While it is fair to assume that the most critical elements of a study skills course are the study skills themselves, the truth is that for a course to be effective teaching students skills like time-management, organization, planning, note-taking, and test-taking, parents should pay closer attention to how these skills are taught.
When we recently redesigned our flagship study skills course, we had the opportunity to think deeply about how we could make the course even more impactful. We didn’t want to change the skills we were teaching (aka the “what”), but we did want to radically redesign how we taught those skills.
Here are the 5 elements that we focused on and believe are critical for any study skills course or program:
- Addressing the “So What”
- Using “Active Teaching”
- Teaching flexible thinking
- Focusing on reducing academic anxiety
- Integrating Growth Mindset throughout the course
Selecting a course that contains these elements will drastically improve the probability that students will engage with the material, will self-reflect, and will retain the information.
Addressing the “So What” of study skills
Whether it is a study skills for 4th or 5th grade, or a middle school or high school study skills course, it is rare to find that students really understand why they need these skills or how they will help them. Most students believe that school is something that happens “to” them. An endless cycle of teachers teaching, assigning work, and assessing. But the truth is that students have a LOT of control over their success during that cycle. During “teaching”, students can be taking notes, writing assigned work in their planner, or self-advocating by asking questions. Assigned work can be chunked to do over time and active study strategies can be used to prepare for assessments. An effective study skills program teaches students “why” study skills matter to their lives. It helps students understand that each time they avoid, shortcut, or ignore one of these productivity tools, they add friction to their process which slows them down, adds academic anxiety, and increases the potential for bad grades. A great course has to ensure that students see a personal benefit to using study skills in order for them to adopt them as their own.
Using Active Teaching
Learning to “chunk work” isn’t particularly engaging. But when students practice chunking an assignment and see how the resulting chunks become a crisp, accomplishable list of “to-do’s”, the lightbulbs go off. Active teaching is more than just practicing, however. It is teaching so that students want to participate, actively engage, and set intentions. Once students buy into why they are here (aka their “so what”), they can more clearly identify their personal goals for the course. Active teaching also includes interactivity. A great study skills course will ensure that students actively participate by responding, writing, drawing, and dragging and dropping both in their course book and in and technology-based, interactive component.
Teaching Flexible Thinking
While many students are flexible, they don’t always have flexibility when it comes to how they study or why they may not be managing school as efficiently as possible. An effective study skills course will teach them the “why” behind their behaviors. As an example, many students struggle with initiation. They have never spent the time thinking about “why” it is hard for them to get started. It is only by identifying their “why” that they can then counteract that with appropriate and useful replacement behaviors, such as developing a “start routine”, changing their environment, or using a timer to overcome procrastination. Whether it is changing how a student gets started or committing to active (vs. passive) studying techniques, the key to changing any behavior is the ability to look at things in a new way, identify solutions, and commit to action. In all of that, flexible thinking is a must.
Focusing on Reducing Academic Anxiety
School is hard. Day after day of homework, tests, and learning new material is enough to stress anyone out. Anxiety only increases with missing work, last-minute projects, or late-night cramming. An effective study skills course acknowledges this fact and shows how the strategies taught directly reduce academic anxiety. One of our students once told us that using their newly acquired study skills felt like cheating. That’s because when you use study skills effectively, it makes everything feel easier. You feel more in control. And when students feel more in control, their anxiety will decrease.
Integrating Growth Mindset throughout the course
Unfortunately, many students have already decided that they are bad at “math” or “studying” or “school” and unless that belief is challenged, teaching skills alone won’t break through. A growth mindset allows you to embrace working at something until you achieve it, knowing that practice leads to success. The goal is to change a student’s self-talk from “I’m bad at <fill-in-the-blank>” to “I may not be good at it yet, but I can be if I work at it.” An effective study skills course will not only encourage growth mindsets but teach students how to shift their thinking to embrace mistakes as another word for “learning”.
The Bottom Line: Teaching explicit strategies to improve Executive Function and study skills is the base of all study skills classes, but for students to buy in, you have to find their “why”, engage them throughout the process, and achieve an “ah ha” moment for them to see how with these new tools, their lives will get a whole lot easier.