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TEACHING STUDY SKILLS AND LEARNING STRATEGIES TO THERAPISTS,
TEACHERS, AND TUTORS
How to Give Help and Hope to Disorganized Students
by Diane Newton
Reprinted with permission
from the International Dyslexia Association quarterly newsletter,
Perspectives, Winter, 2003 vol. 29, No. 1, Diane Newton. It's
worth joining IDA just to get Perspectives - each issue has
many articles like this. Their website is http://www.interdys.org.)
A couple of weeks before school
started last year, a small group of students were talking
about getting ready for the first day of class. One
student said she had bought a brand new notebook for
school. She said she put it together with new supplies
including a zipper bag, cute pens and pencils, dividers,
and folders just like the one she had carried the year
before. A boy in the group asked why she didn't just
use the notebook binder she had from last year. Her
answer was classic, "Well, I lost it and have no
earthly idea where it is!"
As the scenario above suggests, students do not always
know how to organize for school. Likewise, rarely do students
who need a solution today for a test coming up tomorrow actually
take the time to read a study skills book. If students are
to have organization, study skills and learning strategies
at the point when they need them, the skills have to be taught
ahead of time. By middle school, or certainly no later than
high school, students need specific instruction, demonstration,
ample practice, and in many cases careful monitoring to become
proficient with learning strategies and to use them automatically.
Furthermore, in order for students to "buy into"
and make use of skills such as getting organized for school,
taking effective notes, mastering complex textbooks, or writing
brilliant answers to essay tests, they need a rationale and
a more global picture of how organization and study skills
can help them. Fabulous note-taking strategies or any other
study tactic will not work unless students use them.
In short all students need a well- designed,
thorough organization and study skills program that presents
the essential skills and motivates students to make use of
them. Yet in order for students to have access to a program
of study skills, parents, school ad ministrators, and especially
educators must be committed first to the view that organization
and study skills are important, second to the idea that a
special curriculum for study skills is crucial, and finally
to the belief that in order to implement the first two commitments,
educators themselves must learn how to teach organization
and study skills.
Teaching organization and study skills is in
many ways different from teaching a content course such as
social studies or chemistry. Although study skills courses
have content information to be sure, the actual task of the
study skills teacher is more akin to that of a coach than
a teacher. Webster's Dictionary defines a coach as a person
who trains. This simple definition, however, does not connote
the essence of what coaches really do. Granted a coach "trains"
by making sure his or her players know all the rules and all
the possible plays and can accomplish them successfully and
with ease. But a coach, in addition, makes certain the players
know all about the "opponent;" have all the best
and necessary equipment and are confident and inspired about
winning the "game."
The purpose of this article is to help teachers,
therapists, tutors, and even parents, if necessary, become
study coaches. Using a "what-to-do, how-to-do-it"
approach, the article presents (1) ideas and information for
becoming a study and organization coach, (2) a list and explanation
of the requisite demonstration tools for teaching, (3) the
characteristics of a study skills program, (4) a possIble
sequence for teaching a course on organization and study skills
and learning strategies, and (5) suggestions for monitoring
the study and organizational skill progress of students who
have had a course in
study skills. The information here is adapted from the curriculum
of a three-credit graduate therapist-training course taught
at Southern Methodist University. Although the model is explicit
and regards certain concepts for organization and study skills
programs as essential, it also takes into account that such
courses can be taught several ways.
Becoming a Study Coach:
Becoming a study coach requires studying. Whenever
possible, teachers, therapists, and tutors should take college
courses and continuing education programs or at least attend
workshops and lectures on ~teaching study and organization
skills. A good program for learning how to teach study and
organization and learning strategies should be just as structured
and as sequential as the curriculum for teaching any other
school subject because "structured teaching... unites
the teacher and student in a learning partnership by providing
informed, explicit, and inter- active instruction" (Deshler
et aI, 1996). If courses and lectures are not accessible,
there are many well-written study skills books on the market.
