Independent Study Skills: Why GCSE and A Level students are so bad at them, and what to do about it

Independent Study Skills: Why GCSE and A Level students are so bad at them, and what to do about it

Independent study skills are vital if students are to reach their full academic potential in their GCSEs and A Levels. But, most students have really poor independent study skills. They don't know how to manage their time or energy, what to do when they get bored, or how to revise effectively. This means that many students are left floundering in situations where they have to take responsibility for their own studies and are very often completely overwhelmed by revision.

I've spent the last five years teaching people to study independently – helping them see that they can do it, and how empowering having these skills is. In this blog post I'm going to:

  • Reflect on the reasons why students have poor independent study skills
  • Explain what can be done to help them gain these vital skills.

But, first, why are independent study skills important?

Why are independent study skills important?

For me, being able to study independently has been one of the most empowering things in my life. As a teenager I had a grand ambition of studying at Cambridge University, but I went to fairly ordinary schools that weren't used to preparing students for Oxbridge applications. Teaching myself to study independently gave me:

  • The power to take my destiny into my own hands and reach my potential in my own GCSEs and A levels
  • Confidence in my own abilities and personal agency
  • Skills that would serve me in my work, well beyond my own education

And, I've seen time and time again, how teaching students how to direct their own studies in a way that works for them gives them a new sense of confidence and belief in themselves, as well as the ability to really push themselves to achieve something special in their own GCSEs and A levels.

It's a travesty that more students don't have this confidence, belief and ability to push themselves to get what they really want out of life.

Why do students have poor independent study skills?

Back in the 1990s, when I took my own GCSEs and A Levels, we weren't taught systematically how to revise for exams, let alone vital skills such as note-taking and research skills. When I was in the latter stages of year 11 our headteacher did hold a study skills evening for parents and students where I learned the basics of creating a revision timetable and flashcards. But that was it – I had to work out the rest myself.

Fortunately, I was motivated and what I was taught that evening was enough for me to work with and get GCSE results that would support my ambitions.

But, nearly 25 years later many schools still aren't doing any better than this at teaching study skills. Why is this? Let me give you my take on the matter.

Many teachers don't know how to revise themselves

I remember going to teach revision skills in a school and the teacher who organised it telling me that he didn't know how to revise himself, and that's why he didn't teach this vital skills to his students.

If you think about it, if teachers aren't taught independent study skills in their own education, and they just have to make it all up as they go along, how are they supposed to know what really good independent study skills look like?

I'm not saying that this is every teacher in every school – but it's definitely out there at a scale that most schools wouldn't want to admit.

Pressure from government and parents

As testing regimes have got harder and harder and more pressure has been put on schools to get good results teachers have been put under increasing stress to get better and better results. Performance-related pay really hasn't helped with this.

This has led to two big things in schools:

  • Cancellation of exam leave
  • Huge numbers of extra revision lessons in every subject

These two things, for me, reflect a fear-based need within schools to be in control of every possible minute of students' learning. And, for many schools, taking these steps has driven up results.

But, what is the cost of that?

The cost is that students aren't given the time or space to develop their independent study skills because their time is filled by well-meaning teachers spoon-feeding them information.

I believe that everyone in society would be better served if teachers took a step back from the spoon-feeding and, further in advance, took the opportunity to gradually introduce independent study skills so that students had them when they needed them in the weeks and months leading up to exams.

This may lead to slightly lower exam results, but it would also lead to young people who had:

  • greater confidence in their own abilities
  • more transferable skills that they could take with them to the working world

It shows a very sad lack of belief in the potential of each individual student that schools don't give them the opportunity to learn and develop these skills that would serve them so well.

Homework in years 7-9 is neglected as an opportunity for students to learn to study independently

The final point is that homework in years 7-9 is often very inconsistent and not very purposeful.

Students come into secondary schools having done SATs and having been set regular and useful homework, such as spellings, learning times tables, regular reading and some project work. However, in many secondary schools, the homework just tails off in what some recognise as the ‘lost years' of years 7-9.

I think this happens because so much of teachers' energy is channelled into the exam years, and even though they have good intentions around homework, setting and marking it for the younger years is the metaphorical straw that breaks the camel's back in their lives – alongside setting and marking all the work for exam classes and the extra revision lessons.

I believe that if schools saw homework in years 7-9 as an opportunity for students to learn and practice vital independent study and revision skills, teachers' lives would be so much easier in years 10-13.

The X-box generation

It's not all the fault of the exams system, teachers and schools, though. I see a massive problem with a subset of students who are far more interested in their X-box (or social media, or Netflix) and their attitude to school work. Their use of their devices is often unregulated and these students have an under-developed work ethic and sense of responsibility. I absolutely don't think that students should leave school at the age of 14 because they're still children and everyone deserves a high-quality education. But, when I think of my own grandmother, who was made to leave school at 14 and sent to manage a cafe (yes, mange, not just work in) in her local town, 10 miles from where her parents lived, and contrast that with the 14-year-olds I see today I feel like something has gone very, very wrong.

How can we give students better independent study skills?

I am leading my own personal crusade to teach students independent study skills – it's what I've been doing for the last five years through my book, my online hub for families in the exam years, The Extraordinaries Club, my 1:1 academic coaching and the speaking I've done in schools.

But, if this is going to change at a society-wide level, schools across the country really need to take this on board.

At the moment, with the schools closed because of the Coronavirus, the need and lack of independent study skills has been thrown into stark relief. That's why I'm currently teaching a specially adapted version of the study skills programme in The Extraordinaries Club. It's a course called How to Study Independently During the Corona Crisis. You're welcome to join the course at any time by joining The Extraordinaries Club. These skills aren't just for now, they're forever.

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