Study Skills

These articles all relate to study skills.

Making the Most of Your Memory

by Dahlia Miller
April 2004

“Education is not received, it is achieved.”
Author Unknown

Your mind is the most spectacular organ in your body! It is capable of incredible feats transcending time and space. It can link the taste of candy to October 31st, the sound of an ice cream truck to memories of summers long past, and a picture of a chariot to stories of the ancient Greeks. Actually, you don’t even need to have a candy in your mouth to taste it and be reminded of Halloween, the idea just needs to be suggested to you and your mouth will begin to salivate.

Your brain observes and stores huge quantities of information everyday. If you learn how, you can access that information in the future and use it to your benefit.

When students consider learning techniques to develop their memories, they often think only in terms of cramming for tests – taking in information, holding it in memory only until the test date, then dumping what they’ve memorized on the test paper and walking out, leaving the information behind. It’s true that memory techniques can help someone cramming for a test, but that is selling the brain short.

Memory techniques can help to create clear pathways in the brain for storing and retrieving information – all information. Imagine being able to recall nearly all of the information from a specific course during the final exam and ten years later. If you are planning to be a doctor, it’s easy to see how it would be beneficial to be able to remember what you learned in school a few years down the road!

Developing your memory and learning memory techniques (mnemonics) will increase your learning efficiency – you’ll remember more, so you’ll need to study less.

Your brain, as magical as it is, is a physical organ that operates in set ways. Information is observed, categorized and stored in predictable patterns. The more you know about the brain, the more you’ll be able to use its filing system to your advantage. This article is too short to be able to go into any discussion of the brain and its methods of storing information in working, short and long-term memory banks. If you’re interested in learning more (and the topic is fascinating), have a look at some of the websites listed in the side bar, or talk to a biology teacher (biology and psychology teachers love talking about the brain).

Memory Basics

  • If you want to recall information more than 5 minutes down the road, it needs to enter your long term memory.
  • The brain can only effectively remember what it pays attention to.
  • If you’re not paying attention, you’re not going to remember. This is similar to the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing doesn’t take energy, listening requires the active focus of the
    listener. Conclusion: memory requires active focus – you need to pay attention to what you want to remember.
  • The more you engage your brain in the process of remembering, the more easily you’ll recall information. Engaging the brain means using your imagination - creating pictures and sounds, or maybe
    making images to go with the information you want to remember. Engaging the brain can also mean making associations between new and old information the more you link new information to what you already know, the more easily you’ll be able to recall the new information.

Mnemonics

Mnemonics are simple and very effective techniques for memory, but they are not natural (in fact they can feel very unnatural at first). If you’ll use them often, in class, when you read, when you listen, when you speak or recall information, mnemonics can help you to become a virtual walking library of information.

Journey Technique
This is my favourite mnemonic. It’s quite versatile - it can be used to remember lists, sets of information that go together, logical sequences, and other types of information, as well, the same journey can be used again and again with new sets of information.

To begin, imagine a route that you are very familiar with: from your house to your school; from your front door to your bedroom; from your house to your friend’s house; etc. Close your eyes and walk yourself through the route noting what you see along the way.

Walk yourself through the route again, attaching the information you want to remember along the way. Keep in mind that the more absurd the mental picture you create is, the more easily you’ll be able to recall it.

Now let’s try an example. Imagine that for your socials class you want to remember typical pests that attack wheat. Your journey leads you from your front door to your bedroom. As you stand about to open your front door, you notice that the door is covered in thousands of aphids (they’ve got soft, roundish bodies with several legs and two tubes coming out of their bellies – yuck). Somehow you muster the courage to open the door and walk into your home. Inside you smell an awful stink and look to your right to see a beautiful 6-foot stink bug smiling at you. You shake your head and walk toward the kitchen. Sitting at the kitchen table eating cereal is a cereal leaf beetle. You keep walking toward your room and notice under your feet are gigantic slugs sliming their way down the hall with you toward your door.

What a gross journey! Actually, the grosser the better – it’s easier to remember that way. All you need to do is walk yourself through this journey several times per day and you will definitely remember that aphids, stink bugs, cereal leaf beetles and slugs are all pests that attack wheat.

Linking Technique
This technique is quite simple to remember and apply. As you hear or read information (lists, historical events, new vocabulary, etc.) create a movie in your mind that links the pieces together.
To remember the list: dog, shoe, orange, plant, scissors, you could create this movie:

Picture a teeny, tiny dog (remember absurd sizing is easy to remember) sitting in a gigantic shoe. Suddenly an orange falls from the sky and lands on the toe of the shoe. A seed from the orange sprouts and a plant grows up from the toe of the shoe. A cute little boy comes along with a huge pair of scissors and cuts a leaf from the plant.

Play the movie over and over in your mind and you’ll be able to recall ridiculously long lists of information easily.

“Never confuse what is habitual with what is natural.”
Gandhi

Organization and Time Management

by Dahlia Miller
February 2004

“It’s not what you know, it’s what you use that counts.”
Anonymous

There are two great secrets to study skills. One: No one is born knowing them. Two: If you don’t use them, they won’t work for you.

You don’t have to be brilliant or work like a dog to be more effective in studying. Being an effective studier simply means learning some very basic principles and then putting them into practice. These principles are simple and applying them is easy.

There are many advantages to developing good study habits:

  • You’ll study more effectively
  • Your grades will improve
  • You’ll reduce feelings of anxiety related to academic work
  • You’ll be more likely to reach your academic goals
  • You’ll be able to take on bigger projects without feeling overwhelmed
  • You’ll have more free time

Below are suggestions for organizing yourself and your time. Put into practice, these suggestions can help you to waste less time and be more effective and successful in your studies and your life.

Organization

Being organized and staying organized is one of the simplest of study skills. So simple, that many people overlook how important it is to cultivate this skill. If you can set up and maintain an organized workspace and materials, you can increase your study efficiency incredibly.

As a comparison, imagine a kitchen without organization. The food, pots, pans and cutlery are randomly thrown into cupboards and drawers. Any time you want to cook or eat something, you need to put time and energy into finding all of the materials first. Over time this will waste a lot of your time and probably lead to feelings of frustration!

You can see how it would be possible to save yourself a lot of time and energy simply by taking the time to organize specific locations for the food, pots, pans and cutlery and maintaining that organization.

The same principle holds true for organizing your workspace and materials. Taking the time to organize, and maintaining that organization will save you time and energy.

Organize Your Workspace
Choose a study area in your home away from the distractions of radio, TV, family members, food and sleep (your bed is for sleeping and your brain knows that) – a desk with a comfortable chair and adequate (preferably natural) lighting is best.

Keep your study area stocked with paper, pens, calculator, reference books and any other materials you use.

Organize Your School Work
As in the kitchen analogy, you need to know where your pots and pans are.

Keep all of your notes and assignments for one subject in one area so you can find your homework and review for tests more easily. The easiest way to do this is to keep a separate duotang, binder, or section in a binder for each subject.

Put the name, date and title on all your work so that you know in what order things go in your binder.

Have all of your supplies and materials together before you start working.

Stay Organized
As you put your notes and assignments into your binders, keep them in order by date. Use dividers to separate your notes into sub-topics, if it’s appropriate.

If you’d like to be ahead of the game, have a sheet of paper at the front of your binder and use it as a table of contents. As you put new information into your binder, record new topics on this list. When it comes time to review for tests, you’ll have a summary of the topics covered. (For more information on how to get organized for tests, see the November 2003 issue of The Smart Connection.)

Remember, the extra energy you are putting into maintaining organization will save you time when you need to locate information for assignments and projects or for test review.

“Failure and success are not accidents but the strictest of justice.”
Alexander Smith (1830–1867)

Time Management

There is no way around it, if you are a student, you need to spend time studying, reviewing, writing assignments and preparing for tests. Managing your time can help you to stay on track and to get work done.

Setting a plan for when to study, can give you perspective. You can see when you’ve got free time, and in your free time you can relax knowing that you are taking care of the tasks that you need to accomplish. No stress!

Managing your time involves:

  • Deciding when to work and when to play
  • Deciding how to spend your work time

In order to begin setting a plan for time management, you need to know what your priorities are. If you fill out an agenda, planner or homework book regularly you’ll know what is due tomorrow or next week, and what projects or tests are upcoming.

It is also helpful to consider your goals. If you want to get an ‘A’ in Chemistry but you’d be satisfied with a ‘C+’ in Business Education, then you might need to focus more of your time on Chemistry.

