Three Simple Words for Better Studying: Engage – Retrieve – Repeat

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One of the most painful experiences a parent can have is the seemingly hopeless feeling of watching their child flounder in school. ADHD kids in particular can often find it to be an alien experience to buckle down and focus for long stretches of time in isolation on arcane subject matter that might seem entirely unrelated to their lives or what they’re interested in. (“When am I ever going to use algebra anyway?”)

We strive as parents to find the right balance between supporting our kids and hand holding them through each challenge they come across (lest we earn that dreaded term, “helicopter parent”). The right middle ground is often to provide our kids with frameworks (even if we don’t throw that term around in front of our 5 year-olds) and ways of thinking about their challenges which they can turn to in the future. Kids tend to gravitate toward memorable and repeatable mnemonic devices. (It’s pretty hard to forget the simple mantra for what to do if you’re caught on fire: “stop, drop, and roll.”)

If your child struggles to focus or retain information, try giving them a similarly simple strategy for more effective studying and information retention.

Engage – Retrieve – Repeat

ADHD brains work very quickly. That’s why I like the term “FastBraiin.” Some teachers and peers look at these brains and purely see trouble focusing or paying attention.

But there’s a flip side to this coin. The speed also allows us – myself included – to receive ideas and suggestions very quickly. As a result, our brains can get “the gist” quickly and begin looking for more engaging stimuli.

You can turn this unique trait into an advantage with this framework.


Find the entry point that will help your child meaningfully engage with the subject. Figure out how the topic area intersects with their interests; you might find a way to correlate their physics assignment with their love of football, for example. Michael Phelps himself benefitted when his mother helped him see how his math assignments related to his swimming regimen; when he needed to solve problems about speed in water over distance, his engagement and comfort with the subject grew.


It’s often fruitless for kids to mindlessly review a subject in a rote, mechanical fashion; in one ear, out the other. They are far more likely to retrieve information when testing themselves; that’s one reason why flash cards are a proven technique for reviewing Spanish vocabulary words for example. Research backs this up, confirming that self-testing outperforms other study techniques because it reinforces the development of myelin – a fatty substance in the brain that, in simplest terms, protects and establishes neural connections, the stuff that memories are made of. The more testing, the more one develops muscle tissue for memory. Consider encouraging your child to incorporate retrieval practices and exercises into their study sessions.


Now that we have engaged and retrieved, it’s time to repeat! Repetition is one of the essential building blocks to the formation of memory. Every repetition of a musical note or line of dialogue helps to reinforce it and solidify it in the brain.

You might think of it a bit like this: each and every time you repeat something, it’s essentially traveling a path through the jungle. The path might be a bit hard to discern at first, but over time, the path becomes clearer. Repetition helps to lay down gravel and clear the way.

When it comes to reading, for example, consider encouraging your child to skim a given passage three times. But on the first read, have them go over all of the headings and subheadings; on the second read through, read the first and last sentences of each paragraph. And on the third red, have them skim all of the material in full. You’ll be amazed at how much you understanding you can gain from an article by first reading the headings, captions, first and last sentences, etc. When you then skim the entire article, your memory bank will put to work all of the information that it has already gathered.

Have you tried or succeeded with any other study techniques in your household? What lingering challenges remain? Let me know on Facebook!

If you are looking for strategies to boost productivity when it comes to homework, check out this article.