3 Reasons Study Skills Are Overlooked In Our Education System

As an academic coach, I have met with resistance, or rather, a lack of knowledge on the part of students, parents and teachers about the importance of developing study skills.

More parents are turning to private tutoring to supplement their children’s education. We may immediately think of Math as the subject for which most students seek tutoring. Normally, the Math tutor sits with the student for an hour, goes over their homework (looking at formulas, equations, problems etc.), and tries to help improve their math scores. Some students see short-term gains, but many continue to have problems into the future. Despite persistent academic underachievement, parents continue resending children to tutors with the hope that some miracle will take place, and their children will suddenly “get it”.

Learning is much more complex than this proposed hypothetical, and tutoring certainly extends beyond mathematics into other subject areas. What is important to note, is that tutoring with the aim of getting immediate results and improving grades has dominated the private tutoring business ethos. This is due in part, to linear educational paradigms, political rhetoric and economic policies that lack flexibility and are generally results oriented. Students are complex beings, whose struggles in school are multi-faceted, but who are assessed in narrow terms, and whose success is largely dependent on performance driven variables. Linear thinking in education has disastrous consequences; that a lack of healthy study habits is often overlooked as a primary factor contributing to academic underachievement is but one of many such consequences.

Our education system is so inherently competitive and results driven, that test scores and grades become more important than personal development and growth (study skills are a part of this), resulting in children who are unable to advocate for themselves and continue to struggle without knowing the underlying reasons. Much of the time they blame themselves, teachers, parents, friends, anything and anyone. Blame and suffering are what many students endure in a competitive and results-oriented system. We as adults know this all too well.

Below I have outlined 3 reasons why study skills are overlooked in our education system. There are of course many more.

1)    Importance on grades

Our system engenders fear and insecurity in students because it only values one thing: grades. Students are so engrossed with making the grade, and teachers are so consumed with assessment, that time and resources directed towards working on study skill development are non-existent. You can’t tell a 12th grader who has deadlines, impending college applications, and other pressures that he/she needs to focus on things not directly related to their coursework. However, if teachers and administrators let go of the reigns and de-emphasized grades, even slightly if possible, then some pressure would be lifted. Then maybe, students would be more amenable to learning how to study and organize themselves. Of course, all this is moot when study skills are not a part of the curriculum. Which brings us to my second point:

2)    Study skills are not a part of the curriculum (at least not directly)

I can’t speak for all curriculums outside of Ontario, so I won’t. But in Ontario, study skills or “learning skills” and “work habits” (as they are referred to in the curriculum documents) are not formally integrated into our system for evaluation. While the curriculum documents mention how “integral” learning skills are, they are to be commented on separately and are “not to be considered in the determination of a student’s grade”.  Further, “Assessing, evaluating, and reporting on the achievement of curriculum expectations and on the demonstration of learning skills and work habits separately allows teachers to provide information to the parents and student that is specific to each of the two areas of achievement”.

Let me translate the jargon: study skills are important, so try to include them if possible, but don’t grade students on them. Provide comments on report cards that let parents know their children are disorganized, but make sure not to waste precious time incorporating it into lessons, because we need grades!  Stick to the curriculum!

I took some liberty with that translation, but I think it is somewhat accurate. If grades are the end game and teachers don’t grade something, then why should students care?

Again, we see this recurring theme of grades. It’s a problem.

3) We don’t fully understand the relationship between study/learning skills and success in school.

When teachers comment about a student’s organization on report cards, but don’t include the skill as part of their assessment criteria for determining grades, a plethora of assumptions begin to form: the most obvious being that organization, time-management etc. (there are many learning skills) are not important. Another assumption, equally false, is that developing such skills are easy, or that they don’t need to be taught. If they were difficult, then teachers would pay more attention to them, wouldn’t they?

On the surface, managing one’s time for example, seems intuitive – something all of us to varying degrees do everyday, without putting much thought into; but students are often oblivious that such a skill can operate on many different gradients of success: just like their subject specific performance!

Like mathematical acumen, time-management is a skill, trait, or ability (another post will explain the distinctions here) that needs to be cultivated. Many organization related skills belong to a group of cognitive processes that are attributed to executive function: an umbrella term from which time-management, organization, memory and many other learning traits are categorized and regulated by what is argued is the pre-frontal lobe area of the brain.

Herein lies a major paradox in our education system: many of the thought processes that are integral to success in a subject like mathematics, or any subject for that matter, are the very “learning skills” which are “integral” but not directly cultivated by teachers or included in assessments. Our education system, assumes incorrectly that students either possess these skills or don’t.

This would take us into the area of biological determinism, which was not the point of this blog post. What is important to take away here, is that many study skills are necessary components for success in school. By not properly integrating these traits, skills and abilities into the curriculum, we are diminishing their importance and creating a sink or swim environment, where only those children that are “wired correctly” can succeed in school.

I have left the  issue of teaching children with special learning needs out of this discussion, and will address it in another post, but these are the children that are most adversely affected by the lack of presence of study skills in the curriculum.

For a variety of reasons, many of them biological and beyond their control, these children’s brains are wired in such a way that “learning skills” like organization, self-regulation and time-management, which are connected with executive function in the brain are more challenging.

By not actively including study skills in the curriculum, we send the message that such children are not important and doomed for failure. It is precisely these children that get chewed up and spit out by the education system.

We need to move away from a Social Darwinian “sink or swim” paradigm of education, and begin helping students discover themselves outside of the rigid confines of a competitive and grade-obsessed educational system. As we move closer to a more holistic and systematic approach, I’m sure “learning skills” will start to emerge and be represented in a fuller, more accessible way.




Teacher Burnout


A few days ago, I had a conversation with a parent of a fifth grader who told me about how her son’s teacher had a meltdown in class, yelled at the students so loudly, that afterwards her son came home upset and even shed a few tears. This type of episode is not new; in fact, the label “teacher burnout” is a very well recognized term in education research and among practitioners themselves. Continue reading

The value of academic coaching

School can be a an overwhelming proposition for many teenagers. In Ontario, which I can attest to personally, there is a crisis in education: many students can’t see how their current education can translate into a tangible and realistic future. Twenty years of neo-liberal educational policy has left teachers confused, exhausted, and living in fear (Carpenter, Weber & Schugurensky, 2012). Continue reading