April 1996 - Assisting First Year Students - Hanley

Peter Hanley
Study Skills Adviser
James Cook University of North Queensland
Many First Year students need to get organised and motivated for university study. To assist students in this area the
Study Skills Advisers at James Cook University of North Queensland use an approach based on Stephen Covey's book
"The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People". Students are placed in study groups that meet weekly and follow a
process developed from Covey's ideas.
This approach has been incorporated into a project to assist First Year students in the Faculties of Science and
Engineering to develop effective study habits. 300 First Year students who were judged to be "at-risk" from their
tertiary entrance results received a letter at the beginning of First Semester 1995 inviting them to join one of the study
groups that had been set up for this project. Around 60 students regularly attended these study groups in First
Semester. Evaluations indicated that the project has had a number of positive benefits - these include helping
participants to understand what university study entails, the chance to discuss common concerns in a group setting and
the development of more effective study habits among group members.
Assisting first year students to develop effective study habits
One morning recently I sat on the bus beside a student who had several days earlier come to me for
study advice. He greeted me with "Good Morning Sir". I returned the greeting and added that
there was no need to call me "Sir" - Peter would do fine. This incident illustrates the dilemma faced
by many students who come to University straight from school. First Year marks the transition in
their learning careers from the phase where the teacher is the boss to where they are their own
bosses. These students often come to learning support staff saying they want help in getting
motivated. When asked to be more specific they may say things like they would like to get work in
on time, to avoid procrastination, to feel more enthusiastic about their course, to manage their time
better and so on. What many of these students are looking for is to be helped to "take control of
their own learning" (Salter-Duke,1992)
This paper describes one approach to assist students to "take control of their own learning" based on
the work of Stephen Covey (1989) that is being used by the Study Skills Advisers at James Cook
University. A project to provide study skills assistance to First Year students in the Faculties of
Science and Engineering that incorporates this approach in regular group study sessions is also
On assisting students to become motivated and organised for study
The first three major findings of a 1980 survey of student needs at the University of Melbourne
were that:
.a significant proportion of all students do experience serious study problems
.these serious problems are not restricted to "study skills" difficulties but more commonly are
problems of organization of work and motivation
.well-timed and competent assistance does improve performance, including in examinations.
(Frederick, Hancock,James,Bowden and Macmillan 1980)
This report went on to recommend the establishment of a small Learning Skills Unit at the
University. Now in 1995 there are learning support staff at every Australian university. While there
is a great deal published in the literature about some areas of learning assistance (e.g. language and
learning) there is not much about motivation and organisation of study.
David Anderson (1990) reported the results of a semester of teaching study and learning skills to
tertiary students with low T.E. scores at the University of Southern Queensland. In this study the
results in the First Year exams of 112 students who completed the course (the experimental group)
were compared with the results of a further 61 students who had similar T.E. scores but who were
unaware that attendance at the study skills course was mandatory. Anderson's study found that the
results of the experimental group were significantly better than those of the control group. He found
that students in the experimental group got fewer fail grades than those in the other group and were
more likely to stay with their courses. Student evaluations of the course were very positive.
In the course students were provided with a skills-based program which provided immediate reassurance and success in on-going tasks. Above all students were encouraged to use study skills to
meet their learning needs. The main topics in the course were learning theories, study skills,
memory, motive and motivation, stress management, personal management and exam management
techniques. An important aim of the program was to convince students of their need to change and
of the usefulness of the skills offered to aid that change.
Of the students taking part in the course Anderson believed that many of the students had the ability
but experience had lead them to see themselves as unsuccessful and therefore as poor students. An
important aim of Anderson's course was to change this perception so that the students could see
themselves as autonomous learners who could succeed.
