Foggy ideas made clear

May 23, 2003

Be they brilliant or mediocre, students often have little notion of what they want or why they want it. But, says Stella Cottrell, there are ways to clarify their approaches to studying

Marsha, the first generation in her family to go into higher education, is not letting on that she is struggling. Her friends and family did not think university was a good idea anyway, so she has to prove she can make it. Alex, ashamed of his low grades at school, feels sick whenever he thinks about how he will cope with the greater demands of university study. Duncan has no confidence in his own words and aims to get through by skilful plagiarism. Leon gets low marks but is not bothered, as he “knows” he is “rubbish”. Julia is angry because no one told her there was “this ridiculous amount of reading” to do and she cannot see the point.

These students are the more obvious candidates for study skills - and among the reluctant needy. However, successful students often need study skills as much as those who are more obviously struggling.

Some cling to methods that worked well at school but are inefficient for university study, while even the brightest students can become trapped by their “ignorance” - those who normally win the argument seldom check whether they are right.

Antonia, for example, has always been at the top of her class. She has no idea what gains her those high marks. Ever anxious that her next marks will be low and that suddenly everyone will realise she is “stupid”, she has panic attacks.

Sunita, Jamie and Laura will get middling grades, as usual, but are not a cause for alarm. It does not cause ripples that Sunita would get a first-class degree with more guidance or that Jamie is spending twice as long completing his assignments as he needs to, or that Laura’s weaknesses in interpreting data continue to lose her marks.

Whether or not such students appear in the lists of failures and dropouts or are lost in the ranks of the apparently mediocre, many will carry a legacy of underachievement with them into their future lives. This may affect their self-confidence, choice of jobs, competence, salaries, work relationships - even their personal lives. Hence, the importance of time spent on developmental processes such as study skills and personal planning.

Within an academic context, study skills is a key element of personal-development planning. Both require students to take stock of where they are now and to make decisions about where they want to be in the future. Students need support in considering what they really want, why they want it and how to achieve what matters to them most.

PDP, at its best, can be used to assist students to develop better strategies for managing key areas such as self-management, dealing with other people and managing tasks or projects. The related skills and qualities assist academic achievement and can be more widely applicable, such as in the context of their personal life and the world of work.

If students can plan their time to meet deadlines, offer constructive criticism to peers or monitor the achievement of targets, they are more likely to do well at exams, seminars and dissertations, as well as cope better in the workplace. The skills developed at university may not be exactly commensurate with those required in the workplace, but they provide, at the very least, some building blocks.

In the best cases, students are trained to evaluate how academic skills compare with those required in contexts such as work and relationships and to adapt these skills for wider use. Work experience, in particular, can present students with unexpected challenges. Making sense of theory when talking to a child with learning difficulties or to a cynical foreman can stretch a student’s thinking just as much as writing a paper for a professor.

How many undergraduates realise they need study skills or PDP? As yet, probably not many. “Students don’t like skills” you sometimes hear. Well, no. Not if they have to sit and take notes about them, something that continues to happen. Not if PDP is an obvious chore bolted on to other activities - one more thing for students and their lecturers to get through.

But it does not have to be this way. Like any other aspect of the curriculum, students want to see that that PDP and skills development are relevant and valued by lecturers they respect. They want enthusiastic, skilled teaching, a well-designed curriculum and good materials. Presentation can be crucial.

Helping students to achieve requires a range of methods. Good course design can weave study skills and PDP into the curriculum so that not every student will need to make extra commitments. Other students will require extracurricular activities, additional help or specialist guidance. One solution will not fit all.

Stella Cottrell is a lead inspector with the Adult Learning Inspectorate. Her book Skills for Success: The Personal Development Planning Guidebook is published this month by Palgrave.    

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