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Mougins School

The Learning Curve

How can I help my child prepare for their exams?
Paul Michael

Around March, the question above echoes around every school community in which I have ever worked. 

Almost every suggestion I have heard from parents comes from a good place. In general though, the locking away of phones and video games, the insistence on an almost monastic couple of months of desk staring, along with 'cramming' like there's no tomorrow tend not to be so successful.  

What habits, then, can parents encourage their children to develop? Here are some suggestions, informed by research into how memory works and how learning happens, that can make a difference. The fantastic four are below:

1) Seek out the desirable difficulties

Students should aim to make sure that the techniques that they use are genuinely impactful. This does not mean making studying ‘easier’ or more enjoyable. Two well respected researchers in education, Bjork and Bjork, have been talking about this for a good while now, coining the term 'desirable difficulties’ to best describe how students should aim to study. Spacing out revision focus over time instead of cramming into one block (timetables are helpful here), varying the type of revision that is being done, and self-quizzing (bespoke Google Forms or ‘Quizziz’ can work well for many) are research-proven to be impactful.

2) Reduce the distractions and embrace the monotasking

This should not be controversial, but it remains so. Miller’s Law retains its relevance: we can hold 7±2 'chunks’ of information in our working memory at one time. Attention taking stimulus gets in the way of this. So, Spotify playlists, chat groups pinging, TV on in the background etc all get in the way. A quiet, focus-rich area in which to study is key here. Multitasking, where we believe that we can engage with several different functions at a time with no loss of efficacy or efficiency is a myth. Providing your children with the space to have calm, focused, distraction-limited study is a goal worth aiming for.

3) The Leitner Box and dual coding

Flash cards are ‘age old and still gold’ in terms of impact. Of course, there are many ways to create these today: Google Slides and Quizlet are two popular ways to go. These, too, can be enhanced through using them with a Leitner Box technique or making sure that students are maximising their text through dual coding by using simple, elaborative images to boost working memory capacity.

4) Forming the habit

Cue, Craving, Response, Reward. 
Cue, Craving, Response, Reward. 
Cue, Craving, Response, Reward. 

As Aristotle had it, we are what we repeatedly do, therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit. Forming habits is surprisingly easy with the right focus and structure. James Clear, the popular author of ‘Atomic Habits’ is brilliant on this. If you believe your child could benefit from building better habits, choose something together to focus on, follow the structure in the link above, and get them to incorporate it into their study routines. For them it might be ratio revision in Maths, for you it might be in remembering to go for that run you’ve planned. Either way, it shows support and encouragement in a parallel manner that gives agency to their autonomy but partnership and empathy to their academic pursuits. 

At Mougins British International School, we’re committed to research-led practices that genuinely enrich our students’ opportunities to maximise their learning. The ideas, techniques, and strategies above are present in our students’ study skills sessions, specialist lessons, and in our collective pedagogical approaches as a staff. We know they make a difference and wish all of our students the very best for their forthcoming exams. 


Paul Michael,
Head of Secondary

  • Secondary