Some Simple Time Management Tips:

  • Set a specific time each day to work.
  • Each week review upcoming tests and assignments.
  • Before each study session, visualize your goals.
  • Prioritize your homework – depending on due dates, start with the most difficult homework.
  • Work for short periods of time (30 to 60 minutes depending on you and the topic) and take short breaks. Brains remember beginnings and endings best, so incorporating more beginnings and endings into your study time will help you to remember more.
  • Take time for play!

Now that you’ve learned some ways to increase your study efficiency, keep in mind the second great secret to study skills: if you don’t use them, they won’t work for you.

Reading for Comprehension and Note-Taking

by Dahlia Miller
March 2004

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”
Sir Richard Steele

Reading for Comprehension

The key to reading for academic purposes is to take the information you find in a book or an article and to make it your own – the more you can make what you are learning your own (by writing or repeating it in your own words), the easier it’ll be for you to recall it. This means that you need to be actively engaged with what you are reading – taking the information in and adding it to what you already know.

If you want to read most efficiently, you won’t be spending all of your time just reading. There are things to be done before you read, as you read, and after you read. Now let’s turn to tips and strategies to increase your reading comprehension.

Before You Even Look at the Reading

  • Gather your materials in a comfortable, uncluttered workspace. Turn off any TV’s, radios and cell phones. Let your family know that you are concentrating.
  • Relax. Give yourself a pat on the back for being such a hard-working student. Remind yourself that you are capable of focussing to achieve your goals.
  • Review your reading assignment, instructions, or lecture notes (this is like reading the question before starting to answer it on an exam – know what you’re looking for and it will by much easier to find).
  • Confirm your purpose. Consider your answer to these questions: Why are you reading this article or book? What answers are you looking for? What do you hope to learn?

Looking at the Reading for the First Time

The idea here is to create a context for what you are about to learn. Brains link new ideas to old ones. You can give your brain a head start by thinking in general terms about the topic of the reading before you begin, then it’ll be easier for you to understand and remember what you read.

  • Skim the text. Notice: the title; the author’s name; the date the text was written; the table of contents if there is one; and the chapter or section headings. Notice any bold or italicized words or sentences. Consider the author’s purpose in writing the text and who the intended audience is.
  • Stop. Consider what you already know about the topic. Take a guess at what you’ll learn from the reading. Making predictions in this way will actually help to increase your reading speed. If you want to be really keen, before you go any further you’ll write an outline of the reading including the section headings and fill in what you already know about each topic.

Reading

  • Turn the headings in the text into questions and then look for the answers.
  • Put a mark in the margin when you find an answer (or underline one or two word answers). Try not to underline whole sentences.
  • Mark or underline the answers to the Big 6 (i.e. who, what, where, when, why, and how).
  • Periodically check in with yourself to see if you are thinking about what you are reading. If you are distracted, take a break, re-focus, and begin again.
  • Stop reading. Look at the headings again and recite (from memory! without looking!) the answers you’ve just underlined or marked.
  • If you’ve had trouble remembering the information, go back and re-read.
  • Look for the main ideas in each section. Notice the supporting ideas and details (keep in mind that it’s usually the main ideas that are tested, not the supporting details).
  • Create mental pictures as you read.

Note-Taking

Notes from Readings

“I would advise you to read with a pen in your hand, and enter in a little book short hints of what you find…for this will be the best method of imprinting such particulars in your memory, where they will be ready, on some future occasion…”
Benjamin Franklin

I have to agree with old Ben Franklin on this one, reading and note-taking really do go hand in hand.

If you’re able to write directly on your text, make notes in the margins - this is an excellent way to synthesize what you’re reading. One excellent tip is to write questions in the margins opposite where you find the answers. In this way you’ll be able to review by reading your questions, answering them from memory, and then confirming the answer.

When you are taking notes on a separate piece of paper, what you want to do is to create an outline for the content of the reading. Be sure to title the outline and date it. Then start by writing the headings from the text, next, IN YOUR OWN WORDS, write the main idea the author is putting forward for each heading. In point form include brief notes on the supporting details and facts.
Again, as with reading for comprehension, the idea is to make the material your own. The more you think about, rewrite, reword, and consider what you’ve read, the better you’ll be able to remember what you’ve read.

Notes from Lectures

Lectures tell you what your teacher thinks is most important – this information is worth noting down. As with notes from readings, when you are taking notes during a lecture, what you want to do is create an outline for what is being discussed. You’ve got two goals in a lecture: one is to understand what is being said, and the other is to take notes of key points IN YOUR OWN WORDS so that you can easily review.

  • Begin with a title, the date, the class name, and the teacher’s name.
  • As main topics and ideas are stated, note them down. Use key words and point form to record details and examples.
  • It can help to create your own set of symbols and abbreviations to draw attention to important facts, dates, etc.
  • During the lecture, try to relate the new information you are hearing to what you’ve read or heard before. Remember that creating links in your brain makes it easier to recall information in the future.

Setting Mid and Long-Term Goals

by Dahlia Miller
September 2004

“Unless you change direction, you are likely to end up where you are headed.”
Chinese Proverb

I watched a ladybug as she walked across my deck the other day. She stood on a leaf, stretching her wings looking like she was about to fly away.

Then she began to walk. From my vantage point high above her, I could see that she was headed toward the north edge of the deck less than a meter from the leaf. I wondered where she was going. I guessed she was trying to reach the north edge of the deck. “Perhaps she couldn’t stretch her wings wide enough on the leaf to be able to take off from the deck,” I mused, “Perhaps she wants to take a running leap from the deck and head for the trees.”

Then she turned. And she turned again. It seemed that there were tiny obstacles in her path. She seemed to be making slower and slower progress: she was turning so often that she was hardly moving toward the north edge of the deck at all.

“This is a prime example of undirected goal-setting,” I judged, shaking my head. “Here is this little ladybug getting so caught up in the small obstacles that she is losing sight of her larger goal.” I had to laugh at myself then. How did I know what the ladybug’s goals were?

From my objective perspective, I could easily see the patterns in the ladybug’s behaviour. From a distance, it’s always easier to see patterns in behaviour. But objectivity is not enough. It’s necessary to know the goals of the one doing the action to see if the behaviour is matched to the goals.

Similarly, if we can step back from our own behaviour and view it objectively, it can be much easier to recognize patterns. That way we can have both objective and subjective viewpoints. When we consider ourselves as a laboratory to experiment with, we can try out new patterns and let go of old ones (without judgment).

Before setting goals, consider what is important to you. This will help you to understand your personal, subjective perspective.

To find out what really is important to you, ask yourself “why”: Why are you studying? Why are you attending school? Why do you want to learn? Why are you doing what you are doing? Why do you want to achieve? Why do you want to reach that goal? Why is it important to you to do your best?

If your goal matches with what is important to you (your beliefs and values), then it will be much easier for you to stay on track daily.

Goal Setting Tips

Step 1: Choose a Goal
Since you want to be able to reach this goal, make it something that you believe you can do. For example, if you are capable of getting a “B+” on all your exams, then that is a reachable goal. Also, make your goal something you can measure, that way you’ll be able to celebrate when you achieve it! For example, your goal could be to get 87% on your next math exam. If your goal is a long-term one, break it into shorter, one-year goals. Write a list of your goals for the up-coming year.

Step 2: Make a Vow to Reach Your Goal
Goals can be difficult to reach. You will not be able to reach all of your goals. If you decide to strive for a goal, then make a vow to do your best to achieve it. With commitment to your goal, you will stay more focused when obstacles present themselves. Also, if you don’t achieve your goal, you will feel no regrets because you’ll be confident that you made your best effort.

Step 3: Consider Where You Are Now in Relation to Your Goals
Think of yourself like an archer. Once you have chosen a target (i.e. goal), the next step is to assess your current position. How close are you to your target? What direction do you need to aim to reach your target? How much energy do you need to exert to hit your target? The answers to all of these questions begin with knowing your current position.

Assess your current grades, study habits, confidence and motivation. This is your current position.

Step 4: Make a Plan for How to Achieve Your Goals
What do you need to do between now and one year from now to achieve your one-year goals?

To answer this question, it can be really helpful to plan backwards from the future. For example, if you want an “A” in your chemistry class, you’ll need to schedule in time to study for your exams. You’ll also need to schedule time to keep up with your class work, homework and assignments. If you know the due dates for any assignments or the dates for exams, schedule those in now. As well, schedule in time to prepare for assignments and exams.

Step 5: Reflect on Your Actions
If your goals are important to you, stay committed to them. Do the tasks each day and each week that will bring you closer to your goals. Where you are walking is where you are headed. Be aware of what you are doing: is it moving you closer to your goals or further away? If you need to correct any study patterns, take control and do so.

