Are you an ELA teacher who has a general idea of the importance of study skills, but you just can’t seem to make time for teaching study skills in your classroom? Read on to find out why you should make time for study skills instruction in your lessons.

In the first senior English class I taught, I was stunned one day when I asked students to write a bibliography for their research paper only to be met with blank stares and *crickets*.teacher at chalkboard with text c'mon guys give me more than crickets

So, I spent the next 20 minutes explaining how to research.

On the board, I drew my system for completing research.

This included taking notes from a variety of sources, differentiating direct quotes from paraphrasing in my notes, recording sources, re-arranging notes into paragraph topics (while still keeping track of sources), and then writing a draft.

Luckily, I had just completed my Master’s, so I could easily remember how I typically wrote a paper!

As frustrating as it was to have students near the end of their high school career who had little ability to independently work on a research paper, it was an important reminder.

It demonstrated that a) teachers shouldn’t assume that students have been taught study skills and b) teachers need to be explicitly teaching (and re-teaching) study skills in ALL their classes. There is no guarantee that your students have ever taken a study skills class or had study skills explicitly taught to them.

And, just in case you need more convincing to devote your precious class minutes to (re)teaching skills your students should already know, check out this list of 8 awesome reasons to focus on study skills in ELA.

But before we do that, what are study skills and why are they important?

We have a general idea of what study skills are and why they are important, but in a nutshell, study skills are those academic and executive functioning skills that enable students to organize and manage their study time effectively.

We know that study skills are important for a variety of reasons, but most teachers are likely to point out that stronger study skills generally equate to stronger academic results. And they aren’t wrong.

However, there are other important reasons to include study skills lessons in your ELA classroom.

1. Students’ academic self-efficacy increases with learning effective study skills

As teachers, we probably realize the importance of study skills to academic achievement. However, this study of the retention of college- or university-level students shows that an improvement in practical study skills, such as note-taking or using a textbook, also increased students’ sense of self-efficacy.

That is, throughout the study skills program, students began to see that they were capable of achieving academic success if they did the work and used appropriate study strategies.

The self-belief, along with improved practical skills, helped students achieve greater academic success.

2. Academic achievement increases with effective study skills

Students’ academic performance increases when they have more effective study skills in their arsenal, according to this study.

The study found that those with higher GPAs “scored significantly higher” in the study skills of:

  • time management and procrastination
  • concentration and memory
  • study aids and notetaking
  • test strategies and test anxiety
  • organizing and processing information
  • motivation and attitude
  • reading and selecting the main idea

To reinforce the importance of the above study skills to their students, teachers need to teach and re-teach them.

Just as you teach or re-teach students how to construct a paragraph before an essay or paper is due, this research suggests that teaching students these skills throughout the year (as well as when it is timely) would benefit students.

Ideas for how to teach these skills are listed below:

  • time management and procrastination: model and give class time to students to create a study plan for the week/topic/unit etc
  • concentration and memory: show students how to use mnemonics, Anki cards, and flashcards, or have a link to an online Pomodoro timer and Anki on your class page
  • study aids and notetaking: show students different methods of note-taking (see the end of this post for more info), regularly ask students to use a variety of note-taking styles in class, scaffold student notes when appropriate
  • test strategies and test anxiety: model strategies of what to do if students get stuck on a question, discuss how lower results/failure of ‘high-stakes’ exams can be overcome
  • organizing and processing information: model different note-taking strategies, model writing and composition strategies, and show students how to synthesize information from different sources using graphic organizers
  • motivation and attitude: show students an online Pomodoro timer, give students class time to set goals and monitor their progress, and discuss the idea of a growth mindset frequently
  • reading and selecting the main idea: model in class during whole-class, small-group, and individual reading

3. More capable students procrastinate less

Another reason to keep the importance of study skills in mind when teaching is that more confident and capable students procrastinate on study tasks less frequently than those who are less capable.

In addition, the study above found that those who were less capable also:

  • received lower grades
  • spent more time procrastinating each day
  • took longer to start assessment tasks
  • expressed less confidence in their ability to regulate their own learning
  • were more anxious
  • were more likely to cram for exams

This finding is important as it shows that those who possessed study skills were more effective studiers. By teaching students how to study effectively, teachers may be able to increase their confidence and skills.

4. Productive time on task is more effective than total time on task

Linked to the idea above, over the long term, students who completed a study skills program believed the course had improved their ability to regulate their learning, according to this study.

This finding is important because the old-school “time-on-task” idea of studying can “be directly harmful since it can lead to surface learning strategies.”

The study argues that “productive time is a better measure” of study success because the time spent on inappropriate study tasks is wasted study time.

So students who focus more on productive tasks perform better. This means that, as teachers, we can help students improve their study skills by “focusing on increasing productive time.”

A useful strategy to increase the important study skill of productive time on-task can be as easy as helping students generate a list of to-do tasks for an assessment and then rate them in importance from most to least important.

This helps students identify which tasks are most important and which tasks they should focus their time and attention on.

5. Learning to avoid distraction is one of the best skills to teach

Adolescent girl looking at phone instead of studying

In the above study, researchers also found that being unable to avoid distraction is the reason that most students rated “as the top reason for not using . . . a good study technique”.

For teachers trying to inculcate effective study habits, providing “new ideas on how to deal with inefficient study habits” is likely to be useful to students. Further, about 90% of students in the study reported that ideas on how to reduce procrastinating would have the “most effect on their learning”.

Ideas that may prove beneficial in the classroom include:

  • helping students construct to-do lists
  • using timers in the classroom to work on tasks (modeling the Pomodoro technique) and then ‘reward’ students for time-on-task with ‘free time’ or a ‘brain break’
  • discussing how to create an appropriate study environment
  • modeling an appropriate study environment on your desk (perhaps by starting with an inappropriate environment and asking for suggestions)

6. Successful learners are active learners

The most successful students in this study were “active information processors and synthesizers who use strategies to fit their needs and goals”.

In other words, they use metacognitive skills (such as planning their learning, selecting appropriate study strategies, and reflecting on their learning) to achieve their academic goals.

This study recommends that teachers should “not only teach students how to learn, but also . . . how to remember, how to think, and how to motivate themselves”.

7. Unsuccessful learners are often unaware of their ineffective strategy selection

The above study also suggests that “younger and less academically mature students, are not likely to be aware of their cognition nor be able to articulate” their thoughts when reflecting on their own thinking and learning.

Despite each student in the study perceiving themselves as “a somewhat successful learner . . . satisfied with his/her present study habits”, only half of the study participants were defined by the researchers as a “successful learner”.

Further, the “unsuccessful” students “appeared restless during the study session”, were sometimes unaware of their own reading difficulties, and were unable to select appropriate study strategies.

Teachers may be able to monitor this study skill by:

  • paying particular attention to “restless” students
  • modeling appropriate study strategy selection, for example by asking students whether it would be better to ‘skim’ a reading passage or ‘close-read’ a passage based on a series of questions students already have
  • asking students to reflect on their grades and study habits at periodic intervals, paying closer attention to students with vague answers

8. Study skills are not often explicitly taught

Most importantly, this study shows that study skills are not often explicitly taught, especially organization skills.

The study noted that “Many teachers did not directly teach organization skills” as they assumed that parents would do it. Meanwhile, many parents were either unable to teach organizational skills or assumed that their children would learn them at school.

Sadly, the effects of poor organizational skills on students include:

  • being unable to “organize tasks and activities later in life”
  • having lower academic results due to incomplete work or missing instruction
  • feeling more stress
  • having poor self-esteem issues
  • failing post-secondary education
  • having reduced job opportunities if employers feel organizational skills will need to be taught
  • perpetuating the cycle of poverty and low socioeconomic status within a family
  • not being able to effectively catch up on missed work

The study researchers set up a binder system to model effective organizational and study skills. The teacher modeled how to use a binder to organize schoolwork, such as organizing notes by subject in the binder, collecting assessment papers, and keeping track of and prioritizing assessment tasks.

The teacher also implemented periodic follow-ups to check whether the students complied with the binder system. The study found that explicitly teaching these skills improved the organizational skills of students, particularly younger students.

