Preteens the Middle Years : Tactics for Tests How can I help at exam time?

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Q: My child studies for hours on end. Should I put a limit on this and make her do something else?
A: Achieving at school is clearly important to your daughter, and her motivation should be encouraged. However, her enthusiastic approach to studying is not necessarily the most effective. Pushing herself too hard may backfire and result in poorer performance on a test day. Memories need time to consolidate, so taking regular breaks is not only important for your daughter’s well-being, it will improve her learning too. If academic success is important to her, dragging her away from her work is likely to raise anxiety levels and cause friction between you. Instead, you could try suggesting some alternative study strategies, such as looking at websites together or working through previous test papers, or you could offer to quiz her on the material. This will give you more control over the time she is spending on her preparation, and give you an opportunity to discuss the strategies she is currently using.

If your daughter is not approaching her work in the most effective way, this may also be contributing to her long spells of studying. Encourage her to take a 10-minute break out of her room every 40 minutes, offer healthy snacks to keep her energy levels up, and make sure she winds down properly at night.

Q: Why does my son always put off studying until the last minute?
A: There are a number of reasons why your son may be putting off his studies in this way. It may be that he lacks confidence in his abilities and is anxious about taking tests. He may find studying a dull and boring activity compared with all the other ways he could be spending his time. Or it may be that he feels he has a good knowledge of the material and is relaxed about taking tests. However, if he is trying to cram the night before, this seems unlikely. Research shows that boys generally tend to use riskier study strategies than girls. Leaving studying until the last minute may have worked for your son in the past but, as he progresses through school, this strategy will become less and less effective. Learning good study habits now will have long-term benefits. Help your son to organize his time so that he does some preparation with you in advance to help build his confidence. Try listing the topics he has to master and getting him to rate how confident he feels about each of them. Help your son organize his timetable so that he alternates between studying topics he feels confident about and those he knows less well. If he puts off all the difficult stuff until the last minute, he is likely to end his study session feeling as though he knows less than when he started. For the most part, studying really is a dull and boring activity so make sure your son works in short bursts, with plenty of regular breaks. Offering small rewards along the way will also help to keep him motivated.
Q: My studious son falls to pieces in tests and exams. How can I help him remember the material?
A: It must be terribly frustrating and disappointing for your son to put so much hard work and effort into his preparation and then not be able to reap the rewards at the end. He’s not alone, though—many actors, singers, and athletes also suffer from performance anxiety, which makes it difficult to recall information that has been learned and stored away for the big occasion. As part of your son’s preparation, it may be helpful to go over some simple relaxation strategies with him. He could try using controlled breathing to calm himself before the test starts, and again if he feels himself getting anxious. Practice this with your son: breathe in through your nose while slowly counting to five in your head, then out through your mouth, repeating the word RELAX in your mind. When he is feeling more relaxed, encourage him to take a few minutes to read through the test and to start with one or two questions he can answer easily. This will boost his confidence and help him start recalling all that he has learned.

A high fear of failure will make him even more anxious and, therefore, less likely to do well, so help him approach tests in a calm, realistic, and organized way. Help with his revision, let him know that you will be happy if he does his best, and organize a fun activity to do with your son when the test is over—whatever the outcome.

Q: My daughter attends lots of after-school clubs but doesn’t have much time for homework. How can we create a balance?
A: Taking part in extracurricular activities is important for children’s social, emotional, and physical development, and your daughter should be encouraged to pursue her interests. However, if she is struggling to find time for her regular schoolwork, she may have taken on too much.

Helping your daughter to find a sensible work/life balance will enable her to achieve her potential at school and enjoy her other activities without having to worry about the work she has piling up at home. Sit down with her and draw out a weekly timetable showing all her clubs and classes. This should make it clear where the problem spots are across the week. Rather than setting aside a large chunk of time for schoolwork, try to plan in regular slots across the week. This will enable your daughter to respond better to homework deadlines and break up her schedule at exam time. She might be able to move some activities around, but it may not be possible to fit everything in, and you will have to help her prioritize.

At exam time, some activities may need to go on hold for a week or two to allow for extra study time. Make sure you discuss this with her in advance and draw out a new timetable to reflect it.

Healthy homework habits Aiding their study skills

Helping your child develop healthy homework habits will support their day-to-day learning and give them the study skills they need to cope with tests and exams. Research shows that parents spend up to six hours a week helping their children with homework and this is time well spent as there is a lot you can do to make sure they achieve their potential.

