We could all use a little guidance

22nd February 2013 at 00:00
There is a plethora of study guides out there - but do they encourage in-depth learning and should you use them?

One of the biggest growth areas in the education "industry" - if one may call it that - is that of study guides. I'm not talking about textbooks, which are explicitly devised to be used by teachers in the classroom, but books for pupils to work through independently, usually in order to prepare for exams.

Research conducted by Carl Fisher of California State University uncovered a thriving industry. Major publishers - Cliffs Notes, Shmoop, SparkNotes, GradeSaver, Letts Revision and York Notes - have expanded hugely in recent years with the growth of the internet, offering thousands of study guides in multiple formats: e-books, mobile phone apps, podcasts and videos as well as traditional books. Cliffs Notes now publishes a vast array of English literature study guides, while GradeSaver, in addition to its study guides, has thousands of essays for sale. Although pupils are the main consumers, teachers also invest in them.

But why do so many teachers use these guides? Should they? And how do you choose the most relevant and useful ones? Early on in my career, I digested study guides avidly, using a lot of the material to plan my lessons. I was always a bit ashamed of this, being fully aware that study guides had a poor reputation in the profession for being reductive and formulaic. But feeling insecure in those early days I found that commercial study guides produced the most accessible and relevant materials for pupils and often contained quizzes, diagrams and key points about exams.

On a certain level, the humble study guide works well in the classroom - particularly where pupils are disruptive - because it is set up for independent learning, unlike a textbook, which normally requires intensive teacher input. Pupils can work at their own pace, completing the relevant tasks, and then check the answers, which are normally at the end of the book. For an anxious young educator, it was heaven. The pupils merrily got on with the work, marked it themselves and I did not have to do lots of upfront teaching, which might have led to me being shouted down. Instead I could wander around the class, cajoling and assisting.

Promoting deeper learning

However, I found that while study guides may have helped my pupils to achieve good results in exams, they did not promote meaningful learning. My best pupils seemed to have a reasonable knowledge of the subject matter but never produced much original work; they got A grades but were basically rewording what they had read in the guides. Perhaps more disturbingly, while the children with special educational needs (SEN) may have achieved adequate exam grades, when questioned closely about texts they did not know much about them beyond what they had parroted. These books provided the appearance of learning, but not the real thing.

Norris Haring and Marie Eaton's instructional hierarchy goes some way to explaining why using study guides in this way can be counterproductive.

Norris Haring and Marie Eaton's five stages of instruction and learning (1978)

With reference to the table above, one can see why the "bottom" and "top-end" learners did not benefit from my use of study guides. The SEN pupils were never inducted into the "acquisition" and "fluency" stages of the learning process. Meanwhile, many of the more able pupils had progressed through the first two stages but the guides did not provide them with the vital second two. Because the guides' questions were inherently simplistic, my pupils never learned to properly generalise and adapt their skills.

Study guides, if they are not used appropriately, lull teachers and learners into a false sense of security. Everyone thinks they know the answers and have mastered the relevant skills, but when faced with genuinely challenging questions, pupils flounder. The sad fact is that many exams contain such predictable questions that pupils can do well using study guides as the bedrock of their learning. As one colleague told me: "They're tailored to getting pupils through the exams, and that's what it's all about these days." Many study guides provide the essential kit for a pupil to get at least a C grade.

But putting exam results aside, can study guides ever have a meaningful place in a principled teacher's classroom? Despite my reservations, I think they can.

The educational theorist Carolin Kreber highlights three main areas of knowledge that are relevant to the teacher: instructional, pedagogical and curricular. She describes the instructional as being the way in which teachers sequence their lessons, order their teaching material and consider suitable modes of delivery, such as study guides or PowerPoints. A good teacher uses their pedagogical knowledge to deploy instructional techniques. Finally, the teacher must deploy their curricular knowledge so that pupils absorb the relevant aims and purposes of the curriculum.

Kreber links all three of these domains: "Ideally, the instructional strategies we use are based on our understanding of how pupils learn and are influenced also by our understanding of the purposes, goals and rationale for our courses and programmes," she says.

Problems occur when the instructional is put before the pedagogical and the curricular. This can happen when using study guides; the layout and content dictates what is taught without teachers reflecting in depth on how to teach it.

As I have grown more intellectually confident as a teacher, I have begun to reflect more critically on the use of study guides and have taken what Kreber would call a more "emancipatory" approach. As she says: "Important aspects of learning do not occur on the basis of subjective understanding and consensus within a given social context but involve a critical analysis of how certain norms and conditions have come about. This is the nature of emancipatory learning."

This is certainly when I have found study guides working best for me. I have encouraged a much more critical approach from my pupils, prompting key questions such as: "Why does this study guide present this as important? Is this the right knowledge to be learning?"

I have asked my pupils to write their own study guides and compare them to published ones. I have also set up online study guides and asked pupils to add responses to my own thoughts. Overall, I have attempted to foster a much more evaluative approach.

The future of study guides

Journalist Jon Connell has published a set of study guides that have moved away from the narrow, exam-focused texts of the past. He explains how they came about: "I got the idea to publish some study guides after my daughter didn't get the predicted A in her English literature AS level. Having edited the magazine The Week, which aims to report the week's news in a lively and concise fashion, I had a go at putting together a study guide," he says.

