How To Study: 4th Grade and Social Studies

Number One Daughter is in the fourth grade, a trait she shares with lots of other ten year-olds in the world. After doing homework with her for four years I’ve come to some conclusions about how she learns, and useful methods for getting her to learn.

I’ve learned to split her subjects into two categories:

Subjects She Has To Memorize

These abound in elementary school, and are the hardest to get her motivated for.  I can’t always tell her that learning the history of Maryland will be useful in life, or that knowing the spelling and meaning of ‘migrate’ is key to her future. And studying is much less interesting and more random for these subjects.

Subjects With Algorithms

It’s no doubt the software pro in me, but think of subjects like decimals, probability, geometry, etc. as algorithm subjects; subjects primarily concerned with learning core concepts, and learning to apply those concepts. This makes them easier to learn on one hand, because she learns the concept, she can crush the problems. On the other hand, these subjects tend to have a cumulative nature that makes them more fraught. More about that in another post.

Social Studies

So, Social Studies. This year it is mostly about American Colonial history, taught mostly in terms of Maryland history. This involves learning lots of names, families, industries, geography, and the like. It is a lot of memorizing, and she really pretty much would rather not. Not bother, not do it, not learn it.

But there are tests, and she really likes doing well on the tests.

One of the hardest things has been drawing a causal line in her mind between the effort she puts in and results she gets out. In order for her to do well on the tests, she needs to study; furthermore, she needs to connect that her study effort directly impacts her test scores.

This is harder to do than you might think, for a variety of reasons. Some teachers seem happy to return homework and tests loong after they were studied for an turned in. Some subjects come too easily to her, meaning she doesn’t need to study. Sometimes she makes unimaginably careless mistakes, like the test where she forgot the page was double-sided. Some subjects come hard to her, and come more easily to friends (oh, the drama). And sometimes, the schools have really stupid rules about not allowing scratch paper for math — what is the point of that? (This last one drives me NUTS. At what point in life will there be a shortage of scratch paper to do your work? Paper actually does grow on trees. And recycles.)

Finally, she is a ten-year-old girl; the capacity for distraction at this age is amazing.

So, for a variety of reasons, I do extra work to make her draw the connection between the effort she puts in and the results she gets out. Mostly, this involves making sure she studies efficiently. So what do we do, for these subjects where you have to ingest facts and connect them usefully?

Write It Down, Write It Down, Write It Down

Really, this is the most effective, simplest to explain, and easiest to achieve method that we’ve come up with.

First, for all her study notes, handouts, etc., we turn each note or fact into a declarative statement: “Industry for Baltimore: Shipping” becomes “The main industry in Baltimore in Colonial Times was Shipping”. And so on, until she has a complete set of notes to study. Now, initially I had to help her, and occasionally I still do, but she can mostly do this on her own.

Then the real work begins. She hand-copies three to five copies of the notes; the emphasis is on reading each note, and each section of notes, understanding them, then writing them down. Rinse, lather, repeat. She doesn’t rush, there is no extra points for finishing early. I made the point pretty well that rushing through the copies will just mean she did the studying but didn’t get the grade, and that would stink.

This method has proven pretty effective.  First, she does all the work. I only do a little quizzing at the end to make sure she actually paid attention as she copied things. Second, it is a measurable amount of work; if we decide she needs to make four copies, she feels like she is getting somewhere when she finishes the first page; she can measure her study progress. She can choose to do a copy a night, or two a day, or four at once. This choice, for a ten-year-old, is a big deal.

It has the virtue of being cheap: all you need is pencils and paper.

Finally, it works. At least for my eldest, it has made her more confident in her ability to excel in these subjects. It has moved her grades way, way up. And it has made studying less involved for mom and dad.And after a few units, she’s built up a passel of notes covering the whole year.  Which makes her proud as all get out.

If you have a kid (or are a kid) who is struggling with a subject like Social Studies, try it!

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14 Comments on “How To Study: 4th Grade and Social Studies”


  1. […] See the article here: How To Study: 4th Grade & Social Studies […]

  2. Bjoern Says:

    Have you tried the Loci method? Or some other method from books on memory techniques?

    • designbygravity Says:

      Part of the attraction to what we evolved above is that she got to help develop what would work for her; this made it more palatable. I resisted showing her study books and such so she wouldn’t feel overwhelmed.

      • Bjoern Says:

        I only discovered the Loci method when school was already finished for me, so I can’t really say how much it would have helped. But the potential seems enormous. I’ve only tried learning small lists with it (like 40 items or so), but it’s amazing to be able to learn them in one go (no repetition, just go through the list once). Also, it might be pleasant to go on walks to find more anchor points. It’s not complicated by the way, you can learn how it works in 10 minutes. But you have to practice by getting more anchor points.

        Anyway, I did not mean it as a criticize, just wish somebody at school had thought us about these methods. The other methods in the book I read were also fun, there are special tricks for learning languages, for example.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method_of_loci

        • Bjoern Says:

          Sorry to ramble on – that Wikipedia article makes it sound far more complicated than it is. Really it is just “acquiring” a route with anchor points, and then mentally attaching items from your list to said points. For example, in your house, you might create a route that goes “sofa, cupboard, window, TV, carpet,…”. Anyway, I just mentioned it because it is actually fun, and it works (has been in use for thousands of years).

          The book I read just had slightly more detailed hints for creating good routes. Also it mentioned techniques for other types of information, like numbers, historical dates, or people’s names. It was an informal book, no PhD level science.

  3. sedwards Says:

    Tangible evidence of studying–good idea. There’s also lots of good stuff in “Study Hacks:”

    http://calnewport.com/blog/


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