The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Fay Magazine: Fall-Winter 2017

Upper School Update: Study Skills

by Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
This fall, seventh-grade students are thinking about more than just classes, homework, and tests: they are thinking about their thinking. 
Can you learn how to be a good student? Ask a Fay teacher, and the answer is, “Absolutely!”
New to the curriculum this year, Seventh Grade Study Skills is a course that teaches students how to organize their work, manage their time, and prepare for exams. The course was created by Director of Learning Services Sally Supinski and Learning Specialists Amy Mohn and Liz Williams, who won a Fay Curriculum Development Grant to design a class that would equip seventh graders with a set of essential skills as they enter Upper School.
The course focuses on helping students understand their individual strengths and weaknesses so they can be more productive. “So many students think that they just need to work harder,” says Head of Upper School Sarah Remsberg. “We want to teach them to work more effectively.”
How do I learn?
Students began the fall by talking about executive function skills, the set of mental operations that help people get things done: task initiation, organization, goal-directed persistence, and time management. When it comes to academic success, strong executive function skills are arguably more important than innate intelligence. The good news for students of every caliber is that executive function skills can be learned.
Each seventh grader took a quiz that identified his or her individual executive functioning strengths and weaknesses and then considered how these skills manifested on a day-to-day basis. One student struggling with stress tolerance might feel over- whelmed with anxiety during exam time, for example, while another student with weak organization skills might have difficulty finding an assignment in the wads of paper spilling out of the binder.
Students set personal goals for the year and shared them with the class. The goals ranged from specific action items, like “I want to estimate how long homework assignments will take so I can make a plan,” to metacognitive goals like “I want to understand how I think and learn to learn better.”
What’s important?
The course’s next focus was note-taking, as students often have trouble identifying what is important and how much is too much. Using their summer reading books as an example, teachers showed students how to annotate a text as they read, and then the class annotated an article together. Noting that the course was intentionally planned to support the seventh grade curriculum, Sally explains that the follow-up note-taking practice was that night’s Life Sciences homework—a class in which there is a specific template for note-taking.
Getting and staying organized can be a challenge for seventh graders, and throughout the course, students periodically checked their binders to ensure that materials were neat and easy to access. “This is a skill that students need to be explicitly taught,” says Sally, “and some students need help determining what to keep, what to throw away, and how to organize it all.”
Organizing their time can be equally daunting. In class, students talked about “time on task” and how that affects their ability to manage their workload. Each student completed a worksheet estimating how much time was devoted to evening activities: eating dinner, doing homework for each subject, getting organized for the next day, and getting ready for bed. That night, students tracked how long they spent on these tasks, with eye-opening results. “Sometimes kids get overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to do,” says Sally. “ It’s good for them to see that if they are spending an hour on math homework, maybe they need to go in for some extra help.”
How do I show what I know?
Seventh grade is a Fay student’s first experience with a traditional end-of-term exam period. Anticipating this event, teachers worked with students on how to study efficiently, calm exam anxiety, and be ready to perform their best on test day. “We give students clear strategies for how to pre- pare for a test, how to figure out what the teacher is going to ask, and how to study and retain that information,” says Liz Williams. “We want to help students figure out which strategies will work best for them.” Drawing on ideas familiar from Wellness Class, Study Skills also incorporates mindfulness exercises to help students calm, clear, and focus their minds before beginning an exam.
The ultimate measure of whether the Study Skills course is valuable will be whether students in this year’s pilot program find it useful. With the focus on keeping the classes fun, flexible, and finely attuned to the seventh grade program, the anecdotal feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. “One of my students ran up to me worried that she was going to miss Study Skills class that week and asked if I could give her the assignment so she could work on it at home,” recounts Amy. “To see students invested to that degree is really exciting.”

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