“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”
Will Rogers

Study Technique: Layering

by Ruth McGhee
November 2004

“Memory feeds imagination.”
Amy Tan (1952- )

There’s a great scene in the original Shrek movie which occurs just after Shrek and Donkey depart on their mission to rescue Princess Fiona. As with all good journeys, this one is replete with conflict and tension as the hero and his sidekick get to know each other - a firey chasm, a rescue and a dragon still looming before them. The exchange goes like this:

SHREK: For your information, there's a lot more to ogres than people think.
DONKEY: Example?
SHREK: Example? Okay, um, ogres are like onions.
DONKEY: They stink?
SHREK: Yes. No!
DONKEY: They make you cry?
SHREK: No!
DONKEY: You leave them out in the sun, they get all brown, start sprouting' little white hairs.
SHREK: No! Layers! Onions have layers! Ogres have layers! Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.
DONKEY: Oh, you both have layers. Oh. You know, not everybody likes onions. Cake! Everybody loves cakes! Cakes have layers.

Shrek is trying to communicate the layers of his depth and complexity through his use of the onion simile. Well, good study habits are like ogres, onions and cakes: they have layers, too. But cultivating good study habits takes time, and sometimes the hard work stinks - like onions - and maybe the thought of it makes you cry. It takes work. In the end there is the prize that inevitably comes from hard work: the cake - made of layers, of course.

The idea of layers is helpful to explain a method of studying which essentially builds knowledge and understanding. Each time you take in a specific body of information constitutes a layer; the layers build on one another, and with each layer comes a deeper level of understanding.

For any given concept - be it literary, scientific, mathematical, or in any subject - a goal of five or six layers is optimum. There is ample research on how the brain retains information to support the idea that successive layering of information increases likelihood of retention.

Most students give, at best, two layers to a concept: one when it is introduced in class, and the second during a study session a week (or less!) before an exam.

By adding more layers in between, students have much greater success recalling the concepts at crucial test time. The greater reward, of course, is the learning that takes place and the good study habits that are developed. So, here’s a suggestion of what those layers might look like.

Students might think that the first ‘layer’ is laid down in class, when a new concept or idea is introduced. However, it would be better if there were already a foundational layer in place; reading the assigned chapter in the text book, or the section dealing with the new concepts to be covered, should be your first layer. Pre-reading gives you a base on which to build.

While it may be challenging reading - some of the ideas might be completely over your head - you are putting the relevant terms, images and ideas into your head, ready to be elaborated upon in class by your teacher.

Logically, then, the second layer is established when the concept is introduced in class. If this had been the first time that you heard the information, you would have little or no prior knowledge from which to measure your understanding. However, with the information you have read beforehand floating around in your head, you will already have questions about what is what. When the teacher raises the idea in class, you can begin to put the pieces together.

Reading through your class notes at the end of the day constitutes the third layer. This needn’t be any complicated analysis of ideas or terms; rather, it should be a straightforward ‘once over’ to see what you get and what you don’t get. Put question marks or a star beside those things you don’t understand, so when you are next in class you can ask to have them clarified or re-explained.

At week’s end, for the fourth layer, gather together your class notes to establish an ‘overview’ of the topics covered. Read through your week’s notes, and begin the process of highlighting, underlining and noting the important information included in your lessons. This kind of overview will help you to develop a bigger picture of what is being covered in the subject: you will begin to see the themes or broader topics that have been addressed in class.

Once you have completed the overview of the fourth layer, it is helpful to move right into the fifth layer: make a condensed version of your notes - either on index cards or a separate sheet of paper, emphasizing key terms, definitions, ideas, dates, and events, formulae, etc. Highlighting or color coding can help: key terms in one color, definitions in another, examples in a third color, important events or dates in yet another, and so on. Read through the index cards or study notes as soon as you make them, to help secure this fifth layer in place.

If these layers constitute a layer cake, then the sixth layer is definitely the icing. By the time you get to preparing for exams, you have already exposed yourself to the information five times! In the weeks running up to the exam, you can go over your index cards or study sheets regularly to fix those ideas in your head. You will want to find ways to organize your study notes/cards into ‘chapters’ or ‘themes’ as they were introduced in class; exams often follow these themes in some way or another.

For some subjects, there is just no getting around straight memorization of facts, terms and definitions; for others, you need to be able to understand concepts in order to apply them to new situations. If you only give yourself one or two chances to secure a body of information in your mind, you can hardly expect to really learn it or be able to apply it.

The more times you return to an idea, the higher the likelihood of retention - even after the exam! Imagine that! The prize - the tasty layer cake you have made - is not passing the exam, it is the learning that has taken place.

“The stream of thought flows on; but most of its segments fall into the bottomless abyss of oblivion. Of some, no memory survives the instant of their passage. Of others, it is confined to a few moments, hours or days. Others, again, leave vestiges which are indestructible, and by means of which they may be recalled as long as life endures.”
William James (1842 - 1910)

Top 35 Study Habits

by Dahlia Miller
February 2005

“Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not.”
Thomas H. Huxley (1825 - 1895)

Okay everybody; it’s the beginning of February. In Canada, that means that you are half way through your school year - a good time to review and adjust your approach to studying.
You’ve had several months to test study strategies, what results have you had? Are you satisfied with your grades, how much time you spend studying, and how in control of your studies you feel? Observe your study patterns and the results for the last term. Do you need to make adjustments?

What Are Your Current Study Habits?

Put a check beside the habits that you observe in yourself 80% of the time.

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

I eat breakfast and lunch everyday.
I eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
I drink plenty of water everyday.

Being a Good Student

I attend all classes.
I am prepared for class (with pens, papers, calculator, etc.).
I pay attention in class. 
I take notes in class.
If I am absent I copy someone else’s notes.
I organize my binders and notes.
I review my notes regularly.
I do my homework everyday.
I study for upcoming tests and assignments.

Taking Control, Being Prepared

I know when my final exams are.
I know the topics of my tests and final exams.
I know what my current grades are.
I know what projects or topics are coming up next in my classes.
I am aware of memory techniques and use them to memorize facts.
I am aware of resources to help me with studying (like practice provincial exams on-line).
I believe I am capable of reaching my academic goals.
I have set academic goals for myself.

Creating the Right Environment

I have a set time each day that I study.
I study for mid-length periods and take short breaks.
I have a study area set up that is quiet.  
I use my study area. 
My study area has all the supplies that I need for studying (pens, paper, calculator, dictionary, ruler, etc.).
My study area has natural light.
I have an alternate study area that I use sometimes (library, classroom).

Keeping It Interesting

I use different methods for studying: drawing, writing, reading, talking.
I have a study partner - someone that I can teach materials to.
I use different resources when studying: books, computer, talking to people, personal observation.
I use a variety of study resources: notes, index cards, diagrams, tape recordings, etc.

Staying Real

I exercise or play a sport regularly.
I enjoy time with my friends.
I am involved in an extra-curricular activity or group besides a sport.
I meditate 5 minutes each day.


Scoring

0 - 11 points
You’re holding yourself back. This is like running a race backwards in slippers - you’re probably not going to win. Perhaps you haven’t yet noticed the effect your study habits are having on your grades and overall school experience. No matter your take on school and studying, you can save time and energy, and learn more, by improving your study habits. How much control do you want over your school experience? Give yourself credit for what you are doing so far. What next step can you take to gain more control over your study habits?

12 - 23 points
You are on your way. You have some habits that are serving you well, but others are slowing you down. Congratulate yourself for all you are currently doing. Now, decide what you want to get from this school experience. Are you going to take control or be controlled? In terms of study habits, what is the single most important thing that you can do to improve now?

24 - 35 points
You are really on top of your game! You know what you need to do and are doing it (most of the time). Give yourself a pat on the back. Now, what can you do to improve? Being the best means continually reflecting on your actions and revising your strategies to suit your circumstances. Stay in control by continuing to maximize your study time and energy.
You are the only one who can decide what your school experience will be. You’ve figured out by now, certainly, that the facts and formulas you study in school are really only a small part of what you are there to discover.

It is important to consider what you will learn from school. But more importantly, this is an opportunity for you to discover what works for you:

  • What will you learn about yourself while you are in school?
  • What are you capable of?
  • What do you like to do?
  • What don’t you like to do?
  • How do you learn best?
  • What types of people do you work best with?
  • What subjects interest you?
  • Do you like to perform under pressure?
  • What types of support do you like to have?
  • How can you bring your creativity into your work?
  • What makes learning interesting for you?

