Building Middle School Study Habits: 5 Top Techniques

A bridge into high school, middle school is the time to prepare for independent learning. Here’s how to set the stage.

Prisma Staff
February 21, 2023

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A bridge into high school, middle school is the time to prepare for independent learning. Here’s how to set the stage.

The transition from elementary school to middle school is one of the biggest leaps of independence a learner needs to make. From a highly managed, structured environment to a larger pond (and all the responsibilities that come from swimming in it), newly minted middle school students are constantly told they need to develop the study skills that will help them avoid burnout and achieve academic success when they become high school and college students.

What does that look like in practical terms? There are plenty of study methods involving flashcards, mnemonics and note-taking techniques — some of which might click for certain learners in certain subjects. (Everyone can remember that kid in middle school who truly excelled at highlighting...) For other learners, these study tips feel like a shoe on the wrong foot — which may end up causing more frustration and self-doubt than they inspire.

Instead, what we advocate at Prisma is a holistic approach that sees independent learning as a process that students master when they’re given independence to pursue their passions in a deliberate, guided manner.

There’s value to modeling, recommending and practicing specific study strategies — whether it’s good note-taking, solving worksheets full of practice problems, or explaining tough concepts to a trusted study buddy in your own words.

However, if a kid doesn’t know why they’re learning what they’re learning, polishing study techniques masks the symptom without treating the cause.

So, as you look through these recommendations, remember that they’ll work best in a context that fosters independent learning at a macro level: a student-led environment, where kids are empowered to choose their own intellectual adventure and foster the healthy habits that mean most to them.


Study tips for middle schoolers

If we could offer one word of advice to parents trying to build good study habits for middle school kids, it would be: balance. As kids cross the bridge from childhood into adolescence, they need room to explore within safe boundaries. These tips are geared to help you provide just that.

Start with clear expectations

Some kids may whiz through math worksheets with music blasting, others may munch on snacks while petting the cat and memorizing Shakespearean sonnets.

When it’s study time, what does that look like for your child? There’s no one way to get it done. Sit down as a family and brainstorm:

  1. What will happen with devices (cell phones, ipads, gaming consoles)?
  2. If work is being done on a computer, will your child use blockers or commit to avoiding non-work-related sites?
  3. Where will studying take place? Can you make a dedicated study space — or get noise cancelling headphones if necessary?
  4. Is there a set amount of time that will be dedicated to study, or does it end when the work is “completed”? (If so, what does “completed” mean and who verifies that?)
  5. How will you incorporate study breaks?
  6. What kind of adult supervision can they expect? Is someone available for questions, for emergencies only, etc.?

As you decide on these expectations, and what will happen if any are not met, keep in mind you aren’t chiseling anything in stone. Think of expectations as a work in progress: the more you test them out, the better everyone will understand the ingredients of a fruitful study session.

Give kids ownership

No one learns independence by being forced to memorize vocabulary words off of flashcards. Kids acquire independence incrementally by figuring out what works for them (and hitting dead ends along the way).

As you brainstorm expectations, allow your child to voice their opinions and concerns — and make sure to circle back regularly over the course of the school year to update these expectations as they mature. We find that ownership is one of the best incentives: When kids know that demonstrating responsibility earns them more autonomy, they rise to the occasion.

To start handing off the baton, reinforce expectation by building reminders into the day: We help families design customized daily start pages that state tasks, due dates and goals. That way, the habits they learn are integrated into their bigger picture goals. Time management isn’t just about avoiding last minute scrambles; it’s about giving yourself the chance to do the best work possible.

But, especially at the middle school level, it’s a delicate balance between how much to guide and how much to leave. Part of our job is to help them break tasks into manageable chunks that they are able to complete independently, gaining confidence so that the next time, they can handle an even bigger one.

Incorporate different learning styles

One of the most enduring myths of education is that we learn best according to one of three learning styles: we are all either auditory, kinesthetic or visual learners. What research shows — and our experience bears out — is that a variety of approaches produces the best results.

We can all have our preferences: whether we prefer to attend a lecture with visuals, read a handout or get up and do a hands-on exercise. But in the real world, kids will have to adapt to information coming them from all sorts of streams, so they might as well get comfortable.

Often, the best study techniques help us build a muscle we didn’t think we had. For example, kids who struggle with reading (for dyslexia or a lack of interest) can benefit from a combination of auditory and visual activities by listening to an audiobook while reading (and rereading) a physical copy along with it. Even if they are relying more heavily on auditory input for comprehension, they’re practicing their decoding skills and, ideally, enjoying a good story (of their choosing) that makes them want to invest the effort.

Try coworking

Peers can be the missing piece of the puzzle for kids who can’t seem to concentrate on their schoolwork. Group study sessions can be dynamic — with kids gaining mastery by teaching one another and getting their friends through sticky spots. At the middle school level, you’ll want to make sure the chemistry between the kids allows them to accomplish their goals; keep the group to two or three, and be within earshot, in case the work-to-fun ratio gets out of balance. (But definitely leave room for fun.)

Study groups can also be simple coworking sessions where kids work side-by-side with one another, in person or remotely. As simple as it might seem, the presence of another person can be remarkably helpful in overcoming resistance to tasks. While a person on their own might be tempted to procrastinate in the face of a challenge (snacks, anyone?), when they know someone is nearby, doing their best to confront their own challenge, it’s easier to resist the urge.

Our Prisma community takes advantage of remote coworking in different configurations — groups of learners working on projects, groups of coaches developing lessons, and learners and coaches working side-by-side, to add a sense of community and mutual accountability to the work they need to accomplish.

If you work from home and homeschool, consider starting coworking sessions with your kids. While it may take a minute for everyone to settle in and get to work, it can be a great family bonding experience to create in the same room. You might start every session with a brief intention and wrap up with everyone sharing how they did in accomplishing it.

Provide one-on-one support

Study skills should be about learning to do your best work, but if students aren’t shown what it means to strive, they can easily default to a check-box mentality where it’s all about moving on asap.

At Prisma, kids meet one-on-one with learning coaches who review concepts with them individually: this is about more than making sure they ‘get’ a concept; it’s about guiding them to think critically, to consider the various sources with which they’re engaging in order to come up with an informed opinion.

The one-on-one relationship also allows space for guided reflection and revision, a crucial study skill that they can develop as high school students: Coaches encourage learners to return to earlier course material and reflect on how they’ve grown — and revise it in the context of that growth. Along the way, we include checkpoints for reflection, so kids can ask themselves, “Okay, do I really understand this? How am I doing on the skills that this project is supposed to be developing?” The idea is that, with practice, they’ll internalize this habit and engage in it reflexively.

Here, the importance of striking balance between ownership and guidance becomes so apparent: on the one hand, learners are empowered to assess themselves and course-correct as needed; on the other hand, the coach lends a mature perspective that points the learner in the direction of more profound growth.

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