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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:

  • Does your child usually know what to study?
  • Does he use a systematic method for studying?
  • Does he seem to have inefficient study skills (i.e., he spends long hours studying, yet performs poorly on tests)?

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:

  • Has he checked in with the teacher about the content of the test?
  • Has the teacher provided a study guide or practice test?
  • Is there a review session your child can attend?
  • Does your child have a plan for studying?

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:

  • "Write this down"
  • "Let me summarize"
  • "Let me say it again"
  • "This is important"
  • "I'll write this on the board"
  • "Remember… "

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:

  • Review the chapter and section headings and convert them to questions. For example, the header, "Causes of World War I" might be changed to "What are the causes of World War I?"
  • Review the words, phrases, and sentences that appear in bold type to denote their importance.
  • Study the pictures and tables.
  • Look at the sidebar information.
  • Review and answer the questions at the end of each chapter.

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.

Research Institute for Learning & Development Colleagues

Comments from readers

"Good Afternoon, The information is very freshing and informative and will help facilitate my learning and understanding when working with students that have learning disabilities. Thank You, Donavin White "
"I have a Daughter who is now in 11th grade.I find this information very useful for my daughter. I really need some help, when she studies and go into a test she is very blank and can not remember what she had studied. I know i am late but its never too late becasue now i am worried about her when she will go in to colledge and i want her to do good. Is their classes or online course she can do to help her test skills. Can you please give me your advice, when this happen to her she does not do well and my tests. "
"'I have a daughter who is in 11th grad, but i find this information very useful for my daughter. She really need some help, when she study and go into a test she is very blank and can not remember what she had studied. Her test taking strategies were always bad, but now she is in 11th grade and i am worried what will happen to her in colledge. I know I am late but it never too late. Can you please give me your advice, when this happen to her, she do not do well and my tests. "
"Most students are unable to link knowledge and skills gained in schooling,in the actual classroom situation.And i acknowledge the valuable assistance of your program...thank you."
"needs improvement but great"
"i think this is a gerat resouce for childern teens and adults and etc for homeork exams and more"
"i thought this was good article because all people can work and do things .But some people have different ways of learning and work "
"it is effective but needs improvement"
"I found this to be a very resourceful site! Being a special ed teacher, I have many students who need these strategies. I have even suggested many of my parents to view this site. Thanks!"
"I have found this article to be very helpful and I plan to give it a try. Thanks!"
"I do not have a child, but I find this information very useful for myself. I really need some help, when I study and go into a test I am very blank and can not remember what I had studied. I am now in college doing my pre-requsite courses. Can you please give me your advice, when this happen to me I do not do well and my tests."
" great!i find it very useful ! do you have any sample test about study habits and learning attitudes of students that i could use/ reference to my thesis? tnx"
"Conserning multiple choice questions. The fact remains that a large number of student have problems trying to figure out the right answer. Where by most of it is by guess work. How do we help students to avoid these during exams, especially when dealing with students with learning disabilities?"
"This was great-however I am at the point where I need more specifics on how to retain memorized facts that seems to slip away the next morning after studying."
"this was very useful. thanks."