These are the same questions that people continue to try to answer after school is finished. School is a great place to experiment. Make the most of your current situation. Find what works for you now and you’ll be well prepared to tackle whatever the future holds for you.

Best of luck!

Hint: Have a look at the habits you didn’t check above. Which ones would you like to start first?

“We are responsible for what we are; and whatever we wish ourselves to be, we have the power to make ourselves. If what we are now has been the result of our own past actions, it certainly follows that whatever we wish to be in the future can be produced by our present actions; so we have to know how to act.”
Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

Secret Study Skills - The Laws of Cause & Effect, and Attraction

by Dahlia Miller
June 2009

“This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”
Ralph Waldo Emersen

Have you noticed how you never get a peach from an apple tree? This may seem pretty obvious, but a lot of people don’t really recognize just what this means. They plant apple seeds and then complain when they don’t get peaches. Not only that, but they then go on to look at the apples with disgust and complain about how ticked off they are about having apples (not peaches). While they’re busy complaining, the apples ripen, fall to the ground and end up sprouting more apple trees. This is how someone ends up getting a whole orchard of apples when what they really wanted was peaches.

This example demonstrates two often misunderstood universal laws that impact all of us (students included): the law of cause and effect, and the law of attraction. Understanding these laws, we can use them to our benefit.

The law of cause and effect basically states that the result you reap comes from the seed you sow. Results are the fruit of past actions. Your current situation is a result of your past actions. To get different results, simply use your ability to plant the seed of what you want. If you want peaches, plant a peach tree. Don’t stand around complaining about all the apples in your life.

If you stay up late at night (cause), you’re very likely to be tired in the morning (effect). If you study consistently (cause), you’ll likely get good grades (effect). Do you see where we’re going here?

Work backward from the future effect you’d like, so you can plant the causes in the present. This requires paying close attention to what is happening now: what you are currently doing, what your current attitude is, and what resources and circumstances are available to you now.

Understanding the basic principle of cause and effect, students can take real control over their school careers. For example, if you want a good relationship with your teachers, you can take the time to talk respectfully with them (before, during and after class). If you want to do well on your exams, you can study regularly and get help when you need it. If you want to have your homework over and done with, you can sit down and work on it.

If you aren’t willing to take the actions that will lead to future success, you have no right to complain about the results that you get.

Because students are constantly being asked to stretch and grow beyond their current ability and understanding, they need to develop certain seeds that will serve them well over time. These are ‘seeds of habit’ and ‘seeds of approach’. Some ‘seeds of habit’ that will serve students well are diligence; consistent study; having routines for homework; asking for help; and handing work in on time. Some ‘seeds of approach’ that will serve students well throughout their school careers are: being open to learning more; being hopeful about future learning and possibilities; being encouraging to self and others; accepting constructive criticism with confidence; and being pleasant and respectful to teachers, classmates and parents.

Can you imagine what kinds of results these seeds will bring? Of course the future is unpredictable, but consistent persistence with planting the seeds of scholastic success is certain to bring it about. [Scholastic success is personal and individual, by the way.]

The law of attraction states that ‘like is attracted to like’, or, ‘you get what you focus on’, or, more accurately, ‘you get what you vibrate’.

Scientists have shown us how everything, including humans, has an energy vibration. Our actions, our words, our emotions and our thoughts all give off vibrations. And these echo back to us in the forms of circumstances, words, opportunities and ideas.

Imagine standing at the edge of a cliff and shouting “hello”. A moment later your “hello” comes back to you. This is the law of attraction in action: you get back what you send out. Shout, “I write good essays” and guess what echo you’ll hear. Shout, “I suck at math,” and guess what is going to come right back at you. There’s no reason to be upset about the echo. After all, you’re the one who started it, right?

The law of attraction is what allows people who assume success to have success, and people who assume failure to have failure. We all get more of what we already have. Essentially this means that if we focus our thoughts, emotions, words, and actions on appreciating how good our current situation is, we’ll be sending out vibrations that say, “I am happy, successful and satisfied.” With these vibrations, you can guess what kinds of circumstances and opportunities will start to echo back to you.

Knowing this puts you in a position of control. Simply choose your thoughts, emotional reactions, words and actions carefully. Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want. See the success that is around you right now (apples aren’t really all that bad after all).

Students can put this law to good use in a few simple ways:

  • Notice and talk about your current successes. Stop having problems and start solving them. Look at what you do well. You may not write excellent essays, but perhaps you have lots of ideas for topics, and that is a good start. Look around at all the resources that are there to help support you and make good use of them.
  • Visualize your success and then take practical steps to bring it about. Emotions and thoughts send out vibrations, so just imagining a bright future for ourselves will help it to come. Hold an image consciously and firmly in your mind of how you would like your life to be. Then work hard and intelligently to make your dream come true. Imagine getting a good grade on your next test. Imagine knowing the answers when the teacher asks. Imagine yourself confidently raising your hand to ask or answer questions in class. Imagine handing your homework in on time.
  • Dream big but don’t chase after your dreams. Chasing our future causes us to not notice how wonderful things are right now. Focus on what you like about how things are now in the present. The future happens in its own good time.
  • Set mini-goals. It’s possible to use this law for everything we do, not just the far away future. Picture yourself sitting down to get your homework done with a sense of confidence and capability. Imagine answering every question easily. Imagine your parents praising you for getting down to work quickly.

What vibrations you send out are what will come back to you. Use this law well and you’ll be amazed at the results.

“The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a thing makes it happen.”
Frank Lloyd Wright

Secret Study Skills – The Power of Positive Thinking

by Dahlia Miller
April 2009

“Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! …With sound self-confidence you can succeed.”
Norman Vincent Peale (1898 – 1993)

Why do students need to understand and use the skill of positive thinking? It’s because they set themselves up against challenge everyday. Students are constantly pushing beyond their current capabilities to learn more and take on more skills and knowledge. This requires a lot of courage and determination. Without enthusiasm, faith in abilities and optimism, most people would experience fear, discouragement or a sense of futility in the face of this kind of challenge.
A lack of positive thinking shows itself in students who ‘forget’ homework consistently, who neglect to hand homework in, who are not comfortable asking for help, or who ‘blank out’ in exams.

Learning and applying some core positive thinking strategies can have a huge impact on a student’s life in the classroom and beyond. In this article we’ll discuss two approaches to positive thinking.

Strategy #1: From the Outside In

Psychology people are always coming up with interesting experiments. In one of these experiments, psychologists asked people to read 100 comics. Then they asked people to rate how funny they thought the comics were. The people were split into three groups – one simply read and rated the comics, the second and third did the same but with a slight twist. The second group was asked to read the comics while holding a pen horizontally between their lips (so they couldn’t smile). The third group was asked to read the comics while holding a pen horizontally between their teeth (so they were forced to smile).

Here’s the interesting part: the people who were forced not to smile rated the comics as ‘less funny’ than the control group (the group without any pens in their mouths). The people who were forced to smile rated the comics as ‘funnier’ than the control group did.

What can we extrapolate from this experiment? Well, perhaps the main point related to our topic is that it’s possible to influence our emotions from our actions. How we respond to a situation (ex. by smiling or not smiling) changes how we feel about it. And if our feelings are positive, we’re more likely to take positive, confident action. If our feelings are negative, we’re more likely to feel defeated and to not take action, interpreting the situation as too uncomfortable or, worse, out of our control.

We tend to think that we are experiencing a situation directly, but this experiment shows that we experience situations through a filter of emotion and interpretation. (Otherwise everyone would have thought the comics were equally funny.) Have you ever noticed how two people may respond to the same situation differently? What filters do you use when you meet situations? Are you seeing things in a positive, optimistic light or are you pulling an Eeyore?

Could it be so easy that all we need to do is act in a positive way in order to transform how we see, feel and interpret situations (as in ‘fake it ‘til you make it’)? Apparently so. If you want to be happy – smile; if you want to be unhappy – don’t smile. So, if you want to be a competent student, then study, bring your work home and hand it in; if you want to be incompetent, then don’t study, don’t bring your work home, and don’t hand your homework in.

Strategy #2: From the Inside Out

While it is possible to influence how we feel by our actions, there is a more effective method. Here is an pattern I’d like you to consider: Beliefs create thoughts ... thoughts create emotions ... emotions create actions ... actions create consequences

What this equation tells us is that the consequences we experience (like high or low grades) are created mostly by our beliefs. Who is in control of what you believe? of what you think? of how you feel? of your actions? Of course it’s you. Your interpretation of a situation is completely within your control. So it follows, then, that if you are in control of your beliefs and thoughts, then you can also control your consequences.

