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How to Help Your Kid Study for a Test

My daughter's first fourth-grade social studies test was a tough lesson in study skills -- for both of us. Sophie is a good student, so I let her prepare for what we thought would be a simple exam on her own. When she got the test back, though, she and I were devastated by her less-than-passing grade. I asked Sophie how she had studied. "Like everyone did, I think. I read the chapter again," she said. That was it? She hadn't asked a friend to quiz her? Written down key vocabulary words? She responded with The Blank Look.

Major "aha!" mom moment: Teachers often don't coach kids on how to study for tests. "I may show my students how to make flash cards or use visual tricks to remember facts, but I have to focus my time on teaching the actual subject matter," says 2008 National Teacher of the Year Michael Geisen, a science teacher in Prineville, OR. Don't worry: You don't have to become your child's constant study buddy (who has time for that?). But you can keep your own cheat sheet of study techniques to share with her. Try out a few of these tips before your child's next exam and she'll soon have A-level test-prep skills.


Talk it out. Have your child review the major math concepts he's studying and either say them aloud or write on index cards the general gist of each topic. For example: "Factors are two numbers you multiply together to get another number: 2 x 3 = 6, so 2 and 3 are factors of 6."

Work it out. "Do actual problems on paper or a dry-erase board," says John Bass, a dad of two daughters and an elementary school teacher in Lake Oswego, OR. Have your child use problems from his textbook or go online to the publisher's "extra resources" site. Other online practice sites to try:, and

Add color. When he's doing long division or other problems that require multiple steps, have your child complete each line or section in a different-color pencil.

Play "beat the buzzer." Julie Murray of Cary, NC, prints out the same number of problems that will be on her son Jayden's timed test (search online for "free printable math worksheets"). Then the 9-year-old has five chances to "beat" a timer set for five minutes. If your child gets frustrated about his progress, remind him that it's just a game and he'll become faster and better the more he does it.

Draw it out. Encourage your child to draw simple pictures (such as a rectangle with the length of each side marked for figuring out area or perimeter) -- while studying and on scratch paper during a test -- particularly for story problems involving shapes, sizes, distances, or lengths.


Picture this. On the front of an index card, have your child draw a simple picture of each spelling word next to the first letter of the word as a clue. She should write the correct spelling on the back of the card. Then have your child check the picture, then spell the word aloud or write it on paper. If she spells the word wrong, have her write it twice on scratch paper or a dry-erase board and spell it aloud twice.

Let 'em eat their words. Give your child a cookie sheet with dry, flavored gelatin mix on it. Have her "write" her words with her finger, saying the letters aloud as she goes, suggests stephanie sturgeon, a Noblesville, IN, teacher and mom of two. If you'd rather avoid the sugar and stained fingers, rice or sand works, too.

Get it on tape. Show your child how to say each spelling word into a cassette player, iPhone, or digital audio device, leaving long pauses after each word. When he's done, have him replay the recording, write the words during the pauses, then check his work against his correct spelling list.

Study via stickies. Post tough spelling words throughout the house -- on the refrigerator, bathroom door, mirrors -- with colorful sticky notes, suggests Joan Rooney, a Boston mom and vice president of tutor management at "Kids can also use funny drawings or symbols," she says.

Reading & Writing

Read and circle. Mom Julie Murray helped her kids improve their comprehension by previewing questions before reading a story. Have your child circle important words in the questions, like "Make a list" or "Who is the main character?" Then, when he reads the passage, he should circle the answers to the questions. Now your child is ready to respond.

Talk it out. If your child's an auditory learner, encourage him to whisper the reading section to himself or mouth the words, says Richard Bavaria, Ph.d., senior vice president of education outreach for Sylvan Learning Centers. "The information will stick in his memory more effectively," he says.

Play detective. Improve your child's focus by asking him to sleuth out the "five W's and one H" (Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How) in every reading passage. If your child finds these "main clues" and highlights or circles them, he should be able to easily "solve," or answer, important questions.

Ace the essays. Help your child make up essay questions to practice answering. Create a "mind map" or web. For example, if the question is "What can you do to help the environment?" your child would write that in a center circle. Around it, she can jot her ideas in additional circles, such as "Pick up litter." Once she's drafted all her options, she'll write them in a paragraph, from most important to least.

