Prev Next
Help, My Teens Refuse to Study!

Help, My Teens Refuse to Study!

By Mir Kamin

Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.


Z writes:

Mir, I’m hoping you have some ideas for me, because I’m starting to feel like I’m losing my mind. My twins are nearing the end of their freshman year of high school. Everyone warned us about the transition to high school being a difficult one—and I had the added bonus of some people insisting it would be much worse for girls—and to our delight, both girls managed the switch without any problems or drama. They’ve joined clubs, have friends both new and old, and have mostly maintained their good grades.

But (you knew there was a “but” coming): It’s becoming clear that neither one of them has any idea how to study. Worse, it’s becoming clear that neither one of them wants to learn to study. Everything is “fine” and “I’ve got this” and “Mom, you’re overreacting.” School has always been easy for them. They’re very bright (classified as “gifted,” etc.), and if given an assignment, they put in the necessary work (though not much more than that, I suspect). Their natural aptitude and excellent memories have thus far meant this is enough—usually. What I’ve seen this year is a slow decline in major test grades in their more challenging classes. The work is harder now and the bare minimum is not enough to keep their averages up. And because their grades are still “fine” (low As rather than high As, or low-to-mid-Bs in AP classes where their final grades will get a 10-point bump at the end of the year), they’re unconcerned because “Relax, it’s all As, geez,” and they think I’m harping on grades. It’s not about grades; it’s about the fact that classes are only going to keep getting harder and they seem completely baffled by and unwilling to just sit down and study before tests. I think they see it as something only “dumb” kids have to do, no matter how I try to explain that even very smart people have to study to continue mastering course content.

How do I help them to understand that studying is a normal part of school at this level (and beyond) and not a sign of weakness? How do I break it down for them and get buy-in? Nothing I say or do seems to sway them. And while I’m really not worried about their grades right now (though talk to me after finals…), I know that if they can’t develop good study habits soon, some nasty surprises await them down the road.

Have you been in my house? No, really, are you spying on my family?

Here’s the awesome thing about having smart kids: a lot of hard things are easy for them. Here’s the awful thing about having smart kids: a lot of hard things are easy for them, and so when they run into something they cannot master right away they are apt to recoil and assume that either 1) hard things aren’t worth doing because they don’t feel as good as instantly acing other things or 2) they must be dumb now because everything else was easy and the best course of action is to pretend you’re totally cool with not doing as well rather than let anyone see that you’re not perfect. Simply put, the chances of a gifted student also being kind of lazy are high, because when everything is easy, you never have to work all that hard. And working hard is, indeed, a habit most people have to learn (and that goes for everyone, but perhaps double for the gifted set). The good news is that what you’ve facing is a very common problem.

The bad news is that—as you’ve already surmised—you cannot force your kids to study, not really. I mean, you could legislate time spent at the kitchen table with their books and notes, but they’ll be annoyed and you’ll be frustrated and in the end they haven’t internalized any of the self-motivation that’s really at the core of the changes you’re hoping to see. And I’m not going to sugar-coat this: one or both of them may never change their tune until they truly bomb an exam. If and when that happens… it’s not going to be pretty. But it’s also not going to be the end of the world, whether it happens next month or not until their first year of college. Just know that may be how it goes down, and grit your teeth and choke back the “I told you so” and let it unfold as a learning experience, when it happens.

So what you can do right now, given that you can’t force them to study the way you want them them to? You can (gently) encourage them to take small steps in the right direction. For example: studies have proven that memory consolidation happens during sleep, so you are always better off studying the night before an exam than getting up early and studying the morning of the exam. Maybe your girls are doing neither, but with some casual prodding perhaps you can suggest they institute 10 or 20 or 30 minutes of looking over their notes/textbook last thing before they go to sleep at night when there’s a test the next day. It’s a baby step, for sure, but if you can get them to do that and they start seeing the difference it makes, they more be more amenable to larger changes.

If they share a class, perhaps challenge them to each come up with 10 review questions for the other one in an attempt to stump one another. There’s learning happening in coming up with the questions, as well as in trying to answer the other 10. If there’s some sort of teacher-provided study guide in the mix (or if it’s an AP class, we are big fans of the 5 Steps to a 5 series of books), ask them to spend 10 minutes with it each night. 10 minutes! That’s nothing! As they form better habits, a positive feedback loop will start to establish itself. 10 minutes will turn into 20, and that will turn into 30, and so on.

I can tell you from my own experience that neither of my two special snowflakes had any idea how to study when they got to high school, nor did they think there was any reason to learn. And yes, there have been some spectacular failures involved in penetrating that hubris, and a lot of associated teeth-gnashing. My graduating senior now knows what she needs to do to learn and retain information, and will spend as much time as she needs, unprompted, to master material. I say that not to brag, but so that I can also say that I thought we’d never see this day, but she figured it out. Take heart! My rising senior, on the other hand, is still very resistant to studying, but starting to come around as long as it doesn’t involve long stretches of time. With him it’s all about “chunking”—20 minutes with a book, 10 minute break, etc. He’s still getting there.

