Research on Study Skills and How to Teach Them
Study skills are often framed as the secret sauce in academic excellent-- but is that true? And if it is, how do you teach them? This post dives into what the research says on these questions!
Research to Practice: Study Skills
One of my biggest regrets from teaching is that I set my students up for success the next academic year, but not for life. One of my regrets is not teaching study skills. There are lots of great study skills programs out there. As I said, I never really used any– but I got curious a couple of years ago about what the research says on some of them.
Before I delve into what the research says, a note on research. The quote, “Lies, lies, and damn statistics,” pops into my head a lot when reading research articles. Just because a research article says it, that doesn’t mean it is true. I am a qualitative researcher. Most of the time I am not reading articles to find some universally applicable, amazing for everyone intervention because, let’s be real, my teaching is weird and my schools are unique and my students are unique. What I read for is called transferability. Does the intervention they are talking about sound like it could be useful? Is it worth trying with my students? Does it seem right for my context? I’ve got this note here because the research in this article is pretty mixed– some shows impact of the interventions and some does not, but it is still interesting to look at. So let’s dive in!
So what are study skills?
Study skills is one of those weird, broad terms that can mean anything… or nothing. Here are some of the components that researchers have included. Hassanbeigi and colleagues (2011) included time management, concentration, memory, study aids, note taking, test strategies, organization, and test anxiety in their definition. That is definitely a kitchen sink definition! Other definitions are even broader, encompassing everything students do to learn content.
In a really old article, Gettinger and Seibert (2002) gave a nice summary of some of the things that folks with good study skills tend to do. Students with stronger study skills tend to 1) manage their time well; 2) set goals for their learning; 3) monitor and change up their learning strategies when they are struggling to understand; 4) set aside time for studying; 5) stay focused when studying; and 6) see themselves as the “directors” of their own learning– aka are active learnings.
During reading, students with strong study skills might hunt for and attend to the most important information in the article, make an overview prior to reading, use their prior knowledge, take notes while reading, ask themselves questions in the margins, and actively monitor their own reading comprehension (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002, p.352).
As Gettinger and Seibert (2002) write, students need “(a) have a wide array of study strategies at their disposal, and [to] (b) know where, when, and how to use these strategies” (p.361).
Conversely, folks with weaker study skills are often disorganized in their learning, keep using ineffective learning strategies, and often miss that learning is an active process (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002). They often focus on rote memorization, not deep comprehension.
The answer to this question, broadly, is yes. Study skills matter. Stronger students tend to have them and students with lower levels of academic performance tend not to (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002; Hassanbeigi et al., 2011). Note that this is a different question than whether study skills instruction is helpful.
The answer to this seems to be maybe, it depends. First, teaching students study skills in isolation, aka in a dedicated class without specific content for them to try those skills out on, seems to be a mixed bag (Wingate, 2006). Some researchers have found that specific study skills classes are helpful for building academic self-confidence and college retention, while others have found them less helpful and others have found that the benefits vary for different groups of students (Wernersbach et al., 2014; Wilson et al., 2021; Wingate, 2006). What works a lot better seems to be teaching study skills in the context where it is needed in what is called an “embedded” approach (Wingate, 2006).
AVID, aka Advancement Via Individual Determination is a program that, according to their website, “AVID provides scaffolded support that educators and students need to encourage college and career readiness and success. AVID is pretty popular and is offered as a class at many high schools, middle schools, and even some elementary schools. According to their website, AVID definitely works. Researchers, however, have had more mixed findings. Some studies find significant differences between students in AVID and a comparison group of peers while other studies find little difference or that it varies by year or by which students you look at (Black et al., 201; Kolbe et al., 2018; Smith et al., 2014; Watt et al., 2006). It also varies in what you look at. Often, researchers look at college going rates, taking of advanced classes, high school graduation, or days absent to understand the impact of these types of programs (e.g., Kolbe et al., 2018). AVID might be super useful for students, but because many of these studies are at the big picture level, it is harder to tell how effective AVID is at, specifically, turning students with weaker study skills into students with stellar study skills. What there is some evidence on are strategies you can use during resource groups and push in times to build students’ study skills within the content areas where they need them.
- You can teach students mnemonic strategies like creating mental images of what they read (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002)
- Teach students time management strategies like “(a) complete difficult work at times when you are most alert and least distracted; (b) divide long assignments into shorter, manageable units; (c) vary the type of study tasks (e.g., intersperse reading with writing activities); and (d) be flexible in scheduling breaks and rescheduling study time if conflicts arise” (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002, p.356).
- Teach students to use concept maps and cognitive organizers that help them activate prior knowledge and connect new content to what they already know (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002)
- Help students learn to ask questions about what they are studying and get in the habit of trying to summarize the content (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002)
- Help build students’ metacognitive skills by working with them on asking questions like “‘Why am I studying this passage?’ ‘Do I understand the material I am studying?’ and ‘Should I reread or revise my study strategy?’” (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002, p.358).
In terms of how to teach them, some folks like a gradual release of responsibility type model where you start with modeling how and when to use the strategy, have students practice it, and gradually build their abilities to use it on their own (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002).
- Black, A., Little, C., McCoach, D., Purcell, J., & Siegle, D. (2008). Advancement via Individual Determination: Methods selection in conclusions about program effectiveness. The Journal of Educational Research, 102(2), 111-123.
- Gettinger, M., & Seibert, J. K. (2002). Contributions of study skills to academic competence. School psychology review, 31(3), 350-365.
- Hassanbeigi, A., Askari, J., Nakhjavani, M., Shirkhoda, S., Barzegar, K., Mozayyan, M. R., & Fallahzadeh, H. (2011). The relationship between study skills and academic performance of university students. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 30, 1416-1424.
- Kolbe, T., Kinsley, P., Feldman, R. C., & Goldrick-Rab, S. (2018). From the (academic) middle to the top: An evaluation of the AVID/TOPS college access program. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 23(4), 304-335.
- Smith, J., Elder, E., & Stevens, K. (2014). Evaluation of a college readiness program: Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID). Review of Higher Education & Self-Learning, 7(24), 23-60.
- Watt, K., Powell, C., Mendiola, I., Cossio, G. (2006). Schoolwide impact and AVID: How have selected Texas high schools addressed the new accountability measures? Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 11(1), 57-73.
- Wernersbach, B. M., Crowley, S. L., Bates, S. C., & Rosenthal, C. (2014). Study skills course impact on academic self-efficacy. Journal of Developmental Education, 14-33.
- Wilson, R., Joiner, K., & Abbasi, A. (2021). Improving students’ performance with time management skills. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 18(4), 16.
- Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with ‘study skills’. Teaching in higher education, 11(4), 457-469.