What we believe about ourselves and the world determines our thoughts. For example, if you believe that you are good at math, then you will likely think that math assignments are do-able. If you think math assignments are do-able, you will likely feel confident and capable. Feeling this way, you will likely perform well on any given assignment, get it done and hand it in. If you do all of that, you’ll likely get a pretty good score.

If, on the other hand, you believe that you are terrible at math, then you will likely think that all math assignments are hard (even before you look at the one being handed to you). If you think that math assignments are too hard for you then you’ll likely feel defeated and distressed. Feeling this way, you will likely be in a state of high adrenaline. In this state of nervousness, it’s quite difficult to think clearly (since when our heart is beating too rapidly, our higher thinking is shut off in order to save our bodies from any impending life-threatening danger). If you’re not thinking well, you’ll likely not get a good score.

Change your thoughts and you change your world. If you think you can overcome an obstacle, chances are that you can.

Here’s another example:

Situation: You receive a low grade on an essay.

Negative thoughts: “I really stink.” (resulting emotion: sadness) “I’ve never been good at writing.” (hopelessness) “That teacher is such an unfair marker.” (anger) Where can you go with this experience if you are feeling sad, hopeless or angry? These types of thoughts and feelings will likely lead to complaining, avoidance and acting out in anger (against the teacher or some innocent bystander).

Positive thoughts: “I’m going to practice more to improve my essay writing.” (resulting emotion: determination) “Now that I see my mistakes, I know what I need to work on.” (hopefulness) “I’m good at learning new skills. This is a challenge for me to master.” (confidence) These thoughts and feelings are likely to lead to positive actions such as focused study, more proofreading on future essay assignments, or asking for assistance.

Positive thinking is taking control over how you choose to think about a situation. With control, you can influence the outcome. Choosing a more positive perspective, you can gain more power and confidence – and people respond to this. When we expect success, we become hopeful and confident. This comes across in our body language and the way we express ourselves in writing and in our speaking. If you behave confidently and accept challenges with positive determination, not only will teachers and parents begin to see you as capable, but you will see yourself as able to accomplish tasks that previously had felt out of reach. Your marks will improve, almost guaranteed.

You can choose your attitude. If you hear yourself thinking negative thoughts, you can simply choose to ‘cancel’ those thoughts out and rethink them in a more positive light. Encouraging yourself, you are more likely to enjoy the learning.

Parents and teachers can help by asking students how they are feeling about their schoolwork, listening for positive or negative beliefs. Unless a student is asking for correction or it is a teaching situation, students will gain the most benefit by being recognized for what they are doing well. If you hear a student speaking negatively about his or her efforts, you could ask that student to reframe what they are describing in a positive light, and then discuss actions that can be taken to bring a positive resolution to the situation.

Positive thinking is not just putting a positive spin on things without taking creative action. If there is a situation that needs remedying (like homework not being handed in), believe in your ability to come up with some creative solutions on your own or with someone else.

Positive thinking is you deciding to take control over how situations impact you. There is no set script for how you ought to react to any situation – you can make it up yourself – you can change your script part way through. You are the writer, director and actor of your story.

“We become what we think about.”
Earl Nightingale (1921-1989)

Secret Study Skills – The Power of Present Moment Awareness

by Dahlia Miller
March 2009

“The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it.”
Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)

How many times have you been sitting in class as the teacher was talking, and suddenly realized that you haven’t been listening? Although you’ve been sitting there, eyes and ears open the whole time, you don’t have a clue why the teacher is talking about the Middle Ages when the last you heard she was talking about the Pythagorean Theorem. Chances are you were caught up in thought – focused on something that had happened to you in the past or might (or ought to) happen in the future. Who was listening through your ears while you were busy?

Or, have you ever sat down to write a quiz or exam and suddenly felt your mind go blank? The exam in front of you brings up memories of past exams or visions of your doomed future, and you end up lost in thought or fear, not putting your best effort into the exam. Who is sitting in the exam holding your pencil while you are off in fantasy?

Teachers take attendance at the start of class to see who is present and who is absent. They’re just counting bodies, though; they’re not counting minds and awareness. How many times have you been present in class, but had your mind wander off? This is not real presence. And if it’s not presence, it’s absence.

As you know, the students who are absent from class miss the class. Guess what? The students whose minds are not present in the class also miss the class.
What are you missing when you are not present?
If you are not present, (if you’re not paying attention right here and now), where are you? Chances are that you’re caught up in thinking about the past or the future.

What’s that saying? “The past is history. The future is a mystery. The present is a gift.”

How is the present “a gift”? We have the gift of life right now. Right now is the only time that we actually are alive. Think about it. When you remember what you did yesterday, are you actually living yesterday’s events? Obviously not. When you are thinking about something that might happen next week, or even in one hour, are you actually living those events? Again, obviously not. To live your future fantasy (assuming things go exactly as planned in your mind), you’re still going to have to wait for time to catch up to your future so that it is ‘now’ before you can live it. (But if you haven’t practiced paying attention to your life right now, how can you expect to get the most out of your imagined future? You’ll probably be ‘absent’ for that too, if absence is your habit.)

Right now is when we live our lives. Right now is when we can make choices about what we are doing and what happens in our lives. Even if things seem really boring and familiar, ‘now’ is still the only time that we can actually be present in our lives and make any needed changes. Otherwise it’s like there is a robot living our lives, using our eyes, using our ears, sitting in class, taking our exams for us, but not really living.

Most people want to make the most of their time – living, experiencing, getting excited about ideas, building things, making changes and contributions in our world, loving others. Most people wouldn’t choose to miss out on their lives.
That said, most people get caught up in the endless thoughts that cycle through their minds – thinking this is who they really are. They get so caught up in their thoughts that they forget to pay attention to what is actually happening right in front of them.

What can happen in your life if you really live it right now?

Imagine if Da Vinci had gotten distracted by thinking about his strange family history instead of putting his creativity and talent to painting the Mona Lisa. Or if Einstein had listened to his teachers and thought about what a poor math student he was instead of developing his theories of space and time. Or if Edison had gotten caught up in what a failure he was for getting the light bulb wrong so many hundreds of times before actually inventing one that worked. Present moment awareness frees up boundless creative energy.

What can you create in your life? What impact do you want to have on the world?

When we just narrow our awareness to the present moment, our future looks after itself. If we want to have good grades, this begins with paying attention to our class work or homework.

By the way, paying attention to the present moment doesn’t mean that we don’t make any plans. It means that we keep our minds focused on one thing at a time rather than thinking thoughts about the 180 things that need to get done. If the one thing that we need to do is make plans, then what we focus on is making plans. Then, when that is finished, we look around to see what is happening around us and get involved with it.

It takes only a split second, to come back to ‘now’; here are some suggestions for increasing present moment awareness:

  • In class or while you’re doing homework, if you find that you have drifted off into thought, give yourself a pat on the back (in your mind) for recognizing it. Bring your attention back to what is happening right at the moment.
  • During exams, if you get caught up in fear, take a deep breath and look around you. What is actually happening? Look at the next test question and do your best to bring your best effort to completing it. (If it’s too challenging, make any notes you can and move on to the next question.) Do this as many times as necessary to get you through the test.
  • Be at least as interested in what is going on inside you as outside. Self-awareness is presence.
  • Use your powers of observation. What can you see, hear, feel, smell right now?
  • Feel yourself sitting or standing from the inside out. Can you feel the insides of your
    hands, your legs, your chest?
  • Breathe deeply and let your belly expand with your inhalation. Feel the sensation of
    the air moving past your nostrils as you inhale and exhale.
  • Close your eyes and listen to what is around you right now. How many different sounds
    can you hear? What can you smell?
  • Put some things together on a table. Activate your hands, close your eyes, and
    pick the items up one at a time. Consider what each item feels like: its texture, its weight, its shape, and its contours.
  • Practise being the ‘knowing’ (aware of your physical and emotional self and your
    surroundings). What physical sensations can you feel right now? Is there tension in
    your body somewhere?
  • What emotional sensations can you feel right now? Emotion is the body’s demon-
    stration of your state of mind. Can you break your emotions down into what they
    feel like in your body rather than thinking about the (past or future) events that are
    likely sparking your emotional reaction? Just pay attention to what is actually
    happening right now.

“Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.”
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Getting Down to Work: Procrastination and Homework

by Dahlia Miller
March 2008

“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”
H. Jackson Brown, Jr. (American Writer)

What we do doesn’t always make sense. Procrastinating is one of those behaviours that is really quite irrational. Despite not receiving any obvious personal benefit from procrastinating, people often engage in this type of behaviour over and over again. In fact, 95% of people procrastinate at least sometimes.