You cannot make this process happen. You can encourage. You can assist, if they’re amenable to that. You can work on your non-judgmental poker face so that when the *splat* happens, you can comfort and nod and agree that that’s disappointing, yes, and wonder aloud if there’s something to be learned here about what to do differently in the future. And of course you can continue to institute whatever your reasonable house rules are about grades and leisure time (while you can’t force a kid to study, a kid who doesn’t study and bombs a big exam is probably going to be grounded until that grade’s brought up, in most homes), in the meantime. In all likelihood, your girls will figure it out… just maybe not as soon as you’d like. Hang in there.


Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.


Photo source: Photodune

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

icon icon
chat bubble icon


  • Cheryl S.

    May 6, 2016 at 11:35 am

    Yup. Amy is dead on.  Your girls will probably have to do badly on an exam before they will figure this out.  I speak from experience.  

    Straight A’s from Kindergarten through college.  I learned to study when I got a C on a biology exam in 9th grade.  The teacher took great glee in pointing out that all us “smart kids” had bombed her test.  She told us to expect more of the same.  THat was enough for me to want to prove her wrong.  In order to do that, I had to learn to study.

    Hang in there, they will figure it out!

    • Cheryl S.

      May 6, 2016 at 11:36 am

      Ok, sorry Mir!  Don’t know where Amy came from!

      • Mir Kamin

        May 6, 2016 at 11:48 am

        Hahahaha I was choosing to be flattered that you’d confused me with her. No worries. 😉

  • […] With all of this test mania going on, you’d think they’d be studying their little butts off, but you’d be… incorrect. And I am relieved to know that I am not the only person who is struggling with teens who don’t feel the need to study. More on this SUPER-FUN phenomenon over at Alpha Mom. […]

  • Angela

    May 6, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    I am already seeing this in my third grader.  Most things come really easy, and then a total meltdown occurs when he spells a word wrong when we are practicing for his spelling test, and he is so stupid so why even try.  I am so glad to see that this and the laziness is a general trait in this type of kid and not a specific fault in my kid.  🙂

  • JMH

    May 6, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    As a technology teacher, I highly recommend the Memorize! extension for google chrome…basically you have to study while you are messing around on the Internet. One reviewer says “Memorize! is an extension that makes you study even when you’re wasting time on Reddit or Facebook. Yup, you heard that right.

    Basically, you enter a list of questions and answers for whatever you need to study. Then, the extension will pop up at specified time intervals to ask you a question. Questions will be asked until you’re able to answer all of them, or you manually stop the extension. This is such an awesome concept.”

    Here is the link. Good luck!

    • Mir Kamin

      May 6, 2016 at 12:23 pm

      Oh I LOVE this—thank you for the recommendation!!

  • Paige

    May 6, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    I never did study in high school. By sophmore year, my mother had even given up asking if I had any homework. It was clear I would just say no, regardless of what the truth was, and since I had effortless straight As, it didn’t seem worth it to her to double check. I managed 5s in my practice APs (never got to try my hand at the real thing – they weren’t in my parent’s budget), also with no study. My first two years of college were the same. 

    Sometime in my junior year of college, I reached courses tough enough that I needed to study. After a D on one midterm and a C on another, studying occurred to me as a ‘hey, maybe I should review my notes before a test?’ kind of idea, like it was some revolutionary thing. It took a couple of failed efforts, but eventually I figured out that copying my course notes over fresh – the act of writing them down and formatting them in an outline – worked. It was perhaps not what my fellow students meant by ‘studying’, since I never even opened my textbooks again, and it took several hours, sometimes days, per class, but it worked. I’ve used that method very effectively in my professional licensing exams – buy a study guide, copy it out longhand, ace the test.

    That said, if anyone had suggested, before I (nearly) failed a test, any form of studying, much less such an intense process, I’d have laughed at them.

    • Liv

      May 6, 2016 at 3:44 pm

      Right here with ya Paige! Did the same thing but it was freshman year of college and I had a D in my econ class that I needed to pull up to a C before the end of the semester. Luckily I had friends who learned to study in high school and I decided hmmm maybe if I tag along with them and do what they do it’ll rub off and it did. And funnily enough I do the same thing, I copy and recopy and condense my notes till I understand it all and that seemed to work well for me. 

