How to Prepare Your Students with University Study Skills

Becky Kleanthous  · Jun 9th 2021

Even the leap from GCSEs and Nationals to A Levels and Highers can seem like a steep ascension to many learners, so it’s no surprise that going on to higher education can be an even sharper shock to the system.


Learning practices at university are typically much more demanding than school or college, so try to prepare your students by acclimatising them gently, introducing some of the necessary skills ahead of time (and no, that doesn’t involve downing shots or wriggling out of the washing up). With a plethora of inevitable challenges - homesickness, money management, social navigation - this will lighten the load of the academic pressure, at least.

And the reason for the huge bridge to cross between college and university? The individual accountability of teachers for their students’ results is, as you know, a powerful influence on the way we teach. It’s hard not to spoon-feed complacent students, repeating or spelling out instructions, chasing them for deadlines and generally hand-holding throughout the hurdles of further education.

But there will be very little hand-holding at university (between the staff and students, at least), so it makes sense to help your youngsters develop as much independence as possible. So, what skills will they need for university, and how can you help them to develop those qualities within your own teaching?

Keep to the brief

Get in the habit of setting out very clear and specific guidelines for tasks, and setting high expectations for your students to follow them. When you inevitably come up against the requests of, “Miss, what’s that homework again, because my sheet went through the washing machine / industrial shredder / labrador’s colon?” politely but firmly remind students where they can find the information (the whiteboard? Their journals? The online VLE?) Be consistent with where you stockpile assignment guidelines and they will soon enough get in the habit of checking without automatically asking you to cut corners for them.

The same applies if they want to confirm details: if someone genuinely needs extra help or explanation, that’s one matter, but if it’s a case of not having read the document properly to identify the question or the word-count, then once again, just redirect them to read the briefing.

Make a note

Taking notes is becoming a dying art. The ease with which we can unthinkingly record data using digital equipment means that today’s students simply haven’t had much practice in making notes. Yes, there will often (but not always) be lecture notes or slides available to them, but even then, they will need to jot down additional ideas when lecturers elaborate upon the basic slides.

Try a few quick challenges dotted throughout the year to refresh these skills: talk for five minutes on a topic in your subject (or some ridiculous Wikipedia page - Badgers in the 16th Century?) and hold a competition to see who can write up the information in the closest detail to the original. Get them to use mind maps, key words and diagrams to note the important snippets in real-time, then go back and build on it afterwards, with the detail still fresh in their minds.

The captain of their own ship

Find ways to reward or celebrate students’ self-direction. That could mean carrying out some research without instruction, or using their initiative to solve a problem - instead of simply chucking it back to you to handle. Whatever form it takes, it’s good, so be sure to recognise and encourage it at every opportunity.

Nose in a book

Think back to your own undergrad days. Aside from the romantic liaisons, outrageous fashions and self-conscious rebellions, what was the main demand of your course? There’s not a degree out there that doesn’t require students to carry out a great deal of independent discovery. Research is a skill to be taught, not something to just jump into like a ball-pit and hope for the best (we all know what horrors lurk at the bottom of ball-pits, and the same goes for unreliable sources).

Sources are not all created equal, especially in the era of Google, when ‘publishing’ is in the hands of literally anyone with internet access. Begin by emphasising how important it is to be discerning in selecting sources: give out a list of reputable websites in your subject field, as well as well-known authors or journals to look for on Google Scholar.

Hold at least one lesson based in the library. Create a quiz to make it fun and competitive, and make sure that to find the answers, students need to be familiar with all the different ways they can use the library, and the different areas of books.

Be creative with research opportunities. A Radio 4 documentary, a Newsnight interview, or a survey conducted by students on campus can all add variety and help enrich their ideas and evaluations.

When you need to reinforce the concept of research, use the analogy of a courtroom: “Yes, you may well have something interesting or true to say, but unless you can back it up, it’s worth nothing here.”

Credit where credit’s due

Obviously, when it comes to research, it’s essential to reference appropriately. It’s not only the right thing to do in terms of crediting the author’s work, but forgetting to (or intentionally avoiding) crediting someone’s work is plagiarism, which is a very serious offence, and could bring about the early demise of a student’s university studies.

So, pick a referencing style for your lessons and stick to it. Keep the guidelines displayed in your classroom, stuck into exercise books and visible on the VLE. At this stage, their formatting doesn’t have to be perfect, but the more familiar it becomes, the greater a help it will be in the next stage of studying.

Right on time

Teachers have many natural foes, but there is one greater than any other. Deadlines are our own personal nemesis, always creeping round the corner, trying to clobber us while we’re distracted by another deadline, swinging from the ceiling like a spider on a thread. And soon enough, your class will too be inducted into this miserable existence challenging new lifestyle, and will need to know how to karate chop a deadline at 20 paces. So don your black belt, and make some convincing noises about time management, calendars and daily time quotas.

Pretend that you always write down deadline dates to look a week earlier than they really are, to safely allow yourself that desperate margin of error at the end. Don’t tell them about the time that to deliver your dissertation, you ran through the night, sweating and weeping, through 15 miles of thorny bracken. “Deadlines?” you’ll say with a shrug. “Yep, they’re a pain, but just buy a good academic planner!”

How do you sleep at night?

It’s all write

Just as Larkin wrote that all parents have been, “fucked up in their turn, by fools in old-style hats and coats”, he could just as easily have been referring to the bad habits instilled into students by previous teachers. “Who taught you to write a conclusion?” you might scream, as you spit PG Tips all over that mangled Chernobyl assignment. Who, indeed? Not you, that’s for sure. So do the lecturers of tomorrow a favour and iron out a few of those dodgy wrinkles now, if you can.

Strike 1:
Students should be able to write in a formal register when the task demands it (Standard English, without slang or colloquial language), and in concise sentences. There’s no rations on full-stops, so urge students to treat themselves to as many as they need; those long, winding sentences that you could knit a scarf with are just a place to lose ideas, rather than have them stand out.

Strike 2:
Well-meaning students might aspire towards essays packed with sophisticated vocabulary, but it should always be appropriate to the task. Subject-specific terminology is necessary, of course, but over-frilly word choices in place of clear, simple language is just incommodious obfuscation. Sorry, er - it’s confusing, messy and awkward.

Strike 3:
When I was at university, one of my lecturers would tear her hair out over our persistently terrible introductions. “It’s an academic essay, not a mystery novel,” she would gasp in fury, her eyes piercing our very souls. “You can outline your findings; it’s not going to ruin the plot for me!” Spoiler alert: this lack of signposting is something we can address in school and college when we teach essay structures and these aren’t just exclusive to university study skills!

With teaching workloads through the roof, it can be tempting to focus only on the short-term goals of the here and now, but study skills aren’t just preparation for the future, they’re also an investment for today. Any student will benefit from these principles, and their work is sure to shine when they can direct their own learning, carry out meaningful research and communicate ideas clearly in writing. And you’ll even get a warm glow from the knowledge that no professor will be choking on their coffee over the way you’ve taught your prodigies.

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