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It’s Monday morning, and Debbie Carpenter’s 7th-grade science class is really swinging. Literally.

Today, her students at Berea Community Middle School are learning about pendulums, and instead of just reading their textbooks, they’re watching pieces of string weighted with big metal washers swaying through the air.

“23, 24, 25…” Nolan Andis is looking a tad dizzy as he counts the swings, while his lab partner, Rachel Cope, waits with finger poised on a stopwatch. They’re trying to work out how shortening the string changes the number of swings per minute. “Time!” calls Rachel, and they huddle over the chart they’re making.

“We have lots of hands-on activities in class,” says Carpenter. She’s a strong believer in learning by doing. And her students think this is a great idea. “It’s easier, it’s more fun,” says Molly McKinney. “You can learn a lot from it.”

There’s plenty of research that backs this up. Scientific studies have shown that people learn most by being active, and we remember best by relating new information to things we already know. As students of all ages head back to class, understanding how we learn can be the starting point for a more successful year of study.

“The best process is to make sure you see it, hear it, and then get some experience using it,” explains Dr. William Pfohl, professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. “And that way it’s most likely to stick.” This is exactly what Debbie Carpenter’s students are doing. Before their experiment, they read about pendulums and watched a giant pendulum in a museum. Afterward, they’ll write about their discoveries, and later take a test.

How does the mind take in new information? We’ve all had the experience of looking up a telephone number and dialing it—then finding we’ve forgotten it five minutes later. That’s because our memory actually has three components. Sensory memory takes in the impressions from our five senses, and lasts just seconds. Short-term memory works like a “holding area” for new information—that’s where you keep that phone number long enough to dial it. But in order to remember that same phone number next week, it needs to go into long-term memory, the area that contains everything from the multiplication tables to the names of your second cousins. Whether you’re a first-grader or a college senior, the purpose of studying is to get new concepts and information stored into your long-term memory.

Learning actually changes the structure of our brains. According to Dr. Carolyn Hopper, Learning Strategies coordinator at Middle Tennessee State University and author of Practicing College Study Skills, every time we learn something new, our brain builds new connections with what we already know. The more connections it builds, the easier it is to remember what we have learned. “When learning something new and difficult,” she says, “we need to ask, ‘What is this like that I already know?’ ”

Dr. Hopper says that brain research has found four key factors in effective study. The first is making an effort. Our brain remembers better when we are interested in the subject, already know a little about it, and intend to remember.

Next, we need to find the most important points and concentrate on organizing them, rather than trying to take in every last detail. There’s a limit to how much information we can learn at one time. In reading a textbook, look for titles, headings, and illustrations that give clues to the main ideas. In class, pay special attention to things written on the board or printed in handouts. Try to imagine what you would put on the test, if you were the teacher. Make up your own way to organize the important information, like a chart or a mnemonic (a saying like “30 days has September…”).

Then we need to strengthen the new connections in the brain. There are several good ways to do this. One is to say the ideas out loud in your own words—“probably the most powerful tool you have to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory,” says Dr. Hopper. Parents can ask kids to explain the topic they’ve just read about. Another method is making a picture (in your mind or on paper) of what you just learned, to activate a completely different part of the brain.

Finally, we need to give the new material time to soak in—the new physical connections inside the brain have to be built up. For this reason, it’s better to study for several short sessions than one long one, and cramming right before a big test seldom helps.

“These memory principles work for any age group,” says Dr. Hopper. “Being able to explain something in your own words is important, and being able to teach it to someone else is a sure way to assure understanding. When we read something, we are able to remember 10%, but when we teach something, we retain 95%.”

Dr. Richard Chandler trains future teachers for eastern Kentucky at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes. In his opinion, kids are never too young to learn good study habits, in school or at home. “We start them in first grade by giving them a folder to keep their work in, and then they have to take it home every day to show Mom and Dad.” Over time, children learn to take responsibility for organizing their own work.

Experts agree that it’s important to establish a set time and place for study, and a regular routine. Dr. Pfohl recommends 30 minutes for elementary school students, and 45 minutes for middle and high schoolers, five nights a week. “If they don’t have assigned homework, they can work on a project, or do some reading—even if it’s just a motorcycle magazine.” He emphasizes that parents should supervise and check homework—not do it for their kids!

A different kind of study skills expert is Rene Neal, whose eight children range in age from 30 down to 9. Her eldest is a dentist, while the youngest, Alina, is a 4th-grader at Centerfield Elementary School in Crestwood. The middle children have studied fields ranging from electrical engineering to social work to fashion design.

