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  Helping Students with Basic Skills








Helping Students to Study Effectively

by Gail Tennen and Gary K. Hagar

I told my students that there would be a quiz in our next class period ...a quiz that was also listed on the class outline. I gave the students a study sheet and told them I'd be asking them to define three of the five terms on the study sheet.  Prior to the quiz, we discussed all the terms for two days in class.  The terms were also defined and discussed in the assigned textbook chapter. On the day of the quiz, 1/4 of the class failed the quiz; two students said that they didn't know we were having a quiz; one student asked where these terms had come from as he had never seen them before.
                                               - Anonymous Social Science professor

All instructors have stories like this one.  An instructor's first response is to ask why students did not succeed.  "Was it something I did?"  Or was the failure a result of the students' poor study skills and lack of preparation?  All too often, students' failure to succeed is a direct result of poor study habits; they just have not developed the skills and behaviors necessary to support comprehension of college-level content.  There will be students in your classes with poor or inadequate study skills, but you, as the instructor, will be busy covering a designated body of content.  Most likely you will not have the opportunity to teach students how to develop good study skills as a part of the class you are teaching,  but there are some things  you can do in your class to assist them in assuming responsibility for their learning and in becoming more effective learners:   

  1. Emphasize the importance of good study skills to student success
  2. Inform students of the knowledge, skills and study behaviors that will help them to be successful in your class
  3. Help students assess their study skills strengths and weaknesses (include learning style preferences)
  4. Provide students with information resources for study skills development
  5. Give students clear directions and frequent opportunities for progress assessment and feedback on class work

This section provides guidance on how you and your students can become partners in the learning process.  It provides resources that students can use to improve their general study skills.   It also contains information that will help you to recognize some of the most common study skills problems and suggests strategies you can use to help students become better learners.

Emphasize the Importance of Good Study Skills 

Most students are not aware of the value of good study skills to their success.  Unless they're among the fortunate few who have taken a study skills course, note taking and studying are at best a haphazard collection of habits that have been developed over time.  The first thing students must recognize is the benefit of good study habits.   You can help by taking a few minutes of class time to encourage students to improve their study skills and by giving them compelling reasons why it's worth their time and effort.  

Developing good study habits helps students to: Student studying at night

  1. Take responsibility for the learning process
  2. Set practical goals
  3. Be aware of performance and progress
  4. Use time wisely
  5. Understand and retain content

Simply put, students with good study habits achieve better grades and are more successful in their classes. 


Inform Students of the Knowledge and Skills Necessary for Success

The nature of the content and the types of assignments you require in your class will guide you in identifying specific study strategies that will be effective for your students.  Share your insight with students on what you believe will help them master the content.  Some classes have easily identifiable skills that influence students' ability to succeed.  Informing your students of the types of skills the course content requires will help them to have a realistic understanding of class expectations and to make judgments about their preparedness to meet course requirements.  You can help your students by identifying and explaining the general requirements of your course content.  Your list may include many of the factors compiled below for social science classes.

  • Basic skills:
    • the reading, writing, or math skills necessary to learn the information, concepts and skills taught in the class
    • the communication skills (reading, writing, speaking) to demonstrate learning
  • Background knowledge:
    • prerequisite courses
    • the body of knowledge assumed by the text or the teacher
    • basic vocabulary
  • Study skills required:
    • learning from the textbook (e.g. annotating, summarizing, using the glossary, outlining, checking comprehension)
    • learning from the lecture (e.g. taking notes, listening skills, asking questions)
    • studying for and taking tests
    • using academic resources
    • metacognition (e.g. awareness of the quality of their learning, awareness of what they can do to enhance their learning)
  • Time and study commitment
    • number of classes required
    • recommended commitment of study time 
    • types and number of assignments

Help students assess their study skills strengths and weaknesses.

Once students are convinced of the benefits of good study habits, they will need to determine how to improve on their skills.  The major components of study habits are:

          -   Reading
          -   Listening
          -   Note Taking
          -   Test Taking
          -   Time Management
Books, watch and eyeglasses

A student who has poor study habits may be deficient in any or all of these areas.  Any deficiency will hamper a student's ability to master content or to demonstrate mastery of the content in your class, resulting in a poor or failing grade.   Since you are probably not teaching study skills as a part of your class, students themselves will have to take most of the responsibility for improving their overall skills.

So how can you help a student determine where help is needed?  Guide students to resources available at your college and on the Internet. 

