A brilliant student need not be naturally brilliant. A brilliant student is simply a student who studies brilliantly, cooperating with how his or her brain naturally works, not working against it. Every student can be a brilliant student in his own way if he learns to do these five things.

Brilliant Student Secret #1: Learn a Little Every Day

Brilliant students learn a little every day. For long-term knowledge retention and recall, this strategy performs dramatically better than cramming. If you would like your children to learn the names and the capitals of all of the fifty states in the United States of America, which strategy do you think is better?

Strategy A: Spend three hours today in totally focused study—180 minutes total.

Strategy B: Spend three minutes a day for the next fifty days, distributing studying over time—150 minutes total.

Cognitive research clearly demonstrates that these strategies are not equivalent. In fact, one of them is dramatically better than the other at supporting long-term memory of the material. Did you pick the correct strategy? Yes, it is Strategy B. A few short minutes of focused study followed by a period of rest supports how the brain naturally consolidates long-term memory. 

There are other benefits as well.

  • Strategy B requires less time to produce better results.
  • Strategy B is easier for the student.

“Easier” plus “more productive” is a winning combination. Natural study rhythms are less than seven minutes long for children. Spending three minutes at a time in focused study is actually something children can do successfully. Spending 180 minutes in focused study is almost impossible.

You should slow down information acquisition by spreading it over time. A year of learning just a few facts a day means your students can learn three thousand new facts this year. At the end of ten years they will have learned thirty thousand new facts. If you implement the remaining secrets to ensure they retain and recall these facts, you will have absolutely brilliant students.

Brilliant Student Secret #2: Reinforce Facts With Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is a technique for making study time highly effective, a technique for choosing what to study and review on any given day. In spaced repetition, we carefully schedule each follow-up review for a specific fact. With every successful review, the time before the next review increases. With every mistake, the time before the next review decreases. For example, Derek is learning this fact: the capital of Massachusetts is Boston. Derek learns the fact on January 1. He reviews it successfully on January 2, 4, 7, and 14. 

This review schedule is an example of spaced repetition. With each successful review the spacing between reviews increases. The review spacing continues to increase as long as Derek recalls the fact correctly. If at any time Derek fails to recall the fact, the spacing would be decreased or even restarted at day one. 

Spaced repetition review is always dynamic, adjusting the schedule for each specific fact based on how well the student can recall that fact. Each well-timed review provides an opportunity for the student’s memory to be strengthened. 

Spaced repetition is proven to work. It makes it possible for students to remember more with dramatically less effort. Spaced repetition helps brilliant students retain and recall successfully everything they have learned.

Brilliant Student Secret #3: Study Using Active Recall

To make a memory as strong as possible, have your students actively recall the facts they are learning. For example, Jessie is memorizing the names of all of the presidents of the United States. Initially, she hears or reads a fact to be learned, such as “Andrew Jackson started serving as president in the year 1829.”

Simply hearing or reading information is called passive review. Passive review is not the best way to study material in order to remember it later. To remember it, Jessie has to practice actively recalling it from her own memory and not reading it out of books or her notes. Typically, active recall is initiated by asking the student a question such as “What year did Andrew Jackson start serving as the President of the United States?”

The question challenges Jessie to actively recall the fact, making the memory stronger if she gets the answer correct, or re-teaching her the fact if she gets it wrong. Active recall consolidates long-term memory. To create brilliant students, encourage them to actively recall information they have learned.

Brilliant Student Secret #4: Build Knowledge Nets

It is possible to hear a fact once, and then remember it correctly days, weeks, or even months later without studying. It is possible to turn your students’ brains into knowledge nets that catch knowledge, as a fishnet catches fish. Have you ever seen a fishnet? Even though it is very light, and even flimsy looking, a fishnet can catch a great deal of fish in just one pass. 

So exactly what is a knowledge net? It is a carefully selected set of facts on a given subject. Since knowledge nets exist in our brains, they are also made of knowledge. The kind of knowledge used to make the net determines the kind of knowledge it will likely catch. Create a different net . . . catch a whole new field of knowledge. 

If you are studying United States history, for example, use a “U.S. presidents” knowledge net. This net might hold the name of each president and the year in which each one began his presidency. Learning these presidential facts in essence creates a “net” around United States history, starting in 1789 and continuing to the present day. These facts help students capture even more U.S. history. For example, in learning about the presidents, the students learn that Abraham Lincoln’s presidency started in 1861 and ended in 1865. Later, when these same students learn about the U.S. Civil War, they will instantly recognize the time frame of the war; this is a knowledge net in action.

A knowledge net of U.S. presidents may even help students remember dates and events that are unrelated to U.S. presidents. One student reported remembering that La Amistad was captured in 1839 after hearing that fact only one time. The student cannot explain why he remembered that date, except to say that he remembered that Martin Van Buren started serving as President in 1837 and La Amistad just seemed to stick to that fact. Indeed it did stick—like a fish caught in a net.

Brilliant Student Secret #5: Seek to Make Associations

Brilliant students actively seek to make new associations with knowledge as soon as they acquire it. They do this by actively looking, reading, and researching to try to find knowledge they can associate with something they have learned. 

As soon as your homeschool students start building knowledge nets, it is possible for them to begin rapidly catching new knowledge. In practice, students catch information both intentionally, i.e., when they are deliberately studying something, and incidentally, i.e., when they are doing something else. Either way, they learn by connecting new knowledge to knowledge already in the net. 

Unlike actual, tangible fishing nets, which are weakened by increased use, knowledge nets become stronger the more they are used. Cognitive researchers call this activity “making associations.” Making associations is about connecting one piece of knowledge in a student’s long-term memory with another piece of knowledge, which is also in his long-term memory. This process makes both memories stronger.

Your homeschool students should actively seek to make new associations. For example, if they learn that John Quincy Adams was the sixth President of the United States, they should seek to learn a little more about him. They may read a brief biography or encyclopedia entry. They may watch a video about President Adams. They may look for his name or picture on a poster of the U.S. Presidents. They may even arrange a field trip to visit his former home. 

As a result, John Quincy Adams begins to become a person with a story, and not just a name. As your students learn more about John Quincy Adams, their nets get stronger and it gets easier and easier to catch more information: that John Quincy Adams was the son of President John Adams, that he was James Monroe’s Secretary of State, and that he actually lost the popular vote to Andrew Jackson. 

Did you notice that all three examples of what your students might associate involve other Presidents? This is actually the case. Why? Because if they have been building a knowledge net on U.S. Presidents, they already know about Presidents John Adams and James Monroe, and they will soon learn about President Andrew Jackson. Therefore, your students are predisposed to rapidly recall new associations between John Quincy Adams and other presidents they already know about.

Making associations is where long-term memory is leveraged into advanced cognitive reasoning skills, where students move beyond memory and onto creative and original thinking. Teach your children to make associations, and they will be truly brilliant.

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Thomas Meloche and his wife Renee homeschooled their daughter Bethany in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Thomas is a computer engineer, entrepreneur, and student of cognitive research. He created the website HomeSchoolAdvantage.com to conveniently provide spaced repetition, active recall, and knowledge nets. A 30-day free trial allows you to experiment with and test these concepts yourself.

Publication date: November 7, 2012