5 Study Tips to Making Tough Subjects Easier to Learn

A high school student working on a laptop

Ever wonder what to do when you’re having a hard time in a subject? Or why you excelled in certain school subjects but struggled with others? Is your student currently going through the same thing?

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 difficulty learning in some hard classes. 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 effectively and pass the hard courses they’re stressing about.

And while we at Connections Academy have some great study tips, we want to share her five effective study tips so that you can have all the resources you need to be a successful Learning Coach as you guide and motivate your child in their virtual school.

5 Neuroscience-Based Study Tips for hard courses

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

When we struggle with a topic, we 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, it will be incredibly difficult.

One study method is to have your student take a moment to visualize the chapter and reflect on the broad purpose of the lesson ahead. As you do this, you’re putting your brain in a receptive learning mode and giving it a structure to “hang” new concepts on.

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

2. Focus their attention to create conceptual "chunks" of information.

Trying to mentally swallow everything at once is going to completely overload their brain. That's why they need to focus on digesting small pieces at once, then focus on the next round.

Let's say your math chapter includes several sample problems with solutions shown. In this step, you zero in on those problems in order to understand why each solution works the way it does, and what procedure(s) the problems have in common. In the process, you’re creating chunks of knowledge that you can later retrieve and build on to solve other types of problems.

As Oakley explains in this study technique, "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, close their book and ask them to repeat what they had just learned. Don’t rush on to the next one yet, let everything sink in, and have them repeat it to you. Don’t confuse rereading with recalling.

This study skill of recalling and reflecting etches new neural patterns more deeply into your 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. This gives it a way to connect with other areas of the brain.

Go the extra step of writing that comparison 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.” In other words, you’re making actual physical changes to your brain.

5. Space out their studies and homework.

A brain is like a muscle that needs alternating periods of exercise and recovery to synthesize new information and ideas. With difficult subjects especially, one would need to spread their studies out. Studying a bit every day is the best way to study, rather than cramming during a few marathon study sessions. When you cram, the knowledge may stick around long enough to pass today’s test, but it’s probably won’t be there when you need it to tackle tomorrow’s next hard class. Give your child breaks after a difficult subject and do some physical activities so they can release any anxiety they might have. Plus, this will also tie into their physical education requirements. They’ll have fun and give their brain the distraction it needs to let everything sink in.

Learning how to study difficult subjects.

Struggling with new concepts is a natural and necessary part of the learning process. But knowing what to do when you’re having a hard time in a subject can make it easier. Understanding how the brain works, how to study difficult subjects, and how to learn can help you master a difficult subject in no time.

The flexibility of setting your child’s schedule, letting them learn at their own pace, and scheduling their breaks in the day for when it works best for your family is a benefit of an online school like Connections Academy.

Check out these families who made the switch to virtual school and why it worked best for them when their children encountered tough subjects.

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