Thursday, June 21, 2007


Study Skills Courses?

Apparently, a new study suggests that 'study skills' courses for college freshmen improves eventual academic success rates.

This bothers me to no end.

Proprietary U required a study skills course of all matriculated students. Some students put it off until the semester before graduation, then used their high GPAs to argue that they obviously didn't need the class. Although I was tasked with enforcing the rule, I couldn't help but agree with the students. (This was especially true of adult students, many of whom had children at home. They were juggling full-time work, part-time study, and parenthood, and doing it all fairly well, and here I was telling them that they won't graduate because they didn't complete a non-credit requirement that teaches note-taking and time management?) That just never seemed right.

It was tough to convince a very skeptical, very utilitarian student population that charging tuition for a course that didn't count towards graduation was anything other than a scam. If they managed to get most of the way through their degree program and do it in style, the sell was even tougher.

I don't deny for a minute that some students arrive relatively clueless, and that some students may benefit from some basic life management skills. As CCPhysicist put it in the comments to the IHE piece,

Trust me, these kids need help with managing their time, their money, taking notes, even with going to class the next day. In my opinion, the biggest challenge they face is simply comprehending that they were lied to in high school about what level math or English they were passing and how much of it they were learning, not to mention whether passing the HS grad exam a year or three ago means they are ready for college algebra or English.

That's true for some, but I hesitate to paint with such a broad brush. As tempting as it is to paint the issue as one of “are you willing to do what needs to be done, or are you a starchy academic elitist who doesn't care about the students?,” the fact is that some students have these needs, and some don't. And to require those that don't to endure a patronizing and infantilizing course – for credits that don't transfer and don't count towards graduation, but for which we charge tuition anyway – is insulting and unproductive.

Where I can see a course like this making some degree of sense is with students who have already been identified as having unusually high risk of failure – those with multiple developmental needs (say, both remedial English and remedial math), or those with certain kinds of learning disabilities, or those who have flunked out of college before and are back on a probationary basis. In those cases, there's at least some reason to think that there may be a “rules of the game” deficit. But to assume that every cc student is deficient – after all, why are they here in the first place? -- is insulting, counterproductive, and false. Some students attend cc's because of skills deficits, but many attend for the low tuition, geographic convenience (that is, living at home), and quality of programs. (We have degrees in certain occupational fields that the local four-year schools simply don't have. If that's the degree you want, we're often the only game in town. Some of those students are quite good.)

I think of these as sort of like 'defensive driving' courses. Suppose someone does a study that shows that defensive driving courses reduce accidents. Should we require completion of a course as a condition of everybody's license renewal every four years? I'd have to say 'no,' and not because I'm a fan of traffic accidents. It's just an undue burden on people who've shown that they're quite capable as it is, thank you very much. I have no issue with requiring the Lindsay Lohans or Billy Joels of the world to take courses like these, but to generalize to everybody just strikes me as excessive.

I've written before on the three kinds of 'A' students – the brilliant, the dutiful, and the manaical. Study skills courses assume that the dutiful way is the right way, and that other approaches are fundamentally lesser. To me, the purpose of higher education isn't to teach how to outline your notes. (In my experience, the folks who are the best at 'outlines' are almost always the shallowest thinkers. PowerPoint is the triumph of outlining.) It's taking the “teach you how to think” motto entirely too literally. I've always interpreted “teach you how to think” as meaning “we challenge you, and you figure out how to answer the challenge.” Over time, through answering enough challenges, you figure out a method that works for you. Different people answer the challenge in different ways, and that's good – the diversity of styles leads to a wider range of strengths. If we establish a single style as The One True Faith, we're penalizing perfectly capable people who come at things in ways we haven't thought of yet.

In a way, I'm trying to defend the academic freedom of students. Students bring different backgrounds, strengths, gaps, and attention levels. Sometimes they learn by failing, as heretical as that is to admit. Sometimes they surprise themselves by discovering talents or tastes they didn't know they had. I want them to be able to use the approaches they develop for themselves, even at the cost of some of them failing. Our K-12 system worships the standardized, step-by-step approach to student work, which is why it sucks. Our higher ed system, which is far better than our K-12 system on a world scale, is founded on a certain kind of freedom – including the freedom to fail – and I suspect that's part of the reason it's good. Let's not model higher ed after K-12. If anything, it should be the other way around.

