Study and Communication Skills for the Chemical Sciences

studyskillsoverton

A few months ago I reviewed a book Study Skills for Science, Technology and Engineering Students. While I couldn’t fault the authors on the content or their good intentions to pass on useful information gleaned from years of experience of giving students advice, it reminded me of a book I once used as a student myself (long ago). For me, both of these books fell into two traps; they had a lot of densely packed pages full of text with endless tips and strategies that despite good intentions left the reader (if it was read at all) confused and secondly, they had a secret ambition of being a book for lecturers teaching study skills rather than a book for students. This latter purpose may not have been intentional by the authors, but as the gold standard in this category (Stella Cottrell’s The Study Skills Handbook) shows, a huge amount of effort is required to make a book of this nature applicable to the student reader. For this very reason though, it is most suited to lecturers teaching this topic.

As it was, I had to ask my brother what studying entailed. I wish I had this book, Study and Communication Skills for the Chemical Sciences though, which was published this month. It gets its audience perfectly, just as Cottrell does. The books designers have done a great job with the clear design and typeface, and the authors are consciously presenting concise, useful information, without trivialising or over-simplifying. From the areas of the content that I know about, it is obvious that everything the authors are writing is underwritten by best practice and research, but this does not burden or impose on the clear narrative. There are useful metaphors, with chapters on various topics, outlined below. What makes the book a keeper though and in my opinion one that will run for several editions, is its very intentional situational and subject context – everything is considered from the student perspective. The authors say they mean business right at the very start when they write on page four what is essentially the philosophy underlying the book:

We have identified the need to manage your time well… but that doesn’t mean we are going to deal with it in an abstract way – with a chapter just about time management, for example. Instead we address it in what we think is a much more helpful way: giving you advice about how to manage your time wherever it is relevant, in context…

The book considers all areas of students’ academic activity during their degree, including lectures, tutorials, group work and lab work as well as the various forms of communication expected of a modern scientist – writing, presenting, posters. Exam preparation and feedback are also discussed. Each chapter is short and in general, self-contained, and the book, while readable as a whole will be most used as a reference for specific topics or specific times of the year. I can’t fault any chapters, although I would have brought the feedback chapter either right to the front, or embedded into the other chapters (e.g. feedback on lab work, feedback on and within group work), as in reality it is probably not a chapter a student will read as a stand alone unit. The chapter on career planning and PDP might have been brought to the front, and/or perhaps various skills that would be incorporated into that highlighted in various subsequent chapters (i.e. use the book to actively construct a PDP). However, the chapter on lab work does discuss skills from lab work effectively. The chapters on writing and plagiarism are really excellent – just detailed enough without being pedantic. The chapters on presentations, especially the chapter on posters, should be mandatory reading for all students! Similarly, the chapter on group work will be useful to students, but to staff also for helping students undertake the often misunderstood process of group work. The revision chapter is a difficult one to judge – it is excellent, but I wondered, like the feedback chapter, whether it should be embedded in the lecture and other chapters, as as it is, its placement may be an unintended contradiction – revision is not something considered towards the end.

The use of diagrams is excellent, but I hope that in future editions the authors make much greater use of these, as they are carefully considered and demonstrate how diagrams can very effectively summarise a lot of text. Not including more does their work a disservice. The diagram illustrating note making while reading is exactly the kind of thing students get confused about, and it is a beautiful example how a diagram can immediately inform.

Finally, the authors are being far too humble. This book is easily applicable to many more students than those just in chemical sciences – certainly any science student will find everything in here applicable. I’ve ordered copies for the library already and this is definitely a reference to include in induction sessions and module handbooks.

Book Review: How to write a lot

How to Write a Lot, Paul J Silvia, APA Washington, 2007.

This is a great little book. Apart from its content and central message (which is obvious), I love the style. There are no boxed asides, no “Top Ten Hits from the Best Writers“, no planning charts,  or any other visual false idols, which make you feel like you are going to be a better writer having looked at them. Instead, it’s like a book of old, containing just paragraphs of text (imagine that!), with a simple but elegant imprint. The occasional New Yorker cartoon matches the author’s dry sense of humour.

Writing takes time

The message of the book is simple – allocate time to writing. But you don’t need a book to tell you this. The first chapter sets the theme for the book. Writing is hard, and there is no easy way to write a lot. To write a lot takes hard work – so you need to allocate time to it. The honesty is refreshing.

The honesty continues into chapter two, where several “specious barriers” to writing are easily (and amusingly) dismantled. I must admit to holding onto a few of these barriers myself (“needing a space to write” being among them), and as a practical outcome of reading the book, I am willing to approach writing anew. Chapter three discusses motivation, and the very important aspect of monitoring. In monitoring my own writing of a major document last year, I couldn’t refute the damning evidence that I was, like most academics, a binge writer. Binge writing is an uncomfortable, unpleasant experience. Deadlines loom, writing is fast and there is little time for reflection. The output is satisfactory at best, and one is left with a sense of “I could have done that better but I didn’t have the time”. I admit (as the book itself astutely states) that there are a few major writings of mine, including some academic articles, that I look at now in horror and wish I could rewind the typewriter and redo. Regularly writing means that the notion of binge writing no longer holds.

After reading the book you are left with a sense of "Yes We Can!" (Picture Credit: Marcn on Flickr - link below)

Style and academic output

Chapter four outlines the benefit of writing in groups – simply because social pressure is a useful motivational tool. This shouldn’t be a surprise to academics, as we recommend with good reason that students study in groups for similar reasons, and more. Chapter five discusses some elements of style, and while I don’t think it is necessary in this book, there are some amusing pet-hates the author clearly needs to get out of his system. The comment on “existing literature” (p. 62) makes the book a worthwhile read in itself. Chapters six and seven discuss journal articles and books. While there are some elements in these chapters that will be useful to newcomers to this area (including some details on layout of paper and what to do when a reviewer gets nasty), the core message of the book is in the earlier chapters – allocate time to writing and many of the problems associated with writing disappear.

Overall

The book is easily read over two or three cups of coffee, during times when you could be writing I suppose. But after reading it, I am left with a clearer sense of “a writing approach”, that a book with lots of plans and graphics could never have given me. This is mainly due to the author’s own style of writing, which to coin a favourite phrase, gives me a feeling of “Yes I Can!”.

Link to Picture Source