There are four Study Skills Advisers (two full-time and two part-time) at the Townsville campus of
James Cook University of North Queensland. The approach we use in assisting students to become
more motivated and better organised for study draws on the approach of Stephen Covey (1989) In
his book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" Covey identifies seven habits that are
common to the lives of many effective people. The first three habits are relevant to students
struggling to make the transition from school to University. They are
Habit 1 - Be proactive
Habit 2 - Begin with the end in mind
Habit 3 - First Things First
The opposite of proactive is reactive. Many students are in the reactive mode - up all night
completing assignments that are due the next day, last minute swots before tests and examinations
and so on. Their life is a constant meeting of deadlines and they feel that their course is controlling
or driving them.
By proactive Covey means that as human beings we are responsible for our own lives. Our
behaviour must be seen as a function of our decisions and not of our conditions. Covey says that
proactive people do not blame circumstances, conditions or conditioning for their behaviour. Their
behaviour is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their
conditions based on feelings.
In any course of study there are things that are beyond the control of the student. Exams and
assignment deadlines are obvious examples. The student does have control over his or her response.
The proactive student considers test dates and due dates for assignments and reports and then plans
responses accordingly. The role of the study skills adviser is to help students to see that they do
have control over the way they respond to the demands placed upon them.
Covey's second habit "BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND" is about becoming the person you wish
to be. The implication for the commencing student is that an important key to motivation is keeping
long term goals in mind. This habit also has a short-term application in reminding students that for
each time they sit down to study their work will be more productive if they have a particular goal in
The third habit is "FIRST THINGS FIRST". To introduce this habit Covey introduces a useful
matrix to divide tasks into quadrants depending on whether they are important or not important and
urgent or not urgent. The matrix below places some common study tasks into these categories.
Revision of lecture notes
soon after lecture
Preparation for tutorials etc.
Planning study program
Assignments due soon
Beginning research for an essay well before the due date
Unnecessary copying out of
lecture notes
Photocopying references without
Trivia,busy work
One hour coffee breaks
Unplanned work i.e.sitting assessing their value at desk
with no definite goal
Covey maintains that for people to be effective in any field of endeavour it is important that they do
not neglect the Quadrant 2 tasks - tasks that are important but not urgent. For students this means
getting into the habit of planning their study so that important tasks are not neglected or forgotten.
We encourage students to get into the habit of weekly planning and to aim to complete several
Quadrant II tasks each week as well as getting the urgent, important tasks from Quadrant I done.
When students come for help with motivation the first thing we do is help them to be clear about
what they are asking for. If they really wish to "take control of their own learning" then they need
to realise that this will often require changing set habits which is never easy. It will require them to
do things like getting into a regular study routine and planning their work on a weekly basis so that
important tasks are not forgotten.
We have found that the best context for making these changes is the study group. At the first
meeting of the group we get students to reflect on the way they study and for this we make use of
material on learning styles. From this we ask the group to suggest strategies for improving study
techniques. Invariably the techniques suggested relate to Covey's three habits and this then leads to
a discussion of what being proactive means and what developing effective study habits entails.
Group members are then encouraged to set personal goals for changes that they would like to make
to their study habits.
At the next group meeting members are invited to report back to the group on their progress in
achieving their goals over the previous week. We then look at Covey's second and third habits with
particular emphasis on "First Things First". The time matrix is introduced and the group is invited
to place various study tasks into one of the four categories. We then discuss ways of ensuring that
the Quadrant II (important, not urgent) tasks are not forgotten. At this second meeting we also give
out blank timetable sheets and invite students to keep a record of how they spend their time during
the coming week.
At the third group meeting students analyse the records of how they spent their time. We look at
things such as how much time was spent on Quadrant II tasks and how much time was wasted.
Members are encouraged to consider ways of making their use of time more effective.
The groups meet for a minimum of four weeks and an important part of each meeting is the
debriefing time - an opportunity for students to meet in groups of three or four to discuss how their
study is going. Later sessions also incorporate input from the Study Skills Adviser on topics such
as assignment writing and problem solving. We have found that for many students groups provide
the necessary support that they need to make changes to their study practices.
The remainder of this paper describes a project to provide study skills assistance that incorporates
the above ideas to First Year students in the Faculties of Science and Engineering.
First year study skills project in the faculties of science and engineering.
