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Author: Chitra Iyer
Published on:
April 30, 2022

Why is My Child Not Learning? 5 Ineffective Study Habits Holding Students Back

Sometimes, despite their best efforts, our children find themselves against a wall when it comes to learning. When even learning a standardized school curriculum starts feeling like a challenge. There can be many reasons for this, starting with a system overly-focused on content and results. As parents, we can change this. Here’s how.
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When we do not consciously help our kids build effective learning skills and techniques, they could be internalizing ineffective practices that fool them - and us -  into thinking they are learning

You can imagine their frustration then, when despite spending long hours ‘studying’, despite burning the midnight oil, despite attending every class and tuition, and giving up their favorite hobby  or sport just to make time for studying, they still do not see the results they want!

What causes this pattern of poor learning outcomes?

Almost always, the cause is not a lack of ability, intelligence or aptitude. 

It is almost always the result of not having a smart learning strategy. Of ineffective study  techniques. Of not having the effective learning skills every 21st century learner needs.

The key to long-term learning outcomes is to understand that effective learning is not the same as studying, memorizing or collecting knowledge.  The latter are more tactical, short-term fixes with the goal of passing an exam or earning a term-grade. The former is a super-power that helps with long-term success as a lifelong learner. 

I apologize if I sound like I’m paraphrasing your granddad now, but the fact is there is no shortcut to effective learning! 

There can be, however, a smarter path to both- studying and learning!  

With effective learning techniques, we not only meet all our short-term study goals such as exams and grades, but also cement our ability to meet long-term life goals in an era of disruption and distraction.

Ineffective Study Practice #1

Ignoring the Eat-Sleep-Play Rule

Nutrition, sleep and exercise are the 3 secret weapons of all effective learners and without exception, all successful people who have stood the test of time (I’m not talking about the shooting stars but the legends.)

Don’t be okay with passing an exam at the cost of sleep or exercise. Don’t see ‘burning the midnight oil’ before an exam as a great sign of the effort they are putting in. Don't be okay with them working for long hours without a break. 

All of these are actually costing them their well-being and cementing ineffective and harmful learning habits that will have long-term effects.

And with effective learning skills and techniques, none of that should be needed.

If you want your child to be a big-time CEO, then help them build the learning habits of successful CEOs.

Parent's need to walk the talk when it comes to our child’s wellbeing, without compromise.

Ineffective Study Practice #2

Event-based Learning/ Marathon Study-sessions 

‘Learning’ is a strategic, life-long super-power. 

Don’t reduce learning to a short-term event or tactic by simply ‘studying’ to pass exams. It’s a sure-fire route to burn-out and create a lifelong distaste of taking on any learning challenge.

It’s a vicious cycle. Ineffective learning habits bring us to a point of panic before exams. To make up for it, we study non-stop before the event, often without a break. After the event, we are so burnt-out we don’t want to touch our books for a long time. Only to arrive at a point of panic before the next set of exams. 

Are your children lurching from one exam period to another without flexing their effective learning muscles throughout the year? 

  • No one ever performed better at the last minute, under-pressure. 
  • Learning is never about the non-stop hours spent studying but about how well the time was spent to study smarter
  • Studying just one thing for a long time is proven to be less effective than mixing up topics over a study session. (When we exercise too, we don’t just do crunches for the full 45 minute session do we? We do interval training and super-sets to work different body parts in one session.)

Would you rather that your child train for and win only one race in life, or that they had the habits of a champion that let them compete fearlessly in any challenge throughout life? For the nature of the race will keep on changing. Or as I like to say, content will become obsolete. Learning skills last forever!

For effective learning, three fundamental elements are necessary:

  • A positive learning environment is central to creating effective learning habits - this is often overlooked by parents and children alike. Parents play the lead role in creating a healthy learning environment at home - an emotional, physical and intellectual space that helps them be better learners at all times, not just before exams, not just for short bursts, but all the time. 
  • A strong learning mindseta growth mindset is crucial to learning success. It simply means believing that one can get better at anything with the right learning strategy - the skills and techniques to learn anything better. The ‘fixed mindset’ - the opposite of growth mindset - leads to self-fulfilling prophecies like ‘I am bad at math - no matter what I do I will never get it’ or ‘I am so uncreative, no matter what I can never do anything creative’. A growth mindset helps our children steer clear of these limiting beliefs.
  • An effective learning strategy: which is a unique combination of effective learning skills and techniques your child needs to meet short-term study and long-term learning goals. 

