Higher Education: The first lesson: how to learn: Many students need courses in essay-writing and exam skills, says Stephen Pritchard

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The Independent Online
With more people than ever in higher education, universities are faced with students from increasingly varied educational backgrounds, and less favourable staff-to-student ratios. Larger classes often mean less personal contact between students and tutors, yet the diverse intake means that a lecturer can no longer assume that all students will have the same basic knowledge or skills: essay-writing, note-taking and the ability to discuss a text critically, for instance. As a result, universities face demands from students and staff alike for a more structured approach to teaching these skills. .

Often, this demand is met by a combination of centrally provided workshops in core skills and faculty or department-based instruction in methods for specific courses. Sometimes study skills are incorporated into the body of the course; at Sunderland University, study skills form a credited module under the credit accumulation and transfer scheme (Cats).

Manchester University provides drop- in sessions for study skills, organised centrally, as well as subject-based training. 'We offer more study skills courses because students come with much more diverse backgrounds,' says Professor Joan Walsh, the pro vice-chancellor. 'The sixth-form experience is no longer as broad because of the need to focus on getting good grades. Schools are anxious to get people into university.'

The job market has also been an influence, she says. 'Students are helped to become more independent during the first year. This is linked to what employers expect. They want graduates who can put ideas together. My own view is that you must give students a lot of support in the first year, but after that they should find their own feet. They have to learn to learn for themselves.'

Lancaster University has run a central Effective Learning Programme since 1991. A series of workshops can be attended without prior booking; this means that students don't have to give their names, so their participation can be kept confidential if they wish. The workshops are supported by written guides available from the library.

'We started with how to read a text critically, how to improve report- and essay-writing, and exam techniques and revision,' explains Dr Gordon Clark, the programme's co-ordinator. 'In the past couple of years we have brought in all aspects that affect study; for example, making an oral presentation, stress management, and issues such as time management, especially with the switch to more coursework.

'There is a debate about whether study skills training is best done within departments,' Dr Clark adds. 'Subjects as diverse as history or physics will have different skills needs. The programme complements departmental training, which is being taken much more seriously. But operating a more general level of study skills and having anonymity means that people with problems in their departments can come to us.'

During the last academic year at Lancaster about 350 students attended a workshop, out of 5,500 undergraduates, but attendance is rising. 'One thing we've noticed is the very great increase in class size,' says Dr Clark. 'It is more difficult to give the former level of attention. That suggests that support methods are important.'

When study skills were introduced at Lancaster, they were aimed at students who had difficulties with their work. But a survey of staff found support for a programme that would be open to everyone. 'I think there has always been a demand for these programmes,' says Dr Clark. 'A lot of students learnt the hard way, by making mistakes, and would have learnt more quickly had more support been available.'

This view is supported by students at South Bank University in London, where mature students are in the majority. Saira Mirza is studying part-time for a BSc in social science. Her class consists mainly of mature students. 'When we started, a lot of us had not studied for years,' she says. 'There was nowhere we could go to get advice, so we asked for more help and tuition. The issue of essay-writing came up again in the fourth year. Study skills do come gradually throughout the course, but I would have preferred it to be at the beginning.'

Andrew Mooney, a second-year business studies student, is less sure. 'A university can spoon-feed you,' he explains. 'You can't expect everything to be done for you. They must provide a support mechanism, but it is up to you to strike up a rapport with staff.'

Sunderland University's Effective Learning Programme covers six units, which, taken together, give one Cats module worth 20 credits at Level One. This represents a substantial commitment by students; the university estimates the course will take 70 to 100 learner hours to complete.

The units can be taken as an elective course or used for self-study; some tutors have incorporated parts of the programme into their courses. The first unit, 'Becoming a Student', covers everything from essay-writing to eating habits. 'That's why it's called the Effective Learning Programme,' explains Helen Milner, of the university's Learning Development Services unit. 'It helps students to adjust to living and learning at university. Study skills is only part - it also promotes life skills.'

Ms Milner feels that study skills can be offered centrally if done so with

care. 'There is sufficient common ground to have a central programme,' she says. 'But our modules are being used within the schools, so you will be taught by a tutor who understands your needs.'

Students themselves see that study skills have a value beyond their use at university. According to Andrew Mooney from South Bank: 'Your degree subject is not that important unless you are a specialist. But you will always need personal skills and confidence, even if it is only to make a speech as Best Man.'

(Photograph omitted)