Students, especially, are prone to procrastination. It’s almost like they are testing to see if this work-strategy is actually effective. And, in most cases, it isn’t. So, the trick is to learn to recognize what procrastination looks like, and either train new habits or learn to use procrastination to advantage.

Are You a Procrastinator?
(Check as many as apply)

Do you ever:

Take many, many breaks in the middle of doing a task you don’t like.
Get up to fix a snack every time you sit down to work.
Have undone tasks piling up.
Sit down to work but find yourself daydreaming or distracted.
Wonder why you should bother doing a specific task (and come up with reasons not to do it).
Have a small or big task that you’ve been “meaning to do” for the longest time but never seem to get to it.
Carry books or texts in your pack (or have them sitting on your desk) but never actually read them.
Ignore projects until very close to their deadline.
Hand work in late.
Have to have everything “just right” before starting work.
Have trouble deciding what to do first – so you don’t do anything.
Write and re-write first sentences or paragraphs looking for the “perfect” words or the “perfect” start.
Cram for exams.
Rush out the door, nearly late for every appointment.
Feel sensitive when people ask if you’ve done your work.
Give up if something feels too difficult.
Put off work to the point of feeling uncomfortable about it.
Hope that your work will go away if you ignore it.
Feel guilty about being late with work or not getting it done at all.
Feel a nagging upset because you have been putting something off.
Fantasize about the terrible things that will happen if you don’t do this one thing.



Procrastination is a painful game to play, and it often ends up with the procrastinator not living up to his or her potential and feeling at least somewhat stressed. The procrastination equation is a complex one involving:

  • the amount of desire to complete the task (or motivation)
  • the expectation of success or failure (or confidence in one’s skills)
  • the value of completion (or reward)
  • the immediacy of task (or deadline)
  • the personal sensitivity to delay (anxiousness, perfectionism, or lethargy)

While almost everyone recognizes the down-side of procrastination, it’s not always easy to let go of the behaviour. Kids especially, may not know why they are procrastinating or how to make a change.

Tips for Procrastinating Students

  • Have a “work first” policy so that chores or homework are always done before TV or computer time.
  • Set a workspace away from distractions with a full set of supplies.
  • Get help when you need it.
  • Schedule free time. Students often take frequent breaks or avoid work altogether fearing that they won’t get any time off to play. This usually backfires as the time is often fused with an underlying sense of guilt or nervousness.
  • Make a list of tasks to complete. Prioritize the list so the most important ones are addressed early on.
  • Develop a system to tackle big or daunting jobs. Not knowing where to start can make a challenge seem un-do-able. If there is a known system for dealing with larger tasks, the fear of the unknown is reduced.
  • Break large tasks into more manageable steps and plot them on a calendar or timeline.
  • Reward completion of a task every step of the way. It’s easier to get work done knowing it will be recognized. A high-five, extra computer time, and a pat on the back are worthy rewards.
  • If 1 hour feels like too long to work, then set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and really focus during that time. Commit to working without interruption during that set period of time.
  • If a full chapter feels like too much to read, set a goal to read one page at a time (or one sentence or paragraph for younger students).
  • Do the hardest task first (or second). Get the most dreaded items up and off the slate first and everything will seem easier after that.
  • Imagine how great it will feel to be done with the task. Use your mind to focus on the relief, gratification and self-satisfaction of having completed the task rather than on the dread of not getting it done.
  • Make boring jobs more enjoyable by being creative – stand and walk or dance while memorizing, listen to music while doing mundane tasks, work with a friend.
  • Tell a friend about your task and your goal. Email or call to say how long you are going to work and then check in with them to see if you did the work. Making yourself accountable to a supportive, uninvolved person is a great motivator.
  • Set a routine for yourself – but start slowly with expecting yourself to conform to it. After you’ve gotten used to getting down to work at the same time every day, eventually it will become, well, routine and you’ll follow through on what needs to be done when it needs to be done.
  • If you find yourself procrastinating – do useful tasks that you might not get to normally during that time (clean your work area, plan ahead, do errands, help someone else, answer your mail, go for a walk, exercise).
  • If it’s on your to-do list more than 3 times, face up to it – it’s either not important enough for you to do or you’re not going to do it. Start the task or forget about it (obviously some tasks can’t really be forgotten, so get started).
  • Be okay with just being human. Don’t strive for perfection – there will always be small mistakes.
  • Congratulate yourself for working.

“I’m late … because I can’t decide which side of the bed to get out of.”
Anne Walsh (Irish Writer)

Mid-Term Study Skills Check-List

by Dahlia Miller
November 2007

The term is halfway finished. This is a great time to check in with your study habits. Tick the box that best matches how well you are doing. Total your score at the end of the quiz.

1 = needs improvement
2 = minimally meets my expectations
3 = fully meets my expectations
4 = exceeds my expectations

1     2     3     4

If I am uncertain about something being taught, I ask my teacher for clarification.

I have spoken directly with my teacher(s) about my progress and am clear about his/her suggestions for how I can improve.

My binders are organized with dividers that fit my needs, and I use them effectively.

My binders do not have any loose papers.

My notes or handouts each have a date on the top of the page and are organized by topic and date in my binders.

My notes or handouts each have a title on the top of the page so that I can easily tell the topic.

I have a system that is working well for me for transporting homework to and from school (i.e. my homework arrives at school in good condition, not looking crumpled or ripped).

I have been completing my homework on time.

I have been handing my homework in on time.

I review my notes every night for 5 minutes or more.

If I am in grade 9 or higher, I have begun reviewing for any final exams that I have at the end of this term (even just for 5-10 minutes per day).

My homework space is clear of distractions (visual or auditory).

I use my homework space to do my homework.

I take full responsibility for getting to my work – if I expect my parents to remind me to get started, I have made an agreement with them about what I need.

I use my imagination in my studying to keep things as creative and engaging as possible for myself.

If I find one type of assignment difficult, I try to look for ways to complete it that work for me (for example: typing instead of writing, multi-media instead of essay-format).

If I find myself distracted while studying, I gently bring my attention back to my work.

I am aware of my weak points in studying and am willing to make changes in my behaviour to improve.

I eat healthy snacks and meals, and keep myself hydrated.

My schedule includes time to play and relax as well as to get my work done and have a healthy sleep schedule.

I am aware that I am living my life everyday: when I am in classes, when I am doing homework, when I am playing sports or hanging out with my friends – I’m not just “going through the motions”.

If I feel nervous about my school performance, I take a deep breath, look around and remind myself that everything is okay right now.

Total Score ______ Total Score Divided by 22 (or 21 if you’re in grades 1-8)______

Are you meeting your own expectations for your studying? In what areas would you like to see yourself improve?

A story:
Everyday, a student opened his lunch to find a peanut butter and jam sandwich. He complained bitterly everyday at lunch, “Oh no. Not another peanut butter and jam sandwich! I hate peanut butter and jam. I’m so sick of having this for lunch everyday.”

His friends at first were sympathetic to his complaints, but eventually they started to get tired of hearing the same comments at lunch everyday. Finally, after several months, one of his friends said, “You obviously don’t like peanut butter and jam. Why don’t you ask your mom not to give you peanut butter and jam sandwiches?”

“My mom?” The student replied, “My mom doesn’t make my lunch for me. I make my own lunches.”

This is a funny little story. It reminds us that we are responsible for our own actions. We’re the ones who have to deal with the consequences, whether we like them or not. If we want different results, we’re the ones who will have to do things differently.

Even if your parents or teachers would like you to change your study habits, it is your self-image and choices that matter and will make the difference.

“All wish to possess knowledge, but few, comparatively speaking, are willing to pay the price.”
Juvenal (1st & 2nd century Roman poet)

Tapping Potential with Learning Styles: Kinesthetic Learners

by Dahlia Miller
December 2006

When taking new information in, we all have different strengths. Some people like to see new information (Visual Learners), some like to hear it (Auditory Learners), and some like to touch or move things around to learn (Kinesthetic Learners).

You know those people who jiggle their feet non-stop during an exam; who really seem to be in their element in PE, or art, cooking class, or science labs where learning is demonstrated through doing; who like to move around while talking on the telephone? Those people are likely kinesthetic learners.

Some Clues Revealing Kinesthetic Learners

Do you like to be active?
Do you prefer to do something to understand?
Do you like to run your fingers or hands over materials?
Do you take notes?
Do you often jiggle your pen or play with something you are holding?
Do you move your hands alot - like when you are explaining how to do something or you are giving directions?
Do you feel distracted if you’ve been listening, reading or watching for an extended time?
Do you continually shift things around?
Is it difficult for you to concentrate if you have to sit still for a long time?
When solving problems, do you like to write or draw diagrams?
Do you learn best when you can try something yourself?
Is it helpful for you to do many practice problems to really understand a concept for math or science?



About Kinesthetic Learners

Active, hands-on learning is important to the kinesthetic learner. These learners typically need to touch or do something in order to process new information. Even if new information is understood through seeing or hearing, kinesthetic learners prefer to have something to do – an exercise, a worksheet…before it’ll sink in, be really understood, and stick.

Some kinesthetic learners find it difficult to sit still for long periods of time. Their brains are stimulated by physical movement or touch, so being sedentary can set up a situation where the brain stops absorbing information due to lack of physical stimulation. For this reason, kinesthetic students can find the classroom setting challenging. If they are expected to sit, read, watch or listen for long periods of time they can easily find their thoughts and attention drifting.

Those students doodling, tapping their pens or wiggling their feet are most often kinesthetic students. This behaviour (while potentially distracting to other students or to the teacher) can actually help the student to stay focussed.

At the earlier grades, kinesthetic learners can be easier to accommodate in the classroom. Teachers often incorporate “manipulatives” (things like blocks, “power of ten” pieces, or money to teach and practise concepts in math, for example). But as curricula becomes more text and concept-based, as in the higher grades, it is often beyond the scope of the classroom for the teacher to incorporate physical exercises in teaching.

Some subjects can be challenging for kinesthetic learners. Essay writing can pose difficulties because students can feel bogged down in so many words and ideas with nothing (physically) concrete to work with.

Math above the grade four level can also be difficult for kinesthetic students to relate to. If the concepts and formulas are demonstrated as they operate in the real world, this potential problem can be avoided (for example, finding the volume of a cup using a real cup and water as well as the appropriate mathematical equations). Again, if the student is expected merely to work with concepts and formulas as they are presented orally or on paper, this may be quite difficult for the kinesthetic learner.

Reading long excerpts from texts may tire a kinesthetic mind. So many words just sitting there on the page may overwhelm the kinesthetic brain.

Kinesthetic students need to take responsibility for asking that information be presented in a manner that they can relate to. Asking, for example: “Can you show me how this works?” “What should I do here?” “What steps do I need to take to complete this problem?”

“The mind has exactly the same power as the hands: not merely to grasp the world, but to change it.”
Colin Wilson

Study Tips for Kinesthetic Learners

  • Study for short (but intense) periods - 50 minutes at max.
  • Sit on a ball rather than a chair when studying at home (this keeps the body constantly in action).
  • Underline or highlight as you read - or at least follow along with your finger.
  • Cover the page below where you are reading if you are reading dense text.
  • Make up actions to memorize new information - perform skits with study partners to remember poetry, history facts, plays, etc.
  • For math or science, do many practice problems to be sure you understand.
  • Try walking or bouncing a basketball, etc. while reciting information.
  • Write brainstormed ideas for essays on individual cards so that you can move them around to decide where to put them in the essay.
  • Create an outline of a chapter as you are reading it - maybe in cartoon form.
  • Write ideas on a gigantic piece of paper or white board with many colours to keep yourself very physical while brainstorming or reviewing notes.
  • Check if it’s possible for assignments to be completed in project form (for example a PowerPoint presentation of an essay rather than a written essay).
  • For spelling practice, try acting out the letters with your body, or drawing them with a chopstick (or your finger) in a pan of rice.
  • Keep a stress ball in your pocket to squeeze during class to help you maintain focus.

Tapping Potential with Learning Styles: Auditory Learners

by Dahlia Miller
November 2006

Like a fingerprint, your learning style is unique to you. No two people learn in exactly the same way. When taking new information in, we all have different strengths. Some people like to see new information (Visual Learners), some like to hear it (Auditory Learners), and some like to touch or move things around to learn (Kinesthetic Learners).

Most people tend to be stronger in one or two learning styles (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic).

If you know your learning style, you can tap into your natural potential. You can adjust your study style to maximize your time and efforts. If you know how you learn best, you can also communicate more effectively with teachers - you can ask them to present information to you in ways that suit you best.

Some Clues Revealing Auditory Learners

Is it easier to understand or remember information if you hear it or talk about it?
Do you like to have someone explain or describe how to do something?
When concentrating, are you very distracted by background noise? OR Do you prefer to have background noise when concentrating?
Do you like to listen to people or talk when waiting in line-ups?
When solving problems, do you like to talk yourself through the steps?
When solving problems, can you “replay” your instructors’ directions in your mind?
Is it helpful for you to ask a lot of questions when you’re learning new information?



About Auditory Learners

Auditory learners need to hear or talk about new information in order to process it. They tend to learn best when there is discussion about what is being learned.

As a group, strong auditory learners are somewhat difficult to describe. Individual auditory learners often have strong preferences for or against certain teaching styles or learning situations (as we'll see below). So, it's important for learners to know what works best for them, and for teachers to take into account the variety of possible preferences of their auditory learners (obviously in a classroom, with a mix of learners, this can be a great challenge).

Some auditory learners learn best by listening and some by talking, but most auditory learners combine these two styles and have strengths and weaknesses in each.

"Auditory Listeners" prefer to take new information in through listening. When someone is explaining a new topic, "auditory listeners" focus on what is being said and can sometimes remember directions or descriptions in great detail. These learners may like to hear stories or learn background context about what they are studying (or they may find this type of "off-topic" information distracting). It can be challenging for "auditory listeners" to be distracted when listening intently. For example, some auditory learners find it difficult to listen and take notes simultaneously, or to listen and refer to a visual at the same time. Background noise may promote focus for "auditory listeners", or break focus.

"Auditory Talkers" need to discuss what they are learning. They may like to ask a lot of questions to solidify what is being learned. It can often help them to "teach" newly learned information to someone else. In discussing their understanding of something new, "auditory talkers" form links between known information and new information. This oral processing (i.e. learning through speaking) helps them to recognize their level of understanding of the topic. Speaking also obviously gives "auditory talkers" an opportunity to hear and learn through listening as well.

"Men, in teaching others, learn themselves.”
Seneca

When presenting information to an auditory learner, describe and explain the concepts thoroughly. Be sure to allow as many opportunities as possible for the person to ask you questions and discuss their understanding of your position. Ask questions of the student so that they have an opportunity to recognize their thought patterns aloud - this will help them to prepare to take new information in.

Using handouts, refer to them only to back up what you are discussing. If possible, explain all situations orally first, giving the auditory learner a chance to discuss topics, before you ask them to interpret visual information.

Study Tips for Auditory Learners

  • Ask questions in class. Ask for the topic to be explained, or for the teacher to tell you how to do the work - don’t just say you don’t understand.
  • Look at your study environment - is it too noisy, or would you like quiet music in the background? Definitely turn off the TV.
  • Talk to someone about what you are learning.
  • Ask yourself questions about what you are studying and look for the answers.
  • Repeat information or directions aloud to yourself (under your breath in class).
  • Make up songs or rhymes to memorize new information.
  • Read aloud when studying.
  • Read directions or instructions aloud - for all subjects. Then talk yourself through the steps to complete the assignment or problems.
  • To review, recite information you have learned.
  • When writing essays, try saying what you’d like to write, then write it down (or ask someone to scribe for you).
  • Check if it’s possible for assignments to be completed in audio form (for example an audio recording of an essay rather than a written essay).
  • Work with a study partner. Have them ask you questions about what you are learning.
  • Teach someone what you have learned.

“Drawing is speaking to the eye; talking is painting to the ear.”
Joseph Joubert

Tapping Potential with Learning Styles: Visual Learners

by Dahlia Miller
October 2006

We all learn differently. When you are learning something new, how do you like to have the information presented to you? Do you learn best when you watch someone, listen to someone, or try the new thing yourself?

Everyone has a different learning style. More specifically, each person has a preferred means of receiving information. Some people like to see things (Visual Learners), some like to hear things (Auditory Learners), and some like to touch or move things around (Kinesthetic Learners). Actually, most people are a combination of these three with one or more of the styles being dominant.

If you know your learning style, you can tap into your natural potential. You can adjust your study style to maximize your time and efforts. If you know how you learn best, you can also communicate more effectively with teachers - you can ask them to present information to you in ways that suit you best.

Teachers and parents can benefit from knowing their own learning style since most of us tend to present information in the style we are most comfortable learning. Our students and children, however, do not necessarily learn in the same style as we do. Having a greater awareness of our own learning style and how we typically present information can help us to become better teachers.