Some good ones include How to Study in College by Walter
Pauk, How to Study by Ron Fry, Improve Your Grades
by Veltisezar Bautista, Learning To Learn by Gloria
Frender, The How to Study Book by Alan Brown, "Organization
and Study Skills" by Claire Nissenbaum in Multisensory
Teaching of Basic Language Skills. The Internet is also
an excellent source for study skills information. Many universities
have websites to help their own students, but the information
is available to everyone.
Demonstration Materials, Lesson Plans, and a Little Laughter
This is a list and explanation of the most
important demonstration materials study coaches will need
for teaching students how to get organized. Although there
are other items a study coach may want or need, wall posters
about study skills, examples of student work, and so forth,
the following items are esential for actually showing students
what is available. Also, since the demonstration materials
will be the principle guide source for students, the study
coach should make sure they are top quality. In the same sense
that professionals such as physicians or musicians want and
need the best instruments for accomplishing excellent work,
we want students to have the best tools possible for accomplishing
It is also helpful to keep a box of study tools
on hand to show students the latest marketed products that
can help them get and stay organized. These items might include
bookmarks, a wire-frame book holder, a timer, Post-It Flags
as well as Post-It Notes, and any other supplies business
people use that could be helpful for students.
To teach a course on organization
and study skills, the demonstration samples should include:
File box: This is to show students how and
where to store schoolwork at home. One of the best
is a file box with a latch and handle for easy portability,
the dimensions being roughly 11" x 14".
The box should be set up with at least five hanging
folders (i.e., one for each potential class) labeled
in the order of an "example" student's class
schedule. Place six manila folders in each hanging
folder, one for each grading period (or four if the
student has nine-week reporting periods).
Students then will be able to see where to put all
their papers from a single reporting period.
. Supply Box: This can be something like
a tackle box. It should contain examples of all the
potential supplies a student will need for studying
at home and the box and contents should be things
the student could easily purchase Items such as pens,
pencils, pencil sharpener, three-hole punch, stapler,
staples, Post-It Notes and Flags, etc. or anything
else students may need when they sit down to study.
The supply box helps students keep everything close-by,
fosters attention to the study tasks at hand, and
thereby shortens study time since they will not need
to leave the study area to "find" something.
Three-ring Demonstration Binder: This will
serve as a "show and tell" model of how
school notebooks can be set up. Although some schools
have students use multiple binders, a one-notebook
binder system helps everyone, disorganized students
in particular, reduce the number of items they must
keep up with on a daily basis. When students carry
one notebook, they feel less fragmented because they
do not have to keep up with a myriad of items.
|...all students need a well-designed,
thorough organization and study skills program
that presents the essential skills and motivates
students to make use of them.
Occasionally teachers want students to have additional
spirals and folders. If so, these items can be hole
punched and added behind the appropriate subject division
in the notebook. The suggested order of the demonstration
notebook is as follows:
A metal ringed zipper bag. Metal is best because
it lasts longer.
A calendar planner. This should have two types
of pages, a week-at-a- glance for recording daily
assignments and a month-at-a-glance for planning for
future tests, papers and projects as well as the student's
social and family activities. See the Jenks article
in this issue for additional suggestions about how
these can be used.
A double-sided pocket folder. One side labeled
"homework to be done, papers to be signed"
and the other side labeled "graded work."
During class, graded homework is placed in the back
pocket of the folder and then filed behind the correct
tab in the notebook during the home study time.
. Two sets of colored tabbed dividers. Separate
the sets and match the colors (e.g., two reds together,
the two blues together, and so on). One tab will be
labeled with the title of the particular subject (e.g.,
Science, Math, etc.). This section is for daily work
and notes. The other tab will be one labeled "tests"
or "quizzes." This way, students can quickly
find their old tests and have them available to study
for tests or exams at the end of the grading period.
One set of clear tabbed dividers (optional)
for additional subdivisions in a particular subject.
