Helping Kids Study for Tests: Just Do What You’re Told and No One Gets Hurt


I did something last night I’ve never done before– I helped two teenagers study for semester final exams, at the same time.  See, this is the first time for Emmie to have an exam week like this, and we discovered yesterday that today, she and her sister both have finals in similar subjects– for Emmie, Texas History, and for Allison, U.S. History. So last night, I asked them if they needed anyone to quiz them on definitions or dates or anything. “We can sit in a circle and I can fire off questions to each of you, and when it’s not your turn, you can figure out if you know the answer, too, or just listen.” Surprisingly, they were enthusiastic about this, and so we sat in the living room, dogs and all. To my left, I’d fire off questions about early Texas Indian culture to Emmie (“Were the Tiguas sedentary or nomadic? How did they get food?”) and to the right, questions about everything from the American Revolution up to the 1940s to Allison (“What is isolationism? How did Duke Ellington affect American culture?”).  I felt like Alex Trebek. But only because I was the moderator.  Not because I knew all the answers like Alex (did you know he speaks six languages?). When Allison didn’t know the answers (she hadn’t printed all of them on the test review sheet), I wasn’t much help. Not only did I not remember “for sure” the outcome of the Scopes Monkey Trial, I couldn’t remember a.) if Susan B Anthony only worked for the right of women to vote, or was a champion of other women’s rights; b.) what was contained in the Pure Food and Drug Act and c.) what caused the Spanish-American war.  It was close to 10 p.m., and she was getting frustrated with me, and with having “tech issues” in trying to look up some of the answers online, on her phone.  “Geez, Mom, weren’t you taught any of this????” Um, I only remember having a really boring U.S. history teacher in 9th grade and that’s about it, I told her. We had to memorize a ton of facts and couldn’t wait to empty it out of our stressed heads when the semester was over.  And anything that was left, well, it’s been 35 years…

“Why do they have us learn all this if we’re just going to forget it!!?!” said Allison. Good point, I said. 

Meanwhile, Emmie was knee-deep in hunters and gatherers.  “Mom, it’s my turn!!”

Okay, okay.  “What was the name of the Indians who lived in the Coastal Plains and how did they adapt to their environment?” I asked, squinting at the review sheet. After a few more, I commented that it was sad that the Apaches, Comanches, Tonkawas and Kiowas had to make their living partly by raiding camps. Emmie looked like she was going to blow a gasket (in addition to being tired, she also had a headache).  “Mom, they’re Indians!!” she exclaimed.  “What do you expect?! Just keep asking the questions on the review sheet!!!” Of course I had to point out to her that she was stereotyping, and that she’d previously described other Indian tribes who got along just fine without being criminals, and that not all Indians were scalpers and bandits.  I think she understood my point and we moved on…

Even though helping my kids study for tests usually subjects me to ridicule and disdain, I still partake in it once in awhile because I always re-learn something I’ve forgotten or learn something I didn’t know (The pilgrims were sick, dying and depressed when they first sighted our shores? Lindbergh once lived on an island? Who knew…and of course, learning Texas history is always a new adventure for us northerners…). 

But probably the best part about helping kids study for tests, in addition to spending some quality time together and providing them with feedback, is that when you ask a lot of questions (whether you really don’t know something or not ) and your kids are suddenly in the position of teaching someone instead of someone else always teaching them, it’s one of the best ways that they can solidify facts in their brain.  Well, that is, when they get the facts straight.


“YOU MEAN YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT BIG STICK DIPLOMACY IS?” marveled Allison at one point last night after one of my questions.  She eloquently went on to explain to me how Teddy Roosevelt carried a big stick and would shake it or bang it when dealing with ambassadors from other countries, to make the point that America was tough, as opposed to President Taft, who just wanted to throw money at other countries to keep the peace– a.k.a. “Dollar Diplomacy”.   

You don’t say?! Interesting! Well said!

I went to sleep feeling good that I had helped my kids learn by getting them to help me learn, to engage in a conversation with me about history rather than just having them regurgitate facts.   But today I looked up info about Teddy Roosevelt, and, um, he never actually carried a big stick.  It was part of his favorite phrase, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” and it was a metaphor about his get-tough foreign policies…but he didn’t actually carry one…or bang one…


Guess I better stick to letting PBS and good books help me re-learn history from now on…and an occasional episode of Jeopardy…

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