Teaching students how to study

November 26, 1999

Study skills are receiving useful attention in higher education circles despite the critics, says Stella Cottrell.

The push to "widen access" into higher education presents a challenge. Wider access does not mean more, it means different: students who learn differently and students requiring very different levels of support than those of the past.

. This challenge was addressed by the University of East London, which developed materials to tackle learning needs. Starting as a series of handouts that eventually developed into The Study Skills Handbook , the volume is unusual in that it is one of the few study-skills books to have grown out of practical work with students.

Although aimed at students, the original Skills for Success Guide (1991) was designed with teaching staff in mind. Staff feedback on undergraduate essays is often immensely time consuming. Countless hours are dedicated to writing comments on how to improve a piece of work. How much more economical simply to refer students directly to the appropriate pages in a handbook. Tutor feedback may now read: "See page 150, 'Planning your writing assignment'."

One course has designed a standard feedback sheet for coursework that incorporates references to page numbers in the handbook. This not only encourages the use of the resource, it also means staff do not have to write out the page numbers.

As the study-skills material evolved into book form, it was evaluated by staff and students. This led to some differences of opinion about how best to present study skills. Some staff were anxious about the inclusion of illustrations and graphics: it was feared that students might find "pictures" patronising. Other staff felt that universities should not even be dealing with study skills and handed out such materials with apologies.

Since then, higher education has come a long way towards recognising that students benefit from focusing on their learning process. Study skills, or "learning to learn", has begun to move into the curriculum. Students with good marks are not always aware why they achieve them and still worry about potential failure. Similarly, students lack criteria against which to assess their performance and can become over-reliant on the opinions of tutors. The handbook breaks skills down into sub-skills and explains what earns marks so that students have more control over their learning.

Time has also helped to resolve the issue of illustrations as a greater appreciation of different learning styles has developed. Student feedback suggests that images and strong visual formats make the book far more user friendly.

Students also argued that visual design was important in a number of other ways. For example, the format of one-page, one-topic, introduced by a bold heading at the top of each page, makes material especially easy to access. Students can browse the top line to find what they need: "Plagiarism", "Overcoming writer's block", "Critical thinking when writing". Information is laid out in points so students do not have to wade through pages of prose. And because each page is individually designed, information is both easier to find and easier to remember.

Another challenge in the design of the text was to find a balance between students' needs for "quick tips" and the longer-term aim of encouraging students to develop as autonomous learners.

Most chapters avoid continuous text and lead the reader straight into particular aspects of study: time management, how to use the computer as an efficient study aid, how to plan an essay or organise information. On the other hand, students are also encouraged to think about learning in a deeper, more analytical way so that they have less need for quick-fix solutions. The book includes self-evaluation and reflective exercises to resolve this tension. With higher education's preoccupation with key skills as a route to employment, students are guided through the links between life, employment and academic skills; are helped to draw up skills profiles; asked to identify priorities; and are invited to create a portfolio of their achievements.

From a different angle, a chapter on "Intelligence and learning" gives the student more theoretical information about learning. As beliefs are so important to our identity and behaviours, students are invited to consider how differing views about intelligence may impact upon performance and could affect their studies. This is an attempt to combat the long-term effects of earlier negative learning experiences, low self-esteem and the study anxiety that many students report.

Students commented that they found UEL publicity, printed in blue, easier to read. There is some evidence that dyslexic students, in particular, can find it easier to read when text is in shorter, unjustified columns and when black-on-white contrasts are avoided. So, one unusual feature of the handbook is that it is printed in blue ink.

Stella Cottrell is senior lecturer in educational development, University of East London.

The Study Skills Handbook , Macmillan, £8.99.

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