    • Lucinda

      May 7, 2016 at 12:00 am

      You beat me to it.  It took until my junior year of college before I was forced to study.  But once I found a reason to, I managed to get it done.  There were some failures and heart breaks and maybe even a dropped class, but I managed to finish with a respectable gpa and go on to earn a master’s degree.  I don’t think you can force a kid to study if they don’t need to.  That motivation really does need to come from within.

      However, I also have told my children that their education is their responsibility as they are the only ones who will suffer consequences of bad grades.  I already have my degree. It is up to them to learn the skills they need to earn theirs.  I have faith they will study when they find a reason to.

  • Jill

    May 6, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    Oh, my house too! I tried so hard to make sure my kids weren’t like me. I didn’t learn to study until I failed my first college exam. So I’ve emphasized work over grades and tried to encourage good habits and.. well, it didn’t take. They’re “fine.” I guess I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop and going to have to let them cope.

  • Emma

    May 6, 2016 at 5:27 pm

    I had all A’s in high school and almost all A’s in university (accounting and business double major, with honors, graduted early) without learning how to study.

    It was only when I decided to go back to school and become a nurse I had to learn how to study. It was tough but I was capable.

    Your daughters seem like smart, social, electric young ladies. Let them do their thing and they’ll learn eventually how to study!

  • Deb

    May 7, 2016 at 12:22 am

    I made it all the way to my sophomore year in college without learning how to study, but as an engineering major I just could not sustain it and ended up paying for it spectacularly with a 1.7 GPA as it seemed I suddenly could not even keep my head above water in multiple classes and I ended up with Cs, Ds, and I think one F!  

    I am very fortunate – I did not lose my scholarships/financial aid as I was able to repeat courses over the summer (and a shortage of female engineering students on my side) and my roommate had the patience of a saint that summer and stayed to take some courses and FORCED me to learn to study.  We would not leave a study session without my fully being able to explain concepts to him and understanding how to apply them in every scenario.  

    I then ended up going back to getting all As and paid him back by pretty much explaining everything in the rest of our classes to him over the next two years.  Fortunately for me, job recruiters were impressed with my pulling out from behind story and overlooked the rough start/pitiful semester. Unfortunately for me, even though I was ending my college career with a 4.0 GPA taking graduate level courses, it is REALLY difficult to bounce back from a 1.7 and I did not graduate with honors (my roommate, of course, did!)

    I am trying VERY hard to teach my kids good study habits as I feel strongly that if I had put even 10% more effort into school, I would have done exponentially better.  My son is one of these kids with the lazy gene + intelligent enough to figure out exactly what his teacher needs (and no more!) and I’d prefer to see him appreciate the value of putting a little effort in.  Plus, as my friends pointed out when I showed them my transcript, I would not even get an interview at most companies today with that GPA (and definitely not at the company I work for now).

  • Nikki

    May 7, 2016 at 9:43 am

    As a college instructor who teaches mostly freshmen, I have to second Mir’s suggestion that it might take a spectacular splat on an exam to inspire your girls to study. Hopefully that happens for them while still in high school, because while the stakes feel high at all times, especially in AP courses, they are much lower than if they bomb a college final that’s worth 75% of the grade. I’m willing to teach study skills to my freshmen, but many profs don’t – they assume their students are doing multiple hours of studying outside of class time, and that they know how to study effectively. Every semester I have at least a few students panicking in my office that they’re no longer sailing through their classes with minimal effort and are about to lose their scholarship, or their GPA is going to be so low to preclude them from participating in athletics or being competitive for internships. It’s a terrible conversation I have with students multiple times a year and I always wish they’d had the wake-up call while they were still kids in high school.

  • Sarah

    May 7, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Another idea that might help us to have another trusted adult talk with them about studying. A family member, teacher, coach, etc might be able to have a more effective conversation. The teenage years can be a time when it’s important to rely on other adults in your teen’s life to help out. Mom or Dad’s idea might get an eye roll, but someone else’s same opinion can be gold.

  • Tracy

    May 10, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    Yeah… That was definitely me, in high school, and through college (twice). Smart, “Gifted” and generally completely lazy… But also effective.

    I never learned to study, never did study, and am now a reasonably successful adult with a good, highly technical job, and two degrees.

    I would not have (and did not) take kindly to well meant advice to study. I did not need to. I learned (once) and I retained. What good was studying going to do, when I was getting As without it? It’s just a waste of time.

    That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t take the time I needed to learn the material, when it was harder to learn in the first place. But learning and needlessly rehearsing things I already has absorbed are very different.

    I would advise checking in with your teens, to let them know that you want to make sure their grades stay good – no matter what their study strategy is. If they start to get overwhelmed or if their grades start to fall below what they are comfortable with, let them know that you can help them learn some skills to study more effectively.

    And no, just because they don’t study now does not mean they will be set up for failure in higher grades or higher ed. They may never decide that studying is worth their time.