Q: My fourth-grader, Karina, has way more homework this year than last year. She works hard on it, but despite the time spent, doesn't always remember what she studies. Any suggestions?
A: Schools focus on the content that students should learn, but very little on cognitive skills such as time management and study strategies to make sure that the learning "sticks."
Data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that teaching cognitive strategies works. Students who use cognitive skills the most "to understand and remember what they read, such as underlining important parts of the texts or discussing what they read with other people, perform at least 73 points higher in the PISA assessment -- that is, one full proficiency level or nearly two full school years -- than students who use these strategies the least," the group's report stated.
Unfortunately, "we don't often teach helpful 'cerebral' strategies, such as visualizing time, taking notes and sequencing events," says Donna Goldberg, a learning coach and author of "The Organized Student" (Fireside, 2005).
Ask yourself what key cerebral strategies Karina can learn, and which she might already be using. Does she use what she already knows about a topic to learn new material? Ask herself questions as she reads? Draw pictures or diagrams to develop understanding? Discuss the subject with others to clarify new concepts? Practice material several times to build understanding? Make notes on things she doesn't understand to ask the teacher? Review an assignment before moving on? Organize her time to be most efficient?
Does Karina see the big picture in what she's studying? "Some teachers fail to tell students what they'll be learning during the year," says Goldberg. "They tell how they'll grade and what the class rules are, but don't say, 'This year we'll study ancient history: We'll start with Mesopotamia, then Egypt, Greece and Rome.' Teachers who explain the game plan, and with each lesson place the topic in the context of the curriculum's broader goal, really help students retain the material much more effectively. You can help reinforce the big picture with Karina."
Another thing to check is her understanding of time. "Parents assume that because kids can tell time that they can manage it," says Goldberg. "Kids can tell you, for example, that it's 12:30 -- lunchtime -- but can't gauge how long it will take to eat or the time left before next class or until study period."
Goldberg recommends students use a paper planner to manage time. "The tool makes time visible," she says. "It captures activities, assignments and deadlines in one place. It allows a student to block out both study and personal time; keep track of immediate deadlines and pace long-term projects; gauge how long things take and calculate time needed to complete a project."
The Time Timer (timetimer.com) can help make time real for some students, says Goldberg. Another good tool is the My-Time Kid's Planner (mytimekidsplanner.com), a large magnetic, dry-erase scheduling board.
If Karina doesn't grasp these strategies immediately, don't worry, says Goldberg. "What's important is that you've started a dialogue. Reinforce (the techniques) with her, by doing things such as checking the planner. Soon, she'll see their benefits and start using them."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)