Note: in the spirit of fostering independence, this post is written directly to students, so please pass it on to them…

In the run-up to exams, the ability to learn independently is crucial. Maybe Isolation can become an opportunity for students to learn the lifelong skills of independent study.

Here are our 5 top Study Skills tips for becoming an independent learner:

1. Set your learning goals and plan a timetable

Timetables are also very helpful in supporting mental health. By giving creating a sense of order, you minimise overwhelm and give yourself a structure to follow. Design a timetable similar to a school timetable, where regular time is allocated to each subject and work through the curriculum.

  • If exams are looming, then you will have a clear goal. Plan your timetable backwards from the exam date. Studying ‘little and often’ is far more effective for embedding knowledge in your long term memory, so space the subjects out over the weeks rather than scheduling binge study sessions.
  • If you don’t have any external exams to work towards, as in Years 7,8 and 9 it can be harder to motivate yourself. Projects can give a structure (eg. writing your first novel or painting the view from outside your window). You may find the structure of online programs helpful. For maths and science, the biggest and best resources is Khan Academy. Their teaching videos are being used by lots of schools and homeschoolers. They’re incredibly clear and well-structured, and you can follow a whole course on maths, coding or computer animations from beginner to advanced.
  • Warning: it can take experience to understand how long things will take. If you find that you’ve been over-ambitious with how much you think you can cover in one session, adjust your timetable until you find a more realistic balance. Remember, the schedule is there for you; you are not there from the schedule.

2. Make sure you cover all the material

Plan on your timetable how you’re going to cover all the content.

  • You must look online for the exam board specifications if you’re working towards an exam. Check how confident you are with all their points and plan your timetable around building on strengths and improving on weaker areas.
  • If there’s no exam on the horizon, a textbook will be fine. If you don’t have your school books, the CGP books are pretty comprehensive and easy to use.
  • In some cases, you may want to look online for lessons and explanations. 3 great websites are Khan Academy, BBC Bitesize and Mr Barton’s Maths youtube channel. To revise timestables, try Timestables Rockstars. They have free access during the coronavirus pandemic, as does Twinkl which is a treasurehouse of resources for every subject in KS1, KS2 and KS3/4.

3. Use index cards, not highlighters.

There are endless studies to show that reading and highlighting is far less effective than summarising and reviewing. So put away your highlighters until break time and make yourself some index/ flashcards. You can get yourself a pack of index cards and a box, or you can easily make your own, but they do need to be sturdy because hopefully you’ll be handling them often.

The power of index cards has two aspects:

  • Making: On one side, write the topic (eg photosynthesis) and on the other side you write the key points (carbon dioxide, water, sunlight). The process of summarising a topic is very helpful for keeping track of your knowledge.
  • Memorising: Once they’re made, you can use the cards to test yourself: read one side and recall the other by saying them aloud. Or, to take it a level further read the title and compose a 3-point answer using the points on the back.

This method of testing yourself is known as Retrieval Practice. The American Psychology Association explains that every time a memory is retrieved, it becomes more accessible in the future. So the more you test yourself, the quicker and more accurate you’ll become.

4. Phone a friend

Studying in partnership with a friend can be incredibly effective. It gives a sense of accountability, competition and makes it all more fun.

  • Plan your timetable so that you have a chance to study both separately and together.
  • You’ll probably find that one person is stronger than the other in any given subject. That’s actually great for both of you – one will get the support to improve and the other gets the chance to teach the material – which is the highest level of learning.

5. Self-Care and Taking Breaks

You need to be well-rested, well-nourished and hydrated if you want to learn effectively. Your brain is a muscle and it needs to be taken care of. Don’t slip into habits of working yourself until you crash. This is counter-productive and a real de-motivator. Stick to your timetable and be kind to yourself.

  • Keep drinking (non-caffeinated) drinks but try not to snack whilst you study. You’ll quickly create an association between studying and eating that can be hard to break – it’s too easy to finish off a packet of biscuits without even noticing it!
  • Movement whilst you study can be very effective, though. Walk around the kitchen table whilst you’re testing yourself, take out a skipping rope or take a moment to dance!
  • Respect your concentration span. Each person’s will be slightly different, but the guidance is that most children can concentrate for 2-5 minutes for each year of their age. So, a five-year old can concentrate for 10-25minutes whilst a 10 year-old can concentrate for 20-50mins. For older children, I think going past an hour without a short break is counterproductive.
  • Take 10-20 minutes breaks. Stretch your legs, grab a snack and give yourself a real change of headspace. You might want to try this out:

All students need to develop the skills to study alone. Maybe one result of the coronavirus health crisis will be improved independent study skills.