Instead of pre-exam panic, make it a habit to use scientifically proven effective study techniques - such as  Pomodoro technique and distributed practice  - to meet steady learning milestones throughout the year.

Ongoing learning gives the brain time to process what has been learned and build connections to hardcode new learning - it’s not going to happen one day or week before exams. Memorization is not the same as effective learning.

As a metaphor, think of building a wall - you need to place all the bricks one by one in a logical sequence. Just throwing them all on top of one another and pouring the cement on the pile of bricks is not going to make a strong or viable wall. It’s all about how you place the bricks.

Ineffective Study Practice #3

Passive Reading, Rereading, Jumping to the Answers

Okay, so having been children ourselves, we all know the real dangers of sham reading - but the fact is we have done it, and our children will do it, if we don't help them to build self-awareness about their learning process from an early age. 

So what is passive reading? Quite simply, the opposite of active reading - reading without comprehension or just staring / re-reading text without absorbing anything or making any connections in our mind. Some amount of memorization may happen, but effective learning (absorbing, understanding, connecting, applying) will not.  

Another misleading practice in passive reading is going over / jumping straight to the answers in our book without actually solving the problems or attempting to answer them ourselves without looking at the answers provided. 

It fools our brain into thinking we know/ understand how to arrive at the answer. The only surefire way to know if you know the answer to something, is to put away all aids and answer keys, and solve the question yourself, pen to paper or verbally, without looking at any supporting material at all. 

While learning, regularly use deliberate practice to ensure you are also practicing the stuff that you don’t find easy, familiar or pleasant -  as regularly as the stuff you find easy and tend to prefer. 

Ineffective Study Practice #4

Highlighting or Underlining instead of Note-Taking

Don’t be fooled! Research shows that just highlighting or underlining big chunks of text doesn’t put anything in your head. 

Try effective note-taking instead. As you highlight, write brief notes about the highlighted item in the margins or on paper to accompany it. 

Note taking is an effective learning skill that helps you create a set of brain‐links of the key concepts and remind you later why you highlighted that item. Adding metaphors or visual keys to highlighted text, summarizing verbally or in writing, and mind maps are also proven ways to retain what we learn more effectively.

Note taking by hand is even more effective than making notes on a laptop. This research proved that when we take notes by hand, we actually are more mentally engaged in the process and are more selective about what is important to include. This leads to better connection and retention.

Ineffective Study Practice #5


As we know from the pomodoro technique, 25 focused minutes are more beneficial to learning outcomes than 2 hours of distracted study or trying to multitask. Multitasking is proven to be detrimental to learning outcomes - research shows that it slows down our brain’s ability to store new information. 

Our human brain in fact simply cannot concentrate on more than one or two tasks at a time. In the case of two tasks, at least one of them needs to be at the unconscious competence level for it to be possible (for example, thinking or speaking while driving, where driving is a deep expertise). 

So group studies with chatty friends, texting, checking emails during a video lecture etc. will all negatively impact learning outcomes.

Unfortunately, we live in the age of distraction, with click-baity headlines and social media networks that can suck up hours of time. And guess what? With the meta-verse coming, we cannot even fathom what distractions are on the way. 

We know for sure that the distractions won’t reduce. Instead of thinking they can cope by multi-tasking, helping our children internalize effective learning techniques that can help them deal with this constant barrage of distractions is more productive.

Transformative results need transformative action

Doing more of the same has already proven to be a waste of time and effort. 

It’s time to shift the goalposts. Reset your child’s ability to learn - anything- fearlessly. 

Studying hard and fast is always more tempting than studying smart, because we all love a good shortcut! But learning- like it or not- is a process, and it takes time to get it right. 

In the childhood years, as parents, our focus should be on the HOW - how our children learn and helping them build the right learning skills and learning techniques so they can keep getting better at learning, rather than focusing on one subject or one topic (the what)

Don’t be fooled if your child spends hours at the table with their books - the mind doesn't need any vehicle to wander! 

The next time you see your child busy ‘studying’ for hours together, intervene!  Start by eliminating these ‘false friends’ that lead us to believe that our children are learning but which may be not just useless, but downright harmful in the longer run.

Work with them to create an effective learning strategy and unleash their learning-to-learn superpowers

Read these next:

How Not to Create a Learning Environment at Home

How Can I Know if my Child Has a Growth Mindset?

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