Strategic Study Habits

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Arguably, the greatest student-teacher relationship in ancient history was that of Alexander the Great and Aristotle. Although Alexander’s genius contributed enormously to his success, there is no doubt that Aristotle’s tutelage also served to shape his famous student. In his book, The Life of Alexander the Great, Plutarch recounts how Alexander treasured his copy of the Iliad that Aristotle had annotated for him, even carrying it with him on military campaigns and placing it safely in a casket that he kept under his pillow. Impressively, Alexander even taught himself to recite the Iliad from beginning to end. Perhaps these stories are somewhat legendary; nevertheless, they illustrate how much Alexander’s knowledge and love of Homer was nurtured by Aristotle. Although Alexander’s conquests played an instrumental role in the spread of Greek culture throughout the world, Aristotle’s formation of Alexander provided the impetus. Even Alexander the Great still needed the stimulus and strengthening of a skilled teacher to develop his full potential.

When we train students to have excellent study habits, we are enabling them to develop their natural abilities to the utmost. We are encouraging students to go forth from our classrooms instructed and inspired by their lessons, to solidify their newfound knowledge and to make that knowledge a part of who they are and a part of how they will love and serve others in this world. The following are three important ways to inculcate good study habits in students, with a Latin class as our guide.


First, model order and organization. C. S. Lewis, in his essay “On the Transmission of Christianity,” stated: “None can give to another what he does not possess himself. No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got.” While this quote has a specific application in regards to a teacher transmitting Christianity, a broad application to teaching in general is not amiss. The principle is that if we desire to form something within our students, we must first form it within ourselves. If we train students to see that everything has a place (organization) and that there is a flow to the lesson (order), they will come to see this as natural and normal and begin to imitate it. Everything has a place. Books, binders, flashcards, and notebooks are neatly and specifically stored. Everything is labeled. Papers, tests, and quizzes are filed in a designated spot. You are then able to efficiently find and utilize all of your materials. There is also a structure and flow to each lesson. Daily, we recite grammar forms, review vocabulary, present new content, and practice new content. This order allows students to keep track of what they are learning in a clear and logical way. Students’ minds become conditioned to recognize patterns and to analyze them, and their mental energy can be conserved for the truly difficult content when it arises because they are not wasting it in frantically recalling what they should have already mastered. If we set the standard high and create orderly and organized habits, we will be setting students up for success by providing them with  a good model to follow.


Second, train students to use a variety of methods in their study habits. Just as more than one tool is necessary in a building project, so more than one tool is necessary to support students in their independent learning. Teach students to use highlighted notes, copywork, form drills, and flashcards—all as part of their assortment of tools.

Notes: To stay engaged as listeners and to internalize what they are learning, students should use a highlighter or take notes. Students should hear the words, “This is important,” and know to highlight that information in their textbooks or write it down in their notebooks. Then, they should learn to reread their highlighted notes to refresh their memories. Furthermore, they should continue to study by verbalizing their notes in their own words.

Copywork: Copywork is another simple yet effective tool to implement with students. Copying new vocabulary into a notebook or on a vocabulary drill form for homework that is then checked and  corrected should be regularly employed by teachers.

Form drills: Along with copywork, grammar form drills are a major part of bolstering students’ studies as new grammar forms need to be not only orally recited, but also practiced through written work. This will become increasingly important as more grammar forms are introduced. Again, these should be checked and corrected.

Flashcards: Flashcards are one of the most important ways students will retain their new and old vocabulary. Make it a priority to demonstrate to students how to sort and store their flashcards according to each week’s lesson and then to add each lesson’s set to their overall set of flashcards. Throughout each lesson, students should focus on that particular group of flashcards, going from  English to Latin, but also from Latin to English. They should arrange their flashcards to form two piles, the ones they know quickly and perfectly and the ones they hesitate on or do not know at all, until all of their flashcards are placed in the first pile. Cheryl Lowe always said, “Students do not enjoy what they have half-mastered and half-understood.” So although it may seem tedious, the students who dedicate themselves to this process will reap the reward of mastery and greater enjoyment.

As teachers, simply writing the word “study” on the homework board is not enough. Take the time at the beginning of the year to teach students how to study and give them multiple means to do so.


Third, help students identify their strengths and weaknesses. Every assessment is an opportunity to do this. Students can tend to take their assessments personally and to find their identity in their grades. Encourage them to have a broader perspective on the purpose of assessments and grades by having them step back and use their quizzes and tests to discover areas of strengths and  weaknesses. Train students to ask the right questions about their assessments: “Why did I get an answer wrong? Was I confused about the content or did I make careless mistakes?” If students did poorly on a particular section, such as vocabulary, then they will know to shore that up for a unit test where they will most likely see the same words again. If they did poorly on a translation exercise, then they will know to go back and clarify the content they did not understand. If they made careless mistakes, then they can learn from that too and take their time in the future as well as double-check their work.

All students have strengths and weaknesses and should prioritize their studying accordingly. No matter how strong students are academically, only strategic study habits will allow them to gain a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in their learning.

Plutarch records Alexander the Great as saying that “as he had received life from the one [his father], so the other [Aristotle] had taught him to live well.” No greater praise could be given to a teacher than to be commended for teaching a student to live a noble life, a life characterized by knowledge and the skills implanted to master that knowledge.

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