Homeroom: My Son Spends Hours Studying. Then He Forgets Everything.

An illustration of a child lying down with blocks falling out of a hole at the top of their head
Elena Xausa
a squiggly yellow pencil

Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at homeroom@theatlantic.com.

Dear Abby and Brian,

I don’t know if it has to do with remote learning or if this would have come up anyway, but my sixth grader, whom I’ll call “Tom,” immediately seems to forget everything he studies. He remembers non-school-related information fine. The other day he listed off the top of his head all the NBA players since 1980 with multiple triple-doubles or something like that, and he knows every Drake lyric by heart. But he can spend hours studying for a test on Mesopotamia or the attributes of different kinds of clouds, and then when he gets to the test he seems to forget pretty much everything he’d thought he’d known the night before.

I’m writing to you for advice because last night Tom told me that there’s no point in studying, because he’s stupid, and my heart pretty much dropped into my knees. He’s not stupid at all, of course—it’s just a memory thing, if there’s such a thing as that. I asked his pediatrician, who told me to ask the school, and his adviser told me that maybe the computer interface they use for quizzes is making things harder for Tom this year. But I don’t know how to help. Are there memory tricks he could be using?

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Wilmington, Delaware

Hi Jackson,

It can be excruciating to watch your child be so hard on himself. We have had moments both as teachers and as parents when we would have done or said nearly anything to alleviate the paralyzing self-doubt that our students and children were experiencing, particularly during the pandemic.

Memorization techniques—or “tricks,” as you call them—can be useful, but they need to follow deeper comprehension. To better retain what he’s learning, Tom should focus on understanding the material before committing it to memory. Then all those facts he needs to recall for the next day will have something to stick to.

The question is how to build that initial comprehension. For many students, a bulky block of text is difficult to process. Start off by guiding Tom to create visual systems for organizing the information he is trying to learn, such as a chart laid out with categories for different kinds of facts. For example, if he’s studying clouds he could develop one column for the name of each type of cloud, a second column describing what each type looks like, and a third that includes the conditions under which each kind of cloud forms. A list of phrases or bullet points is far easier to remember than lengthy sentences. Similarly, drawing and labeling clouds may help Tom remember which names and characteristics belong to which.

There’s also the issue of pacing. We can’t emphasize enough how beneficial it is to study information in stages rather than cramming the night before a test. So let’s say it is Monday afternoon, and Tom’s science teacher has just announced a test on Friday covering the three types of clouds. Tom looks at 10 pages of class notes on cumulus, stratus, and cirrus clouds and starts to panic. Whether he tries to memorize all the material on Monday evening to get it over with, or on Thursday to make sure the information is fresh in his mind, he will be in trouble come test day.

Encourage him instead to break up the material into three sections, and divide those up among the days available to prep. For example, on Monday evening, Tom should try to learn about cumulus clouds using a chart, a drawing, and flashcards. On Tuesday, he can learn about stratus clouds. But on Wednesday, he should not yet move on to cirrus. Instead, Tom should take a review day to make sure that cumulus and stratus are firmly in his brain. This way, by the time he gets to cirrus, he won’t forget what he learned in the first two days of studying. If he is able to leave time for a practice test—whether that is going over the material in conversation with you, quizzing and being quizzed by a friend, writing out facts on his own, or preferably some combination of these—that can really help too. Reviewing the material using different methods will strengthen Tom’s knowledge and boost his confidence.

Once Tom better understands the material, then it’s time to employ a variety of ways to help him recall it. Tom, like some of our students, may prefer memorizing information while walking around the room, or by setting facts to music. Mnemonics can also be a useful way for kids to remember a series of terms after they understand the concepts, So if, for example,Tom is trying to memorize the factors leading to the outbreak of World War I for an upcoming history test, he might make a list to help jog his memory on test day: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the alliance system, colonialism, and industrialization. He should then identify the most important words and use the first letter of each in a phrase to help him recall the narrative. Students are far more likely to recall an amusing sentence such as “Furry animals crave ice cream,” and this sentence will prompt the key words in his list of causes of World War I: Ferdinand, alliance, colonialism, and industrialization.

Finally, as to your question about whether Tom’s problems are exacerbated by remote learning, the unfortunate answer is: most likely yes. Information is easily missed when it is first taught over a computer screen, and Tom probably still isn’t used to taking quizzes and tests on a computer. Good old-fashioned pencil and paper will help him better retain information while he’s studying; then he can print out the test itself and complete it by hand, before typing up his answers and submitting them online.

The most important takeaway for Tom is that he is capable. It is sadly common for students to think of themselves in fixed, binary terms such as smart or stupid. But that type of thinking is destructive in general and especially pernicious during a pandemic when schedules, interfaces, and challenges are constantly changing. If you’re still concerned that Tom is being hard on himself after implementing these strategies, you may want to consider a neuropsychological evaluation or a consultation with a therapist. But hopefully with these new approaches to learning, Tom will find that he’s gaining mastery of the material, and with that will come something much more important: self-confidence.

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