A while ago I wrote a post for our Newcastle Writing Development Centre blog which unpicked something that had been troubling me in a lot of the study skills advice I’d been reading. Advice which sounded full of good sense and very appealing, but which on closer inspection didn’t seem to offer any concrete benefits, and might even make students feel worse.
- ‘Always make sure your writing is clear!’
- ‘Your essay should have a logical structure!’
- ‘Manage your time effectively!’
…and similar tips.
What advice like this has in common is adjectives which are meaningless out of context, black and white, inflexible and idealistic imperatives, and no practical sense of how any of it is to be practically achieved or how you would even know if you had. It sounds great but in its attempt to make study sound reassuring, simple, bite-size and do-able, it actually disempowers students. If it really were that simple, students wouldn’t need telling!
I wanted to make sure I wasn’t passing off similar ‘placebo’ advice to students in my own practice, so came up with some key questions I could use to interrogate the advice we give in the WDC and ensure that it’s top quality:
- What exactly do we mean by that?
- How are students supposed to do that?
- How might that work for them individually?
- How can they check and be sure they’ve done it?
Creating something that’s straightforward to read but nuanced enough to reflect the complex reality of university study is a tricky balance, but hopefully these questions are helping us find that.
The original blog post can be found here, but I recently reworked it as a poster for the ALDinHE conference April 2017, where it was well received. It’s a bit daft and by no means a model academic poster but hopefully provoked a few thoughts and raised a smile!
The files are here, for a closer look: