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How to study: secrets strategies of executive function specialists

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

I recently received this feedback from an executive function coach in my online community, the Executive Function Coaching Academy, after asking the question, "What would you like addressed in an upcoming live meeting?"

Specific study skill techniques that can be used across a wide range of learners. Not backwards planning of time, but how to actually study. Specific tools that you and your team have found successful. This particular topic has come up as a real need that tutors are not addressing in my community.

In response to her request, I've decided to break down specific study skill techniques that have proven successful for a diverse range of learners. I've carefully curated these strategies to ensure they are adaptable and effective across various learning styles and subjects.

I've also broken down these strategies in a YouTube video, which may help if you are a visual learner:

Set a goal

The nature of ADHD is that there is a great deal of self-flagellation built into it. For example, a student earns an "B+" on a big test and feels like a failure because they didn't earn an "A".

To address this built-in negative criticism, have the student set a goal from the outset, so the goal post doesn't move after they invest all their time and energy into utilizing the strategies below.

I have my students write down their goals and review them in Google Tasks (since most students have a Gmail account). Here is how to use Google Tasks:

Make it fun

During my college years, I faced the challenge of staying engaged in an astronomy course where the professor's monotonous lectures about black holes would lull me to sleep. I knew I had to devise a strategy to not only stay awake but also absorb and retain the information being presented.

My solution was to transform my notes into rhyming verses and create raps out of the course content. As a hip-hop enthusiast, this approach allowed me to connect with the material in a way that was both enjoyable and memorable.

Every student has unique interests beyond the subject matter they're studying. By identifying and leveraging these passions, learners can forge meaningful connections with the content, making the learning experience more engaging and effective.

Ask the teacher directly

During my master's degree program, I encountered a situation that challenged me to take control of my learning. I had eagerly submitted an assignment, only to receive a dishearteningly low grade with minimal feedback from the professor. Determined to understand my mistakes and reach my goal of earning an A, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I visited the professor during their office hours, with my assignment and a steely resolve to improve. With a respectful yet assertive demeanor, I requested that the professor walk me through each error I had made and provide guidance on how to address them. The professor, initially taken aback by my determination, eventually complied.

Together, we scrutinized every detail of the assignment, identifying areas for improvement and discussing ways to enhance my understanding of the subject matter. I took diligent notes and left the office hours with newfound clarity and a plan to refine my work.

Emboldened by this experience, I applied the insights and feedback I had gained to my subsequent assignments. Through hard work and persistence, I successfully achieved my goal of earning an A in the course. This experience taught me the importance of advocating for my education and seeking constructive feedback to drive my personal and academic growth.

The most useful thing a student can do when preparing for an exam, quiz, project, or other summative assessment is to ask the teacher directly for advice on how to prepare. Here is a template I share with my students which you can download here.

Hi (Teacher Name),

I hope you are doing well. I'd like your advice on how to reach my goal of earning an (grade you want) on your upcoming exam. I have been taking the following actions to prepare for your exam:

(Describe any actions here)

Is there anything else you recommend I do to most effectively prepare for your exam?

Thank you for your guidance.


(your name)

This transformative experience during my master's degree program not only paved the way for my academic success but also highlighted the importance of proactive communication and self-advocacy in all aspects of learning.

By reaching out to teachers directly and seeking their guidance, students can unlock valuable insights and tailor their preparation to meet the specific requirements of exams, quizzes, projects, or other assessments.

So, remember to be that "squeaky wheel" and actively pursue the support you need, because it's through self-advocacy and determination that you can truly excel and conquer the challenges of the academic world.

The error log

An error log is a systematic record of mistakes, misconceptions, or areas of difficulty encountered during the learning process. It serves as a valuable tool for identifying patterns, tracking progress, and guiding future study sessions.

By analyzing and addressing the issues documented in the error log, you can enhance your understanding of the subject matter and minimize the recurrence of similar mistakes. Plus, it saves SO much time to study what you don't know (rather than things you already memorized or don't need to review).

Here's how to use an error log effectively:

  1. Create a format: Set up a simple spreadsheet or notebook to record your errors. Include columns or sections for the date, the type of material (e.g., practice questions, homework, quizzes), the specific error, the cause of the error, and the corrective action or strategy. Personally, I like to use a three-column chart with the headers: Know | Somewhat Know | Don't Know (download my error log template)

  2. Identify errors: As you work through study materials, be vigilant in spotting and noting down any mistakes or misunderstandings. It's crucial to be honest with yourself and recognize when you're struggling with a concept. You can also review a test with feedback and put every question you don't know in the "don't know" column.

  3. Analyze the cause: Determine the root cause of each error. It could be a lack of understanding, a misreading of the question, a calculation mistake, or even a careless error. Identifying the cause will help you pinpoint the exact issue that needs addressing.

  4. Develop corrective actions: For each error, come up with a strategy or action plan to prevent it from happening again. This might involve reviewing specific concepts, refining problem-solving techniques, or practicing similar problems. Once you have figured out the right approach, test yourself on the missed question and similar questions to see if you can move that concept into the "somewhat know" or "know" column.

  5. Review the error log: Periodically go over your error log to monitor your progress and ensure you're addressing recurring issues. Make adjustments to your study plan as needed to focus on areas that require more attention.

  6. Track your progress: As you continue studying and working on your weaknesses, note any improvements in your error log. This will help you gauge your progress and boost your confidence in your learning abilities.

Learn how to use an error log in the video below

Spaced repetition software

Apps like Anki, Quizlet, and Brainscape help you review and remember information using a spaced repetition algorithm that optimizes your study time based on your performance.

For example, imagine you're using Anki, a popular spaced repetition app, to learn a new language. As you review vocabulary flashcards, the app tracks your progress and determines the optimal time to revisit each word. Words you struggle with will appear more frequently, while those you easily recall will be shown less often.

By leveraging the concept of the forgetting curve, Anki ensures that you review material just as you're about to forget it, thereby strengthening memory retention and promoting efficient learning.

Pomodoro Technique

This time management method involves breaking your study time into short intervals (usually 25 minutes) called "Pomodoros," separated by short breaks. This technique helps maintain focus and productivity.

There are many apps available to help you implement the Pomodoro Technique for effective time management and increased productivity. Some popular options include:

  1. Focus To-Do (iOS, Android, Windows, Mac): This app combines a Pomodoro timer with a task management system, allowing you to create to-do lists and track your progress with the Pomodoro method.

  2. Tomato Timer (Web): A simple web-based Pomodoro timer that allows you to set work intervals, short breaks, and long breaks without any additional features or distractions.

  3. Forest (iOS, Android): This productivity app gamifies the Pomodoro Technique by allowing you to plant a virtual tree during each work interval. If you leave the app to check your phone, the tree dies, encouraging you to stay focused.

  4. Marinara Timer (Web): A simple online Pomodoro timer with customizable intervals and the option to share your timer with others for collaborative work.

These apps cater to different preferences and needs, so try out a few to find the one that works best for you. Remember, the key to success with the Pomodoro Technique is consistency and discipline in adhering to the work and break intervals

Study groups

Study groups can be an effective and enjoyable way to add some flavor to the otherwise bland experience of studying. By bringing together a mix of people with diverse perspectives and learning styles, even the most complex concepts can become easier to digest.

Sticking with this food metaphor, instead of struggling alone, members can divide the workload like a well-coordinated potluck, each contributing their unique understanding to create a feast of knowledge.

Group discussions can reinforce learning, making concepts stick and the supportive environment and gentle peer pressure can also help keep everyone accountable and on track, reducing procrastination tendencies that fester in solitude.

Create models

I learned about the importance of creating models from Seth Perler on my podcast, and ever since I've been cooking up models for everything that is hard to remember. So what is a model?

