To learn it, do it.

Scientific studies show that people learn the most by being active, and we remember best by relating new information to things we already know. As students of all ages head back to class, understanding how we learn can be the starting point for a more successful year of study.

“The best process is to make sure you see it, hear it, and then get some experience using it,” says Dr. William Pfohl, president of the National Association of School Psychologists. “And that way it’s most likely to stick.”

How does the mind take in new information?

We’ve all had the experience of looking up a telephone number and dialing it — then finding we’ve forgotten it five minutes later. That’s because our memory actually has three components:


Sensory memory takes in the impressions from our five senses and lasts just seconds.


Short-term memory works like a “holding area” for new information — that’s where you keep that phone number long enough to dial it. But in order to remember that same phone number next week, it needs to go into


Long-term memory, the area that contains everything from the multiplication tables to the names of your second cousins. Whether you’re a first-grader or a college senior, the purpose of studying is to get new concepts and information stored in your long-term memory.

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 know?’”

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.

 “These 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 week.

“If they don’t have assigned homework, they can work on a project, or do some reading — even if it’s just a motorcycle magazine.”

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 paper.

4. Give the new material time to soak in — it’s better to study for several short sessions than one long one.


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