Exam Prep: Getting Kids To Study On Their Own

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I consider myself a relaxed mum who prefers to stay on the sidelines, especially when it comes to academics. My daughter, now 10, didn’t attend school until she was 6. Now a Primary 4 student in a popular school, she handles her homework and test preparation without parental supervision, although I must qualify that she has external support (i.e. tutoring) for Chinese and Science. Sadly, this doesn’t mean we’re exempt from exam stress—twice a year, we have our fair share of explosive episodes in the household from the time revision begins till the final paper is completed.

Many of these clashes stem from my lack of patience, but at the same time, I believe the underlying reason for our mismatched expectations is this: My daughter views preparing for exams as my responsibility, not hers. How could she think otherwise, when I defined her targets, selected materials to address her needs and weaknesses, and nagged her into completing the assignments that I’d set for her each day?

This year, I decided it was time for change. For the upcoming final exams, I’ve begun the process of letting go and letting my daughter take charge of her academic responsibilities. Here’s what we’ve been working on:

#1 Planning a revision timetable. My daughter is a school gymnast and training will go on regardless of exams, which limits her study time. Together, we decided that Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays would be dedicated to revision, and with her syllabus by her side, she wrote down what she hoped to accomplish on each day, over a two-week period.

#2 Goal setting. Initially, when my daughter created her daily revision task list, she made vague entries such as “Revise maths.” I asked her to clarify what she meant by “revise,” and she proceeded to outline a three-part process: Reading her notes, reviewing them (by asking herself questions), and working on assessment books. We didn’t discuss target scores, although I know she feels anything above 85% is satisfactory. Instead, we talked about specific ways to improve her score in different areas. For instance, for compositions, she has consistently scored 13/20 in the last two years, and for this exam, I asked her to include more dialogue in her stories to fulfill the “show, don’t tell” requirement specified in the grading rubric. (Read more about goal setting here.)

#3 Self-assessment. For English, we use Quizlet for revision, and I’ve created online flashcards for vocabulary terms, idioms, and other essentials. Flashcard sites like Quizlet allow you to generate multiple choice, True/False, and written tests. My daughter will retest herself until she attains a perfect score, no cajoling required. I’ve recently tried using Quizlet with a child who is a less fluent reader, with some success—the prospect of improving one’s score with practice seems to be a powerful incentive for learning. Flashcards can also be useful for mastering scientific definitions. Offline, I have asked my daughter to mark her own assessment books, and to approach someone else only if she doesn’t understand the model answer.

#4 Learning for the sake of learning. I’ve started to veer away from fixating on exam scores, and instead, focus on why we learn. One of my rules is this: “If you don’t know what it means, you don’t deserve to write it down.” Apart from her schoolteachers, my daughter has a solid support system in place for asking questions—I’m home-based, her father is a math teacher, and the enrichment centre she attends is five minutes away, where the tutors are more than happy to assist students who pop in during opening hours. Once we have some spare time, I also intend to show my daughter how easy it can be to find answers online.

#5 Effective studying. As a KiasuParents.com writer, I research a topic related to education every week and find ways to integrate useful ideas into my life. The tips I’ve picked up have helped me recommend more efficient and effective learning methods to my daughter, such as structuring her study sessions as 35-minute blocks, consisting of a 25-minute reading session, a five-minute review session, and a five-minute break. And in place of highlighting or copying chunks of text over to a notebook, I’ve advised her to look over her existing resources and verbally test herself on important concepts, to save time. For repetitive tasks, such as answering synthesis and transformation questions for English, we’ll go over them verbally as well, so she can conserve her energy for more meaningful work. (Click here for more last-minute revision tips.)

#6 Moving away from assessment books, where possible. We’re not fans of assessment books—my daughter has two for Science, and one for Maths. I don’t buy English workbooks; I prefer to correct my children’s speech so that they develop an instinct and good habits for using the language. For vocabulary, I’ve discovered the Vocabulary.com app, which turns learning new words into a game where you complete word quizzes to score points and level up—it’s addictive and avid players can rack up to 300,000 points in a day! I use the app and I’ve introduced my daughter to it as well. Unfortunately it’s only suitable for children who are proficient in the language; a struggling reader would be better off using a learner’s dictionary and making her own flashcards for review.

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#7 Peer learning. For this exam, we’ve had our neighbours’ children study at our home too, on weekends. They have a different set of learning issues from my daughter and I’ve tried to create a positive environment for everyone by reinforcing “growth mindset” principles. This means showing that we’re all learners no matter our age, that I’m prone to mistakes too, and that challenges are necessary to help our brains develop. My daughter has, for the first time, experienced being a peer tutor to her friends, and this has helped strengthen her own understanding of concepts. Her friends have also added value to her revision by giving her suggestions, such as for making her compositions more exciting. Working together lightens the mood, and they’ve taken turns to test one another, which has been more fun than studying alone. But the biggest perk of group studying has to be this: Friends to take breaks with.

Evelyn is a content editor at KiasuParents.com. She has two children of her own and blogs at The Bottomsup Blog.

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