Neal feels it’s vital to understand children’s individual differences. “I tried to have a set time for homework, but it wasn’t the same for every child. Some people are easily distracted, and others are really focused—it depends on the individual. I just tried to see what each child was capable of and make sure that they each had a time and a place to do their homework.” As soon as they got home, she would go through bookbags, looking at each child’s papers and talking for a few minutes about what they were doing in school. She highly recommends getting involved in PTA activities as a way to build communication with teachers.

Above all, says Neal, children need an “atmosphere of learning” in the home.

“The very most important thing is reading with your child. That’s one thing I started doing with the older ones and continue with my youngest, reading every night to them.” Over the years, she read everything from Dr. Seuss to The Swiss Family Robinson. “Go to zoos, museums, art galleries, and concerts—I’m a big believer in music, too,” she says.

Every experience in daily life, she feels, can have lessons to teach.

“Even if you just go for a walk with your little children and say, ‘Look at this!’ you open them up to seeing all the wonderful things in the world, and learning. If you do it as a family, and you love learning, they’ll gain that too.”


Dr. Carolyn Hopper, author of Practicing College Study Skills, recommends:

1. Make an effort. Our brain remembers better when we are interested in the subject, already know a little about it, and intend to remember.

2. Find important points and organize them. Look for titles, headings, and illustrations that give clues to the main ideas when reading. Pay special attention to things written on the board or printed in handouts. Come up with your own ways of organizing them using charts or mnemonics.

3. Strengthen the new connections in the brain. Say the ideas out loud. Explain what you just read. Make a picture (in your mind or on paper) of what you just learned.

4. Give the new material time to soak in. Study for several short sessions; don’t cram.


Young or old, we all have different talents and abilities—and different ways of learning as well. Educational research has found that each of us has a preferred learning “style,” the most effective way we take in new information: by hearing it, seeing it, or using our bodies to work with it.

This short quiz will help you find your strongest learning style.

1. When I’m not sure how to spell a word, I usually:
A) sound it out in my mind
B) try to visualize the word
C) write it several ways and choose one

2. If people ask me how to get to a nearby place, I like to:
A) tell them the directions
B) draw a map for them
C) take them there

3. If I were having problems installing a new computer printer, I would:
A) call someone to ask questions
B) look at the diagrams in the manual
C) experiment until I figure it out

4. My favorite kind of class is one with lots of:
A) lectures and presentations
B) pictures and diagrams
C) field trips and projects

5. When I study for a test, I like to:
A) have someone ask me questions
B) go over the textbook again
C) make note cards and models

If most of your answers are A:
You’re an auditory learner—one who takes in information best by hearing it. Auditory learners do well in classes where the teacher lectures. They enjoy taking part in discussions and group learning situations. Reading information out loud helps them remember it. It’s hard for them to work in a noisy environment, because too much noise and activity distracts them. Study tips for auditory learners:

  • ask lots of questions in class
  • discuss the material with another
  • listen to audiobooks
  • use a tape recorder in class instead of taking notes
  • study together with a group

If most of your answers are B:
You’re a visual learner—one who takes in information best by seeing it. Visual learners tend to “think in pictures,” and like to take notes in class so they can look at them later. They learn well from demonstrations, charts, diagrams, and pictures. This is the most common learning style, and many traditional school activities focus on it. Study tips for visual learners:

  • make diagrams or charts of
    important material
  • use colored pens to highlight text
  • take lots of notes while listening
  • visualize information as you read
  • draw pictures of what you want to remember

If most of your answers are C:
You’re a kinesthetic learner—one who takes in information best by using your body to touch or work with things. They are literally “hands-on” people, who think and learn best while moving their bodies. These students often have a difficult time in school when they are required to sit still, but they do very well in practical subjects. Study tips for kinesthetic learners:

  • move around while studying
  • take frequent breaks
  • build projects and make models
  • try working standing up
  • find practical ways to use what you’re learning


Marcia MacLaren, study skills instructor at Eastern Kentucky University, recommends:

I = Identify what’s important. What are the key concepts?

U = Understand. What do I need to know or do?

R = Remember. “Reciting out loud helps to put the information into long-term memory,” she recommends.

E = Express. “For every class, you have to express what you’ve learned. In an art class, you might express it by doing a drawing; in a math class, you might solve an equation.”


Marcia MacLaren, study skills instructor at Eastern Kentucky University, recommends:

  • Prepare like an athlete getting ready for “game day.” Practice what you will do on the test.
  • Go into the exam with a strategy. Take a minute or two to look through the whole test first, then decide how to use your time. You don’t want to discover a 50-point essay on the last page with five minutes left.
  • Read directions carefully and note key words—things like “compare,” “choose,” or “define.”
  • Don’t get stuck on questions you can’t answer. Put down your best choice and mark them so you can come back later if you still have time.
  • Relax. Think positively and feel confident in your ability.


For a list of Web sites and books that offer more help on developing your study skills, click here: study skills

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