Sunday, 19 February 2023

Developing study skills

Success at school is as much to do with natural ability and academic skills as it is to do with knowing how to approach tasks and how to show your understanding in an appropriate way.

Good study skills are vital for all students and allow them to tap their strengths and compensate for their weakness. They can be introduced throughout Primary school and these skills then need to be mastered in Secondary school.

Some students quickly work out what works for them and they are able to apply these skills in different subjects. However, others need to be explicitly taught different strategies and need to practise them frequently before they can use them independently.  Sometimes, a student can be quite dismissive of a particular approach because it didn’t work first time. This is because they do not realise most skills need time and practise to develop. 

While there are some common strategies, each student has to work out what works best for them. This can take time, guidance and practice with the support of both parents and teachers.

There are 4 key areas to consider:

Breaking down tasks into manageable steps.

This is important for tackling the coursework required throughout Secondary school and is needed for higher levels of education. Teachers will often provide checklists, guidelines and rubrics, but some students still need further instruction and support to make proper use of these.

When a student is given a project to complete, for some it can seem overwhelming and this lead can to procrastination.  Procrastination is not laziness but is usually caused by anxiety. This could be anxiety about not being able to complete the task to the correct standard or anxiety about not knowing how to get started.  Task initiation difficulties are often overlooked but is a genuine area of challenge for some. Once the student is helped to get started, they may make quick progress and be able to work independently.  Task initiation is part of our executive functions, which we now know are not fully developed until the age of 25. 

Adult support may be needed to work out how to navigate the task, this is not ‘cheating’ or preventing a student from becoming independent learners but necessary way of aiding learning. This could include modeling and 'thinking out loud' to show how to work out what the steps could be. Then make a list of specific tasks that need to be done with appropriate time limits. Overtime, the student will learn to break tasks up themselves and set sensible deadlines and goals.

Note taking

Note taking is a valuable skill but one that usually requires training and practice. Some students pick up the idea of writing down key words but others with continue to write down every word said or exactly what it says in a text book. Explicitly showing students how to find key words in a  sentence or text is an important stage in teaching note taking. Sharing examples of notes and explaining how to use this information can also help. 

For those who find writing challenging, Sketchnoting can be a good technique for recording ideas through pictures. Again it requires practice and guidance, there are some excellent videos on You tube,   

Improving Memorisation

The more actively involved a student is any material or task the more memorable it is likely to be. Simply listening to the teacher or reading material from a textbook is not normally enough for information to stick long term. When revising many students choose to re-read material from lessons and textbooks but this is not necessarily the best way forward.

Verbalising is a very effective method for making materials memorable. The simple act of saying information in your own voice can make make it easier to remember. Teachers can facilitate verbalising by asking students to tell each other the main points from a lesson introduction. Another method is to give different information in the form of pictures or short texts to small groups. The group discusses the information to make sense of it. Then one person from each group joins a new group to share what they have learnt. At home, students could try to explain to their parents what they have learnt in a particular subject or they could consider recording themselves talking about a topic they need to review.

Retrieval practise is an effective strategy which research shows makes learning more memorable. When we try to remember facts without having the information in front of us and then check what is missing, this activates the brain.  This is where frequent quizzes without a mark and encouraging students to write down anything they recall about a topic are helpful.  Self-checking and peer marking can enhance learning as it helps students more to become aware of what they have missed.  Students need to take ownership of their learning and be honest about what they actually know and understand and then they can to work on filling the specific gaps.

Test techniques

Tests can naturally be a source of anxiety for some students. Unfortunately, anxiety and stress effects our memory.  As our body goes it ‘fight or flight mode’ resources are taken away from the logical part of our brain.  This then means that a student may not be able recall material that they genuinely know.

Positive ‘self-talk’ is vital to work through stressful situations.  It can be very easy to get frustrated when you can’t remember a fact that you know you have practiced many times. But if we tell ourselves, it is ‘too difficult’ or that we are ‘stupid’ for not knowing it, then our brain starts to shut down and we will struggle to answer the question. Alternatively, if we can convince ourselves that is normal to find things tricky and that we can work through it, then we can keep our brain open and we can often surprise ourselves with what we can do. Internally encouraging ourselves with ‘you’ve got this’ or ‘its ok, you can do it’, can really make a difference.

Breathing exercises can help to bring a moment of calm which may allow the brain to switch from ‘panic’ mode to the ‘reasoned thinking’ mode needed to recall prior learning.

There are also test strategies that can easily be taught and mastered but are not necessarily obvious to some students.  These include leaving out trickier questions and coming back to them at the end, paying attention to the number of marks allocated to a question when considering how much detail to give, rereading questions to ensure correct understanding. Highlighting or underlining key words can also help to ensure questions are properly understood and processed.

Overall both parents and teachers can do a lot to support the development and practice of study skills which will lead to school success.