How to teach “student success” skills

Toward the end of my last post I scrambled on top of a soap box on the topic of college readiness and education, but I want to return to Darla Cooper’s report to address the three elements she identifies as boosting the educational success rates of students emerging from foster care. They are:

1) “basic skills” coursework (remedial classes in the three Rs);

2) “student success” courses (classes that build student skills in things like test-taking, note-taking, and time management), and

3) “career pathway” programs that allow students to advance in a specific occupation or industry via a series of connected courses and training opportunities. (6-7)

I am particularly interested in instruction in basic skills and student success. As i mention in my post on teaching students how to write, I think that many of these skills are the sort of things that should not be taught in isolation, but rather in context.

There are exceptions, of course, with something instruction in standardized test-taking—a tragedy in itself—which cannot be elegantly integrated into a content lesson. But note-taking, for example, is something that can easily be brought up at the beginning of a course and practiced throughout. I remember that as a freshman in high school the very first text we read in English class was the Odyssey (and looking back, boy, was that not a wise choice). My classmates and I read the first assignment diligently armed with highlighters and came into class with entire passages, if not pages, colored in swaths of neon yellow. Our English teacher took one look at our books and immediately counseled us to swap our highlighters to pens or pencils, explaining that we should be marking our passages more strategically so that our eyes are drawn to certain words and sentences, rather than being lost in a sea of color. When I teach this skill to students it’s useful to bring to class a text I’ve already read and marked up to model to students how to read with a pencil in hand. (Of course, adjustments need to be made for students who borrow their textbooks or wish to sell them at the end of the year.)

You might have picked up on the fact that this lesson in “note-taking” is actually one in how to become an active reader—a process we refine over the years and tailor to our own specific tastes (in fact, in graduate school I learned that I could dispense with a pencil altogether for certain texts, while others demanded a combination of pencil and highlighter upon repeated readings). But it is something that can and should be explicitly taught early on.

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