What we know: Students as learners: Learning is constrained by study skills

The ‘What we know’ theories are going to be published here as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks but are also available now collected as a free eBook from the OCSLD shop, where there are now four titles available. Our new book, Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning is available in paperback and kindle formats

Learning is constrained by study skills

What do we know?

Irrespective of other contextual factors such as interest and motivation or ability (knowledge and skills) in the discipline, students’ ability to learn is constrained by their study skills.  The most fundamental study skill is arguably literacy and this is especially evident when students are working in a second or third language, but the skills required for academic writing, for example, may be a challenge for many native speakers too.  Other essential skills would typically include: academic writing, numeracy, listening, note-taking, time management, IT skills, information literacy and research skills.

The other thing that is clear from the literature is that discrete, ‘bolt-on’ study skills courses intended to address any deficits in these areas are not very effective.  Students are likely to lack motivation for them and transferability of skills learnt in this context to their mainstream study is likely to be limited.


Implications for improving student learning

Potential gaps or weaknesses in the students’ study skills should be addressed through targeted skills development within the mainstream curriculum.  Ideally, the teachers on a programme should get together and audit the skills required in their discipline and identify the units or modules in the programme, especially in the first year, where these skills will specifically be addressed and assessed – at least in terms of explicit feedback, if not necessarily in terms of marks.  Where that is not possible, individual teachers should at least not take for granted that all students are sufficiently skilled in studying and should be prepared to readily offer support and guidance, as well as development opportunities.  And these opportunities can be quite modest – for example, swapping notes and comparing those with the student next to you could be used as both a brief break in a lecture, and a useful way of enabling students to develop their note-taking skills.

Further reading

Gibbs, G (1981) Teaching students to learn: a student-centred approach, Milton Keynes: Open University

Fallows, S. & Steven, C. (Eds) (2000) Integrating key skills in Higher Education: employability, transferable skills and learning for life, London: Routledge



About the author

Chris Rust

Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, Oxford Brookes University. Before retiring in September, 2014, after over 25 years at Brookes, Chris had been Associate Dean (Academic Policy). Previously, for ten years, he was Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), and Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate. Between 2005 – 2010 he was also a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

In OCSLD, with thirteen colleagues, he helped to provide both staff and educational development support to the University’s academic Faculties and support Directorates for 23 years. For six years he was Course Leader for the University’s initial training course for new teaching staff.

He achieved a PhD by publication in 2003 and became a professor in March, 2010.

He has researched and published on a range of issues including:

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE
  • the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • ways of diversifying assessment
  • improving student performance through engagement in the marking process
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development.

Mostly he has focused on researching and writing about assessment, including:  improving student learning through active engagement with assessment feedback, and the significance of both explicit articulation and socialisation processes in improving students’ understanding of assessment requirements and assessment feedback.

He is also interested in the design, development and use of social learning space in universities, as well as the development of research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, including its potential effect on university organization.

In the 90s he contributed to the design and delivery of a national programme of staff development in higher education on the issue of teaching more students and over the years has run numerous workshops around the country and internationally on a range of issues including teaching large classes, developing assessment strategies, and engaging students with assessment and feedback.

Most recently he has been involved in a research project into the effectiveness of the external examiner system and how it might be improved

He has been a Fellow of the RSA, a Senior Fellow of SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and was one of the first fourteen Senior Fellows of the UK Higher Education Academy, for whom he was also an accreditor.

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