As those whose unhappy lot in life it is to have to listen to me moaning on about matters educational will know, I’m not a big fan of the term ‘skills’. Or, more precisely, I’m not a big fan about how this term is often used. I’m even less keen when it’s preceded by its regular partner, ‘study’. Indeed, the ‘study skills’ tag is one that I am pleased to say has been avoided throughout the Leicester Learning Institute’s recently published Transitions Toolkit.
Over the years, though, several colleagues have also quite rightly pointed out that this particular bugbear of mine risks reducing important conversations about students’ development to rather distracting and trivial squabbles over semantics. After all, it’s surely not so much the language we use as the practice we, um, practice that counts, right? I sort of agree with this sentiment, up to a point at least. Here, then, I want to try and clarify what I’m getting at, and not getting at, when I bang on about how much I dislike terms like ‘study skills’ and why I think such terms can, at least if we’re not careful, seriously get in the way of our efforts to support student learning.
To help me do this, I’m going to draw on four articles which span nearly twenty years of valiant attempts to try and steer the conversation about student learning in more credible, and less dismally reductive, directions.
First up are Mary Lea and Brian Street (1998), in what’s become something of a classic in the field, outlining the differences between an ‘academic literacy practices’ and a ‘study skills’ frame when it comes to making sense of what’s actually going on when students make the transition to HE:
‘Learning in higher education involves adapting to new ways of knowing: new ways of understanding, interpreting and organising knowledge. Academic literacy practices… constitute central processes through which students learn new subjects and develop their knowledge about new areas of study. A practices approach to literacy takes account of the cultural and contextual component of writing and reading practices, and this in turn has important implications for an understanding of student learning…
The study skills approach has assumed that literacy is a set of atomised skills which students have to learn and which are then transferable to other contexts. The focus is on attempts to ‘fix’ problems with student learning, which are treated as a kind of pathology.’
Next is Penny-Jane Burke (2008), whose work I really can’t recommend highly enough (indeed, I wish the entire sector could take a year off just to read and discuss her stuff) on the practices surrounding what we tend somewhat nebulously to refer to ‘academic writing’:
‘Individuals do not simply learn the ‘right’ skills and then use them to produce writing that clearly, logically and coherently reflects their thinking. Writing is deeply enmeshed in wider power relations that construct the ‘author’ in classed, gendered and racialised ways. Writing is relational; authorial subjects are constructed around notions of ‘voice’, which are located in a wider politics of identity and knowledge…
Crucially, in higher education, such questions are implicit in student writing practices, where the writer and the reader are interrelated through judgements about what counts as a ‘good’ piece of writing. Such questions are made in and through the identity positions of those making the judgments and producing the writing, although such subjective processes are made invisible by the hegemonic discourses of assessment; which speak of objective, rational and transparent procedures and frameworks.’
The third source of wisdom in this matter comes from the introduction to a superb paper by Emily Danvers (2016), which draws on feminist theory to explore students’ complex and affective experiences of that frequently championed, but (ironically enough) rather less frequently interrogated, virtue of ‘critical thinking’:
Discourses that present critical thinking as a generic skill also proliferate [in HE]… Yet, as Papastephanou and Angeli (2007) discuss, ‘skill’ assumes something tangible, transferrable and measurable, whereas in practice, the acquisition of particular skills is complex and contextualised… Morley et al. (2006) discuss how critical thinking is part of a discourse about graduate ‘soft’ interpersonal skills that is highly gendered, as well as devoid of understanding of the social capital informing dominant styles of communication… [T]he figure of the critical thinker is rarely subject to analyses of difference that attend to who these critical beings are, how they came to be seen as critical and how critical bodies are unequally positioned and reproduced in higher education. Rather than presenting critical thinking as a cognitive act undertaken by ‘reasoned’ and detached bodies, this paper discusses how it emerges both through the web of social, material and discursive knowledge practices that constitute criticality and with the different bodies that enact it.
