Ursuline News

A Letter From the Dean of Academics

Dear Ursuline Families:

Now that classes are in full swing, you can click here to find a BackPack refresher for finding your daughter’s grades, and most likely at home, you have heard some talk about studying for tests at this point in the semester.

Last week one of our teachers shared with me the student responses she received from a class reflection. In the response to the question, “what else would you like me to know,” the teacher discovered that a few students revealed that they spent three hours to complete the homework in the class. Upon reading these responses, the teacher immediately reached out to the students. When the teacher asked the students how they approached homework, the students shared that they took notes on everything and reread those notes over and over. The teacher explained that she designed homework to take only about 30 minutes for the class, and she showed the students how to strategize and organize efficiently. I asked the teacher about the student’s reactions, and she shared that the students looked so relieved.

I share this anecdote because it exemplifies how some girls approach studying. In her book, Under Pressure, by Lisa Damour, Dr. Damour addresses the differences in how girls and boys approach studying (if you have a son, you may recognize some of the behavior described below).

Boys often take a calculated approach to school and tend to be more tactical about studying. They figure out what grades they need to maintain a certain average in a class, and they decode the minimum effort required to keep adults off their backs. Additionally, boys tend not to take feedback personally. They are inclined to be more confident and more likely to tell themselves they were not really trying when they get a bad grade.  

Research shows that girls are more disciplined than boys about their studies. Girls do a lot of studying in all subjects and take feedback as a measure of what they can and cannot achieve.  Girls might spend time re-reading, highlighting, and color coding, study skills they often learn in middle school. These study techniques take a lot of time and may lead to excessive over-preparation. Moreover, decades of research show that simply re-reading written material gives a false sense of fluency: we feel like we know it, but we really don’t. In the later years of high school, girls may find these study methods unsustainable (e.g. spending three hours per class every night).

Does this behavior sound familiar? If so, how might we encourage girls to become more efficient and tactical in their approach to studying while still being successful?

One of the first steps includes encouraging girls to change their study strategies. Spaced practice and sample testing are two of the most effective study techniques because they require putting the material away and recalling it from memory.

For example, instead of cramming the night before an assessment, girls need to find active ways to engage with test material over time. This might look like quizzing themselves over several days leading up to an assessment rather than relying on passive rereading and reviewing. Engaging with practice test questions (at the back of a textbook, online, and creating some of their own study materials) are effectual ways of studying.  If your daughter cannot answer all the practice questions when she first begins studying, she should identify what material she still needs to master. By beginning several days in advance, she has time to reach out to her teachers to ask questions and process information with which she is unfamiliar. And if your daughter can explain (or “teach”) a concept to herself or a friend, she is then defining knowledge with the correct criterion and can more confidently determine when she knows the concept. 

Girls also learn best when they take steps to protect themselves against forgetting. This looks like engaging with material, stepping away from it, and then returning to it. By including a buffer between self-testing and the actual test, girls can continue practicing the concept, reducing the likelihood of forgetting material during that time. They will feel less anxious when taking the actual assessment if they have already tried to answer challenging questions on the same material.  More importantly, they develop a deeper understanding of the content. 

If you talk with your daughter about these study techniques, she may not just flip a switch and change habits overnight. And that’s OK. We would never ask her to jump from learning lines of a play to performing on opening night without plenty of rehearsals. Changing study habits is a process and may take some time. If your daughter’s main study strategy is simply rereading material, it’s quite a leap to go from looking over material to grappling with hard questions, one reason why some students may feel anxious when the material gets more difficult. 

It’s hard to get girls to change study habits, especially if they have been successful. Let them know that they have a great foundation, and they are responsible with their studies and respected by teachers. Then talk about how to streamline their approach and still make the grades they want. 

The next time your daughter prepares for or finishes a test, here are a few questions you could ask about her study habits:

  • Which study strategies do you use? Which ones are helpful/not helpful?
  • Do you feel that you studied too much, not enough, or just the right amount? 
  • What might you do differently next time?

Thank you for reading, and I wish everyone a happy and successful school year.  

Elizabeth Smith
Dean of Academics