Thursday, 31 May 2012

The best advice on how to study comes from those who are studying

I have just been perusing the blog written by @MAmanda87. She is a student of the Open University and has been interviewing fellow OU students and asking about their experiences.  As a former OU student myself, and a lecturer currently working alongside the OUVS, I have always had a love for the OU so it is heart-warming to see just how positive these experiences are.  Perhaps the most interesting thing though, is the tips and advice given by the students.

I have always felt that the best way to advise students about their studies is to let other students do the advising.  As a tutor it can sometimes feel as though there is a disconnect between myself and my students - an kind of sub-textual understanding that although any advice I might give is welcome, that I am not really 'one of them'.  I remember (back in the days when I was young and relatively healthy) going into my local  weights gym. I'm not talking about those fancy places with giant video screens and a sauna.  No, these are places piled high with the dust and rust of the ages, where everyone knows who Bill Kazmaier is, and everyone has some friendly advice on how wide your grip should be when deadlifting 100k.

'Kaz' - the inspiration of many sweaty men

Of course, the advice you got in these places was of varying usefulness.  I happened to go to a gym where a guy called Mike Jospeh also trained. Mike was a World Record-Breaking weightlifter, and a thoroughly nice bloke who was always willing to give advice to newcomers to the gym.  That advice was invariably good, but somehow the fact that the man giving it had biceps the size of dinner plates made you feel rather as though he didn't really belong to the world of a wee skinny guy who got exhausted just loading up the bar.

There is a problem when trying to advise students about how to manage their studies, that this same sense of 'difference' means that the advice is never seen as viable, or realistic. Rather like walking into a gym for the first time and being told to do a 'warm-up' with a 50k barbell, there is sometimes a sense of 'well, that's alright for you to say because you've doing this thing for years!'

So what is the solution?  Well, @MAmanda87 's blog for a start.  Students supporting each other with advice means that the advice might be seen as more realistic. And let's be honest, it probably is.

So, for example, focusing on organizational skills seems to be the most common advice of those interviewed.  Three of the students interviewed by Michelle highlight organization skills as being important.  @idbuypens advises that students should "[s]tay organized", and suggests that this can be done by sticking to "your study schedule".  @geekgirl77 says the same thing, suggesting "[s]et yourself a fairly conservative study timetable and stick to it, it’s the best way to minimise stress.  The same advice about a conservative timetable is offered by @_Carly_Jayne, who argues that students should stay "a week ahead of the checklist in case something unexpected interrupts your study".

 The second most common advice focuses on personal approaches to study. @idbuypens focuses on a goal-oriented approach to study, and suggests that students always "keep in mind WHY you’re studying, the end goal that makes it worthwhile, be it career, personal satisfaction, whatever - know your reason". This, she suggests, is particularly important for "when the mid-term blues inevitably strike".  @_Carly_Jayne focuses on a positive attitude.  "If you don’t love what you’re doing" she points out, "struggling through chapters and writing assignments will be so much harder than necessary". Perhaps this means that students should try to maintain an almost bloody-minded determination to enjoy what they are doing (even if they don't). For @simply_hayley, determination itself is a key factor. "If its your dream then do it" she says. "Don’t let the hurdles you put up stop you"

 Another useful piece of advice offered comes from @idbuypens about making the most of resources. "Take the time to learn how to use the databases early on", she urges, "they’re a gold mine when it comes to writing".  This is certainly a point which I have struggled to get across to my students. As resources become increasingly electronic a common problem is that students either don't know how to access them, or simply find doing a Google-search easier.  However, if you do (as @idbuypens suggests) take the time to familiarize yourself with online journals and etexts then you will very quickly be glad that you did:  It will save you time in the future, and almost certainly improve the standard of your work.

A slightly more unexpected piece of advice is offered by @SammiLoobas: I have honestly found that social networking can be a life saver! Facebook, Twitter, just find other OU students, bounce ideas off each other, get someone elses view."   I imagine this is a form of advice which is only going to become more common, but of course it shouldn't be offered without a certain health warning.  Last week I was exploring some time management software, and one of them used data from my working to identify those online activities which are the most productive, and those which are the most distracting.  Twitter came top in both.  Social networks can (they really can!) be hugely productive, but can also be hugely distracting.  If you will forgive the irony, I will just offer a bit of my own advice here: If you want to use social networks for your study, set up an account which is only for your study.  Don't mix a personal and a study Facebook account, because then you are not just getting peer support from other students but you are also being tempted to find out what your mates were up to last night, or what new tricks your baby cousin is performing.

I look forward to more tips from Michelle's blog, and hope it encourages more students to do the same!

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