  • Ask about subject meetings for parents so you can learn about the methods being used with your child. Avoid the temptation to show him how you were taught as this will only confuse him.

  • Set up a dedicated homework area with all the materials your child will need. Sitting in the same place each day to complete homework will help him switch into study mode.

  • Working in front of the TV is generally not a good idea but some children may find listening to music helpful.

  • Check your child’s homework diary each day so you can help him plan out when he will do each piece and how long he can spend on it.

  • Agree a time for doing homework with your child. Give him a break after school and let him eat something first. Don’t leave homework until the end of the evening, though, as he will be winding down for sleep and unlikely to perform at his best.

  • Ask your child to explain his homework to you and how it fits with his lesson that day. This can be a great way of finding out other information about how he is getting on at school.

  • Support your child in his task and try not to take over—particularly if he is struggling. It can be very frustrating when you know he can do something but try to stay calm, patient, and positive about his efforts. Build on his learning by helping him to work things out for himself rather than just telling him the answer.

  • Be positive about tackling homework with your child. If he sees your face drop when he hands you his math homework he is unlikely to feel confident himself!

  • If your child rejects your offer of help but seems to be struggling, praise him for taking an independent approach to learning, let him know that you are available should he want your help, and offer to check his work afterwards. If he has made a few mistakes, point out what he did well first of all and don’t insist that he corrects everything as the school need to be aware of your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

  • If your child is consistently struggling with his homework, arrange to speak to his teacher about it. Many schools now offer homework clubs with teaching staff on hand to give additional advice and guidance.

Helping out

Getting your child to explain his homework to you will make it clearer for him.

Study strategies Realistic methods to help your child

How your child approaches studying is just as important as how long she spends going over the material. Before she buries her head in a book, sit down together and draw out a timetable to help organize her time. If she has several subjects she needs to cover, set some realistic target dates for each, so she can monitor her progress. Once work is underway, staying motivated is likely to be the biggest challenge. Plenty of praise and encouragement goes a long way, but building in extra rewards such as playing on video games, watching TV, or spending time with friends will give her an extra boost when her motivation is flagging. You could also offer a larger reward for when it’s all over. Regular breaks, a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, and exercise are also vital when your child is studying.

Strategies for learning and remembering

Every child has an individual learning style that works best for her. Some learn by simply reading over the topic repeatedly, while others may need to write notes and draw diagrams. Although your child’s school may recommend particular study strategies, it is worthwhile to look at a wide range of options with her so she can try out alternatives and see what works for her.

Rehearsal and repetition

Repetition is the most commonly used strategy for learning, and involves going over the same material a number of times to help transfer the information into memory. Repetition can be made more effective by encouraging your child to group items together into categories—this is known as chunking. Younger children may need a little help to use this strategy effectively. Rehearsing the material out loud or mentally (similar to learning lines for a school play) will also improve learning.

Notes and diagrams

Writing notes to summarize material and drawing idea webs or mind maps to show how things link together makes your child’s learning a more active and effective process. Redrafting and shortening notes each time she goes over the material will help her to hang her knowledge on key headings. Encourage her to aim for no more than one page of notes and one diagram per topic at the end of her studies.


Information can also be learned by using mental images to link material together—the more unusual the image, the more likely the information will be remembered. Mnemonics are another example of elaboration. For example, the phrase Every Good Boy Does Fine can be used to help your child remember the names of the lines on a musical staff—EGBDF. Younger children are unlikely to adopt elaboration strategies spontaneously, but can easily make good use of them with your help.


Your child will probably use textbooks, handouts, and her own written work for most of her study activities. However, making use of other media will make her learning much stronger. The internet provides access to lots of additional sources of information, and revision websites often contain educational games and fun quizzes to test her knowledge. TV programs can also be useful, and your child may find them more interesting than learning only from textbooks. Visiting museums, historic houses, and other relevant places of interest will help bring subjects to life and give them meaning. The wider the range of memories your child has about a topic, the more effective her learning is likely to be.

Own way

Encourage your child to find the tactics that best suit him or her; some will like you to help, others prefer to work alone.


Your child is likely to lose motivation at some point. Have some rewards in mind to help keep him on track.

Mind maps

Using charts and diagrams to draw out what he knows about a subject may really help your child to remember.

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