Tick-boxes are a poor substitute for timing

13th June 1997 at 01:00
THE STUDENT SKILLS GUIDE. Sue Drew and Rosie Bingham. Gower Paperbacks, Pounds 12.95. ISBN 0 566 07847 3

STUDENT SKILLS: TUTOR'S HANDBOOK. Gower Paperbacks, Pounds 25. ISBN 0 566 078465

I once had a colleague who reckoned himself a comedian. Having joined any gathering - he wasn't particular - he would release a stream of gags and anecdotes, after each one laughing like a drain. Never did he notice the silence all around; he thought he was funny, and that was all that mattered.

All of which proves that some of us are not especially good at judging our own strengths and weaknesses. There are some places in Drew and Bingham's The Student Skills Guide where users might keep this in mind.

Both the guide and the larger-format, otherwise almost identical Tutor's Handbook are divided into two parts, Starter Level Skills and Development Level Skills, with the second part augmenting lessons already learned. Each part offers students "interactive" tasks to help to assess their strengths and weaknesses in areas such as essay-writing, oral presentation, note-taking and solving problems. Similar methods are used in areas such as coping with pressure, assertiveness and gathering information.

In the Starter Level section on time management, for example, students are asked to consider their performance and how it might be improved. Questions on organisation ("Are your notes: in piles on the flooron the floor, not in piles filed systematically?") are followed by others on personal capacity ("How long can I concentrate before I need a break?") with, for completion at the end, three blank columns headed "In need of attention", "Actions to take" and "Help needed". Later, the Development Level section on the same subject takes the process further.

The sound guidance in this area is typical of what is on offer. Both sections on essay writing are good in that they draw attention to questions of structure, spelling, punctuation and general academic conventions, while the sections on revision and examination techniques are likewise exemplary in terms of content and approach. The single section on note-taking, too, will reward study - that is, if one ditches the idea that a different person each week takes notes to be shared among the other members of a group.

The problem is obvious: what if the appointed scribe lets you down? Then, presumably, the other group members turn for advice to the sections on negotiation and assertiveness.

But these, like so many of their kind, are curiously reductive in their view of human behaviour, paying too little attention not only to the difficulties involved in modifying personal style, but also the broadly political nature of much social interaction. Which only serves to highlight the main problem with a guide that, if sometimes excellent on the mechanics of study, is less reliable on the behavioural side.

Like many of the other self-assessment charts, one in the oral presentation section asks students to list possible strengths and weaknesses. Included under the first are "funny" and "good sense of timing" - exactly the qualities my colleague felt he possessed in abundance. Even with charts, tables and tick-boxes, "Know thyself" is an injunction that will forever defeat some people.

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