‘Study skills”, “academic skills”, “study support”: whatever you call them, units such as these are commonplace in higher education.
Delivered from centralised units commonly based in the library, such support for students, in the words of one university, aims to offer “a wealth of resources for both home and international students who want to make the transition between ordinary English and the academic language expected from you in your work at university”.
Some library services even have mascots such as Worcester University Library Services’ Reffie the Referencing Raptor. Some go further, with peripatetic workshops that offer to embed academic skills into specific subjects.
In essence, this whole system is saying: you may be coming from a background that means academic work is challenging or unfamiliar to you, or you may be struggling with your assessments and how to approach them. Don’t worry, the support exists to help you.
We want to emphasise here exactly what this is promising and the high stakes nature and importance of it. We’d argue that these claims and the support approaches they recommend have to be underpinned by a number of key tenets in order for them to be pedagogically viable, and these tenets have to be ones that those delivering and accessing the support believe in (otherwise the whole foundations of the system collapse).
- What the centres are delivering has to be definable – because if it isn’t, they’ll all be doing different things.
- What the centres are teaching has to be of transferable relevance to all subject areas – because if it isn’t, there is little point in teaching it as it won’t be relevant for all students.
- Centres must be able to embed study skills into different subject areas – if they cannot, then what would be the value in trying to do this?
- Students’ success must be in some way the result of them having successfully attained study skills – because if it wasn’t, what would be the point in them spending time learning them?
In our view, each of these tenets are baseless from a pedagogical perspective.
Immovable, unknowable, ineffable
With regard to the first, nothing that these centres offer is definable, because they are called different names and all subjects approach them in their own unique ways. For example, the way that a nursing student is expected to “critically analyse” a procedure will involve completely different abilities and knowledge from the way a mechanical engineering student is expected to “critically analyse” a procedure.
If both students went to the skills hub and it was suggested they attend a study skills class, it would have to be assumed that the same class for such diverse subjects can teach them to “critically analyse” in their respective subjects.
At the same time, these “skills” do not transfer, not only because they differ across subject areas but also because they are likely not even “skills” at all and would be better described as abilities or knowledge.
We have heard as much from students themselves. In fact the only thing that we have found that students really value is actual subject help, from experts. Recent sites run by and for UK university student communities feature students complaining that study skills units failed to improve their academic success.
For example, this quote found on the Student Room from a student on a study skills bridging course illustrates the issue:
If S[tudy] S[kills] assignments helped you with the academic subject assignments, perhaps they’d be worthwhile. But I just found them to be a completely separate entity and they didn’t help with the real assignments, they just took my time and focus off them!
In other words, any attempt to embed study skills is akin to trying to “embed” a maths course into a course on the history of renaissance art.
If a student performs well, if they present well, or they do a report well, it’s not because they have good study skills, rather, it’s because they know their subject. If one of us were to give a presentation on the reasons why Nazi Germany’s Operation Blau offensive in the Soviet Union in 1942 failed, we could do so because we know the subject.
If we were instead to attempt a presentation on why the recent helicopter flight on Mars succeeded, we would not be able to do so. For someone to suggest to us that we could do the first because we had good study skills and couldn’t do the latter because we had poor study skills would seem preposterous and the purest example that springs to our minds of one of Nietzsche’s four great errors of confusing cause and effect.
Help where students truly need it
It would be great if such a one-size-suits-all approach did exist, this is a fantasy that encourages users to believe and clap their hands. Perhaps somewhat underwhelmingly, we suggest that the action that students, lecturers, institutions, and HE in general need to take is … to provide support in the subject.
We need to forget any illusions of “study skills” that universities can cheaply and conveniently deliver and are transferable across all areas and, instead, teach the subject.
This means that centralised units need to be decentralised, more people need to be employed on academic contracts to teach the subjects themselves, and that all study skills specialists need to be teaching actual academic subjects.
If students are struggling or need support in their degrees, they don’t need more study skills, they need help with the subjects of their degrees. Because subject knowledge is what creates success and it is this students need help with.
If these centres don’t actually help students, then why are they there? We explore the question of whose interests these centres actually serve in our article for Teaching in Higher Education: “Study Skills: neoliberalism’s perfect Tinkerbell.”