The move to online and blended learning provision in universities due to the current pandemic has arguably catalyzed the shift increased offerings of ‘study skills’ and ‘academic support’ online in the form of generic study skills materials and, perhaps, drop-in sessions with study skills providers. This is an ideal context from a neoliberal perspective and makes our new article in Teaching in Higher Education particularly relevant.
In the article we consider study skills as a ‘magical solution’, a Tinkerbell, one providing a universally applicable, low-cost deliverable ‘go to’ service for students and lecturers. For students, it helps with adjustment to unfamiliar academic environments; for lecturers they can both direct students to, and also call out for ‘embedded’ help. So, if students are struggling, or lecturers are struggling to help them, don’t worry! No problem, this magical support exists to help!
However, such a solution is only magical provided the magic is believed in – analogously, as outlined in J.M. Barrie’s 1911 work Peter Pan, Tinkerbell only exists if people believe in fairies, possibly through the sprinkling of fairy dust or through the audience clapping. If however, study skills is to be seen as a Tinkerbell, what then, do people need to believe in for it to be a magical solution? We argue people need to believe in four key tenets. Firstly that study skills can be defined; as if this can’t be done, study skills can’t be isolated to be taught. Secondly that study skills transfer to all contexts; as if this isn’t possible, it will only be valuable for one. Thirdly that study skills can be ‘embedded’ into a subject syllabus; as if this were not possible then ‘study skills’ can’t help. Finally, and fourthly, that when students present or write well, that it is study skills that has facilitated this ability; as if it were not so, why bother spending time on study skills?
We argue these four tenets are all baseless: firstly, so many definitions of study skills exist it is indefinable; secondly, the ‘skills’ required for each subject are so unique they cannot transfer; thirdly, that whenever success is hailed for any ‘embedded’ study skills, it is actually the taught subject content that works (and that students appreciate) rather than any impact of study skills. Fourthly, and finally, when students write or present well, it is not because of their excellent study skills, rather, it is their subject knowledge and ability that facilitates ‘good’ study skills.
And yet, if this is the case, two nagging questions emerge: one, who do study skills serve? And two, how has such a situation arisen? For question one, we argue the answer is: it serves neoliberal ideology and political economy. In current study skills provision, universalised provision can be administered cheaply through a ‘light-touch’ model that is cheap and can be set up online and needs very little maintenance. Further, it helps reduce costs because anyone can deliver it and no-one needs to be a subject specialist – and this, of course, means it is cheaper to employ people to create and deliver it. Further, the students must be ‘responsibilised’ and rely on their human capital to make the most of it, and, critically, lecturers can be told that support exists to justify the massification of classes and huge increases in staff-student ratios. All these qualities make it the perfect Tinkerbell for neoliberalism.
What then, of question two? How has such a situation arisen? We consider Giddens’ structuration theory, whereby structures exist through a duality of their creation, and through their reinforcement by individuals following what they prescribe. Further, and drawing on Lukes’ third dimension of power, we consider students and lecturers are encouraged to act (or to refrain from acting) against their own best interests. This is because they are told that study skills is a magical solution that exists to help them, and hey! – if they don’t have the responsibility to access it, then surely it is purely their own fault if they do not do well?
How did we arrive at all the above? Through a number of years of practising as lecturers in the area, and through the insightful observations of the reviewers on what we submitted. What do we recommend? That students and lecturers cease to believe in the study skills Tinkerbell and instead ask for more support and help to be taught and delivered in the subject itself that they are studying.
Kendall Richards and Nick Pilcher (Edinburgh Napier University)