And finally, here are Paul Hager and Phil Hodkinson (2009), in their indispensable critique of the persistently popular, but often conceptually impoverished, discourse of ‘transferable skills’:
‘Much about skills remains implicit and tacit. Attempts to describe precisely the human capacities that underpin successful performance are always somewhat speculative and, hence, are subject to contestation and revision… This crucial fact is so often overlooked because descriptions of performance outcomes (which can be specified accurately) are taken to be descriptions of the human skills, abilities and capacities that enable these outcomes. So the relative concreteness of the former is falsely attributed to the latter. But, importantly, the acquisition and transfer metaphors refer to the skills, abilities and capacities involved in performance, not to performance outcomes. Thus the central metaphors about skill learning attach to what is in principle imprecise and pass by those aspects that are amenable to precise specification. Unsurprisingly, then, the skill learning literature is replete with confusion about the nature of skills.’
For me, these examples help illustrate that it’s not so much the term ‘skills’ itself that’s the problem (in several cases, the term is retained, although only on the condition that its complex and contested character is fully acknowledged); it’s more the bizarre assumptions that so often seem to underpin the uses of the term and, by extension, the work it’s believed the term is doing as we seek first to conceptualise, and then (with any luck) support, students’ learning. Indeed, such questions of assumptions and discursive work apply regardless of the terminology we choose to employ. As the title of the Hager and Hodkinson article makes clear, any language we use in relation to a process as immeasurably complex and ultimately ‘uncapturable’ as human learning is bound, at best, to only ever help us get a little closer to the messy realities it seeks to describe. Those of us who prefer to speak of ‘literacies’ and ‘practices’ simply contend that these terms, rooted as they are in the insights of contemporary social theory, signify far more plausible and conceptually-sound assumptions both about the complex social contexts in which learning takes place, and the no less complex human beings who inhabit these contexts. As such, we believe they also offer us a way of developing more meaningful and practically helpful educational interventions.
If we believe that learning is about isolated individuals ‘acquiring’ and ‘transferring’ disembodied and generic ‘skills’, then we will proceed from this misconception to (as I’ve written elsewhere) provide similarly misconceived resources and interventions to support this learning. Those wedded to the ‘acquisition of transferable skills’ metaphor of student learning might be tempted, for example, to send students to an ‘essay writing’ workshop where, along with students from all sorts of other disciplines, they will learn the ways of the ‘university essay’ – that imaginary mode of discourse that apparently floats free from the fetters of disciplinary conventions, epistemological values and rhetorical practices. Those working within a ‘literacy practices’ understanding might, by contrast, be tempted to consider how students come to know how to perform an academically ‘credible’ voice within relevant disciplinary contexts and to design curricula (and not least assessment activities) with support for this process of ‘coming to know’ in mind. If they’ve been paying attention to people like the aforementioned Penny Jane Burke and Emily Danvers, or to the equally insightful work of Theresa Lillis (2015), they might also pause to reflect on those far-from-innocent assumptions at work when deciding who gets to define and police what a ‘credible’ academic voice is meant to sound like in the first place.
However, and to return to the question that forms the title of this post, I don’t, in the end, actually care if people say ‘skills’, ‘study skills’, ‘academic skills’ etc. What I do care about, and what think we should all care about, is what on earth it is we imagine we’re talking about when we use such terms. It’s this that makes the key difference, I think, when it comes to developing the kind educational practices that stand a genuine chance of helping students to learn.
Burke, P.J. (2008) Writing, Power and Voice: Access to and Participation in Higher Education, Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 15(2), 199-210.
Danvers, E.C. (2016) Criticality’s affective entanglements: rethinking emotion and critical thinking in higher education, Gender and Education, 28(2), 282-297.
Hager, P. & Hodkinson, P. (2009) Moving beyond the metaphor of transfer of learning, British Educational Research Journal, 35:4, 619-638.
Lea, MR & Street, BV (1998) Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach, Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157-172.
Lillis, T., Harrington, K., Lea, M.R. & Mitchell, S. (2015) Working with academic literacies: case studies of transformative practice, The WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado, USA: Parlor Press.
Morley, L., Eraut, M., Aynsley, S., MacDonald, D. & Shepherd, J. (2006) Needs of employers and related organisations for information about quality and standards of higher education. Project Report. Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Papastephanou, M., & Angeli, C. (2007) Critical Thinking Beyond Skill, Educational Philosophy and Theory 39 (6), 604–621.