"After doing some research about other study guides on the market, I realised that there was a real need for guides that were accessible and written by experts," he adds. "Using my design experience from The Week, I introduced an element of showbiz into the books. I didn't want po-faced essays and so I really encouraged my authors to let their hair down."

Connell says that teachers have responded well to the guides because they motivate pupils while encouraging them to think for themselves and further investigate sources that interest them.

The Connell Guides are a rarity because they straddle the middle ground between standard study guides and expert sources. They have the readability of a study guide and the scholarly emphasis of an academic article.

How to use them in the classroom

Before using a study guide, you must consider carefully whether it addresses the key learning objectives of your topic. Haring and Eaton's instructional hierarchy can help with planning. Many study guides are good at providing activities for the "maintenance" phase of learning, but are they able to deal with the other phases?

Checking that pupils have acquired the relevant skills is imperative. I have often found that getting them to interview each other in groups helps with this. Meanwhile, you can foster Haring and Eaton's higher-order skills of generalisation and adaptation by directing pupils to analyse a study guide on a topic you have covered in class.

Asking your pupils to draw up a chart of key criteria and then judge whether the study guide meets them can be illuminating. It might be even more fruitful to get pupils to compare study guides with textbooks and, if you dare, your own teaching of a topic. Following on from this, they could reflect on the ways these different approaches help them to learn.

A marvellous Assessment for Learning opportunity is to ask pupils to make a class study guide, assigning specific topic areas to individual pupils or groups. Then get them to present relevant sections of it to the class. In this way you can really see who knows what, especially if you set up a question-and-answer session with the presenters.

New technologies, new frontiers

Like many teachers, I have experimented with using the web to provide study guides. I have uploaded materials to TES resources, www.slideshare.net and www.scribd.com; I have videoed myself explaining topics and uploaded the videos to YouTube; I have had a go at doing podcasts; and I have set up WordPress blogs on key topics I study with my classes. The WordPress blogging websites are particularly good for collating all the material from the web.

I have had varying degrees of success, judging from the positive and negative comments I have received, but the journey has always been interesting. Used appropriately, study guides can be a powerful, emancipatory tool for learning - if they are not taken too seriously.

Francis Gilbert is a secondary school teacher in an outer-London comprehensive. Find out more at www.francisgilbert.co.uk


When evaluating study guides, keep the following in mind:

Who has written it? Is he or she a recognised expert on the topic?

Are the learning outcomes clear from the study guide?

Does the study guide encourage rote learning or independent thought?

Is the study guide properly referenced with links to relevant experts?

Is it possible to follow up on various sources?

Acquisition: The learner becomes able to perform a skill accurately for the first time

Fluency: The learner becomes able to perform the new skill fluently as well as accurately

Maintenance: Accuracy and fluency are maintained even in the absence of periods of direct teaching of the skill

Generalisation: Learners become able to apply the skill across different contexts

Adaptation: Learners are able to make novel adaptations to the skill in order to solve new problems


Haring, N.G. and Eaton, M.D., "Systematic instructional procedures: an instructional hierarchy" in N.G. Haring et al, eds, The Fourth R: research in the classroom (C.E. Merrill Publishing, 1978).

Kreber, C. "An Analysis of Two Models of Reflection and their Implications for Educational Development", International Journal for Academic Development, 91 (2004), 29-49.


- Cliffs Notes, the oldest study guide publisher, offers texts on a range of subjects.


- SparkNotes, owned by Barnes and Noble, publishes hundreds of study guides on an eclectic range of subjects.


- Shmoop is a relative newcomer that not only provides bog-standard guides to Shakespearean classics but also tackles trendier subjects, such as Lady Gaga's song lyrics and Stieg Larsson's thrillers.


- GradeSaver offers a bank of ready-made essays written, the site claims, by top academics and pupils. While it's aimed primarily at the American market, there is no doubt that UK pupils use its vast essay bank.


- In the UK, York Notes and Letts Revision guides dominate the market. York Notes, which used to aim its books at pupils, has expanded to include help for undergraduates and teachers.


- Letts Revision guides are thankfully more teacher-friendly than they used to be, and they even run a Freedom To Teach blog.


- Meanwhile, a smaller publisher, Coordination Group Publications, is making a valuable contribution of its own with its cheaper and livelier guides that are peppered with cartoons, "yoof speak" and jokes. They send schools free inspection copies and offer discounts to institutions buying their books in bulk.



Teachers are possibly best placed to write their own study guides because they know what their target audience is like and they can trial the materials in the classroom. Here are my tips for creating a good study guide:

Tailor it to a specific audience, such as pupils taking GCSEs, but bear in mind that syllabi change so choose topics that always come up.

Check out the opposition. Getting pupils to evaluate existing study guides is a great classroom task.

Base the structure of your guide around learning outcomes. Ask yourself: "What do pupils really need to learn for this topic?"

Learn to condense your information into a readable form.

Provide plenty of learning activities that can be self-assessed: quizzes and word searches work well.

Try to set out information in different ways: spider diagrams, comparison charts, timelines, visual diagrams and concept cards can all add variety and illuminate difficult concepts.

Set up a blog, post your guide on the TES website and listen to feedback. Think about refining it and publishing as an e-book.

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