Consider the ins and outs

June 1, 2007

Building study skills both within subject teaching and in separate units allows all types of students to benefit, argues Gina Wisker

There is a continuing discussion about the appropriate opportunities and methods for the delivery of study skills that goes to the heart of the way we conceive our disciplines and our roles as teachers in relation to the student learning experience. It also relates to beliefs and behaviours about ability, need and support.

Because all learners are different and their needs change over time, it is better to provide a range of study skills support rather than force a model that is suitable for only some learners. But let's look at the different points of view. Study skills are not a remedial activity for a few failing students. All students can benefit from becoming aware of their own approaches to learning and appreciating how they perform in various assessments.

Study skills need to be embedded in subject teaching and also to be freestanding to suit different needs at different times. They are often built in following some identification of learning styles and needs.

Questionnaires about learning styles have been criticised for being unscientific and unreliable, but they can be useful in finding out more about students' learning styles and their needs to extend their skills so they can learn from a variety of activities and contexts.

There is disagreement over the modes of delivery of learning skills that result from different beliefs about the student experience, the construction of hierarchies and roles within the university, and the role of the lecturer/ tutor. Stand-alone study skills units are beneficial, it is argued, because they group together experts who dedicate time and materials to support an individual's needs. They might help students with finding and managing information; note-taking that focuses on the salient points in lectures; constructive reading and contributing their own arguments; developing writing skills; oral presentations; and leading seminars and groups.

Most students need at least some of this support during their degrees.

Having a stand-alone unit with courses, leaflets and counsellors can provide individual or group support away from a student's subject teacher and department. Those with particular learning needs such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and cognitive as well as physical disabilities can be supported in units with specifically qualified staff. Postgraduate students need versions of many of these study skills, too, and international students are likely to need English-language support for their academic work.

It could be argued that only the subject specialist has knowledge of the skills and approaches needed to learn effectively in that subject. This argument is underpinned by "threshold concept" theories, in which several key concepts or ideas are crucial to each subject area. In this theory, students need to understand and use threshold concepts or their learning in the subject will not progress. One example of this is realising in art and literature that a character or event represents an argument rather than merely mimicking reality - this threshold concept is called "representation". Engagement with such concepts allows students to feel comfortable with the knowledge construction and world-view of their particular subject.

While many higher education teachers might argue that they are best able to identify and encourage learning in study skills specific to their subject, others might well be unwilling or unable to help develop these skills. Or they might shy away from more generic study skills, seeing these as more properly the focus of stand-alone study skills experts. The argument over stand-alone or subject-specific sometimes develops into a matter of institutional politics, a minefield that students must somehow negotiate.

It could be argued that all study skills, particularly those related to a specialism, need to be dealt with within the subject area by tutors so that they are recognised as essential to the learning of the subject. When all tutors relate to the skills learning of their students, such skills will be a natural part of teaching, learning and assessment. Tutors who understand the ways various skills operate within their subject and the processes and practices that involve students in becoming effective learners are themselves more effective in encouraging learning. All tutors should therefore engage in the development of new ideas in the teaching of study skills. This would involve many of us extending the focus in our teaching, clarifying and encouraging exactly what kinds of skills are required and can be developed in the classroom, the laboratory, in field-work activities and in assessments.

I have taught many students study skills, both stand-alone and as part of the everyday function of subject teaching, and I think stand-alone support is needed so that tutors can refer students on to experts when needed.

Jan Sellars, a National Teaching Fellow at Kent University, has much the same advice: "Students benefit from a variety of approaches. The less confident often find it helpful to have additional sources of advice beyond their own department, and specialist student advisers are valuable in this context. Advisers are also able to help students re-engage with their departments if they have become isolated or have run into personal difficulties. A multifaceted approach is likely to meet the needs of a wider range of students, across the disciplines and at different levels."

A mixed-mode system would be one I feel most comfortable in, because learners have different needs at different times.

Gina Wisker is head of the Centre for Learning and Teaching at Brighton University and author of The Good Supervisor and The Postgraduate Research Handbook (Palgrave Macmillan).

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