Provide students with information resources for study skills development

Include College resources in your syllabus. Most colleges offer courses in study skills and professional assessments of any learning disabilities that interfere with learning,     as well as subject-specific tutorial services      .   Your class syllabus is an easy way to inform students of these resources.  If you are not sure of the specific information, refer students to the Counseling Department   , where they will be able to get up-to-date information on courses and college services that will help them study more effectively. 

counseling department sign

Provide links to online study skills resources. For more immediate self-help, the Internet can be a valuable resource.  Many sites have been developed and maintained by colleges in support of their students.  Try to avoid sites that are selling specific products or services.  One of the most helpful tools students can use is a  Study Skills Checklist that enables them to find out about the strengths and weaknesses of their own study habits.  You may download the checklist or use this printable version; have students complete it on the first day of class or encourage students to visit the website.  Taking a few minutes in class to administer or recommend non-threatening self surveys such as this one sends a clear message to students that 1.) Study skills are important to class success, and 2.) Developing good study skills is the students' responsibility.  Provide students with information resources for study skills development. Encourage students to explore resources such as those identified below to improve their study skills in the areas in which they need help.  Some links contain categorized study skills resources available to students online.  To assist your students, you may duplicate and distribute to them a printable list of study skills resources.   You may add your own suggestions including any specific content-related links that will help students' mastery.

Give students clear directions and frequent opportunities for progress assessment and feedback on class work.

Aside from helping students identify resources that improve overall study skills, you can help them develop and use study strategies that support mastery of the content of your class. 

 General Instructor Strategies.  There are many strategies you can use as a part of your class organization, presentation and interaction with your students that will aid students in developing better study skills.  Most of these Instructor Strategies take little or no additional class time, but reinforce student behaviors necessary for good study skills.  

Check plus mark
Good Pedagogy.  You will find that many of the classroom practices you use are simply good pedagogy that will also be helpful to your students' study skills. 
    • Create a well organized, easy-to-read syllabus.  If you need to give students a lot of information, do it in two stages. On the first day of class, give students a one to two page sheet that summarizing the structure and requirements of the class.  To avoid overwhelming or confusing students, organize additional class information into manageable "chunks" and distribute it at subsequent class meetings.  Information on developing an effective syllabus is covered in the section Building A Learner Centered Syllabus.
    • Give students the learning objectives for every lesson. Refer to these often in your class lectures and assignments.  Make sure assignments and test items are consistent with the specified learning objectives. 
    • Use a variety of teaching methods to address a wide range of learning styles. As discussed in How People Learn, not all students learn best from lectures.  Supplement lectures with videos, audiotapes, group activities, community-based field trips, guest speakers, and demonstrations.  
    • Generate weekly lesson content outlines from your lecture notes for distribution to students. Leave ample white space on the outlines so students may take notes.  If you use PowerPoint to organize your lectures, you may print a convenient note taking aid for your students using this procedure. It provides all of the lecture's key points plus space for students to write additional information.   
    • Encourage students to ask questions; give them opportunities to process information through practice, discussion and interaction.
    • Provide regular feedback on student progress toward course/lesson objectives. Early and often feedback gives you an opportunity to recommend resources and students an opportunity to improve study habits before negative consequences. 
      • Assign peer study groups. Participation in a peer study group is an effective and non-intimidating form of study. Study groups are based on the concept that students learn more effectively in a cooperative peer environment with multidirectional information flow and with little pressure.

Recognizing Common Student Study Problems

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides the Ten Traps of Study.  These are undoubtedly the most (over)used reasons students give for their study failures.  You'll hear many of these problems from your students.   Here are some suggestions you can provide to students who state specific study problems.

The Problem/ Symptoms

Possible Diagnosis

Some Suggested Study Strategies

"I read the textbook but I still have trouble with exams and discussion questions."
  • Reading without comprehension
  • Can't remember what's read

Low Reading Level

  • Reading course
  • Study skills course or module in reading
  • Study group or partner
  • Learning skills assessment
" I don't understand anything."
  • Vague explanation of problems
  • Frustration, discouragement

Poor overall study skills; unrealistic expectation of college-level work

  • Pinpoint source of confusion, i.e., lecture or reading
  • Study skills module/course in listening, reading, note taking
  • Explanation of college-level work requirements
" I studied for the exam but I got a D anyway."
  • Cramming
  • Missed lectures or other activities
  • Failure to ask questions

Poor test-taking skills; procrastination

  • Study skills course/module in test taking
  • Study skills course/module in time management
  • Study group
"I know I missed the last few classes and failed my midterm, but I've been having some problems.  I know I can make it up."
  • Family, financial, legal, health concerns
  • Procrastination
  • Unrealistic expectations

Personal crisis; lacks priority/goal setting

  • Counselor intervention
  • Study skills course/module in time management
  • Study group or partner
  • Explanation of college-level work requirements
"I don't get anything out of the class lectures so I just fall asleep."
  • Easily distracted in class
  • Lacks focus
  • Disorganized class notes

Poor listening and note taking skills

  • Different seating arrangement
  • Study skills course/module in note taking and listening
" I know the material... I just freeze up on the test."
  • Tension about tests
  • inability to demonstrate content mastery

Test anxiety; poor test-taking skills

  • Study skills course/module in test taking, test anxiety
  • Alternate testing strategies, e.g. verbal, class presentation 

Instructors want their students to succeed.  It is especially frustrating to see students struggle with course content because poor study skills got in the way of learning.  Even though study skills development may not be among the learning objectives for your course, your efforts to emphasize the importance of and to provide resources to help your students develop better study skills will be reflected in improved student performance and satisfaction.


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