For high schoolers, there’s more to planning for college than simply getting accepted. Unless your student has experienced a more rigorous course of study and learned some good study habits, he’ll be overwhelmed to arrive on campus and discover the mountains of reading, writing, and studying that await him.
You can do a lot to prepare your student and help deter the stress and erratic grades that separate the unequipped college freshman from the equipped. Train your teen during high school—or even junior high—by encouraging study habits that will serve him well in college.
In the first of this two-part series, these five guidelines will help you achieve this goal.
1. Train Your Teen to Meet Deadlines
In many households, homeschoolers are notorious for working “whenever.” As long as the work gets done, no one seems to care whether the kids do school in the morning, afternoon, or well into the evening. When you give a history or science test, your child writes till he’s finished, with no attention paid to the clock. Mom asks for a report on photosynthesis, due Friday. It’s not ready yet? Oh, well. Just get it to me as soon as you can.
Isn’t this our privilege? After all, we’re homeschooling. We don’t need to bow to the rules and schedules of the schools. But if this speaks to you, you may want to rethink the idea of scheduling, because if your teenager is used to having all the time in the world, he’ll be in for a rude awakening when college hits—along with scheduled classes, syllabuses filled with deadlines, and no one watching over his shoulder to remind him.
By taking a moment each day to survey the work that needs to be done and calculate how much time is needed and available, your student will learn to avoid the panicked late-night study sessions that plague many high schoolers and college students. He’ll also appreciate the benefits (including reduced stress) of following a plan, and he will enjoy his free time all the more. Good habits such as scheduling time to work on assignments will prove indispensable when he faces the additional demands of college course work.
Also, begin attaching a time limit to any tests you give at home. Most exams associated with a textbook such as Abeka or BJU Press are designed to be administered during a fifty-minute class period. Essay questions given as tests should also have a time limit. Depending on your goal, limit the essay to perhaps twenty, fifty, or ninety minutes; you’ll do your student a favor.
2. Create a Quiet Workspace
Students need a quiet spot for studying—and studying alone. This can be a challenge if you have a small house. Our daughter and son-in-law currently live in a two-bedroom house with their four children, so I realize it isn’t always possible to create a quiet, private workspace. But if you can swing it, designate a workspace that’s separated from the family room, kitchen, or other high-traffic locations that tend to introduce lots of distractions.
By setting aside an isolated area used only for schoolwork, you will help your teen separate work time from rest and relaxation. This promotes concentration during study sessions, which will, in turn, produce better results in less time. When she goes to college, she’ll have to learn to deal with the distractions of noisy dorms and the siren’s call of “Come on, don’t be a wet noodle. Let’s go out for coffee!” She needs to learn that there’s both a time and a place for work.
3. Limit Social Networking
Your teen lives in the modern world. Between phone calls, texting, email, instant messages, Facebook, and any other number of social networking opportunities, she has to learn to establish boundaries for herself in order to get any work done at all. When she’s hammering out a paper or other project, there should be none of this electronic interruption until she’s finished, and for good reason. Setting aside these distractions is sort of like hanging an e-version of the “do not disturb” sign. The message? I’m not available right now.
A bit of advice that may make you unpopular with your teen: Unplug the Internet cable during her computer time and turn off her cell phone, if she has one. Yes, unplug. This makes it impossible to go online or get interrupted by a text message while working on an essay or report. If she needs to do research online, separate the research process from the writing process. Let her work online . . . and then simply unplug the cable when her research is complete.
What’s the big deal, you ask? When she tries to study while chatting with friends via instant message and email, she greatly reduces her ability to focus and concentrate. As a result, the quality of her work suffers. In addition, she’ll require more time to finish the project. For one, the interruptions themselves take up time. But more importantly, these breaks—no matter how short—force her to keep refocusing each time she returns to the task.
