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We could all use a little guidance

There is a plethora of study guides out there - but do they encourage in-depth learning and should you use them? Francis Gilbert reports

There is a plethora of study guides out there - but do they encourage in-depth learning and should you use them? Francis Gilbert reports

One of the biggest growth areas in the education industry is study guides - not textbooks for use by teachers in the classroom, but books for pupils to work through independently, usually to prepare for exams.

Research by Carl Fisher of California State University uncovered a thriving industry. Major publishers 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 books (see panel below).

Cliffs Notes now publishes a vast array of English literature study guides, while GradeSaver, in addition to study guides, has thousands of essays for sale.

But why do so many teachers use these guides? Should they? And how do you choose the most relevant and useful ones?

The humble study guide can work well in the classroom - particularly where pupils are disruptive - because it is set up for independent learning. Pupils can work at their own pace, completing the relevant tasks, and then check the answers at the back. When I was an anxious young educator, it was heaven. The pupils merrily got on with the work, marked it themselves and I could wander around the class, cajoling and assisting.

The study guides did not, however, 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 beyond what they had parroted.

Norris Haring and Marie Eaton's "five stages of instruction and learning" (1978) helps explain why using study guides can be counterproductive:

- 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.

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 learning, while many of the more able pupils progressed through the first two stages but not the vital second two. My pupils never learned to generalise and adapt their skills.

Study guides can 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 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. Many study guides provide the essential kit for a pupil to get at least a C.

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

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 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.

I have begun to reflect more critically on the use of study guides and taken what Kreber would call a more "emancipatory" approach: "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 study guides worked best for me. I have encouraged a more critical approach from 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 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.

"After doing some research, I realised that there was a real need for guides that were accessible and written by experts," he says. "Using my design experience from (editing) 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."

He says 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 provide good activities for the "maintenance" phase of learning, but can they deal with the other phases?

Checking that pupils have acquired the relevant skills is imperative. Getting them to interview each other in groups can help. 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. They could compare study guides with textbooks or even your own teaching of a topic. They could then 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 to the class, so you can 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, and;

- videoed myself explaining topics and uploaded the videos to YouTube;

- made podcasts, and set up WordPress blogs on key topics I study with my classes. The WordPress blogging sites are particularly good for collating all the material from the web.

I have had varying degrees of success, 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.


- 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 provides guides covering Shakespearean classics to 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, 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 more teacher-friendly than they used to be, and they even run a Freedom To Teach blog,

- Coordination Group Publications produces 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,


- Is it by a recognised expert on the topic?

- Are the learning outcomes clear?

- Does it encourage rote learning or independent thought?

- Is it properly referenced with links to relevant experts?


- 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.


- Tailor it to a specific audience, such as pupils taking GCSEs, but syllabuses change, so choose topics that always come up.

- Check out the opposition, getting pupils to evaluate existing study guides in class.

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

- Condense your information into a readable form.

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

- Set out information in different ways: spider diagrams, comparison charts, timelines, etc

- 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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