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Strategic study techniques

Successful students take time to step back from their studies and examine what they are doing and how they are doing it. They may not spend any more time or effort on study and assignments than do their less successful peers, but their strategies help them make better use of their time and energy. In this group of articles we introduce you to some ways of making your time as a student as successful as possible. It covers

  • Using feedback and actively engaging with your studies
  • Using learning outcomes
  • Reflecting on your learning and being aware of your habits
  • Reviewing your progress.

Study skills vary between subject areas so if you move from, say, sociology to science you'll need to give yourself time to develop the particular skills required. Understanding which skills are needed is important. If you find there is a specific skill that you need to develop - such as understanding graphs or making notes as you read - then make a decision to improve that skill and set aside the time to do so.

Active learning

Active learning keeps you involved - it helps to maintain your enthusiasm for your studies, and you also gain confidence in your ability to cope with new challenges. Active learners rarely just read their module materials. They find every way they can to interact with what they are studying. You could try some of their strategies, such as

  • highlighting material useful for the next assignment
  • working out the links between current material and previous sections to help build your knowledge and understanding
  • re-reading previous material that relates to a difficult new topic
  • collecting lists of items to compare, say where you need to get to grips with a set of similar equations, or comprehend a range of properties
  • relating the learning outcomes to each section you study
  • drawing flow diagrams to show a process or a sequence of events
  • making your own glossary of terms or timeline of dates
  • continually asking yourself questions about the material you are studying
  • taking notes that help make the topic meaningful to you.

Using feedback from your tutor

Don't miss the opportunity to learn from the feedback given on your assignments. The feedback on your work can reveal whether your current study strategies are effective and is a central part of the learning experience. Feedback serves various purposes. It can

  • promote dialogue between you and your tutor
  • enable you to monitor your progress
  • help you to identify your strengths and weaknesses
  • point out further resources including available support.

When you receive feedback, take time to absorb and reflect on it. Don't hesitate to ask for clarification or further guidance from your tutor if you feel it would be helpful.

In the following video, OU learning consultants Gill and Maggie explain how your tutor's feedback is one of the most important aspects of learning with the OU. Make the most of it.

Using feedback


Maggie (Learning Consultant)

The key part of active learning is asking for, using and implementing feedback because one of the great strengths of the Open University is that you have your personal tutor for that particular year, and one of the things all of them do is give feedback to individual students. And it's up to you to find ways of using it, or to have a dialogue about it.

I mean tutors encourage their students to come back and ask for clarification or to talk to each other and I couldn't stress enough the importance of when you do get some feedback, particularly if it's personalised feedback, that you set aside time to use it. To actually look at what's been said to you, to think how you might incorporate that, what changes you might make, or if you need to go back and ask some more questions.

Gill (Learning Consultant)

Some people get very hurt by their tutor feedback and can feel a little bit discouraged and, if that had happened, the tutor would probably be upset to think that that was the impact and so anybody should feel they can ring or email their tutor saying, “Oh, what did you mean by what you said?” Rather than sit feeling discouraged.

The advice may come as a surprise if it identifies something needing improvement that you felt was fine. Wait a few days then read the feedback again, as you may find that you can then be more objective, and think about your reactions.

  • Are the comments expected?
  • Do you agree with the comments? If not, in what ways do you disagree?
  • What steps can you take to address the issues raised in the comments?
  • What specific skills do you think you need to improve?

Ask your tutor or study adviser for more advice if you have any queries about anything in the feedback or want to know more about improving your study skills.

You might also get useful feedback from other students. For example, an online discussion forum for a module activity might help you assess your understanding of a topic. Talking to your tutor or other students can give a boost to your morale and really help when you feel stuck. Knowing how to stay motivated is an important skill that is worth developing as early as possible in your study.

Learning outcomes

You'll find that certain study skills are specified in the learning outcomes for your module. They will be called learning outcomes. Make sure that you develop them - they are the key intellectual, practical and professional skills you are expected to gain. They are usually categorised into four groups.

  • Knowledge and understanding - gaining the specific knowledge related to your subject (e.g. facts and concepts in scientific areas).
  • Cognitive skills - thinking skills, such as problem solving and analysis.
  • Practical and professional skills - skills related to a vocational area (e.g. web design or lesson planning).
  • Key skills - skills gained as a result of study, such as communication skills and time management.

The study materials you receive set out the learning outcomes for that module and explain how they are measured. For example, assignments might have marks allocated to how well you demonstrate them. Make sure you know what the specified skills are for your module and keep them in mind as you work.

Last updated 1 year ago