My son won't study!

In this edition of The Journey: From Boys to Men, one mum discusses her son's refusal to study and speaks to the experts about how parents can encourage their sons to prepare for exams.

I never thought it would happen to me - having a son who flatly said he couldn’t be bothered doing homework.

My elder daughter had been a highly motivated “set and forget’’ student. But with my son, increasingly brutal warnings about what his future life would look like if he didn’t bother studying weren’t seeming to have much impact.

I thought I had done everything right, too: I’ve always encouraged learning, respect for school and curiosity about the world in a home filled with books.

So I set out on another learning mission with help from some experts on boys’ learning.

I first consulted a teacher with almost 50 years of experience, about half of that in boys’ schools - my mum. Always one to encourage a student’s own journey, she said that the best learning was about having the imagination of an artist with the mindset of an engineer.

In other words, students ideally should maintain the creativity needed to make connections between concepts and, if necessary, explain them with clarity, while having the discipline to learn and understand what is required.

With my mum’s words of wisdom in mind I compiled what I have found the most helpful advice from several experts on boys’ education. Perth-based boys' education consultant Greg Mitchell says the trouble with study and boys is that many of them, including my son, believe they either already know it all or, if they don’t, they can “crack an all-nighter” before the exam or the assignment is due and it will all flow out just when they need it.

Let them relax first

Mr Mitchell advises parents to let their sons relax first. “Do not hit them with the guilt-edged: ‘Have you got any homework?’ as soon as they arrive home,” he says. "Let them relax for a while, have something to eat and set an agreed time for them to study.”

Help them set a specific goal

Mr Mitchell suggests asking them what they have to do “and don’t let them just say ‘maths’ with a ‘you are too old to understand look’”. “Ask for some detail about what exactly they have to do,” he says.

Professor Andrew Martin of the University of New South Wales School of Education urges ‘chunking' a task into smaller parts so that your son can experience ‘mini successes' along the way. With an assignment or practice exam question, for example, he says, “Break the question into key parts, ensure your son understands each part; search for the information and sort the information into major themes.”

Become more involved

Following on from the preceding point, Professor Martin says becoming more aware of what boys are learning makes them “feel that what they’re studying is valuable, which is vital for motivating them”.

Mr Mitchell suggests asking boys to show you what they have studied and explain it to you. “This is vital, teaching someone else helps you retain 90% of the content,” he says.

Of course this takes time during busy evenings and weekends, but the benefits can be invaluable for your son as well as your own knowledge and brain function. I, for example, am challenging my own brain function by finally fulfilling a long-term desire to learn Italian, to help my son with the language he’s studying at school.

Give them a deadline 

Mr Mitchell says what most of us who have dealt with the rigours of a demanding workplace know: A sense of urgency wakes up a “panic monster” that gets them into the “must do now” frame of mind. I encourage my son to work ahead by reminding him that life can throw up some unexpected events and that it’s great to have work done ahead of time so he’s not caught short.

This a great video on procrastination, shared by Mr Mitchell, to watch with boys:

Put them in a place that you can see them

As Mr Mitchell says, boys in bedrooms alone with the door closed and a laptop means a topic for another blog! They of course need to be in a quiet place, but one where parents have line of sight if at all possible. Similarly, take their phone off them when they are supposed to be studying and at night while they should be sleeping.

Teach them how to set up before they start studying

Dr Ian Lillico (’69) a Trinity College Old Boy and founder of the Perth-based Boys Forward Institute, says that boys’ ability to organise themselves is not as good as girls, so parents may need to spend more time helping their sons with this skill.

Mr Mitchell suggests helping them check they have what they need on the table “so they do not have to get up and find a pen, then hit their sister and have a fight”.

Remind them to read the question carefully

Dr Lillico explains a phenomenon of which I and several of my son’s friends’ mums are very aware: Boys have struggled with a recent shift in emphasis in the curriculum, which has become much more literacy-based. “In the past, a maths question may have been a straightforward challenge to solve an equation," he says. Now the student may be asked to read a paragraph of information before being able to determine what the equation is.”

Talk about goals

Dr Lillico says motivation is often a big hurdle for boys and urges parents to discuss with their sons what they want to do when they leave school.That’s something I’ve felt has made a difference with my son: Talking about the benefits of being able to do a job he will find fulfilling, regardless of whether or not that career is what he believes his mum and dad think he should do.

Call for help!

If your son is struggling with a subject or assignment, reach out to teachers, or friends and family who may be able to help.

Although we can’t be there to take the exams with them, I hope these bits of advice will help both you and your sons get through exams this year!