Essential Study Skills – Reviewed

[The people at Sage have sent me a copy of the latest edition of "Essential Study Skills: The Complete Guide to Success at University" by Tom Burns and Sandra Sinfield. This is my personal review of the book.]

Sometimes you need a place to start in order to start organising your thoughts. Sometimes you need a place that’ll give you some thoughts to start off with. “Essential Study Skills” attempts to do that.

The authors are keen to make their book as easy to digest as possible. The first chapter guides you through the layout of the book and how to use it effectively.

With more than 450 pages, Essential Study Skills —which they call ESS3 for short— is not designed as a fast read to be digested in one go. Rather, the book covers many aspects of your learning and also advises on various other aspects of uni life that you’re likely to encounter.

Each chapter starts with aims and learning outcomes, then ends with review points. Within each chapter are many additional tips to help you on your way. Even at a glance, you can see this is a feature-packed book.

ESS3 is written with a focus on students who are the first in their family to go to university, so it doesn’t assume you have any prior knowledge or guidance. And there is still plenty to chew on, no matter how many generations of your family have attended uni.

With so much information at your fingertips, you may even feel overwhelmed. Must you *really* know all this in order to study effectively? Well, no. The point of the book is to help you ease into your work and pick up important tips and techniques as you go along. It’s the type of book you would be glad to have around throughout your degree, not the day before your essay is due in.

There are times when the advice goes so far that I can’t see many students following the whole way. For instance, the chapter on working in groups has so much detail on making the team work that it ends with a group building exercise to bring everyone closer. There’s nothing wrong with the idea, but it’s an idea of how the authors clearly did not want to leave any stone unturned. If this is going to benefit one group of students, then the authors have succeeded. This type of overkill is great, unless you’re overwhelmed by so much detail, as I mentioned earlier.

But I urge that you take a deep breath and let the book work over time, as it’s designed. Here are two reasons:

  1. We are all different – One person’s potion is another person’s poison. The book gives you various alternatives and lets you explore what works best for you. ESS3 isn’t a ‘this is how to…’ book, it’s a ‘this is how you…’ book.
  2. You will find things you wouldn’t have expected – As I looked through the book, I found a list of 10 sites for creating outlines. There were sites I hadn’t heard of. Sites that I was glad to discover, such as Quicklyst.

And going back to the first point, you’re bound to find at least one outlining tool from the list of ten that works for you. That’s the beauty of having alternatives to try. If the first doesn’t suit, you’ve got nine more to try!

You will probably find yourself devouring some sections of Essential Study Skills, while merely glancing through others. You may or may not return to those chapters later. I would have spent little time on the chapter about making notes, while you may think that the most useful chapter in the book.

The book covers more than the “Essential Study Skills” that the title suggests. The book’s subtitle is “The Complete Guide to Success at University”. That’s why you’re treated to information about being a fresher, using university services, dealing with emotions, and working on your Personal Development Planning (PDP).

The final chapter on what to do once you’ve finished university is strangely brief. The authors are aware of this and explain that many of the necessary skills required to be a successful graduate are similar to those skills required to be a successful student. Precisely what the whole book is about!

While this is true enough, any student about to graduate should look for more information elsewhere for a fuller picture. In particular, only one paragraph discusses the possibility of postgraduate study and the main advice is to prepare like you would for “an especially tricky assignment”.

However, if you have bought this book in your first year (or even before you start), it will easily take you through several years of study. The brevity of the final chapter is not exactly a major issue. Think of it more as a surprise when you’re used to chapter after chapter of detailed advice on mastering your academic technique.

Essential Study Skills is a great book to keep close to you while you develop during your degree. You’re not expected to be perfect after years of practice, let alone after a single term in your fresher year. This book helps you to understand that, yet at the same time helps you strive to bring out your best at all times.

The book is available now in paperback (RRP £14.99) and hardback (RRP £56.00) editions.