it. There might be many incorrect ways (opening a book while IM-ing your friends about computer games comes to mind), but every student can find a method that works for them.
Kids can’t study without the material, which you know isn’t a trivial issue if you’ve ever watched a middle-schooler pack a backpack. Help your kids use a homework planner and encourage them to check it at the end of the school day and again when they finish their homework. That will help them remember to put the right stuff in their backpacks.
For longer-term organization, at-home strategies become crucial. Keep accordion files in which kids can store their old work. That way, a student studying for a final in June can easily access material from September.
Then there’s organizing time. Contrary to popular 12-year-old belief, Thursday night is not the only chance to study for Friday’s exam. Students should get in the habit of studying a little bit each day. And here’s a novel idea: You can study even when there’s no test! No homework? What about spending time on a weaker subject? When a test rolls around, studying won’t be as overwhelming.
Visual learners can benefit from studying books. Others might have to, even if it isn’t their strong suit. Many middle-schoolers approach textbooks by directing their eyes at each word until they reach the last one, at which point most couldn’t tell you what they just “read.”
I like to encourage a three-step reading process; it adds only minutes and significantly improves retention and preparation for assessment. First, students preview the material. They read chapter and section titles and make predictions about the content of each section. Taking time to look at pictures, tables and vocabulary also helps. Previewing builds a scaffold in their minds for new knowledge, and they are more prepared to learn while they read, which is the second step. If they need help staying focused, they can quiz themselves every few paragraphs.
The third step is review. Students flip back to the beginning. Covering up the text, they ask themselves what they read in each paragraph, section or page. When they aren’t sure, they re-read and re-test. This three-step process is a great way to review for text-heavy assessments, and complements the learning styles of visual- and language-oriented learners.
As students, my friends and I thought open-note tests were a coup. I once had a test where I could bring in an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of notes. I can’t tell you how much time I spent searching class materials, recording information, minimizing font size. But during the test, I never needed the notes — turns out that was just a really good way to study. I was thoroughly disappointed: My teachers had won again!
Middle-school students are notoriously bad note-takers, but reducing information to main ideas is a crucial skill and a great study aid. Ask them to make flashcards; this process forces students to reduce further. But tell them not to highlight; most 12-year-olds can’t resist covering entire pages in bright ink.
Interpersonal, intrapersonal and social skills
Is your child a social butterfly? Why not throw a study-group pizza party? With a little (or a lot) of supervision, three to five students review what they’ve learned. Separate the eating from the studying, and make sure they bring textbooks, homework and notes. Each student prepares one of the topics to explain and quiz the others about. Or one kid can study class notes, another look through the textbook.
If your child learns best by talking and listening, but the party atmosphere is too distracting, have her go over notes with you, a sibling or even a stuffed animal. If your child is heading into the age of independence that can put you at arm’s length, don’t stress your family relationship with tussles over studying: Find a tutor your child likes.
A test is a chance to celebrate and share knowledge. A student who understands that is more likely to approach a test with a positive attitude, a willingness to take risks and the chance to succeed. Armed with study skills, the test-smart student significantly improves school performance.
How does a child choose a study method? Some children already know enough about their learning styles; others might want to practice with a few. Most likely, your kids will benefit from a variety of study skills. Once they master them, they’ll choose from their arsenal based on the subject, the type of test, their mood or just whether or not their stuffed animal is feeling patient.
Wendy Lawrence is a Seattle-based freelance writer, former teacher and the head of middle school at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland.