US National Archives (Student in school in Minnesota) 412-DA-15759

US National Archives (Student in school in Minnesota) 412-DA-15759

The issue of how best to address the development of students’ study skills has been long debated in higher education. It’s something that has also come to the fore recently with more and more institutions (in this country at least) advertising the fact that their programmes now include compulsory skills modules for first years. This is presented as ‘a good thing’ and is a response to the perceived need to develop academic readiness, to aid students in their transition from school (which as some academics would have it, is the source of all learning problems and student dysfunction: all that rote-learning, examination targeting – you’d never get that in higher education 😉 ) and to comply with policy statements from the HEA (our HEA, not your HEA perhaps) and indeed sentiments expressed by the Minister and other politicians.

In principle, of course, there’s nothing wrong with this. It is true that higher education expectations and norms are all too often not expressed clearly enough to students and it is true that many have not had much experience of writing in the particular formats required, or of challenging assumptions, scrutinising and interpreting data, etc. The issue, rather, is whether it is better to approach this through standard, generalized, compulsory skills modules or through embedding within the subject disciplines that the student has chosen to study.

The dedicated module approach is very common and, indeed, I experienced it myself as a lecturer, one of many allocated a group of students, from a broad cohort of 900 first years, to guide through a series of structured, pre-planned assignments and tasks. The trouble is that such models have basic inbuilt flaws that often lead to unintended (and sometimes ironic) outcomes; such as students failing the basic study skills module whilst excelling in their core subjects. Or, more commonly, students simply not engaging at all; or if they do, then failing to ‘transfer’ the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired to any of their other modules. It’s not just the students who might fail to be enthused by this approach, but sometimes staff too. After all, in most other cases they are teaching modules which they have designed themselves and for which they feel some sense of ownership and autonomy. In universities in particular, the notion of delivering someone else’s notes/materials is something reserved for postgraduate tutors or teaching assistants.

But it’s not just that, its also that de-contextualising such skills strips them of meaning, devaluing them and establishing the notion of a set of tickboxes to be completed before getting back to the interesting stuff. Students and staff alike, in other words, often resent such compartmentalized experiences. That’s not to take from the huge efforts many have put in to developing and producing materials which are often of high design quality (and might contain effective multimedia content, interactive exercises and the like), nor from the enthusiasm of many staff who do teach them (I promise I did my best!), but ironically, it is sometimes this mass-produced, almost sterile nature that undermines the intention.

The alternative, then, is to argue that skills should be embedded within the academic disciplines themselves. That students should be given plenty of opportunity to improve their capabilities, to get formative feedback and plenty of opportunities to practice academic writing, presenting, analyzing, etc. And that this is seen as part of the very nature of ‘doing’ or ‘being’ a historian, a physicist, a linguist, or whatever they aspire to be. It’s a seductive argument and has merit, but the key issue is how it is done. And, indeed, how well. Is there the necessary collaboration and cooperation amongst the whole teaching team, with careful consideration of assessment requirements and types, with agreement over rubrics and intended outcomes, of ensuring scope for personal improvement (ipsative assessment) and of providing effective and frequent feedback and tuition?

So, in many ways, it is more of a challenge, particularly when institutions are asked to prove, to demonstrate, that they are indeed nurturing those capacities, competences and dispositions in their students. But it’s not impossible, and done properly it might provide scope for rethinking so many aspects of the curriculum, for reflecting critically on our ‘graduate attributes’ and perhaps also even from detaching from the all too prevalent reification of modules as discrete, disconnected blocks of knowledge (or at the very least perhaps, of realizing the need for a glue between them).

Our BA reform group has been looking at just such issues and it will be fascinating to see how well-received their preferred option (embedded) will be amongst students, potential students, and staff. It might well be that the prospect of a richer, deeper level of engagement within the subject disciplines themselves is a more attractive option than a timetable eaten away with generic skills modules.