. Notebook or "filler" paper
A student dictionary and/or thesaurus, preferably
three-hole punched. . An expandable file folder. three-
hole punched with an opening toward the binder rings.
This will hold anything that might otherwise become
a loose item (e.g., index cards, small paperback books,
and so forth).
Study coaches rnay also want to put together additional
notebooks that can show students alternative ways
of organization. Since schools often require that
students have multiple notebooks, students and their
families need to know that the goal is to minimize
the number of items students have to keep up with
during a school day.
Lesson planning. Once the coach has gathered the "show
and tell" materials, they will want to organize
the study skills curriculum into lesson plans. As
with all education, "training in these areas
is an essential component of advanced training in
academic therapy" (Perspectives, Fall 1998).
Lesson plans should include an outline for each session
of the course and the specific information that will
be taught during each session. In addition to plans
for the students and their lessons, a parent session
can be scheduled.
Tech-help and humor. Especially if the study coach
plans to teach in a small group but even in a one-to-one
setting, technological equipment and teaching supplies
will help communicate the concepts. Equipment and
supplies such as overhead slides, computers, power
point presentations, tape recorders, dry-erase boards,
and study assistance devices like Franklin spellers,
reading pens, and Alpha
Smart plus ample supplies for the students to use
during class are important to have on hand.
Study and organization skills can be pretty dull fare
unless the study coach presents the information with
lively enthusiasm and a great sense of humor. The
lessons can be 'peppered' with cute cartoons about
study skills and stories that give examples of the
strategy being taught. Pictures of organized binders,
lockers, and study areas are good visual examples
Teaching a Course: The Features and Sequence of a
Study Skills Class
Ideally students should take an intensive fifteen-hour
(up to thirty-hour) course just prior to the beginning
of a school semester either in early August or January.
However, if this is not possible, the course can be
spread over the length of the semester. For private
study coaches, the course can be taught in small groups
or in private tutoring sessions. The suggestions here
are also adaptable for regular or special education
classrooms, in public or private school settings.
If at all possible, study skills curriculum should
be taught as a complete unit or course that includes
all the skills students are likely to need in order
to improve their learning and boost their academic
success. This way when students have to use a specific
skill such as lecture note taking, with a study coach's
assistance, they can quickly review, practice, and
extend the skill if need be. Although a study skills
course should cover the gamut of skills in a relatively
short time (a week to a half semester or so), some
topics seem better suited to teaching immediately
prior to their occurrence. How to plan and study for
final exams is an example. About three weeks before
the scheduled final exams, students should return
to the study skills coach for a separate exam preparation
session designed to take them step-by- step through
the process of preparing for important, usually cumulative
Some students learn how to learn quickly, use organization
and study skills easily, and follow instructions and
teacher-directed tasks without much thought or effort.
Others, particularly students with learning disabilities,
take more time. They will need additional. monitoring
and sufficient occasions for practice and application
of the techniques. The ultimate goal is to help students
develop problem-solving skills. To do so . requires
instructional strategies purposefully intended to
help students develop their metacognitive abilities.
That is, you are teaching them to "think about
their thinking" by developing a course of
action to be taken in studying a subject
and then maintaining that plan over time
(Costa, 1984). They will learn how to analyze, follow
a sequence of operations, to
develop time management awareness,
keep up with materials, and keep track of the steps
at the conscious level for the duration of an assignment.
For example, teachers do this every day in the course
of planning and carrying out their daily lessons.
They develop a strategy for a subject lesson and,
keeping that in mind,
instruct, reflect and evaluate the strategy effectiveness
in order to produce the desired outcome of the lesson.
A possible presentation sequence.
