3 July 2008

More effective study skills for foundation students

By Dr Yong Fung Lan

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

Note taking, study methods, test taking, and organizational skills for foundation students were previously discussed in this column. In this final installment, effective time management, active listening and comprehensive reading will be discussed.

Effective time management enables them to promptly complete what they plan to do, be it homework, projects, domestic chores, or exercise.

Active listening involves reading people’s thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires to decipher what their intentions are.

Comprehensive reading includes reading for different purposes, understanding the structure of argument, and analyzing rhetorical context.

Effective time management includes at least six components: First, students should prioritize by considering long term, weekly and daily goals. They should start with immediate goals using a checklist that allows them to see what they accomplish each day. It not only keeps them on target, but also creates a great sense of achievement when they see that every item is crossed out at day’s end.

Second, they should protect their time, for example, by hanging an “engaged” sign on their door while concentrating on their work. If an exam is fast approaching, they should also avoid unnecessary socialization or telephone calls.

Third, students should create a positive study environment, one that is free from such distractions as clutter, dirt, or noise. It should also be properly ventilated with preferred furniture, lighting and decor.

Fourth, students should divide difficult tasks or projects into manageable portions, making them less overwhelming while allocating sufficient time for each part. Segmenting not only enhances concentration and retention, but also reduces anxiety and mental fatigue.

Fifth, students should begin their assignments once they receive the instructions or guidelines. Since procrastination is not only the thief of time but also a major stressor, they should identify the factors that cause them to wait until the last minute.

Finally, they should have a personal schedule to keep track of deadlines, study time, and other routine activities. While more time should be devoted to accomplishing challenging tasks, a schedule that includes some pleasurable activities is more realistic. Students tend to become more motivated if they reward themselves after attaining important goals. Possessing a schedule helps them find time not only for intellectual pursuits, but also recreation.

Besides effective time management, active listening plays a central role in scholastic achievement; students must listen to lecturers and peers to transfer crucial information into long-term memory. It requires students to regard lecturers and peers as decision-makers and clients to promote their ideas and values; positive reaction from others depends on how active one’s listening is.

Further, listening with open-mindedness promotes interpersonal understanding and acceptance. Additionally, students should observe how the speaker feels about the topic or issue; listening for emotions fosters empathy, a critical variable in effective interpersonal communication. Finally, they should show respect to the speaker by responding seriously to their opinions.
However, active listening only occurs when one has the determination to listen; therefore, students should demonstrate a positive attitude and commitment before joining a lecture, discussion, or group project.

When students learn through active listening (especially during lectures) and independent studying, they retain information better as they are using both auditory and visual modalities. Using different modalities simultaneously also encourages deep learning, a process that requires synthesis and evaluation of information, which in turn translates to better academic performance.
As eye contact is a critical part of active listening, students should focus when their lecturers or peers are speaking. Note taking enhances their concentration and retention; unfortunately, it also momentarily takes their eyes off the speakers. To get the most out of the course, students should use both their eyes and ears.

Besides eye contact, active listeners also know their lecturers’ mannerisms. Gestures, tone, and other body language reflect one’s real intentions. Since most lecturers communicate non-verbally as well as orally, students should watch and listen simultaneously, as in the case of maintaining eye contact.

To be active listeners, students should know the significance of questions; for example, they should pay close attention to lecturers’ questions. Lecturers usually ask questions to promote comprehension and retention of information. Active listeners also pay attention to their classmates’ questions that prompt lecturers to provide more details, emphasize important points, or give more examples.

Besides valuing questions, students should also listen with an evaluative attitude; for instance, they should assess and organize lecture information through note-taking. Evaluative students listen with a holistic, proactive, and anticipative mind, processing useful ideas while expecting more information. Listening is a principal source of information for foundation students. Regardless of their learning style, they receive auditory and visual information most of the time. Their overall academic performance therefore depends primarily on how observant, curious, and evaluative they are. In sum, foundation students rely on active listening as a major modality to acquire knowledge and skills.

Foundation students must also practise comprehensive reading. Tertiary level reading involves six steps: pre-reading, deep reading, re-reading, post-reading, connecting reading with writing, as well as revising and editing. Pre-reading requires students to (a) write down prior knowledge on the topic, (b) survey the text, (c) make predictions, and (d) list new words.

Deep reading requires them to (a) check their reading against their predictions, (b) make marginal notes, and (c) focus on meaning.

Re-reading requires them to (a) read rhetorically, (b) analyze the structure of the text including purpose and content, and (c) analyze the writer’s style.
Post-reading requires them to summarize the text and critically examine the logic, ethos, and pathos of the text.

To connect reading with writing, students should be able to (a) apply various organizational strategies such as webbing and clustering, (b) formulate thesis statements, (c) compose drafts, (d) apply the principles of academic writing, and (e) develop their ideas with pertinent facts, statistics, and argumentation.

To facilitate revision, students should get feedback from others and ask themselves questions. Finally, they should edit their work by rectifying its grammar, punctuation, and mechanics.
Many foundation students surf the Internet to improve their reading and writing skills. An innovative technique that enhances reading comprehension online is visual-syntactic text formatting (VSTF). Texts are cascaded to facilitate the identification of grammatical structure. It enhances reading comprehension and proficiency of foundation students as it encourages them to integrate their visual and cognitive modalities without straining their eyes.

In summary, to succeed at college or university, foundation students need effective time management, active listening, and comprehensive reading. While some study skills may require more time and effort to acquire, all of them are of equal importance in acquiring knowledge and skills and developing graduate attributes.

Dr Yong Fung Lan is a lecturer with the School of language and Foundation, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be contacted at fyong@swinburne.edu.my