Teaching Students How to Study

KellerStudy Skills, Understanding the Brain Leave a Comment

As teachers battle the ever increasing demands to stay abreast with the curriculum and operational demands in a school, few are teaching their students how to study in preparation for a schooling career of test writing.

A few lessons for teachers:

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Lesson 1: Keep the motivation high

Too often we use the assessment process as a means to maintain their focus and attention. The anxiety involved, teachers believe, will force them to learn. Not true. Anxiety shuts down the thinking brain. The power of cortisol prevents the working memory in the pre- frontal cortex from fetching stored knowledge from the cortex.

Watch this video with your students.

Refer back to the key elements during the academic year. Play the video several times. These are lessons we all need to know.

Lesson 2: Teach Learners to design a study-timetable

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of belonging and feeling worthy. This allows the hippocampus to flip through its filing cabinet and instruct the cortex to find bits of the information stored all over the cortex.

Remind your students that it will be recalled as a story, so they may need to add Memory Hooks onto their story. Mnemonics, cartoons, songs, acronyms, rhymes and special movements, graphics, colour coding etc. all help to hook the initial story onto the facts stored elsewhere in the cortex. The memory hooks now allow the students to formulate their answers.

Lesson 3: Stress matters – and it matters most at assessment time.

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Stress is a memory killer. The calmer you can keep your students the better they will do. The use of the study timetable and exemplars of typical assessments should have reduced the stress level dramatically. Tell your students that you are out to “catch them at their best” and a stressed brain is only good for humans to escape danger and survive.

Stress is a memory killer!

Breath work

Incorporate breathing exercises in every lesson. When these lessons become habitual, the brain resorts to this technique when it feels the onset of stress. When we are anxious, we typically make use of shallow breathing. Teach students to breathe to a rhythm or to breathe according to a routine (ie. Breathe in 2,3,4 hold 2,3,4 sigh out 2,3,4, or breathe in deeply for 8 counts , hold for 6 counts and slowly allow the breath out of your mouth for 8 counts.)

Mindful Exercises

Again, if mindful exercises are part of the daily routine, students can use them in preparation and in anticipation of an assessment. By quietening the mind while breathing to a routine, students can take control of the body’s natural tendency to opt for anxiety.

Lesson 4: Over emphasise SEED


The brain will not be able to work efficiently if it is exhausted. Lack of sleep causes brain damage. Sleep deprivation is one of the most effective methods of torture and is one of the 5 illegal methods of interrogation after 2009. The other four are hooding, subjecting prisoners to loud noise, food deprivation and prolonged wall standing. Sleep is as essential as food and water.

Sleep cannot be compromised during preparation for examinations.


Unlike Eskom, energy should never be switched off. We cannot load shed during Assessment preparation. We need to maintain a state of flow during these difficult seasons. It is also often referred to as being in the zone. The father of Positive Psychology, Prof Martin Seligman describes it as the study of what constitutes a pleasant life, the engaged life and the meaningful life. For parents, this means ensuring that the environment at home is calm and conducive to “pleasant” studying. Theatrical parenting is essential during this time. Smiles on the faces of parents adds to the energy in the home. Keep the nagging to a minimum and keep the TV volume down making sure that the environment is 100% conducive to stress free studying.


The brain loves movement. Schools that stop extra-mural programmes completely during the examination period have not fully grasped the enormous benefit that exercise has on the capacity for the brain to retain a vast amount of data. Encourage your students to exercise often. Break up the study timetable with time to kick the ball, take a bicycle ride, go for a surf or just walk around the neighbourhood. By exercising we allow oxygenated blood rich in glucose to be pumped to the brain.

Aerobic exercise increases BDNF in the brain – this is the ‘fertiliser” between the neurons where memory is stored.


If there is ever a season where the DIET really matters, it is during Assessment preparation and writing. Teach students the value of reducing junk food and high sugar diets in favour of healthy, whole food menus. Supplement the study programme with healthy treats, fruit, nuts, popcorn and biltong.

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Lesson 5: Rehearsal

In preparation for the Assessment Week, make sure that they have rehearsed the procedure – especially for the younger students. By knowing exactly what to expect, cortisol is reduced, flow is increased and the brain is prepared to demonstrate its true ability. Fear is a killer.

Lesson 6: Feedback

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Feedback is essential. After the Assessment Week it is vital that the students get the feedback quickly. Teach your students about GRIT – the ability to be resilient in the face of struggle. A poor result does not mean that the student is not competent, it simply means that they have not been able to master it YET or that the environment of the assessment caused the brain to flood with cortisol. By setting up your students to receive the feedback positively and work through the memorandum – they are able to pinpoint their errors and correct their misconception.

When the Report arrives, the Feedback from the parents is vital. This is not a time for critical review. This is a time to celebrate what has been achieved and to draw up a strategy to address the challenges. The moment students discover that they are being judged and lose their sense of value, our hope for mastery is reduced.


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