Now that the beginning of the school year is just around the corner, parents like me are faced with the question of how to transition kids from a summer playing Minecraft and Pokémon Go to a daily routine that sets them up for academic success.
By now, we’ve all been indoctrinated in what that’s supposed to look like: Make sure kids get plenty of sleep. Teach them good old-fashioned study habits. And of course, separate them from their infernal devices.
Well, right on the first two counts. As Carrell, et al. note in A’s from Zzzz’s?, “the number of hours of sleep is positively correlated with measures of academic achievement.” In their meta-analysis of learning interventions, Hattie, et al. find that student performance can be meaningfully affected by teaching students specific study strategies, though the impact is greatest when students also learn “the how, when, where, and why of their use.”
But if study habits matter, it’s not so obvious that “good study habits” are all about separating kids from screens. Baran and Kihç analyzed data on nearly three thousand Turkish university students in order to determine the relative impact of demographics, study habits, and tech usage on academic performance, and found that while intense usage (more than 22 hours a week) lowered GPAs, “Internet use of up to 21 hours, which appears to be a critical point, can explain university students’ higher GPAs, as university students tend to use the Internet for academic purposes up to this point.” As the authors note:
Increasing services available on the Internet, such as academic libraries, online certifications, and university communities on social media, allow students to spend more time on the Internet….Most of our sample includes Net generation students and, as such, they have higher level computer skills and more experience with social media than did students 10 years ago…As a result of these factors, higher education curricula should incorporate the effective use of technology, as also emphasized by another study and instructors should adapt their lessons according to the characteristics of students of the Net Generation.
That means parents and teachers need to help kids integrate technology usage into their study routines, instead of seeing tech as the enemy of academic success. The longstanding interest of professional educators in cultivating study skills (as far back as the 1930s) gives us a good foundation for setting kids up for the school year with a tech toolkit that complements what we know about effective learning.
A good starting point is Roxanna Elden’s Class Dismissed!, which concisely summarizes the key study habits that both teachers and students need to cultivate in order to make the most of the school year. The habits she advocates will be familiar to many parents, teachers, and students—but they are all habits that have a long history in research on education. And they are all habits that can and should be supported with digital tools.
Elden’s list of work habits provides a useful starting point for identifying the digital study habits both teachers and students must master— after all, teachers can only support students’ digital work habits if they know how to work online themselves. They’re also helpful in thinking about the online systems that teachers, parents, and students can set up before the school year begins:
1. Organize your tools. Elden notes that students need “specific places to store notes and homework” and recommends that teachers set up analogous filing systems for grading, reference materials, and ideas. Now is the time to figure out your digital filing system, both for work in progress and for reference materials. Whether you’re a student or a teacher, I recommend setting up a new folder in your computer’s file system at the beginning of the academic year (e.g. “2016Academic” or “Grade 9”) with subfolders for each individual course or subject; if you do you work online with something like Google Drive, set up an analogous online file system. Centralize your note-taking with Evernote or OneNote, and set up a set of folders or notebooks for each course there, too.
2. Plan ahead. Elden points out that both teachers and students need to set up “routines for things that are important, but not yet urgent,” so they don’t end up overwhelmed as a deadline approaches. Her attention to dedicated study time echoes Hemleben’s 1939 recommendation that teachers “call [students’] attention to the desirability of having a regular time for study, and a definite time devoted to each subject.” Parents can support younger students in developing that habit by scheduling a daily homework period into the family calendar; for some kids, it’s helpful to set up parental controls on the home wifi network or kids’ computers so that they can’t access video games or YouTube until homework time has wrapped up. When you’re tackling a major project as either a student or a teacher, it can be helpful to set up a project workback schedule in a project management app (like Basecamp) or even a spreadsheet, mapping out which project stages need to be complete by which dates; I’ve taught my daughter to use Google Sheets to set up simple workback schedules for her school projects.
3. Track dates. Elden recommends that teachers adopt a single calendar rather than hodgepodge of online calendars, wall banners, and date books, which she likens to students tracking “assignments written on scraps of loose paper.” I’m a big believer in making a single, digital calendar that synchronizes across computers and mobile devices: for most people Google Calendar, Outlook, or Apple’s iCloud Calendar will do the job well. But younger students may need a parent’s help to set up their calendar, and it can be very useful to set it up as a shared calendar so that you can see your child’s homework deadlines from within your own calendaring application. Both teachers and students (at least those with mobile phones) can get in the habit of adding deadlines to their calendar by using voice dictation: dictating a phone command like “add history essay to my calendar on October 18” may be faster and more reliable than committing to the practice of opening a computer and typing in each and every due date.
4. Plan for collaboration. Just as students can run into trouble with collaborative projects that “involve a whole lot of group and not much work,” teachers can waste time on “collaborative” grading sessions that involve more chatter than work. If group work is an enduring part of the curriculum because we recognize that collaboration skills are essential to both academic and professional success, we should prepare students for a workplace in which much of that collaboration takes place online. Teachers and parents can start the year with a conversation about how to engage respectfully and recognize the communication cues that can get lost in text messages (something that will help their students’ online social lives, too); they can also introduce students to increasingly common collaboration tools like Google Drive and Slack. Learning to conduct focused, effective virtual work sessions—typically by quickly articulating meeting goals and minimizing off-topic conversation—will help both students and teachers work with one another remotely, either asynchronously or in real time.
5. Avoid distraction. Elden argues that both students and teachers have a hard time staying on task if they are an arm’s length away from Facebook or other digital distractions. That implies the problem of distraction is a new one for students, but William Kelly’s 1944 article, The How to Study Problem, similiarly notes that “[a] factor frequently overlooked by pupils is the necessity for providing suitable physical conditions for study…he should have the opportunity to study under favorable conditions which afford him the quiet and the freedom from distraction necessary . for sustained attention”.
If distraction is a longstanding obstacle to good study habits, then today’s students need to be equipped for a world in which digital distraction will almost always be close at hand: better to teach them how to manage or even use digital distractions as an asset. One productivity tactic that’s popular among techies can also work very well for students (or for teachers faced with a pile of grading): the Pomodoro technique involves working for 25-minute sprints, interspersed with brief (5-minute) breaks, plus longer breaks after every four sprints. Those breaks might consist of stepping away from the desk for a snack or stretch—but for students who have a hard time disconnecting from their friends on Snapchat or Instagram, a messaging break can be a great reward for a sprint of focused work.
6. Minimize homework. “If you find ways to finish tasks during the school day, you don’t have to take them home,” Elden notes. That’s great in principle, but in practice, a lot of homework (not to mention course prep) depends on access to online research tools. For students who take a computer to school, setting up a separate “school day” account can give kids access to a web browser while blocking games or social media distractions, so that it’s easier to work on assignments during the day. (That’s also something a lot of adult users can find helpful in managing their own daytime distractions.) Timed reminders—alerts that remind students when a deadline is 1 week, 5 days or 1 day away—can also prompt them to make better use of classroom time, instead of deferring their project work for after school.
Just like the work habits that Elden advocates for both students and teachers, these digital work habits are relatively simple and sustainable. It doesn’t take a lot of money or tech skill to establish digital systems that can make the school year successful.
And setting up those systems at the beginning of the school year will help kids for far longer than the school year ahed. After all, today’s students will eventually be living and working in a tech-suffused world. Learning to study digitally is the best way for them to learn to live and work in that world– and isn’t that what school is supposed to prepare them for?