Science & Social Studies

Go "old school." Flash cards are a tried-and-true way to help kids remember complex facts. Shelly Walker of Los Angeles has her daughter Lauren write key words or concepts on the front of colorful index cards, and jot definitions on the back. After Lauren studies the cards, her mom quizzes her. Lauren keeps the correctly answered cards in a pile, while Mom "wins" the ones she missed. Lauren's goal is to win all the cards and the right to brag loudly!

Make up mnemonics. Science teacher Geisen is a huge fan of acronyms (words formed by using the first letter of each word in a list) and phrases to help kids memorize long lists of formulas, planets, animals, and more. Have your child create his own silly ones (humor boosts memory!) or search online for some classics like these:

  • The Great Lakes: HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior)

  • Taxonomic Order: King Philip Came Over For Good Soup (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species)

  • The order of operations recommended for solving a complicated math problem: "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally"= PEMDAS (Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication/Division, Addition/Subtraction)

Get artsy. Geisen encourages students to draw simple diagrams of tough concepts or scientific processes such as the cycle of water evaporation. Silly pictures also help them remember challenging vocabulary words. Example: When a kid is trying to remember the meanings of "dominant" and "recessive" in genetics, she could draw a picture of a big dog barking at a tiny dog. The name on the big dog's collar could be "Dom" and the little one could be "Recess."

Embrace your inner American Idol. Admit it: You still remember most of the Preamble to the Constitution or the purpose of conjunctions, thanks to the "Schoolhouse Rock" songs from Saturday-morning cartoons. "Tunes and rhythm seem to cement new information into memory unlike anything else," says Sylvan's Bavaria. Encourage your child to put fact lists -- like the names of U.S. presidents in date order -- to a familiar song like "Pop Goes the Weasel."

Play online. Many textbooks offer online practice tests your child can access from home. Kids love having an excuse to play computer games, and test scoring is immediate, so your child can instantly see where he needs to study more. Another bonus: Practice tests often foreshadow the actual exam.

Three-Day Study Plan:

If your child has several days to prepare for a big test, try this simple way to break up the study tasks:

Three days before the test: Have your child reread the key textbook chapters and her class notes.

Two days before: Ask your child to recite key points out loud -- to you, a sibling, or even a favorite toy -- without looking at her notes or in her textbook. Have her refer back to them. Did she remember correctly?

The day before: If the teacher provided a practice test or an online study guide, your child should complete it now. On the questions she misses, have her reread key points in the text or her notes.

The day of the test: If your child is game, encourage her to skim her notes over breakfast in the morning. If she's anxious, skip the last-minute studying and help her relax with deep breaths or tension-breaking jumping jacks. And a "good luck" note in her backpack is always a nice touch.

Studying is only part of the equation. How your kid takes the test counts for a lot, too:

  1. Do a "brain dump". When your child starts a test, encourage him to immediately write in the test margins or on scratch paper any key formulas, dates, or lists he's worried about forgetting. Unleashing these details on paper frees up his brain to focus on the test, says Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D., Farmingdale, N Y, author of Super Study Skills. The info also helps later if your child blanks out on key facts.

  2. Scan and skip. Coach your child to look over the whole test, then start with questions he's sure of -- no matter where they fall on the test. Answering familiar questions first will boost his confidence and save time for tougher questions to come.

  3. Manage multiple choice. In general, if your child has four multiple-choice answers from which to choose, he should be able to eliminate two options right away, says Richard Bavaria, Ph.D., of Sylvan Learning Centers. Then he can choose his final answer from the two remaining options.

  4. Review and regroup. After a big test -- particularly if your child didn't do as well as expected -- review it together. Did he misread the directions? Forget to study an entire section? Get tired toward the end? Ask your child's teacher for clues, too. "Most teachers are more than happy to look over tests," says Geisen.

  5. Create a "You did it!" tradition. The evening after a big test, go for a bike ride or let him stay up an extra 30 minutes at bed-time -- whatever he considers a treat. "This isn't connected to his grade," says Rozakis. "It's about congratulating your child for making it through a tough task, and giving him a positive feeling about future tests."

Teri Cettina, a Parenting contributor an mom of two school-age daughters in Portland, OR, still recalls the song she learned to remember the 50 states in fourth grade.