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.