Learning actually changes the structure of our brains.
According to Dr. Carolyn Hopper, Learning Strategies coordinator at Middle
Tennessee State University and author of Practicing College Learning
Strategies, every time we learn something new, our brains build new
connections with what we already know. The more connections it builds, the
easier it is to remember what we have learned.
“When learning something new and difficult,” says
Dr. Hopper, “we need to ask, ‘What is this like that I already
Dr. Hopper says that brain research has found four key
factors in effective study. The first is making an effort. Our brain
remembers better when we are interested in the subject, already know a
little about it, and intend to remember.
Next, we need to find the most important points and
concentrate on organizing them, rather than trying to take in every last
detail. There’s a limit to how much information we can learn at one time.
When reading a textbook, look for titles, headings, and illustrations that
give clues to the main ideas. In class, pay special attention to things
written on the board or printed in handouts. Try to imagine what you would
put on the test if you were the teacher. Make up your own way to organize
the important information, like a chart or a mnemonic (a saying like “30
days has September…”).
Then we need to strengthen the new connections in the
brain. There are several good ways to do this. One is to say the ideas out
loud in your own words — “probably the most powerful tool you have to
transfer information from short-term to long-term memory,” says Hopper.
Parents can ask kids to explain the topic they’ve just read about. Another
method is making a picture (in your mind or on paper) of what you just
learned, to activate a completely different part of the brain.
Finally, we need to give the new material time to soak
in — the new physical connections inside the brain have to be built up.
For this reason, it’s better to study for several short sessions than one
long one, and cramming right before a big test seldom helps.
memory principles work for any age group,” says Dr. Hopper. “Being able
to explain something in your own words is important, and being able to teach
it to someone else is a sure way to assure understanding. When we read
something, we are able to remember 10 percent, but when we teach something,
the retention is 95 percent.”
Parents can help even the youngest students start
developing good study skills. Experts agree that it’s important to
establish a set time and place for study and a regular routine.
Dr. Pfohl recommends 30 minutes of study for elementary
school students and 45 minutes for middle and high schoolers, five nights a
“If they don’t have assigned homework, they can
work on a project, or do some reading — even if it’s just a motorcycle
He emphasizes that parents should supervise and check
homework — not do it for their kids! Building a strong link between home
and school is also vital.
Says Immediate Past National PTA President Linda Hodge,
“Open, two-way, ongoing communication with your child’s teachers helps
kids to be supported, and know they are supported, in their educational
efforts 24/7. Don’t wait until there’s a problem. Make an appointment
the first day of school to talk to your child’s teachers.”
Talk about the teachers’ expectations and share
information about your child’s interests and challenges. You can also
discuss ways to further practice the curriculum at home — such as cooking
together to use fractions.
Above all, experts agree that parents need to show
their children, by example, that learning is important. Read to your
children from the earliest years, and let them see you reading for pleasure.
Take them to museums, the zoo, a concert. Even a walk in the park has its
lessons to teach.
Experiences like these, and good study skills, form the
basis for a lifetime of learning.
Dr. Hopper’s four steps to learning
1. Make an effort — Your brain remembers better when
you are interested and intend to remember.
2. Find the most important points and organize them —
Try to imagine what you would put on the test if you were the teacher.
3. Strengthen the new connections in the brain —Say
the ideas out loud in your own words or draw a picture in your mind or on
4. Give the new material time to soak in — it’s
better to study for several short sessions than one long one.