I’m going to give you a test. 

Even as an adult, I would guess that that statement made you feel a bit tense. Exams, tests, and quizzes are part of being a student (particularly as students progress in their education). These are some of the ways that students show and put into practice what they have learnt and how we, as teachers, assess how our students are progressing in their understanding of a subject or course. They can also be a source of stress and concern for students and their parents.

One of the most frequent questions parents and caregivers ask is how to support their children with exams. I like to reframe this question to how we can help our children effectively learn to learn. After all, learning new information and retaining it is an essential skill for young people to develop.

At Senior School Voorschoten, The British School in The Netherlands, we have been leading discussion sessions and workshops with students and families to share tips on effective study habits and how parents can support their children at home. Here is some of the advice and guidance our community has found beneficial.

Five Ways Parents Can Support Their Child’s Learning at Home

Parents and caregivers can provide support in many different ways, some of which may sound obvious and are more practical. It is also important to remember that part of your child’s education is learning to take ownership of their learning. You are there as a support and to encourage, but ultimately, your child should feel their outcomes are their own.

Ask specific questions.

Most of us have had the experience of asking our children how their day was and getting one-word answers. Rather than asking, ‘How was your day?’, try asking your child what subjects they have that day in school at the start of the day. After school, ask specific questions about a few of their lessons. For example, ‘What was one sentenced you had to say in French today?’. Make a note of the sentence, and then in a week, you can ask if they still remember that sentence from French. Another idea is to ask what questions they had after learning a new concept, and after the next lesson, ask if they were able to get the answers to those questions. Talking about learning in a low-stakes way opens up the dialogue with your child and allows them to practice revisiting and explaining their learning to someone else.

Practical support:

· Provide your child with a space that is conducive to studying. As we all have different preferences for our working areas, it’s great to ask what elements your child would find helpful. It’s important to know what technology is with them (phones are incredibly distracting and hard to resist). Though, as mentioned before, studying can be more impactful when it is done with a friend.
· You can also help your child plan their study time, ensuring that they set realistic goals and take time for breaks and socialising. Sharing their study schedule with you (and maybe their friends) creates accountability. There is also evidence that the simple act of sharing a goal or intention with another person makes it more likely that we will meet our goal and stick with our plans.
· This may seem obvious, but provide a balanced diet for your child (if possible, limiting lots of late-night snacking) and gets enough sleep. It’s best to stop studying an hour or two before bed.
Results Day at Senior School Leidschenveen

Be a revision buddy.

You can act as ‘revision buddies’ by quizzing your child using flashcards, blank paper revision (this method is described later in this post) or any other revision resource where the answers are provided. Focus your feedback during these sessions on what they know well, and then you can share ideas and concepts to work on. Keep it fun and low-stakes

Tell me three things…

Get into the habit of asking your child to share three things that are going well in their studies, three things that need more work, and three things that they learnt easily. This is quick to do, reminds your child of their progress and helps them prioritise what to focus on going forward.

Considered language.

Sometimes when we are trying to be supportive and helpful, it can sound very different to our children. For example, while well-intentioned, “Have you studied for your exams yet?” may sound like a lack of trust. Instead, remind your child that you love them for who they are, not their exam grades, avoid comparing them to other children or classmates and focus on their progress (rather than their exam results). You can also ask your child what support they would find most helpful from you periodically throughout the year. Your role is to listen to their concerns, validate their feelings, and then help them move forward.
SSL Students during science lesson at The British School in the Netherlands

Five Tips for Effective Study:

Before sharing study DOs, a quick note about some of the traditional study methods, which you will notice are not listed below. Many of us may remember feverishly recopying class notes, spending time re-reading and highlighting texts and notes, and that studying was done alone in silence. The research and science about how our brains create connections and how short-term memories become long-term memories have progressed. We know far more about neuroplasticity and, specifically, structural plasticity (how learning results in the brain changing its structure).

We now know that the most effective learning strategies are more active. Just as you train and work your muscles before a marathon, studying should be dynamic and challenging to train your brain to recall information and make connections to past learning.

The best day to study is EVERY day (or at least most days)

This won’t come as a big surprise, but cramming the night before a test is not the most effective way to learn. Reviewing concepts learned in class straight after a lesson and then again before the next lesson helps students retain the information. Revisiting learning in short bursts regularly should not be time-consuming but will make a difference in a student’s ability to recall the information beyond an exam. This, of course, is the goal: we want to continually build on past learning and deepen our understanding of subjects so that the information can be applied in real-world situations.
3 Occasions to learn

Retrieval practice

Some of the traditional study methods I mentioned (rereading, highlighting etc.) focus on more input/information in the brain; the objective of retrieval practice is just the opposite. In retrieval practice, students recall the information they’ve learnt from memory. The idea is that practising the retrieval of information, especially when the material is revisited after some time has passed, improves how well it is learned.

· The blank page method is an easy way to use retrieval practice for studying. Without referencing notes or lesson resources, students write out everything they remember about a specific topic on a piece of paper. Afterwards, using lesson notes and texts, students correct and add any missing information (using a different colour pen or pencil makes it easy to see how much they already know and areas that require more review).

Spaced practice

Students should plan not only when they study but what they will review. In his book, The Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nuthall says that students need to think about a concept on three separate occasions before it is likely to be learned. Students can challenge themselves (and make their revision time even more effective!) by planning to revisit material in spaced intervals: study information from a week ago, come back to it after two weeks and then after a month. Spacing allows time for students to (partially) forget information and then remember it again, strengthening their memory of it. This method requires careful planning but is an effective way to learn and retain information.
The Learning and forgetting Curves


When studying one topic in depth before moving on to the next, it can be challenging to distinguish closely related concepts. Interleaving boosts learning by mixing up related topics, encouraging students to differentiate and distinguish between the concepts. Making flashcards about more than one topic and mixing them up is an excellent way for students to deepen their knowledge of each subject and find similarities and differences between the topics. Not only is this an effective technique for long-term learning, but it is also good practice for recalling and applying that knowledge in a real-world context (when information is often mixed-up).

Revise with the intention of teaching

Research shows that when we read or study, intending to teach the information to someone else, we can better pull out the key facts and remember more of what we learn than if we revise solely in preparation for an exam. (John Nestojko, Memory and Cognition 2014). This is a great technique to try in study groups. Students can take turns teaching concepts to their classmates and answering each other’s questions. It’s also a good way for parents to support at home: have your child teach you something they are studying. You can check their knowledge and ask questions to help them practise verbalising and explaining information in their own words.

It’s a Journey!

Learning something new, whether knowledge or skills, often does not happen in a straight line. Like any journey, ups and downs along the way are to be expected. By developing effective learning habits early on, students may still feel nervous before a test, but there will be less panic, and the benefits will go beyond their exam results. The goal, after all, is for our students and children to build on their learning and skills so that they are in the best position to accomplish whatever personal and academic goals they set for themselves.

SSV Sixth form students preparing for their exams
Nicki Welch Profile Picture

Nicki Welch

Nicki has been working in education for over 25 years. Having trained in Manchester and then worked in Salford as a Biology teacher, she moved to the Netherlands, returning to The British School in The Netherlands, where she had studied as a young child. She loves teaching students Biology but also enjoys learning from her colleagues and encouraging them to collaborate and share good practice. She is a mother to four daughters and spends busy weekends juggling all of their activities. Nicki tries to stay fit by running and enjoys travel, trying new foods and reading.

Leave a Reply