When I was at The Open University in the 1970s, I tried to teach adults who were studying for the first time in their lives what they needed to do in order to learn effectively. When I was based at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) in the 1980s, I was teaching students whose study habits had got them through their A levels but were unequal to the larger and more complex tasks of higher education. And when I later worked at the University of Oxford, students were still asking for help with “study skills”. Their intelligence and achievements were intimidating, so what was the problem?
The educational interventions that make most difference to student performance are not to do with improving teachers or curricula, and certainly not with policy or organisational changes, but involve improving students: changing what it is they do in order to learn. For example, teachers can often help students more by encouraging them to tackle feedback differently than by altering the feedback itself.
So what does “improving students” actually consist of? “How to” guides on study skills – how to take notes, how to structure an essay and so on – contain what appears to be sound enough advice (although the similarity between them is both striking and suspicious).
However, attempts to back up this consensus with evidence of the effectiveness of the techniques described have had little success. Students’ scores on “study habits inventories” – questionnaires made up of lists of the kinds of things contained in these books – hardly correlate with examination performance at all. An exception is how to be organised (by managing one’s time, for example). “Organisation” predicts performance where the use of most “skills” does not.
Students also rarely use the methods they read about in how-to-study books or are taught on study skills courses, and for all kinds of reasons. Most importantly, the skills may be too rigid to span the range of demands that students actually face.
For example, lectures may primarily convey facts, or explain procedures, or exemplify the use of the discourse of the discipline, and so on. Each requires a different kind of note-taking, and students have to be able to spot these varied demands and do something different in response, not simply use the same methods every time. Disciplines also vary in their demands and conventions: a student studying sociology and history may find that their writing gains good marks in one but not the other.
Fit for purpose
It appears that successful students (and successful academics for that matter) do an extraordinary variety of things when they take notes or set about writing. They have found, often through trial and error, idiosyncratic ways that work well enough for them, given their purposes and the particular learning tasks in front of them.
It is possible to train students to use specific technical skills, but they transfer very poorly from one context to another (for example, from a training course back to everyday study, or from studying one subject to another). It is much better, instead, to develop a learner’s ability to study a subject within that subject.
For example, efforts at some Ivy League universities to improve students’ writing by hiring experts in communication who run generic courses in how to write have tended to be abandoned. Instead, postgraduates within subjects are trained to give feedback on assignments that leads students to reflect on their writing, rather than only on the content of the assignment.
When I acted as a “study skills counsellor” at Oxford Polytechnic, I noticed that many of the bewildered students in my caseload were unable to describe what they did when they were studying (such as reading a chapter in a book, for example). Their studying was habitual and unreflective. In contrast, effective students can tell you all about how they go about their task, have a sensible rationale for doing so and change what they do when they notice that the context or task demands are different.
In the educational literature, this is termed “metacognitive awareness and control”, and it is the most influential of all aspects of “study skills”. Improving students appears to involve raising their awareness of what they are doing, increasing their repertoire so that they can choose to do different things when it seems appropriate and tuning them in to task demands so that they can recognise what is required.
Right answer, wrong approach
Two crucial aspects of studying effectively are not about “skills” at all but about understanding. Research at Harvard University into why its very bright students sometimes study in unintelligent ways has revealed how important it is for students to understand the nature of knowledge and what they are supposed to do with it.
The study found that unsophisticated students would try to spot the right answers in lectures, which they would note down in order to memorise for a test, a method described in the literature by the phrase “quantitative accretion of discrete rightness”. They were fantastically efficient at this and it had served them well at school, but it was the wrong thing to do at Harvard.
Similarly, studies at the University of Gothenburg have revealed that students have quite different conceptions of what “learning” means, and these conceptions evolved through experience until, ideally, learning is seen as attempting to “apprehend reality”.
Skills have to serve the purposes associated with these evolving conceptions of knowledge and of learning: without appropriate purposes, the skills can be worse than useless.