In search of study skills

6th September 1996 at 01:00
STUDYWISE 1: STUDY SKILLS FOR 11-14 YEAR OLDS STUDYWISE 2: STUDY SKILLS FOR 14-16 YEAR OLDS By John Foster Collins Pounds 5.95 each Learning to Learn: Developing study skills with children who have special educational needs By Gordon Malone and Dorothy Smith.

National Association for Special Educational Needs Pounds 7

It is now more important than ever that children become independent and continuing learners. In a rapidly changing technological world, a great premium will be placed on the acquisition of flexible learning skills. These volumes aim to provide sound practical help.

The Studywise booklets offer a comprehensive self-contained study skills programme ranging from "homework skills" to "understanding graphs and charts"; from "managing your time" to "choosing post-16 courses". These A4 manuals directly address the learner and each contains an introduction which explains in a non-patronising way the importance of study skills and the booklet's structure.

Each comprises about 12 sections which can be used either as a complete course or as free standing units to be dipped into by individual students according to need. Some skill areas, such as note-taking, writing, oral and revision skills appear in both booklets and are effectively tailored to each age group, with an emphasis on GCSE work patterns in Book 2.

Presentation is varied and includes cartoons, diagrams, flow charts and text. Substantial use is made of good quality extracts; so, for example, the unit on Understanding Information includes individual, paired and group exercises using richly varied sources on Jewish worship, the Hiroshima bomb and Caribbean islands.

A breadth of subject area is covered, though English and humanities dominate, with weaker treatment of maths and science. Many units also use actual examples of pupils' work which readers are encouraged to analyse before doing the exercises themselves.

Study skill manuals often fail to deal adequately with each skill area. By contrast this resource is of a high quality and devotes, for example, seven packed pages to the thorny topic of GCSE coursework projects. Particularly powerful are the units on "reviewing progress". Most schools devote a lot of time to review work, but have not really cracked the issue of pupil target setting. Foster's practical strategies will help to take schools further forward.

The main criticisms of this otherwise splendid resource are that many of the pages are overloaded with rather small-sized text and over-full paragraphs of explanation. Some of the language used will deny access to lower ability learners and, in nobly encouraging readers to reflect on their learning, Foster occasionally requires pupils to behave as sophisticated educationists rather than study skill improvers.

By comparison, Learning To Learn specifically focuses on developing study skills with children who have special educational needs. This 65-page booklet for teachers begins promisingly, establishing key teaching principles, and then proceeding to give a number of valuable insights.

However, it is somewhat oddly organised, outlining in the first pages some sketched case studies to which it makes no further reference, and dealing with "barriers to effective study skills" before examining the skills themselves.

Most culpable, however, in a book which stresses the importance of reference and retrieval skills, it contains no index and makes little attempt to cross reference concepts reintroduced in various places in the text.

The book's approach is to give brief discussion of topics like motivation or note-taking followed by helpful exemplars and then boxed lists of practical strategies for classroom teachers. Most effective are the analysis of memory, essay writing and "learning readiness", and, unlike Foster, Malone and Smith emphasise consolidation of learning rather than cramming for exams.

Taken together, all these books provide a variety of helpful practical strategies to hone study skills across the ability range. None, however, addresses the implications for whole school management issues or recognises that such strategies will only bear fruit if part of a consistent approach to the curriculum that promotes genuine independent learning.

Graham Handscombe is deputy head of Tabor High School, Braintree, Essex

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