5 Study Tips to Making Tough Subjects Easier to Learn

Learning Coach and her son writing in a notebook

Ever wonder what to do when  your child is having a hard time learning difficult subjects in their online schoolwork? Well, there’s more to it than just learning how to study hard. 

In her book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra), Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., breaks down the science of why some students have problems learning difficult subjects. She wrote the book after reviewing her own struggles with math and science and has given a TEDx Talk that teaches students how to study for hard classes and pass the courses they’re stressing about. 

And while we at Connections Academy® have some great study strategies, we want to share her top five tips so you have the resources necessary to be a successful Learning Coach and can teach your online student how to learn difficult subjects quickly. They’re great tips if you are considering a full-time switch to online learning, too. 

An online student learning difficult subjects with effective study tips.

How to Study for Hard Classes: 5 Neuroscience-Based Tips

1. Scan the headings, subheadings, and illustrations of the chapter first.

When we struggle with a topic, we may think the best way to study is to focus as hard as we can on every detail of the subject. But, if we don’t look at the whole picture to get a full grasp of the topic, learning it will be incredibly difficult. 

Oakley’s recommendation is to have your homeschool student take a moment at first to visualize the chapter and reflect on the broad purpose of its lesson. As they do this, they’re putting their brain in a receptive learning mode and giving it a structure to “hang” new concepts on. 

In neuroscience terms, they’re actually beginning to lay neural pathways in their brain. And this is part of learning how to study better instead of how to study harder. 

2. Focus attention on creating conceptual “chunks” of information.

Trying to mentally absorb everything at once will completely overload anyone’s brain. That’s why your student should focus on digesting small pieces of information at a time. 

Let’s say a chapter in math presents several sample problems and their solutions. In this step, you zero in on each of those problems to understand why each solution works the way it does, and as you do, you start to recognize the procedure(s) the problems have in common. With this process, you create chunks of knowledge that can be retrieved later and then built upon to solve other types of problems. 

As Oakley explains, “You are making new neural patterns and connecting them with preexisting patterns that are spread through many areas of the brain.” 

3. Pause, recall, and reflect.

After your student has read a page or solved a problem, have them close their book and ask them to tell you what they have just learned. Then, instead of moving on to the next problem, let everything sink in, and have them repeat the current problem and solution to you.  

Recalling and reflecting is a study method that etches new neural patterns more deeply into the brain. So, the process becomes just as physical as it is mental. 

4. Use simple analogies or comparisons to make concepts memorable.

One of the best ways to study is to frame a concept you’ve learned as a simple analogy. Coming up with a way to compare one concept to another gives it a way to connect with other areas of the brain. 

Go the extra step of writing the analogy out by hand and it becomes even more deeply encoded in the brain. Writing by hand converts what you are learning into the “neural memory structure.” Again, you’re making actual physical changes to your brain. 

5. Space out studies and homework to learn complicated subjects.

Studying is hard work. A brain is like a muscle that needs alternating periods of exercise and recovery to synthesize new information and ideas. When learning difficult subjects, especially, students need to spread their study time out. 

Studying a bit every day is the best way to study, rather than cramming during marathon study sessions. When you cram, the knowledge may stick around long enough to pass the test today, but it probably won’t be there when you need it to tackle the next hard chapter tomorrow. 

Give your child breaks after studying complex subjects  to get up and move around so they can release any anxiety they might have. They’ll have fun while giving their brain the distraction it needs to let everything sink in. 

An online student studies complicated subjects by writing them down.

Learning How to Study a Difficult Subject

Studying is hard but struggling with new concepts is a natural and necessary part of the learning process—and knowing how to study for hard classes when you’re learning difficult or complicated subjects can make it easier. Understanding a little bit about how the brain works, how to study a difficult subject, and how to learn something difficult can help you and your child master complicated subjects in no time. 

A flexible school day, the ability to let your child learn at their own pace, and scheduling their breaks for when it works best for your family, are the benefits of an online school like those available through Connections Academy®. 

If you’re not already a part of Connections Academy, check out these stories from parents and learn why it worked best for them when their children encountered complicated subjects. 

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