9 Characteristics of an Ambitious Study Skills Programme
(The Key Ingredients of a Successful
Learning to Learn Intervention)
After spending 10 hugely rewarding years in teaching, I went freelance and spent the next 25 years developing and presenting study skills workshops and writing study guides.
During this time I was fortunate enough to be asked to work with hundreds of schools right across the country and contributed in a variety of ways to their KS3, KS4 and Sixth Form study skills/revision programmes.
The insights gained from these experiences have led me to believe that an ambitious study skills programme:
Photo by Mars Williams, UNSPLASH
1. Is About Achievement, Confidence and Enjoyment
2. Connects To The Future
3. Focuses On Practical Application
4. Uses Examples That Are Relevant to the Student
5. Avoids A ‘Quick Fix and Tricks’ Approach
6. Involves The Whole School (Including Parents)
7. Introduces The Right Skills At The Right Time
8. Is Delivered In The Most Effective Way
9. Sustains The Initial Momentum
But before diving into the details of these key ingredients,
I briefly want to explore a couple of important issues.
Why Teach Study Skills?
Study skills are lifelong, transferable skills and when mastered can lead to increased levels of engagement for the student and better exam results. Students who use study skills (or ‘learning to learn’ skills) effectively are likely to be more successful and feel more confident about their ability to learn.
Ultimately though, the acquisition of study skills has a far wider benefit to the individual. Teaching study skills is a way to help students take ownership of their learning, both now and in the future. Pretty important stuff.
But don’t students pick up these skills as they go along? Surely after years and years of going to school, doing homework, taking tests and being taught in class, students learn how to learn? No. No. No. It’s plainly wrong to assume that students acquire effective study skills in this way (although some do either by accident or through personal exploration).
Study skills need to be taught.
The Challenge of Teaching Study Skills
To say that teachers have a lot on their plate is an understatement (this is particularly true at present).
There is a constant tension between getting through the huge amount of subject-specific knowledge that needs to be covered and teaching students the appropriate study skills. Whilst some of these study skills are specific to particular subjects and can only be covered by specialists, some are generic and applicable across many, if not most, subject areas – skills such as time management, making flashcards and methods of self-testing.
In an ideal world, all learning skills would be taught within subject lessons. However, as teachers face their own time management challenges, fitting in the teaching of generic study skills is simply not feasible and may also lead to unnecessary duplication.
There are other problems associated with teaching study skills. Due to the pressure on academic subjects, there’s no space on the curriculum for study skills education and, like other life skills, because there’s no exam for it, students tend not to value it. Teaching study skills can easily end up as a bolt-on to the core curriculum and covering it becomes just a tick-box exercise.
Enough of the problems, what about solutions?
What then does an ambitious study skills curriculum look like?
1. Is About Achievement, Confidence and Enjoyment
Many students are quick to spot, and then to downgrade in importance, any aspect of the taught curriculum that is not directly related to the ‘bottom line’ of exam results. Students can often be heard saying things like, “I’ve got enough to learn without having to learn extra stuff about study skills” (and quite understandably).
A good study skills programme needs to address at the outset the perception that study skills is an unnecessary extra. This needs to be replaced with the idea that study skills underpin the whole of the rest of a student’s studies. For students to value study skills, they need to be shown that improved study techniques lead to better grades, increased confidence and, of equal importance, greater enjoyment of learning. If this is done successfully, students are much more likely to ‘buy-in’ to the whole idea. Students may need to be constantly reminded of the purpose of learning to learn skills.
An ambitious study skills programme is about helping students to use study skills to develop a passion for learning, as well as to pass exams.
2. Connects To the Future
In our ever-changing world, learning how to learn is possibly the single most important skill every student needs to master. When students think about study skills, they think about revision and taking exams but the application of these skills are much wider than school, college or university.
They are transferable to the workplace, where increasingly people are being expected to take responsibility for updating existing skills and learn new ones so they are relevant to the workplace. Having the capability to quickly learn new skills helps people to stay adaptable and relevant to the workplace and future career success.
They are also transferable to many leisure and recreational pursuits.
An ambitious study skills programme shows students that learning how to study independently is an investment in their future.
3. Focuses On Practical Application
Study skills needn’t be about academic knowledge or lots of theory. Whilst it’s important that there’s sound evidence for the teaching of certain study techniques (such as spaced-repetition to improve recall), there’s no need for the student to get bogged down in the details of brain function research to benefit from using such techniques! (Of course, if a student shows an interest in any underlying learning theory, they should be encouraged to explore this.)
Students must get the chance to practice the techniques and approaches they are introduced to.
Study skills are practical skills and, like any other skills, depend upon building habits and the opportunity to practice them.
4. Uses Examples That Are Relevant To The Student
When different techniques are introduced to students, the majority of examples/case studies used to demonstrate these techniques must be relevant to their everyday studies.
Hypothetical and artificial examples, such as having to memorise a whole pack of cards or grappling with how a busy office manager manages their time, can be fun for students to attempt and illustrative of certain study techniques. However, if the examples used are taken from subjects/topics they cover in their day-to-day studies, then they are far more persuasive. That’s not to say that all diversions from everyday learning are bad but they shouldn’t be the sole illustrations.
Where used, practical examples/references relate to topics that students will encounter in subject areas.
5. Avoids a ‘Quick Fix and Tricks’ Approach
We’ve all come across exaggerated claims for enhanced learning techniques such as developing a ‘Super memory in 5 minutes!’ or ‘One simple step to high concentration levels!’.
Learning study skills does not create a short cut to learning and doesn’t mean that students won’t have to engage with their subjects. Skills for learning are not a quick fix; it’s not about the application of a few tricks that somehow allows the student to bypass studying and thus allows them to pass exams. Hard work is still required.
An ambitious study skills programme avoids offering quick-fix solutions.
6. Involves the Whole School (Including Parents)
As with any other intervention, a study skills programme is most effective when it mobilizes the whole school community.
All teachers are teaching ‘learning to learn’ skills every day in every lesson. They are developing skills pertinent to their subject area and skills which are relevant across the whole curriculum. But study skills programmes are often viewed by teachers as being different from the sort of study skills they are teaching. Teachers absolutely recognise the importance of learning to learn skills but convincing colleagues of the value of a specific study skills intervention is a different matter, especially if such interventions have been tried in the past and haven’t been successful!
Colleagues may well perceive such interventions to be bolt-on rather than part of the curriculum and this may lead to a lack of follow-up work. There is a potential danger that a single lead person or even a co-ordinating team can work in isolation from departments. To avoid this, the programme must allow for departments and individual teachers to build upon the study skills within their own subject areas. If this doesn’t happen, the initiative can so easily start in a blaze of excitement and then all too soon simply wither away.
Parents need to be involved in this too. It’s important to provide parents with information about the study skills being worked on (particularly important in Years 10 and 11) to reinforce the habits and attitudes being promoted.
An ambitious study skills programme is coordinated across and engages the whole school.
7. Introduces the Right Skills at the Time
Students need to learn the right study skills at the right time. This is easier said than done.
Whilst it’s clear that GCSE students need to have mastered certain techniques by the time they near their final exams (e.g. producing flashcards, writing revision timetables), it’s not quite so obvious what other year groups need to know. A simple online search will reveal that individual schools, books on study skills and external ‘learning to learn’ providers have a variety of ideas about what to cover with different years. For individual schools, it very much depends on how the curriculum is organized.
Students need to learn study skills from an early age. However, there’s a very real dilemma that some revision techniques can be covered in too much detail at too early an age. If students are introduced to certain advanced methods when they haven’t got an immediate use for them, they can evaporate quickly. Even worse, if the same technique is revisited several times in different years, students may feel there’s been duplication and can be heard saying, ‘I’ve already done study skills’.
Particular care should be taken with Year 12 and 13 students who, quite understandably, often exhibit a world-weary approach to study skills. By the time they get to the Sixth Form, they may well have sat through a number of these interventions! For Sixth Form programmes, it is crucial to offer new ideas that are relevant to them gaining a greater sense of independent study.
Whatever the year group, there is no easy solution to this. A first step in establishing what to cover with different year groups might be to conduct a whole school audit so see what is currently being delivered through subject teaching.
Following this, some discussion needs to take place to identify when a skill should be introduced. Just a suggestion, but once an audit has been carried out, why not then identify what study skills are essential for Year 11 students, do the same for Year 7 students and then work inwards to decide what to cover in Year 8, 9 and 10?
An ambitious study skills programme helps students to develop a toolbox of skills which build on previous skill development (but avoids repetition and duplication).
8. Is Delivered In the Most Effective Way
There are a huge variety of channels for delivering a study skills programme and the particular mix of channels to select is a tricky one.
Programmes can be delivered through discrete lessons, the PSHE curriculum, tutor periods, assemblies, one-off extra-curricular/Focus days, or a blended model containing any combination of these. They can be delivered by teachers, form tutors and learning mentors or involve an external provider. They can be the responsibility of a Head of Year, an individual teacher/manager, the PSHE team or a lead learning mentor. There is no ideal model and each approach has its advantages and difficulties.
A few thoughts about two of these aspects.
Programme design. As any study skills programme is most effective when it involves the whole school, a team of dedicated staff drawn from across subject areas is more likely to design a coherent programme than a lone individual or group acting in isolation.
Outside speakers. A one-off ‘special’ Study Skills presentation/workshop by an outside speaker on a Focus Day can be really exciting and have a powerful initial impact (I have delivered hundreds of these types of days and I found them exciting!). For example, in Years 11 and 12 this type of input is a great way to kick-start the new academic year as an induction event or to give students extra motivation as exams approach.
Although these presentations tick a lot of boxes, on their own they are unlikely to lead to students developing new study habits in the long term. They are a good way to launch an intervention but follow-up is required.
An ambitious study skills programme doesn’t rely on a single channel of delivery but is delivered in a variety of ways.
9. Sustains the Initial Momentum
For every study skills programme, there is a danger that any progress made will evaporate and come to nothing – however it’s delivered and whoever delivers it.
After the stand-alone part of the study skills programme is finished, students will need some level of ongoing support to help them to put into practice their newfound learning. The relevance of what they have learned about study skills must be embedded soon after the skills are taught so these skills must be consolidated within the classroom context and be made subject-specific.
If subject teachers can model any of the techniques or set classwork/homework tasks which are designed to make use of particular methods, students get to see the immediate value. Without this, there may be a dislocation of study skills from subject areas. With curriculum time as tight as it is, this is no easy task.
A prerequisite for this to happen is that the skills, knowledge and techniques covered are communicated to all staff.
An ambitious study skills programme sees follow-up work as an integral component.