The information presented below takes about fifteen
hours of instruction time, not including the finals
exam preparation class. The general topics listed
here are followed by the key concepts included in
each topic. In using the following sequence for planning
your lessons, of course, adapt the quantity and depth
of information you present to the needs of the students
you are working with, their grade level, and the amount
of time you have for presenting it. Begin the first
class session with personal introductions, an outline
of the presentation of skills, class rules, and a
rapport-building discussion. The rest of the classes
might follow this pattern:
. Organization Sessions: How to organize a locker,
how to set up a home study area; how to follow a routine
for home study. Setting up a notebook system, using
a file box and supply tote, and how to organize study
. Learning Styles Sessions: Include assessments on
personality temperaments and left brain/right brain
. Study Strategies Sessions: Include the ones used
at school and at home.
(see the Williams article in this issue)
. Finals Session: Go over steps to prepare for final
exams, write out the plan.
. Memory Strategies: Teach several mnemonic devices
during the course.
Some presentation details. During the first session,
ask students why they want or need a course for study
skills. Most of the time students answer that their
mother or father made them come. To win students over,
coaches must have honest respect for their predicament,
give continual positive feedback, and give hope that
grades can and will get better. Give students examples
of what academic disorganization looks like and show
them how they can start with a clean slate. Tell them
about the difference between a teacher, who teaches
a whole curriculum; a tutor, who teaches part of a
curriculum or helps fill in information/ability gaps;
a therapist, who helps with remediation of language
learning differences; and a study coach, who refines
and extends their skills so they can pick up speed
in learning and studying. Show students the effects
of being fragmented and how to use a new system of
organization and learning strategies. Teach them the
rules of study. These rules are first learn it, then
learn it well, and finally learn it well enough to
answer it quickly on a test (Williams 1984).
At the first session, students get a supply list of
everything they will need to purchase in order to
get organized. Then, they receive a teacher-developed
study skills notebook to work from during the course.
The study coach demonstrates how to organize the notebook
for school, the file box, and the supply box. At this
point, even the most discouraged students get excited
about the prospect of having all new supplies and
a structure for organization.
The study coach teaches students how to become organized
in the home and school environment and then how to
monitor their own time. How to use calendar planners
both weekly and monthly, are modeled for the student.
The instructor shows how to break~ assignments down
onto a calendar, ho~ to plan for future projects,
how to manage time for daily homework as well as fob
future tests. A daily routine is established which
is followed Monday through Thursday. The student may
have to do additional homework or study on the weekend,
but should maintain this routine during the school
week. The study routine goes like this: After taking
a short break, the student goes to the study area
and does three things.
. Updates calendar by putting future assignments on
the monthly calendar.
. Files all papers by taking graded work &Com
the back pocket folder in the school notebook, punching
holes in papers and filing them behind the appropriate
. Studies subject-by-subject in the order of the day.
This routine gives the student a place to begin so
that homework is always completed. A five to ten minute
review in subjects where no homework has been assigned
serves as a good review or enables students to get
The special case of students with dyslexia. For students
with dyslexia, a study and organizational skills course
can be a godsend. Structure and organization are often
serious problems for them and some need very meticulous
help in organizing materials, time, and teacher given
tasks. Learning how to organize is a good first step
toward helping them feel better about their schoolwork.
Study skills as part of the school curriculum. In
classroom settings, an organization and study strategies
course can be taught according to grade level taking
into account the size of the class and the amount
of time that can be set- aside to teach it during
normal school hours. For example, teaching the curriculum
for forty-five days, twenty minutes a session for
middle school students, or for twenty days, in fifty-
minute sessions for high school students. Each class
session may be further divided into additional segments
when specific skills are expanded. Once learning strategies
have been presented, classroom teachers have the added
control to immediately reinforce the skills during
the students' other classes. By practicing a particular
study skill in a subject area, like taking good notes
in a history class, the skill is strengthened and
the students become proficient and adept at using
strategy. Ultimately, the goal is for students to
learn a developmentally sound hierarchy of skills
and then have plenty of time to practice them.
Parents can be a big help. In addition to the regular
class sessions, the study coach should also set up
a session to meet with parents. The meeting can be
either before the study skills class begins or shortly
after the class ends. Many parents say they would
like to help their student but do not know how. The
parent meeting shows them specifically what to look
for and ways to help. For example, they can see if
completed homework is filed in the designated homework
folder, ready to be turned in the next day. This is
*text box * a time for parents to become familiar
with the new organization system as well as the study
skills strategies being taught to their students.