At my institution, we have major problems with retention, largely due to the fact that 70% of our students need remediation and many of those wash out in their first year. We now require a study skills course. But I worry a great deal about the infantilization issue. When these students get jobs, there won't be a "work 101" course to prep them for their careers nor will someone force them to learn what they need to learn to be successful in the workplace. I also wonder if we're not cheating these students out of the sense of accomplishment that comes from figuring out something for yourself.

Making the course a requirement for all students was sold on the basis that most of our students are the first in their family to go to college. But this assumes a lack of initiative in that group that I'm not comfortable with that. Our processes are fairly transparent and it's not that hard to pick up a catalog, read through it and figure out how the game is played. Learning how to do that is a skill students need to learn.
I don't understand how you can organize an entire semester long course around an issue so vacuous as study skills. As a day long workshop as part of student orientation? Maybe. But for a whole semester? What skills can you teach about studying that requires a semester of classes? Seems like excess. Especially since those who are likely to drop out or fail are not likely to really benefit from such a course in the first place - their problem is simply that they are not ready for college and skip class, or that something came up in their lives that gets in the way of them going to class (work, pregnancy). If they're not likely to attend regular classes, they're not likely to attend a silly study skills class!
Our success class is very well organized. It includes not only study skills but goal-setting, a tour of the campus and meet/greet with various campus personnel, time management, how to use the Internet and other relevant skills. It absolutely takes an entire semester. if they test into remedial classes they MUST take it to graduate (that's about 60% of our students). I think it should be required of all dual-enrollment students. These 14-15 yr old babes in the woods have absolutely no clue what it means to be a college student. Requiring such a course for everyone is not a bad thing. It's certainly as relevant or more than college algebra (which all AA students must pass to graduate from here).
So many of my students could use a course like that, but since it isn't required, they don't sign up for it.
Here at Way Up North CC, two armies clash every semester: those who want a mandatory study skills course and those who don't.

What strikes me coming from Job Corps, where I worked with a lot of people who really were missing important skills and attitudes, is that our cc mix of students are success stories already. As an institution we make noise about student success, as if it were something problematic our students know little about....

That simply isn't true. They all have GEDs or hs diplomas. They all have something going for them.

Perhaps they need remedial work. Perhaps their heads are in the wrong place to be in school at this point in their lives--but taking a course with hints about note-taking and so on is not going to affect retention or grades appreciably. It's not a question of 'knowing' study skills--anyone can take a multiple-choice test in study skills and ace it. It's a question of living what you know--as what isn't?
You know, I don't really understand being bothered by a study that shows that a certain sort of course has positive effects. While I can understand resistance to making such a course mandatory (and at my institution, it's not - though freshmen advisers strongly encourage students to take it, and many of them do), what's the harm in doing everything we can to help students make the transition into college, particularly if students are in the first generation in their families to attend (as the vast majority of my students, and I'd imagine many of yours too Dean Dad, are)?

My freshmen writing course in the fall is linked to just such a course, as well as to a course in another discipline, and in the "skills" course students will also be working on things like how to get involved in community service, etc., in addition to how to study for an exam. I don't see why we have to think of such courses as infantilizing - I think that they have the potential to offer a space to give students guidance about stuff that might not fit into traditional disciplines or traditional college classroom settings.
I think Dr. Crazy is on the right track. We need to get away from this idea that the class is a ridiculously easy course on "note taking" or "test taking." Many of my students here are juggling work, family, health, financial and other issues. Just being in a supportive environment where you learn valuable life skills can be invaluable to them. The average student age here is 29. Many of them are going back to school and they are terrified. Many need remediation in math so they also take the success class and it works wonders for them. Why not require it for all students? Dean Dad's logic that "it probably won't help anyway" makes no sense -- it can't HURT, can it?
Last year, I designed and taught a skills-based course for upper-level undergraduates. My goal was to teach them how to discuss their degree/field meaningfully, and how to move forward in the field. It covered everything from "What is a CV versus a resume?" to "How to find, read and analyze research articles?" to "How do I construct and write a research proposal" to "How to I give a research presentation and poster?". Thus, it covered quite a range of what I would consider basic college skills (clear writing, class participation, etc), but also advanced skills that would be expected of incoming graduate students. It was a hard class, and the students had to put in many extra hours.