I regularly experience this myself: multiple files open on the PC, emails chiming on the laptop, and a barrage of projects stacked on my desk. When I flit back and forth among them like a restless butterfly, I often close out my day feeling like I accomplished absolutely nothing. I end up with myriad loose ends dangling everywhere and just as much on my to-do list as when I started.
However, when I discipline myself to work on one project at a time, visit my Inbox a few times a day instead of several times an hour, and steer clear of both Facebook and the phone during those designated working hours, I’m so much more productive as I pick off a bunch of little tasks (or take a nice chunk out of a bigger project). The sense of accomplishment is huge for me—and your teen can experience this too.
Making electronic access difficult (or impossible) forces your student to pour all her concentration and effort into her writing. This ability to separate work from play is of the utmost importance at college, where she won’t have your help to make such wise choices. In your “home training center,” once she figures out how much easier it is to write a paper in an uninterrupted block of time, she may never go back to multitasking again.
4. Create and Adhere to Deadlines
Can you imagine a student telling his professor: “Can I have another week? My sister was hogging the computer” or “Sorry I missed the test yesterday—I was too tired—but I can make it up this afternoon.” We can laugh at how ridiculous this sounds, but chances are, you yourself have caved to these very requests.
As homeschoolers, it’s easy for us to let deadlines slide; the sense of urgency just doesn’t exist for us like it does in the public or private school setting. We cling to a false sense of security that says: “We have time . . . What’s the rush . . . He’s only 14 . . . That’s why we’re homeschooling,” and so on. As a result, many homeschoolers either don’t give due dates at all, don’t adhere to them if they do, or don’t impose consequences for late assignments. In college, such leniency will never fly.
Establish a system for posting and keeping track of deadlines. For best results, keep a large monthly calendar in a prominent spot (in your school area, on the fridge). Even if you use a lesson plan book and give your teen daily assignments, it’s helpful to be able to step back and see, at a glance, clearly marked project deadlines and test dates.
A calendar like this gives your teen a quick, daily review of the panorama of impending deadlines. This prevents the dreaded “due date creep,” where it suddenly dawns on the procrastinator that a test, essay, and science project are all due in the next day or two. It also encourages him to use time wisely when working on big projects, including spreading out the work over several days or weeks and starting early enough to finish without having to pull an all-nighter. A college course syllabus is sure to include long-term assignments, so developing the habit of scheduling and self-pacing will prepare him well for handling multiple simultaneous deadlines, which are typical of college work.
5. Teach and Expect Responsible Study Habits
If you tell your student to write a report and submit it to you in three weeks, when will she typically start working on it? That’s right—a day or two before it’s due!
Your teen needs to learn the value of consistency and routine. Set her up for success by teaching responsible study habits. Make it clear that her all-nighters or similar day-before heroics don’t impress you. As adults, we know what it’s like to work under pressure, and though many of us claim to function better that way, in reality it’s very stressful and counterproductive. Our families bear the brunt of our short tempers and long hours—even when the end result is worthwhile. Instead, tell your child that you expect her to schedule her work in advance and tackle it with her full attention.
Start by breaking longer assignments into chunks and establishing mini due dates. If the assignment is a research paper, for example, set deadlines for topic selection, thesis statement, note-taking, and so on. Put these on the master calendar. Now she can manage her time not only with this project, but also with everything else vying for her attention. If, during a single time period, she’s working on her paper, performing at the community playhouse, going to winter camp, and taking a biology final, she needs to plan well—and early—so that she doesn’t end up with the proverbial freeway pileup when everything is due at once.
What is the most consistent difference between the college student who is snowed under and the one who is calm, happy, and academically successful? It’s the successful student’s ability to use organization and study techniques to simplify her life, whereas the stressed-out student flies by the seat of her pants—hoping to live through the semester, one anxious assignment at a time. Building an early—and strong—association between good habits and schoolwork will pay off in the long run.
Copyright 2009. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Fall 2009. Used with permission.
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