A model is also known as a mnemonic device, which is a memory aid that helps you retain information more easily by associating it with familiar concepts, patterns, or mental images.

For example, acronyms are a common mnemonic device, where the first letters of a list of words are combined to form a new, memorable word or phrase, like "PEMDAS" (Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction) to remember the order of operations in math.

Another technique is the Method of Loci, also known as the Memory Palace, where you mentally place items you want to remember in specific locations within an imagined space, like associating historical events with rooms in your house.

Rhymes and songs can also serve as mnemonic devices, turning important facts into catchy tunes that are easy to recall. By using mnemonic devices, you can transform abstract or complex information into memorable, relatable mental cues, making studying more efficient and enjoyable.

Ensure accommodations

All that studying is wasted if the student has a panic attack or short-term memory loss when they enter the testing environment. As an executive function coach or parent, you need to help them advocate for and access their accommodations.

Have your student write an email to their teacher advocating for what they need. Here are some templates for you to use:

Asking for extended time

Hi (Teacher Name),

I hope you are doing well. I have been preparing for your upcoming test and I would like to ensure I have the opportunity to use my extended time accommodation.

How can this be arranged?

Thank you for your guidance.


(your name)

Taking Test In A Separate Setting

Hi (Teacher Name),

I hope you are doing well. One of my accommodations is to take my tests in a separate, quiet setting. This reduces my anxiety and helps me focus on the content.

Would you please advise me on how this can be arranged for your upcoming test?

Thank you for your consideration.


(Your name)

If your student starts to get tired of writing all these emails, have them save templates in Gmail to make it easy to replicate:

Sleep, exercise, and nutrition

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can have a profound impact on cognitive performance and study efficiency, as it provides the foundation for optimal brain functioning.

For example, research shows that getting sufficient sleep, ideally between 7 to 9 hours for adults (so even more for teens with growing brains and bodies), is crucial for memory consolidation and cognitive function. A study published in the journal Sleep found that sleep deprivation impairs attention, working memory, and long-term memory.

Regular physical activity is also essential for cognitive health. A study in the journal Neurology revealed that engaging in moderate to vigorous exercise for at least 52 hours over a 6-month period led to improvements in processing speed, attention, and executive function.

Exercise has been shown to boost the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports brain health and learning.

Lastly, a balanced diet plays a significant role in cognitive performance. A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that individuals with a healthier diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, performed better on tests measuring memory, attention, and executive function.

Proper nutrition provides the brain with the necessary nutrients and energy for optimal functioning, including the synthesis of neurotransmitters and the maintenance of neuronal connections.

How can executive function coaching help?

Are you a parent witnessing your child juggling multiple assignments, getting overwhelmed by upcoming exams, or constantly losing track of their homework?

Perhaps you've experienced late-night cram sessions with your child, trying to catch up on everything they've missed, leaving both of you exhausted and frustrated. You're not alone in these struggles, and executive function coaching can provide the support you need.

Executive function coaching addresses real-life challenges that both students and parents face daily. Consider scenarios like these:

  • Your child has a big project due next week, but they're paralyzed by the thought of getting started, unsure of how to break the task down into manageable steps.

  • Your teenager has difficulty staying organized, resulting in misplaced notes, lost assignments, and chaotic study sessions.

  • You've noticed your child has trouble focusing and staying on-task, making it difficult for them to retain information or complete assignments on time.

We understand the stress these situations can place on your family, and our compassionate and experienced coaches are here to help. By offering personalized strategies tailored to your child's unique needs and strengths, we aim to alleviate the pressure and empower them to succeed.

Take the first step in making a positive change for your child's academic journey. Book a free consultation to explore how executive function coaching can address the real-life challenges your family faces and guide your child toward a more confident and organized approach to learning.

About the author

Sean G. McCormick is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization, and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization, and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.

He also founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains special education teachers, school psychologists, and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges.

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EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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