In the parent meeting, the coach describes the goals
for the study skills class and suggests ways in which
the parents can help at home or, if need be, work
as their child's advocate with the school.
The parents can help watch over the home environment,
materials, and skills, assisting when necessary and
without emotion, communicating acceptance and love
toward the child. Parents need to know also that children
do not have a system to protect themselves against
words like, "you are so lazy" and "try
harder" when it is obvious they are trying. These
words will stick with them forever. Discuss ways in
which the parent may contribute positively to the
academic success of their child by overseeing the
organization system, making sure materials are in
their proper place, checking assignments, providing
a quiet atmosphere to study, and being a cheerleader
for their children's successes.
After the Class: Monitoring By monitoring progress,
a study coach helps students use what they have learned
to turn their skills into habits. In the context of
study skills, the word 'monitoring' means to guide
or direct students in the process of learning how
to apply a strategy. In some ways monitoring is similar
to a tutor who helps a student improve a precise part
of the curriculum he or she does not quite understand.
In other ways, monitoring is more like some aspects
of athletic coaching in that a coach oversees, refines,
and encourages (or pushes) players to work harder
and improve so that they can perform the sport faster
and more efficiently. The academic coach does the
same for their students in the area of applying newly
acquired study, organization, and learning skills.
It is the application of the skills that makes the
biggest difference in learning more easily, learning
more, learning faster, and achieving better grades,
not just knowing about the skills themselves.
A routine for monitoring. Monitoring sessions are
usually an hour long. Each session has several components.
First, the coach greets the student or students and
asks specific questions about how they are progressing.
Specific questions are best so students do not answer
with the customary, "everything is fine."
For instance, "Did you have a conference with
your teacher about the grade you made on your last
Second, the coach checks students' notebooks. If necessary,
the organization system is refined and modified or
altered to meet students' needs or the school's requirements.
Third, the study coach extends a concept previously
taught, for example, teaching how to take discussion
notes in a science class. The fourth part of the monitoring
session offers suggestions to further refine the skills
or maximize progress. For example, a coach might ask
a student to set up an appointment with a teacher
in order to check whether the science notes are complete,
or might remind a student to correct his or her mistakes
on the most recent Spanish exam.
During the monitoring session, the study coach praises
students for using a specific learning strategy and
encourages them to continue tapping into their acquired
skills. At the end of the session, the coach records
COn1n1ents about the students' progress and academic
needs for reference on future lesson plans or for
talking to a parent about their student.
Final Reflections and a Caveat
John Quincy Adams said, "Learning is not attained
by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended
to with diligence" (May 8, 1780). Teaching study
skills and learning strategies is a noteworthy endeavor.
The study coach must be able to inspire, motivate,
encourage, and hearten students whose disorganization
and lack of study skills training have often made
them seem disinterested, unmotivated, discouraged,
and disheartened and, worst of all, made them feel
as if they could not learn.
As a study coach you are "a manager, an instructional
leader, and a mediator of learning who demonstrates
how to think about a task, apply strategies, and problem-solve
in novel situations" (Deshler 1996). With sufficient
instruction and enough guided practice, students will
begin using their newly acquired skills. As they see
the positive results of study, they gain greater self-confidence
and better self-esteem; they make higher grades and
more efficient and rapid progress in coursework; they
grow into independent learners and realize their extraordinary
potential. This is the 'payoff' of study and organization
skills both for them and for their study coaches.
For the study coach
there is no greater professional reward than helping
troubled and floundering students become successfulleamers.
Finally, remember if you give someone a fish, you
feed him for a day. If you teach someone how to fish,
you feed him for a lifetime, Teaching organization,
study skills and learning strategies is really about
teaching students how to fish for knowledge for a
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