“Study Skills” Courses Are A Sign Of The Times

Given that there are only a certain number of hours in the school day, which would you expect a high school student to be doing with their valuable class time?

  1. Reading a book, discussing it in class, and writing an essay on some aspect of it
  2. Locating the topic sentence in an essay provided in a Study Skills workbook

You’d be surprised how often the answer is 2.  Locating topic sentences?  In high school?  Isn’t that more appropriate in an elementary school classroom?  Welcome to the modern world of “Study Skills” (sometimes referred to as “Academic Skills”, “Learning Skills”, or some combination of all three).

What’s driving this desire to teach Study Skills?  Three words: testing, testing, and testing.  Given the number of high school students who now reach 9th grade lacking the reading, writing, math, and science knowledge the elementary and middle school years were supposed to impart, the expedient that has been arrived at to make them more “test-able” is teaching Study Skills.  It is hoped this will allow these unprepared students to squeak through the 11th grade standardized testing cycle and save the school from the consequences of failing to meet the benchmarks for student achievement spelled out in the No Child Left Behind law.

Why not, you may ask, spend those three years of class time focusing on intensive course content in Language Arts, Math, Science, and other core academic work that will allow the student to catch up?  It is a good question.  Perhaps those who design these high school Study Skills courses are simply being grimly realistic about the chances of a low achieving freshmen being able to catch up enough on content to meet the test standard, maybe there are just not enough outstanding teachers available who have the ability to work with these students, and maybe it’s a combination of both.  It certainly seems to be the case that, if I may coin “Wilk’s First Law Of Class Schedules”, the likelihood of a high school student’s class day featuring Study Skills is directly related to the degree to which that student is lacking in the content knowledge necessary to pass the 11th grade standardized tests.  Would it be better to hand students who are taking Study Skills a stack of books, place them in the room with a team of no-nonsense teachers, and not let them out until they learn the material?  Yes, of course it would.

However, is this solution possible in our current educational environment?

To answer this question we have to return to the basic issue of how a student reaches 9th grade working at a 2nd or 3rd grade level.  I believe the answer is to be found in the awful choices elementary and middle school teachers are faced with when a student clearly has failed to master the content material in that grade level: Is it worse to “pencil whip” an unprepared student through to the next grade or stigmatize that student by insisting the grade be repeated?

Add to this the intense pressures school administrators now put on teachers by insisting failing grades are actually the fault of the teacher, a real problem if that teacher hopes to receive tenure and/or be given a “good” assignment the next school year, and you can see where this is heading.  Low expectations turns into no expectations, and students learn there is not any real consequence for failing to learn the material.

Understanding this to be the case, if you put low-achieving students in a room with a dedicated teacher and insist they learn, does it have any chance of working?

By the way, can you locate the topic sentence in this commentary?


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