The result? The class was made up of only highly motivated students to begin with, and all in their course evaluations put that the course should be required of all students in the department. However, half said it should be taken only by seniors who already are motivated to learn the material, and the other half said it should be taken by freshman so that they could benefit from the material/skills during the entire college experience.

My feeling as the instructor was that 1)skills-based courses and can be rigorous and not infantilizing; 2)a quarter wasn't long enough to cover all the topics I wanted; 3)I'm concerned that requiring the course of freshman would hit most of them too early, i.e., they wouldn't yet realize that they needed the information, and therefore wouldn't try nearly as hard as the advanced students (even if their ability is equivalent).
"Many of them are going back to school and they are terrified." This is a key point. A lot of adult students are reasonably successful with other aspects of their life, but they may not have been in a classroom (except maybe as a parent) for 10 or 20 years.

A very good friend of ours is attending my former institution (MFI CC), and came in pretty freaked out, honestly. He was about 20 years out of school, had been a goof-off in school, and worked a wide variety of jobs until a heart attack a few years ago.

We had to coax him a couple of times to go talk to somebody, and it helped, honestly, that when he started I was still working there and could explain things, check who he should talk to, etc.

He took the study skills class that MFI CC offers, and it wasn't the best thing since sliced bread, but having that early on helped him get into the swing of things. Plus it was a low-stress class that got him into the habit of going to class. :)

I'm really proud and impressed that he's now an enthusiastic student.

I don't know about the requirement part. It seems like a good idea, assuming that one might be able to "test out" of it (how?! dunno.), the problem being one of not getting any credits but still paying tuition.

Definitely a conundrum.
So why not simply require a study skills class for everyone and then waive the requirement for students who have demonstrated--because they're about to graduate with good grades--that they didn't need one?

When I graduated from college decades ago, passing a swimming class was required. Waivers were available, though: Dozens of us jumped in the pool, swam laps, and bobbed around for 10 or 15 minutes without touching the sides of the pool, and that was that.

At my campus in the remedial classes we see retention rates in the 60-70% range and success rates in the 40-50% range.

For the life of me I can't figure out what is going on in the minds of the students, but it looks to me like most of them fail out of sheer laziness. A major part of the grade in my remedial math classes is earned by using an online math tutorial program, and judging by the results I see each semester, many students just want to try and fake their way through the class.

I think a study skills class might be helpful to many of them, but at my campus such classes are all but owned by the counsellors, and so many of them seem to be unsuited to teaching such a class.

If a study skills class is intelligently designed, taught by someone demanding who is passionate about helping the students get something from the class, and properly targeted at those who choose to benefit from what is offered in the class, it could be a great thing. It's like a three-legged stool; if one of the factors is absent, the stool falls over.
I just got back Spring course evals for my 2 required non-Lit writing courses.

A majority of my students report only spending 1-3 hours per week on homework.

Several openly claim they never read the required textbook [which was blatantly obvious].

It was a writing course, and their writing SUCKED. "It's just a typo" was one eval comment.

They say I am a terrible teacher, yet from the evidence above, they were horrible students.

Most of these students lacked basic study skills. Many came to class and goofed off, didn't pay attention, couldn't apply classroom instruction to assignments. They did none of the prep work necessary to do well in the course.

I was left wondering if they were seriously deficient or it was just my course design. I am now convinced their laziness...or simple lack of understanding what is necessary to achieve that B they all wanted... contributed most to the classes' poor performance.

From my experience, college students seem to resent attempts to tech them study skills. Many of them bring their sense of entitlement to the college table and expect to be fed only what will sustain them [tell them how to get a job...even if they lack basic qualifications].