Most people tend to be stronger in one or two learning styles (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic). This doesn’t mean that if you are a strong visual learner you can’t learn by listening. But it does mean that your brain is more easily stimulated by seeing things, and that it’ll be easier for you to remember things you’ve seen than heard.

Some people don’t have one or two strong learning styles, instead they are balanced between all three styles. For this type of learner (and really for all learners), the more you use all the senses in learning, the better. For example, if you read silently, you are stimulating your visual sense. However if you read aloud while running your finger along under the words, you’re speaking, hearing, seeing and moving all at once. This means that you are learning in four ways at once - much more effective than just reading silently, don’t you think?

Some Clues Revealing Visual Learners

Is it easier to understand or remember information if you see it?
Can you picture things in your mind’s eye?
Do you like to have someone show you how to do something?
Do you like to look around or read when waiting in line ups?
Are you disturbed by a messy study environment?
Do you like to refer to written materials?
Do you like to look around the room and gaze at pictures, or other visual stimuli?


About Visual Learners

Visual learners prefer to see information in order to understand and learn. Some Visual learners learn best with pictures, and some with words. “Visual print” learners are especially attracted to words and written descriptions. their reading comprehension tends to be good and they usually prefer to read instructions rather than just listen.

“Visual picture” learners are typically attracted to how things look in relation to each other (shapes, colours). These learners are usually good at understanding graphs or diagrams. Both of these visual learners will be much more likely to retain information if they see it.

When presenting information to a visual learner, be sure to have something written or drawn (like a graph) to back up what you are saying. If you don’t have handouts or other visuals, write key words on the board or a piece of paper, if you can, and draw the person’s attention to your notes.

Study Tips for Visual Learners

  • Take notes in class and review them.
  • Use colours or symbols - anything to make the notes more interesting to look at.
  • Underline or highlight text as you read.
  • Draw diagrams to explain relationships between new and old information.
  • When studying for exams, write out what you know about the topic, then condense these notes to help you memorize.
  • Write out questions that you are working on.
  • Practice reading, writing or drawing at home.
  • Have a written schedule with clearly marked study times, project due dates and exam dates.
  • When beginning a large project, define what each of the steps is. Write these steps out, or draw them on a line showing the progress from start to finish.
  • Write a script for any oral exams or presentations.
  • Make diagrams or visual representations of projects that you need to build. If you are planning a 3-D model for chemistry, you may feel more grounded if you begin with an attempt to draw the model or if you write out words for what you are attempting to represent with the model.
  • When working with an essay brainstorm, colour code the ideas.
  • It can give a new perspective to essay or paragraph writing for the visual student to cut his essay into pieces (i.e. introduction, body 1, body 2, body 3, conclusion, etc.) and arrange the ideas on a table, perhaps even to colour-code them. This can aid the visual learner in conceptualizing the essay as a larger whole rather than focussing on the details of the words and sentences.
  • If you don’t absorb much of what the teacher is saying when there are no visual prompts provided, sit close to the teacher to watch her face as she speaks, and take your own notes as the teacher speaks.
  • Make flashcards for studying (use different colour cards)

“Furious activity is no substitute for understanding.”
H. H. Williams

Making Up for Lost Time in School

by Dahlia Miller
November 2005

“You may delay, but time will not, and lost time is never found again.”
Benjamin Franklin

From time to time we all experience disruptions in our regular schedule. For students, missing school can cause a great deal of tension as they scramble to catch up. Luckily these disruptions are typically temporary and can be made up for with focus and support. This article explores the realities of making up for lost time in school and strategies for doing so.

We’ve all taken time off school for one reason or another. Sometimes the break is an educational one, sometimes it isn’t. Some typical reasons for students to miss school include: illness; travel; family event; involvement in extra-curricular activities, like sports or theatre; or exchange program.

Some typical responses to returning to the classroom include:

  • Feelings of confusion and embarrassment, watching as everyone else understands or uses new information;
  • Feelings of being frantic or nervous about marks;;
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed – that too much time will be wasted in playing catch up.;

Have you heard this story?
Once a young man went to a martial arts master to ask if he could be his apprentice. When they met, the young man said that he would study full-time and was willing to work hard. Then he asked how long it would take for him to become a master. “If you are willing to study full-time and work hard,” the master said, “it will take you five years.”

The young man was surprised. “But my parents need my support at home. I can’t be absent for so long. If I study very sincerely, with great effort and focus, how long will it take me to become a master?”

“If you study very sincerely, with great effort and focus, it will take you ten years,” replied the master.

The young man was very shocked. “I will study day and night,” he said, “How long will it take me to become a master if I study day and night?”

The master responded, “In that case, it will take you twenty years.”

The point of the story? If we put an extraordinary amount of pressure on ourselves with great expectations, we’ll be less likely to succeed. It’s best to relax into the moment, accept the present situation as it is, and focus.

The Focus For Students

1. Know What’s Expected
Are you expected to make up missed assignments? Some teachers won’t allow assignments to be made up. In this case, a focus on new assignments would be most productive. Some courses, like math, are cumulative – meaning that the new content is based on an understanding of old content – for these courses you’ll be lost if you don’t understand what was missed. In this case, you’ll need to work quickly to bring yourself up to speed with the rest of the class.

2. Scheduling & Time Management
Increase the amount of time you study for a limited time. If you don’t already use a calendar or day-timer to keep track of study time, now is a good time to start. Begin by marking in due dates for upcoming assignments, tests, and assignments you hope to make up. What will you give up in your schedule to make room for extra study time? What time of day are you most alert? Schedule extra study time then. Choose your study times and make the most of them – get rid of distractions.

3. Make Use of Teachers Find out when your teachers are available to meet with you. Ask about missed content and how much material they expect you to make up. Will they let you rewrite tests or reports that were missed? Do they have any extra practice worksheets for you? When asking for extra help, be specific about what you don’t understand (this will help your teacher to answer more of your questions).

4.Make Use of Classmates
Choose a student whose note-taking skills you trust and ask to borrow his/her notes (copy them by hand). Ask this student or others to discuss the content that you missed (this would benefit them as well in understanding the topic more thoroughly). Form a study group if a number of students have been away.

5. Make Use of Parents
If you are away unexpectedly, ask a parent to pick up study packages for you. Teach your parents materials that you are learning (they don’t need to understand what you are talking about, just listen while you practice explaining the topic).

6. Make Use of Tutors
Tutors can help you by teaching missed content and by keeping you on track with new materials and assignments.

7. Study Space
Study without distraction. Put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign. Find an alternative location, like a library, to study, if necessary.

8. Study Health
Treat yourself like an athlete on an intensive training program – focus on schoolwork as though you have a coach standing beside you. Study for 50-minute periods, take short breaks (especially for active exercise), eat healthy foods, drink plenty of water, and laugh often.

9. Study Techniques
Some techniques can be particularly helpful in making up lost time…Mapping – create diagrams to represent relationships between topics you’ve studied and those you’ve missed; Summaries – create or find summaries of the topics that you’ve missed (you may not have time to review all of the details, a surface understanding of the topics may be enough); Flashcards – make use of spare moments to study missed material (while waiting for a bus or in lines); Mnemonics – stories, songs, rhymes, and acronyms can help you to quickly remember information.

10. Course Syllabus
Review your course outline, if you were given one – it can help you to recognize what topics you missed, what they’re worth, and how they fit into the general context of the course.

11. Goal Setting
Set clear, achievable goals to help you to stay on track. How many missed assignments can you, or do you hope to, make up? What types of grades would you like to maintain in new course work as you catch up on missed work? Is there a grade that you would like to achieve by the end of the term? Remember that goals need to be realistic.

12. Positive Self-Talk
Whatever your goals, you’ll be more likely to achieve them if you have positive belief in your-self. Recognize the extra effort that you are putting in and reward yourself for it.

The Focus For Parents

  • Gather your student’s work from his teachers if he is sick.
  • Support a more intense study schedule – provide snacks, decrease chores, offer healthy foods, be sure that the student has a quiet study space.
  • Help your student to get organized and stay focussed on the big picture.
  • Discuss your student’s expectations and goals. Be sure to praise and reward efforts appropriately and often.
  • Provide study materials (e.g. big poster paper) to encourage your student to create maps and context for missing materials.
  • Provide opportunities for your student to explain topics to you. This gives them an opportunity to teach and reinforce their own learning.
  • Suggest getting help from others – classmates, teachers, or tutors.
  • Help your student to keep a broad perspective on missed school time – sometimes time off can be educational or beneficial to the development of the individual. Hopefully time off can at least help the student to recognize the benefits of education and being in school.

“Never regard study as a duty but as an enviable opportunity to learn.”
Albert Einstein