Parenting timetabled

September 18, 1998

Alison Utley discovers how new students in Manchester are learning to study and find time tofit in an episode of Neighbours

Even very able 18-year-olds are often shocked by the extent to which they are left to their own devices once they begin degree-level study. Negotiating the major life change from home and school to university can be disorienting, and without proper support new students can end up feeling alienated. At best they will achieve little and at worst they may even contemplate dropping out.

Peggy Foster, who is developing a range of self-parenting techniques to help new undergraduates survive their degree courses in a nurtured yet disciplined way, said: "Without specific help to develop self-motivation and self-discipline there is a real danger that a significant number of first-years will spend very few hours a week engaged in any type of academic activity."

It is unrealistic to expect lecturers, particularly in research-led universities, to have either the time or the inclination to hand-hold students during the transition from closely supervised A levels to independent learning, said Dr Foster, who lectures in social policy and social work at Manchester University.

Not that the students think they need help. To begin with, the reaction is often incredulous. "They think that because they achieved good A-level grades they know how to study. But they soon realise that university is a very different place."

Surprisingly, most first-years have never been taught how to skim through reading looking for relevant material, said Dr Foster. Far too many believe they need to read every word of a book or article on their reading list and some even take extensive verbatim notes from their reading.

"This time-consuming habit is not only wasteful but it also very easily leads students straight into inadvertent plagiarism if they go on to use these quotes as the basis of an essay," Dr Foster said.

Many first-years are astonished to find that using material copied in this way is a serious offence. There is a lot to think about and the old days - if tutors ever really invited students for relaxing chats over sherry - are long gone.

Youngsters are having to cope with leaving home, sex, doing their own washing and cooking, while at the same time they are expected to adjust to the fact that they are just a number.

"The personal touch is no longer there for most undergraduates, and study skills really can help," Dr Foster said. Three linked self-parenting techniques have been built in to the study skills teaching materials. These are easily adapted to meet the needs of different disciplines.

Goal setting

Most undergraduates have a fairly clear idea about their long-term goals such as gaining a good degree. They are often less clear about the importance of setting short-term goals on a weekly or even daily basis.

Dr Foster has designed an exercise in which students set realistic short-term goals for themselves with built-in techniques for ensuring they achieve them.

In the study skills session that follows, the students have to announce publicly whether or not they achieved their goal. The rest of the group then either congratulate successful students or help unsuccessful ones to set more realistic goals and commit themselves to achieving them in the following week. "I tell students to be kind to themselves. Changing and improving well-established habits takes time and perseverance," Dr Foster said.

Time structuring

This is a crucial skill that will be useful for life, often as a technique for helping to overcome stress and work overload, said Dr Foster. Her students do an exercise colouring in a weekly timetable designed to help them analyse and monitor their use of time.

They create a disciplined but flexible set of timetable goals for studying, eating, sleeping and having fun. They are encouraged to report back during the week and reflect on any weaknesses in the original timetabling.

"This encourages students to take more responsibility for setting up a personalised time-structuring system tailored specifically to their own body clocks and lifestyles," Dr Foster said.

Some students work best late at night or in the early morning; in quiet or noisy environments; in long stretches or short bursts. Some are workaholics and some need to waste less time watching daytime television.

"The students need to build time management around their particular strengths, weaknesses and preferences," she said.

Student-initiated reward system

This is perhaps the most innovative element. The emphasis is placed on students rewarding themselves when they achieve goals. They suggest a range of rewards from having a drink and a biscuit after an hour of studying through to watching Neighbours only if the work set for the day has been done. It might be a wild night out if all the week's goals are met.

"We insist that if one day or one week a student fails to achieve a goal they should on no account beat themselves up. They should use more nurturing parental messages such as 'never mind, get back on track tomorrow'."

Further details of teaching materials from Peggy Foster 016154790 or Peggy.Foster@man.ac.uk

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