However, the author noted that for the modeling to be effective, students and their parents needed to “buy in” to the binder system. Where parents didn’t “buy-in” their children were less likely to follow through.

Other things the study recommended that teacher’s explicitly model included:

  • setting up a quiet, distraction- and clutter-free study space
  • demonstrating how to clean and tidy a study area
  • how to plan out study time/schedule
  • how to plan out study tasks
  • giving in-class time to plan out-of-class study time/tasks
  • giving students scaffolded notes that don’t overwhelm them
  • model and practice active listening

So what does this mean for ELA teachers?

In summary, it is obvious how important study skills are not just to academic achievement, but also to general success in life. Particularly as many of these ‘study skills’ are also skills and habits that lead to real-life success.

However, this information suggests that the students who would most benefit from study skill instruction are often those who:

  • lack confidence
  • are from low socioeconomic status families
  • are from families with less educational attainment
  • miss lots of class time
  • don’t hand in work
  • can’t articulate how and why they arrive at their answers
  • procrastinate and are easily distracted
  • don’t select effective study strategies or techniques

You probably have students that fit one or several of these criteria. Reflecting on my senior English class, I know I had several students who met these criteria.

With many demands on their time, teachers may find it more beneficial to focus on reinforcing these study skills and their importance with students who meet the above criteria.

Offering rewards for implementing appropriate study skills may be particularly beneficial to older students, as they are less likely to ‘buy-in’ to learning these skills if their parents do not value them. A tangible and immediate reward may increase students’ willingness to learn and use these study skills.

Reinforcing the importance of study skills: how to start?

You don’t need to be a study skills teacher to teach your students more effective study skills. And while incorporating study skills into your ELA (or any other) class is important, but it doesn’t have to be time-consuming. 

You don’t need to implement a full study skills curriculum into your lessons, you can just choose timely and relevant study skills for your students. Easy ways to start include:

  • Scaffolding student notes (for example, fill-in-the-blanks notes, question/answer notes, finish-the-sentence notes)
  • Show students how to set up their notebooks
  • Giving students 5 minutes at the end of class to check their binders or calendars and work out when they’ll do their homework or assessment
  • Keep a class calendar visible in the classroom with important dates (such as when different topics are covered when, when an assessment is due, when tests and quizzes are scheduled for etc)
  • Show students techniques to avoid procrastination such as the Pomodoro technique
  • Break down large assessments into smaller ‘chunks’ and assign due dates for the ‘chunks’
  • Watch some study skills videos and then get students to practice the skills in class

If you manage to squeeze in some explicit study skills instruction, the next time you do a research paper, you might just hear more than crickets when you ask students to provide a bibliography.

Want to learn more about the importance of study skills?

These blogposts might interest you:

These study skills worksheets might help you out:

These videos, websites, and podcasts might be useful:

Academic sources about the importance of study skills used in this post:

Gambill, Jill M.; Moss, Lauralee A.; Vescogni, Christie D. 2008. “The Impact of Study Skills and Organizational Methods on Student Achievement.” Action Research Project., Saint Xavier University. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED501312.pdf

Hassanbeigi, Afsaneh.; Askari, Jafar.; Nakhjavani, Mina.; Shirkhoda, Shima.; Barzegar, Kazem.: Mozayyan, Mohammed R.; Fallahzadeh, Hossein. 2011. “The relationship between study skills and academic performance of university students.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 30 (2011): 1416-1424. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187704281102101X.

Hedin, Bjorn and Kann, Viggo., 2019. “Improving Study Skills by Combining a Study Skill Module and Repeated Reflection Seminars.” Education Research International, vol. 2019: 8 pages. https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/9739854

Loranger, Ann L., 1994. “The Study Strategies of Successful and Unsuccessful High School Students.” Journal of Reading Behavior, 26 (4): 347-360. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1080/10862969409547858

Wernersbach, Brenna M.; Crowly, Susan L.; Bates, Scott C.; Rosenthal, Carol., 2014. “Study Skills Course Impact on Academic Self-Efficacy.” Journal of Developmental Education, 37 (3): 14-33. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1070256.pdf

Last updated 11/2/24