In 1994 a joint project between the Study Skills Adviser (Science) and the Dean of Engineering was
organised to provide assistance to students in First Year Engineering who were perceived to be "at
risk". For the purpose of this project "at risk" students were defined as those with OP Scores of 10
and above. Some students from the "special entry" category were also included. These students
were invited to participate in a weekly lunchtime study skills session with the Study Skills Adviser.
One important objective of these groups was to help these students to develop effective study skills.
Fourteen students attended these sessions on a regular basis and of these eight students passed the
First Year of their course, three passed the majority of their subjects, one passed two subjects and
the other two withdrew.
A questionnaire survey carried out each semester indicated that all students found the sessions to be
helpful. The responses to the questionnaire and subsequent discussion revealed that many First Year
Engineering students at the beginning of First Semester had no idea of what University study
involved. In the words of one student "In Week 1 we were told that we should be doing 40 hours
per week - but doing what?"
It was decided to continue the Engineering Project in 1995. Invitations were sent to 40 students
with OP scores of 8 and above at the beginning of First Semester inviting them to attend a weekly
study group meeting. Nineteen students have attended at least one session and fifteen students are
regularly attending.
A similar project has also commenced in the Science Faculty. Examination of results in the First
Year exams in the Science Faculty in 1994 revealed a high correlation between exam outcomes and
OP Scores. The Science Faculty decided that in 1995 students entering with high OP scores would
be encouraged to attend study skills classes conducted by the Study Skills Adviser. Letters were
sent to 255 students with O.P. scores of nine and above inviting them to attend one of six weekly
study groups. Of these students 41 students came to at least one study session and 23 are regularly
attending. The study groups are open to all students and twenty students who are not members of
the target group also regularly attend.
The program developed for the study groups reflects the needs of students during the semester. In
the first weeks of the semester the emphasis was on acquiring effective study habits (based on
Covey's habits of effectiveness discussed earlier in this paper). In mid-semester we worked on
problem-solving and assignment writing skills and towards the end of the semester the focus shifted
to exam preparation. As stated earlier the emphasis in these sessions is on group learning rather than
The record of attendance gives us some indication of the success of the program. The fact that
attendance was not compulsory yet over sixty students regularly attended the weekly sessions leads
us to believe that student needs were being met.
The effectiveness of the group study sessions is being measured in several ways. In Week 8 of the
semester a total of 60 evaluations were sent to students who had attended at least one of the study
groups . At the time of writing (April) 24 evaluations had been received - all from students who
regularly attended the study groups.
One question on the evaluation asked students to outline any changes they were aware of in their
approach to study. Things listed by a number of students indicated that they were "taking control of
their learning" - these included allocating set times for tasks, following a study routine,revising
lecture notes, planning for practicals and tutorials, use of lists and goals and not feeling so guilty
about taking time for recreation. To the question of what was found most helpful about the study
skills sessions, common responses were the realisation that others were also experiencing
difficulties and the opportunity provided to identify common problem areas then seek solutions. A
thorough analysis will be made of these evaluations once all responses have been received.
An analysis will also be carried out of the results of participating students in the First Semester
examinations. Their results will be compared with those of the students in the target category who
did not participate in the program. If the results of participating students are significantly better then
it would be reasonable to assume that the study groups were a contributing factor to this difference.
The project will continue in Semester 2. Invitations will be sent to any students in the two faculties
who fail subjects in the First Semester exams and a second round of study groups will commence.
Peter Hanley,
Study Skills Adviser
James Cook University
Anderson, D. (1990) "The results of a semester of teaching learning skills to tertiary students with low T.E. scores",
Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Learning and Language Conference, QUT Counselling Services, Brisbane.
Covey, Stephen R. (1989) "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" Information Australia, Melbourne.
Frederick J., Hancock L., James B., Bowden J.,Macmillan C. (1980)
"Learning Skills: A review of needs and services to students at the University of Melbourne", University of Melbourne,
Salter-Duke, L. (1992) "What is Study Skills? What are Study Skills?" Paper presented at the Fifth International
Conference on Thinking, Townsville, July 1992