Study and test-taking strategies for kids with learning difficulties

Many students with learning difficulties need explicit, intensive instruction in study strategies.

Effective study strategies are the gateway to school success, graduation, college entry, and job advancement. Poor study habits can bar even bright students from many important opportunities that would otherwise enable them to realize their potential. For many children who have learning and/or attention difficulties, studying is an overwhelming challenge. Consider your child's current study skills; he may not know what to study or how to approach studying, may have difficulty remembering the information even when he has studied, may have trouble expressing what he knows (especially in essays). If your child struggles with these problems, he is far from unique.

From late elementary school into college, problems with studying and test-taking represent a major hurdle for many children and adolescents, especially those who have learning and attention problems.1 These difficulties are often identified only after discrepancies are discovered between these students' high grades for class work and their low scores on standardized tests. Their test scores frequently do not reflect their strong conceptual understanding or their level of ability. As a result, study sessions are often highly charged and extremely stressful for these students and their parents.

It is now recognized that many children and adolescents with learning difficulties need explicit, intensive instruction in study strategies.2, 3, 4, 5, 6 This article will describe strategies your child may need to learn, including prioritizing and shifting approaches, and identifying global themes while ignoring irrelevant details.7 Self-monitoring strategies such as checking, planning, and revising are critical, as your child, like many others, may not use these automatically.8, 9 Finally, your child may need to be taught explicitly how to figure out which strategy is appropriate when preparing for a test.10

Identifying problem areas

How can you help your child improve his study skills and reduce the stress involved? You can play a critical role in preventing a negative cycle where your child's poor test performance discourages him from applying himself and learning more effective study strategies. The first step is to determine why your child is having difficulty. Here are some questions to consider and discuss with your child:

Knowing what to study

Children are often unaware of the breadth and depth of the material to be covered in an upcoming test. To determine your child's level of awareness, ask him:

Help your child understand that his teacher may offer clues about important details to focus on when studying for a test. Phrases teachers use to signal importance include:

Next, assess your child's listening skills, attention, and focus. Does he listen for the teacher's "signals" as to what is important? Active listening in the classroom during everyday lessons helps children to "zero in" on key facts or skills that a teacher may include on a test.

Textbooks offer clues that identify important information.

If possible, review your child's textbook and discuss the use of different size or colored fonts, side-bars, figures, etc. included in the chapter(s) he'll be tested on. Think about your child's learning and reading style. Remind him to use active reading strategies when reading his textbook. For example:

Encourage your child to use colored highlighters or Post-it notes to flag important information in textbooks and class notes. This will help him review the material more efficiently.

Learning how to study

Your child may need to learn specific study strategies for organizing, remembering, prioritizing, and shifting approaches flexibly. These processes are the underpinnings of strategic learning and are essential for accurate and efficient studying. He may also need strategies for identifying global themes while ignoring irrelevant details and shifting from the details to the main ideas.11, 12 Self-checking strategies such as editing, planning, monitoring, and revising are critical, as many children do not use these automatically.13, 14 The study and test-taking strategies cited below are derived from the intervention research and clinical work we have done at the Research Institute for Learning and Development (Research ILD) over the past few years, which have demonstrated the efficacy of strategy instruction for all students, particularly for students with learning or attention problems.15, 16

Strategies for organizing and remembering

In order for your child to remember information, the information needs to be filed away in his brain in an organized way. The information will then be much more easily accessible when it is time to retrieve and use the information in the classroom or on a test. Tests are often used by teachers to evaluate how much students understand and retain after days, weeks, or even months of class work, reading, discussions, homework, and projects. It is important that your child develop organized systems for keeping track of information, or he may become overwhelmed or confused about the many details. You can help your child accomplish this by:

Your child will probably remember information better when it is meaningful, familiar, or even silly! The following memory strategies may help your child with those details and facts that just won't stick.

Strategies for self-monitoring

For all students, an important part of studying is becoming aware of their most common mistakes, so they can try to avoid making the same errors on the next test. To help your child become more strategic while studying, you can:

Math test checklist

a. Did I copy the problems correctly?
b. Did I remember to label my answers?
c. Did I use the right operation?
d. Did I check my answers to see if they make sense?

Making a study plan and sticking to it

The following suggestions may be helpful when your child is studying for tests in content areas such as history or science. Encourage your child to:

Goal setting and self-pacing

Does your child rush through his study sessions? If so, you can teach your child to set goals and to pace himself. Here are some steps to take:

Analyzing the format of homework and tests

Does your child have difficulty understanding and remembering the homework assignments, teacher expectations, and test questions? Children with learning and attention problems often misread questions, focus their attention on sections of the question rather than the entire question, have difficulty understanding nuances in the language, struggle to determine what's most important, and do not easily differentiate between similar answers. If this description matches your child, here are some suggestions that may help:

Putting it in perspective

Sometimes anxiety can impede a student's performance on tests even when he prepares well. If your child panics or become anxious when studying for tests, here are some strategies you can try:

As adults, we know test performance is only one small way of measuring understanding and that learning is a complex, multifaceted process that needs to be measured in many different ways. We also know how important it is ensure our children have positive and successful school experiences so that they have as many options as possible open as they advance into adulthood. We hope these suggestions will help you to support your child with learning and/or attention problems so he can develop successful study skills, and can achieve success in and out of the classroom.

Many of the examples provided in this article are from BrainCogs®, a CD-ROM that helps children learn study strategies in a self-directed way. Institute for Learning and Development and FableVision, 2002.


  1. Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1991; Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1988, 1995
  2. Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1991
  3. Meltzer & Montague, 2001;Meltzer, Roditi, Houser, & Perlman, 1998
  4. Putnam, Deshler, & Schumaker, 1993
  5. Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1995
  6. Swanson, Hoskyn, & Lee, 1999
  7. Meltzer, 1996; Meltzer, Roditi, Haynes, Biddle, Paster, & Taber, 1996
  8. Meltzer, Roditi, Haynes, Biddle, Paster, & Taber, 1996 9. Swanson, 1989
  9. Meltzer, Roditi, Steinberg, Biddle, Taber, Caron, Kniffin, 2005. Stone & Michals, 1986
  10. Stein, Meltzer, Krishnan, Pollica, Roditi, in press
  11. Meltzer, Roditi, Steinberg, Biddle, Taber, Caron, Kniffin, 2005
  12. Meltzer, Roditi, Taber, Stein, Steinberg et al., 2002
  13. Meltzer, Roditi, Haynes, Biddle, Paster, & Taber, 1996
  14. Meltzer, Roditi, Houser, & Perlman, 1998; Meltzer, 2004; Meltzer, Reddy, Pollica, Roditi, Sayer, et al., 2004
  15. Meltzer, Roditi, Haynes, Biddle, Paster, & Taber, 1996
  16. Meltzer, Roditi, Houser, & Perlman, 1998; Meltzer, 2004; Meltzer, Reddy, Pollica, Roditi, Sayer, et al., 2004

Research Institute for Learning & Development Colleagues