Teaching Students Their Job
Schools Often Overlook the Need to Put Study
Skills in the Curriculum
by Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, January 21, 2003
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Of all the teachers in all the years that eighth-grader Katy
Hume has been in school, she said that just one, in sixth
grade, drummed into her the study skills that help her learn:
how to take and organize notes.
This year, she said, her public school teachers in Princeton,
N.J., simply hand out review sheets and "then they get mad at
us when we don't know how to study."
Students not knowing how to study -- at all grade levels -- is
a problem that increasingly worries educators, who say crowded
curriculums and a focus on high-stakes standardized tests have
robbed many teachers of time to help students develop solid
And while parents often try to help, many don't have enough
time -- or don't know how.
"That's why I teach a lot of study skills," said Janise Mead,
a sixth-grade reading teacher at Backus Middle School in
Northwest Washington. "Following directions is a biggie. Kids
don't read and follow directions. Then I teach them how to use
the dictionary, the Internet, read maps and charts, the whole
gamut. They haven't learned it before."
Some K-12 schools try to reinforce study skills, either by
offering units that teach techniques such as time management
and how to take notes, or by integrating those lessons into
core subjects. During a lesson on photosynthesis, for example,
a teacher might show students how to create a homework
environment with few distractions.
But, several educators said, many teachers confuse test-taking
skills -- how to decide on the best multiple-choice answer or
whether to read the entire test first -- with skills that help
"It's good to be able to know how to pass a test," said
Dorothy Rich, creator of MegaSkills, a District-based program
to build student achievement that is used in thousands of U.S.
schools and homes. "I'm all for that. But the big issue in
studying is to turn yourself into a student and be curious and
want to keep on learning."
Studying is a highly personal process, and many students say
their methods mesh with their own learning styles.
Shameka Lloyd, a graduate student at American University, said
she still uses study habits that seem well-suited for
"When reading textbooks, I make notations and marks directly
in the book," she said. "I use different colored highlighters
to draw my attention to things. When scanning the text again,
it is easier to locate quotations and other useful
information. Good old flashcards are also useful."
Amber Krier, 18, a freshman at Arizona State University, said
she taught herself to make up and take practice tests that
asked factual and analytical questions. "To get all the facts
down and to really understand them, I find it is best to ask
'how?' and 'why?' for everything," she said.
Educators say children can be introduced to basic study skills
as early as first grade, though it is in late elementary
school or early middle school when many are introduced to
note-taking, goal-setting and ways to monitor their progress.
The Montgomery County public school system, for example,
incorporates study skills into its middle school curriculum as
part of a rotation of subjects, said spokesman Brian Porter.
Deb Van Dalen, a sixth-grade teacher in Hortonville, Wis.,
said she tries to train students to use assignment books as an
effective tool to organize themselves.
"We begin the year by explaining the purpose, demonstrating
effective abbreviations and checking to make sure each student
has written in each assignment completely," she said.
"Students are encouraged to include other activities and
appointments -- piano lessons, baby-sitting job, baseball
game, et cetera. This helps them see that maybe it's not a
good idea to save that math assignment for later at home and
just zone out during study time."
Michael Kenny, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in
Bethesda, said he can't recall any teacher making a great
effort to teach him how to study until this year. "In the
past, my teachers have usually given vague instructions on how
to study," he said. "They just tell you to 'go home and read
your book, and if you want, take notes on what you read.' "
Now, his teacher in Modern World History, Susan Olden-Stahl,
asks students to discuss what they learned from her lesson at
the end of class, asks them to write down the five most
important concepts and emphasizes rewriting class notes to
reinforce the lesson -- all learning tools that Kenny said he
Many top students get through high school by being inherently
bright, but they are in for a rude awakening.
Though college professors assume students know how to study
when they arrive, many don't. Even at the most selective
colleges and universities, "it's a rare [incoming] student who
has been exposed to specific study/learning skills," said Carl
Thum, director of the Academic Skills Center at Dartmouth
"The biggest challenge for most first-year students is time
management," Thum said. "Most haven't had to make their own
choices about their time. As far as learning skills, most
first-year students don't have a system for taking notes, and
their reading skills are crude and time-consuming."
As a result, many colleges and universities offer newcomers
seminars, courses and tip sheets on how to study.
Dartmouth goes so far as to rate places to study: "The Baker
Stacks are infamous for their austerity," says a university
tip sheet. "Hidden away among musty-smelling books, you can't
fail to concentrate. Park yourself at a carrel and get to
work. Once you have hiked to the ninth floor you won't be
tempted to run any errands or see what flavor frozen yogurt
they're serving in food court."
Ultimately, experts say, the key to studying anything is
wanting to do it.
Jane Munt, who heads the study skills department at Rochester
Institute of Technology, said efforts to teach such skills to
college students who have never known academic failure
"generally meets with resistance" or a lack of interest.
Samuel R. John, 18, a University of Maryland Baltimore County
student, said he probably would have resisted tutoring in
study skills. "The most effective catalyst for academic
success -- for me, anyway -- has been motivation," he said.