Yet, I once taught a course on writing a research paper and all of the better students confided in me they wished someone had taught them that stuff early in their educations.

I envy the profs at institutions where the students actually WANT to be educated. How does one motivate Sally Slug and Sam Slacker to care?

Some form of Study Skills course might be the best way. Isn't a lot of this already done at those places that have a year-long mandatory Freshmen seminar?
If, as some commenters suggest, it's so all-fired important to take a skills class, then why not make it a prereq for everything else so that they have to take it first semester? I know adults who don't have a clue about how to do research or study, and I know many teenagers who have been accessing databases at college libraries for years to find information not available at the hs library.
Seems to me a skills class should be strongly recommended and required for registration only when it's apparent that the student really needs it, i.e. is failing or barely passing classes but wants to continue enrolling.
As far as an "infantilizing" course in mere note-taking goes, I always tell students that when I write something on the board, they should copy it down. It's probably important, and I'm not merely exercising my right arm.

Next, they have to USE their notes, a concept which is apparently new to almost everyone. When I'm getting them started--baby steps!--on something like putting together a Works Cited page using the MLA format, I spend lots of time having them practice following a model.

"Oh, you told me I need to use quotes around the title of a newspaper article. How do you know?"

"Dude! That's how they do it in the model."

"And does the period go inside or outside the quotes?


"Right! How did you know that?"

"It's the way they do it in the book."

At the end of all this, there's always a perfect example of a source that they're using on the blackboard or computer overhead. It's always a simple example, too, one that's less than a line long.

"OK," I tell them. "Now all you've got to do is to copy this example when you turn in your paper." And I always feel that this exercise is infantile and patronizing.

So guess what always happens afterwards? If you said that more than half the class miscopied, you must be a freshman comp teacher.
Dean Dad's logic that "it probably won't help anyway" makes no sense -- it can't HURT, can it?

Of course it can! It's called opportunity costs.
Amen, Dean Dad!
Speaking as someone who teaches at a state school, requiring a "How to go to college" course of anyone who tests into remedial coursework seems like a no-brainer. I mean, we could just toss them into courses for which they patently lack the skills and enjoy watching them flounder and fail, but that seems a bit cruel. I mean, didn't we just have a post about how much nicer it was to teach in early summer precisely because the students attending had more developed versions of these skills?

The Myth: the secret, I have found, is to have the first midterm before the drop date. Saves me a great deal of whining later on, as the folks who aren't serious drop the course shortly after it's demonstrated that I have every intention of savaging the GPAs of the lazy.
If it was not clear in my IHE comment (I thought it was), our college only requires a "success" class if the student places into more than one "developmental" course. We do not require it of every student, although it is available to every student who wants to take it for elective credit. Your structure at Proprietary U was terrible. They should not have been allowed to enroll for the spring semester without taking it if you really meant to require it.

And, I will repeat here, we only started requiring the course when internal studies showed it could significantly improve retention of those underprepared students even when corrected for every factor mentioned in the IHE comments.

Except one. Walker commented Is it that the students gained more because someone “cared” as I am beginning to see. Very likely. These students discover someone cares, so they assume the rest of us do ... and become students who contact us in advance if they have to leave early or miss a class.
The second anonymous said: "many students just want to try and fake their way through the class."

They do this because it worked for them in high school.

I once blogged about one of the things that needs to be in orientation: You had to attend every day in HS, and your teachers had to pass you. The opposite is true in college.

The complaints from The Myth about non-students not reading the book, etc, fall in this same category.
Thank you ccphysicist for this: "You had to attend every day in HS, and your teachers had to pass you. The opposite is true in college."
As an elementary school teacher married to a college professor I often think about the differences between our situations. In K-12 education we are responsible for our students failures. That is not true in higher ed. As a result, many students don't know how to function without teachers bending over backwards to find ways to ensure that they learn the material. Maybe we are doing them a disservice (at least by high school), but it is not something we can control.
The question remains, how do we determine who will be successful independently in college and who needs more support?
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