Inclusion and inclusive learning are among the most important issues in higher education. In the past, universities were accustomed to recruiting ‘traditional’ students who were ‘trained’ and prepared for university and, most likely, had parents and siblings who were graduates. The expansion of higher education has brought more ‘non-traditional’ students from a wide variety of backgrounds and previous educational experiences.
The ways in which students are supported in their transition from secondary education to university are frequently debated, particularly their abilities and skills in studying and writing. Clearly, if students are to achieve a smooth transition into university and become successful they will need varying degrees of support and induction into studying and learning, particularly in becoming independent learners.
A key element for inclusive learning is the provision of ‘study skills.’ This article considers the notion of study skills and the ways in which they can be developed and enhanced to better provide for the needs of both traditional and non-traditional students.
Approaches to support for inclusive learning run from the ‘deficit’ model in which remedial action is provided for students who are perceived to be lacking in skills, to more sophisticated understandings of students as ‘apprentices’ finding their way into the knowledge community. Lea and Street 1 propose three models of support for student writing, and by extension, the wider aspects of studying and learning. The three models they propose are used here to explore the range of support for learning. The models are not mutually exclusive, aspects of each can co-exist but the general movement is towards increased student autonomy and independence.
The study skills model
In this model students are provided, en masse or according to perceived individual need, with separate short courses in ‘study skills’, including for example: academic writing; academic reading; referencing; essay structure; notetaking. This kind of support is frequently provided by specialist staff who, though they may be knowledgeable experts, are not familiar with the subject matter, the discipline or the students themselves. This dilemma is apparent in the different styles of referencing required by, for example, a law lecturer, an English lecturer or a biology lecturer. This model is essentially a ‘deficit’ model which seeks to bring about behavioural change in students by providing de-contextualised specialist inputs in a ‘bolt-on’ remedial approach. This conception of study skills is, according to Wingate, counterproductive “… because it separates study skills from the process and content of learning.” 2
This model focuses on students’ acculturation into discipline and subject-based discourses and activities. Students become familiar with the ways of thinking, talking and writing and in the specialised discourse of a discipline or subject. There is a clear link here to the notion of threshold concepts.
Rather than providing ‘bolt-on’ activities, the academic socialisation model suggests we should adopt a ‘built-in’ approach where the development of studying, writing and learning are embedded into the subject or programme. This approach supports lifelong learning and the development of graduate attributes and employability. As Wingate observes, “In universities where this model is used there is also a broader view of skills as not only useful for academic study, but also for students’ lifelong learning and personal development.”
‘Literacy’ in this sense requires us to extend our understanding of the concept to include more than simply the ability to read and write. Literacy has the broader meaning of being competent in something and having understanding of something. Reading and writing give us abilities and opportunities to understand, communicate and create meaning beyond the words we read and write. Similarly, students can develop their ‘digital literacy’ or ‘assessment literacy’. Literacy, in its fullest sense, implies individual empowerment. Warren defines academic literacy as, “… The complex of linguistic, conceptual and skills resources for analysing, constructing and communicating knowledge in the subject area.” 3
Whereas, the academic socialisation model recognises the need for students to become socialised into the academic discourse and practices, the academic literacies model goes further and recognises that this knowledge is not static. In this model students become aware of the ways in which knowledge is constructed, contested and dynamic. In this way, hopefully, they will become more able to develop their ‘critical literacy’, their ability to analyse, evaluate, criticise and adapt knowledge and ideas.
1 Lea, M. R. and Street, B. V. (2006). The “academic literacies” model: Theory and applications. Theory into Practice, 45(4) pp. 368–377.
2 Wingate U. (2007) A framework for transition: Supporting ‘learning to learn’ in higher education. Higher Education Quarterly 61:3, 391-405
3 Warren, D. (2003) Academic literacy: a discipline-based approach. Investigations in University Teaching and Learning Vol. 1 (1) Spring 2003