Study Skills vs Study Competence

Trust your students to know about and be curious about their discipline.

I recently read a new take on an old problem in a blog written by my friend and former colleague, Nick Pilcher, and his co-author Kendall Richards. They deconstruct the generic concept of study skills, a label used by many but understood by few. Nick and Kendall call study skills a Tinkerbell concept: ‘a nostrum that people believe in as providing a magic cure for all ‘student ills’ (sic) but which only exists if people believe in it’. They argue that ‘study skills’ in general don’t exist because each discipline requires specific skills. It’s not study skills you need to be able to write well in a discipline but subject knowledge and the guidance of subject lecturers.

Study Skills – like Tinkerbell – only exist if you believe in them.

The typical approach to developing  ‘study skills’ is through texts – discipline-specific if possible – but when Nick and Kendall asked lecturer participants in research focus groups what English language their students needed to succeed they got a surprising reply: it wasn’t necessarily English the students needed but visual (design) or emotional (nursing) or mathematical (engineering) abilities. However, Nick and Kendall discovered that by providing a physical object – in their case a teapot – for their focus group participants to describe and discuss, they gained access to a rich seam of language, identity and thought. They had provided a context within which the subject lecturers could produce the language of their discipline. Their conclusion is that rather than providing generic advice, e.g. telling students about essay writing or time management, students should be supported to perform within their discipline. Kendall and Nick routinely use physical items to generate discipline-specific writing in their academic support classes. In other words, they trust their students to know enough about their discipline to start writing about it.

This distinction between telling students how to study and getting them to demonstrate effective study performance is crucial. Sue Argent wrote about this distinction – between study skills (telling) and study competence (performing) –  in EAP Essentials (2018: pp. 283 – 7), drawing on ideas presented by Mary and Alan Waters (1995: pp. 1 – 2). Sue gave examples of time management, note-taking and referencing to clarify the elements of study competence.

  • The most effective time managers are not those who plan how to spend time (study skills) but who recognize when they have used their time effectively (study competence).
  • The most effective note-taking strategies are not those which employ a teachable set of symbols and abbreviations (study skills) but those which take into account the purpose and context for note-taking in order to experiment with and evaluate different strategies.
  • Time is less well spent searching for and correcting errors in bibliographic reference lists (study skills) compared to researching the referencing conventions of specific disciplines or learning how to use referencing software such as Endnote.

Sue then listed the elements of a framework for study competence grouped into three dimensions (p. 286). I’ve reconfigured these slightly to use with students by asking them if they are Triple A students (analogous to triple A investments, which are deemed to carry the lowest risk.)

  • Active: doing things for yourself and not waiting for a teacher to tell you what to do.
  • Adventurous: taking risks and not being afraid to try new things or leave your comfort zone; recognizing that making mistakes is important because you can learn from these.
  • Aware: thinking about how you learn and the best way to complete tasks.

The main point is to trust students to know about and be curious about their subject disciplines. Even on International Foundation Programmes, students do not arrive with nothing in their heads. They have studied successfully at secondary level in order to gain entry to higher education and for the most part are looking forward to extending their subject knowledge further. By offering opportunities for them to become autonomous Triple A students and to develop study competence within their subject area, EAP specialists can give students the confidence to challenge their subject lecturers and articulate critical questions about the content of their courses and the task requirements for their assignments.

Waters, M. & Waters, A. (1995). Study tasks in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

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