5 Top Tips To Help Build Academic Skills For First Years

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It can be a huge jump moving from secondary school to FE to HE: new environments to negotiate, new expectations to meet, and new skills required. This article presents five ideas you can adapt for building university-level study skills into existing first-year modules. 

1. Literature search instruction.

Today’s students have often gotten away with using Wikipaedia and other Web sites as references. Give them explicit examples of how these can be used as a gateway to finding acceptable academic references, and build in literature-search exercises using your library’s collection of books and journals.

Those working in FE, where libraries may not be well-resourced, may want to arrange for students to use a nearby university library or gain access to journal databases.

Make sure students know about access aids like the SCONUL card and British Library membership—and that they know librarians can be the best search assistants. 

2. Collaborative source analysis.

Give students a short selection of journal articles to choose from, and ask them to write a short analysis of one to share. This could be done within a class session (in which case it makes sense to formally divide students into groups looking at the same source), or using online tools in Blackboard or similar Web-based learning environments. Provide an exemplar.

Each student should submit his or her own analysis piece, and then critique at least one other student’s analysis. Then you can add your own comments, or bring the group together to discuss how to read critically. Be sure to choose both high- and low-quality sources so that they know it’s OK to question the veracity of published research. 

3. Make referencing and footnoting easy.

Most universities now have access to software that makes formatting references and footnotes incredibly simple, but lecturers still see essays in which these are incomplete or unformatted. Make sure your students receive direct instruction in using tools like EndNote, and that they get to see examples of the different ways that references might be used and formatted.

Often library staff can lead instructional sessions. Build using these tools into students’ assessments.

4. Project management diaries.

Paradoxically, project management is one area where the brightest students sometimes fail—if they've been able to submit last-minute work throughout secondary school or FE, heavier demands can come as a shock.

Help students learn to organise and pace their efforts by providing project management diaries, and make completing these part of the assessment. Visual elements like timelines and tick-boxes are often especially helpful. However, make sure that they understand how to then create their own project plans without a pre-made worksheet.

5. Set up study buddies and groups

Research clearly shows that studying together improves understanding and performance. Use in-class or assigned exercises, such as summarising and presenting on existing research, for pairs or small groups.

Then ask students to reflect on studying together: what are useful ways to share out readings within a group, or to discuss ideas in pairs? What are common ways that interpersonal dynamics go wrong, and how might they handle this? Collaborating without colluding is crucial, so make sure they know the difference.

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