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I Love Study Skills!

(yes, you’ve read that correctly)

 

Photo by Nick Fewings, UNSPLASH

Study skills is a passion of mine.

I’ve felt this way about ‘learning to learn’ skills for many years.

This article will tell you where this interest springs from via loading a dishwasher, 400 km/hr smashes, bouncing on icebergs, marginal gains and the 2012 Olympics.

It’s Unlikely

Look. I’m just going to say it. I love study skills. Perhaps not in the same way that some people like a steaming bowl of Pad Thai, an early morning run or a film with a shark in it (these are all loves of mine – who doesn’t secretly love the Sharknado franchise?).

Study skills excite me. Yes, I know it’s not a view that’s commonly expressed and it’s possible (probable) that this is the first time that the words ‘love’ and ‘study skills’ have appeared in the same sentence – but there it is, it’s out there now.

Anyone else share the love with me? Unlikely. (Message me if you do!)

If you mention study skills to most students (or most people) they start to glaze over.

So, I want to tell you where my love springs from and how this has shaped the study skills guides I’ve written and the teaching resources I produce.

Bounce

I’ve always been passionate about self-development and improvement, whether that’s been improving my presentation skills, finding better ways to communicate with my children or even just loading the dishwasher more efficiently!

I can trace the origins of this mindset back to the Psychology of Achievement by Brian Tracy, an audio series about becoming more effective in your personal and business life through goal-setting. As a young teacher, listening to it had an immediate impact on me. It was my first exposure to the concept of self-development and I developed an insatiable curiosity for finding ways to do everything just a little better, in and out of the classroom.

But what turbocharged this outlook was the combination of my son, Josh, taking up badminton, Olympic cycling and a book called Bounce.

Saturday Mornings

From the beginning, Josh and badminton seemed to click. He just loved rushing around the court at high speed, endlessly rallying and he became quite good. But this initial enthusiasm and acquisition of skills are to be expected when a child starts a new interest or hobby. Nothing unusual there.

Having always been a massive sports fan, I suddenly became avidly interested in international badminton tournaments and started watching videos of the global superstars of the game. I was amazed at their ability to glide effortlessly around the court, execute difficult spinning shots and produce venomous smashes. I was simply in awe of their apparently innate ability to play so consistently at such a high skill level.

The really interesting bit for me came when Josh started to receive one-to-one coaching. The coach’s approach was simple: deconstruct badminton into its component parts, get him to separately and repeatedly rehearse key skills and techniques and then put them back together in training routines. I’m guessing that anyone who’s ever played sport at a decent level will find this approach familiar, as will many others of you who have worked hard to master a skill in any field – playing a musical instrument for example. But this approach was new to me and the hour I would spend watching Josh being coached on a Saturday morning provided endless fascination for me.

I soon appreciated that the ability to get around a badminton court so quickly was not because a person was able to run fast. Rather, it was to do with the complex variety of footwork patterns they employed, which more closely resembled the choreography used by dancers. If you’ve got a spare minute search for any video of Kento Momota the current world No. 1 and World Men’s Singles Champion. Ignore what he’s doing with his racket and what’s happening to the shuttle. Instead, just look at him from the waist downwards. Seemingly effortless. Graceful. But deliberate. Practised technique.

The same was true of a player doing a smash shot. Surely this was all to do with arm strength? Here again, it was about technique and timing. Players with a minimum of arm toning were able to unleash devastating smashes in excess of 250 mph (400 km/h).

Icebergs

It was extremely serendipitous that around this time I heard a guy on talkSPORT radio talking about a book he’d written called ‘Bounce’. I was riveted, no seriously I was. For me, this was a pivotal moment in my thinking about skill development and performance. The voice I heard was Matthew Syed. Matthew was a former table tennis player who had been England No. 1 for almost a decade and has since gone on to become one of the world’s most influential thinkers in the field of high performance. He spoke calmly and lucidly about what he believed to be the real secrets of sporting success and what lessons they offer us about our daily lives.

The full title of his book was ‘Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice’. In a nutshell, his message was that excellence is a result of thousands of hours of purposeful practice, not any kind of innate talent. More profoundly, when we witness someone doing something extraordinary, we are witnessing the end product of a long process – what he referred to it as the iceberg illusion, which he put like this:

“What is invisible to us – the submerged evidence, as it were – is the countless hours of practice that have gone into the making of the virtuoso performance: the relentless drills, the mastery of technique and form, the solitary concentration that have, literally, altered the anatomical and neurological structures of the master performer.

What we do not see is what we might call the hidden logic of success.”

At this juncture, I want to make a special point of saying ‘thank you’ to Matthew. Your writing and interviews are a constant source of inspiration to me. You truly are an impressive thinker.

1% Is All it Takes

The final piece of the performance jigsaw came around the time of the 2012 Olympics, provided courtesy of Dave Brailsford, then the performance director at British Cycling, who talked about his theory of marginal gains.

Here’s what he said about it to the BBC:

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of, that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are away and training in different places.

They’re tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.”

The Power of Study Skills

It was at this point that study skills took on a whole different meaning for me.

Here’s how my thinking went…

At the end of Year 11, and then again in Year 13, every student has to ‘perform’. The performance takes the form of a set of exams. And like any performance, sitting exams can be broken down into its component parts. These component parts are a variety of skills and techniques which come under the umbrella heading of ‘study skills’. So, in order to perform well in exams, students must master these study skills and then practice them repeatedly in a purposeful way. Once the basics have been mastered, students can then work at making small improvements to each of these study skills. This, in turn, should lead to an improvement in their exam results.

Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that learning at school should be reduced to simply passing exams. That debate is for another day. But in our current education system passing exams is what students need to do. And once I started thinking about passing exams in terms of component parts, purposeful practice and marginal gains it utterly changed the way I delivered my student seminars and wrote study skills guides and still informs the study skills teaching resources I produce.

So, when a student learns and then practices the techniques involved in writing a revision timetable, using active revision methods, developing recall, exam technique, managing study time, getting homework done or improving concentration, there’s every possibility that it will lead to them doing better in their exams which, in turn, should open more doors for them in the future. What’s not to be excited about?

Study Guides With Love!

So that’s my study skills journey. Not ground-breaking thinking but hopefully gives you an insight into how my passion for this area evolved and why I write study skills guides.

I love study skills. I LOVE STUDY SKILLS.

Fascinating…

I can’t write an article about study skills without mentioning my children and their studies.

Since their birth, I have been endlessly intrigued by their development in so many ways and have gained much from being around them. The insights into study skills I have picked up from watching them go through nursery school, primary school, GCSEs, A levels and now university are priceless.

What I’ve noticed time and again is how they have had to adapt their learning skills with each new situation they have faced (not always immediately successfully!). They are constantly developing new approaches and techniques for studying.

Even now, I am watching them re-invent their approach to studying as they grapple with the new realities of remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. Fascinating…

Happy Study Skills!
Tim Foot

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