Making learning easier

2008-06-04 00:00

High school is a time of studying, but do pupils really know how to study? This question is being tackled by a programme on offer to pupils from local high schools.

Every Saturday morning groups of pupils make their way to the local university campus where a lecture venue becomes a classroom in which study skills are taught. The goal is to equip pupils with techniques and skills that will make studying easier, more effective, and interesting. The programme runs for six Saturdays and has been successfully tried and tested on thousands of students thus far.

Imraan Ismail, the programme co-ordinator, says these workshops are about “qualifying a student to be a student”.

“Pupils’ full time occupation is studying, but are they really qualified to study?” asks Ismail. He emphasises that this is about giving pupils the necessary tools and skills to make high school easier. “Just like a gardener cannot garden without his spade or tools, pupils become stressed because they don’t have the tools to study,” he says, adding that “this stress then affects their parents and their homes”.

Five years ago, Ismail introduced this course to pupils from various schools in Pietermaritzburg. It simultaneously runs in Durban, where it began 14 years ago. It has since evolved into a unique programme that is taught by a diverse mix of people, which include columnist and lecturer Nicky Grieshaber, Mandela-Rhodes scholar Aalia Ismail, and sustainable developmental consultant Kiara Worth, to name a few.

The course usually begins with goal-setting, a task often overlooked by most pupils, who plunge into the term without any clear vision of where they want to be at the end of it. Setting specific, clear and realistic goals, makes thems more attainable in the long run.

Memory techniques follow, because a good memory affects learning at high school and university. The idea is to move away from mindless rote learning and introduce more creative ways of storing information so that it is not only remembered, but understood as well.

Note taking and speed reading is also taught, a skill often lacking when pupils start university. The course is also trying to bridge the gap between skills developed at high school and those needed at university because “the level at which pupils are learning is not adequate for varsity”, says Ismail. An essay-writing seminar tackles this too. Being unable to write a coherent, structured essay, especially in social sciences courses, is a reason many university students fail.

The programme also goes beyond academic skills and tries to develop a range of “thinking skills” by offering tools for personal development. These include seminars on public speaking, questioning skills, multiple intelligences, and critical thinking.

Pupils and educators are encouraged to look beyond the narrow “straight As” approach to intelligence taken by most schools, because some pupils are good at music, or writing poetry, or using their bodies, or even philosophically pondering questions of life.

The very concept of intelligence and IQ testing is put up for debate, offering pupils an early taste of broader academic debates. Ismail is also offering this as a single seminar to local educators.

This spirit of debate lies at the heart of a newly added component to the course — the critical thinking and leadership workshop. This runs for half a day, with no more than 20 pupils, with the aim of creating a space for debate.

The rationale for this is that pupils seldom get the chance to challenge the curriculum they are being taught, and their own voices and opinions are not always heard, especially in large classrooms.

Critical thinking suffers most and pupils’ own imaginations are not fostered. This workshop allows pupils to brainstorm topical issues, debate ideas, and achieve a sense of renewed perspective on different issues, such as disability, intelligence, sexuality and HIV. It is very interactive and participatory.

Kiara Worth, who teaches techniques like mind-mapping in the course, believes that “education of the youth is fundamental”, which is why she got involved in the course.

Worth, who recently attended a sustainable development commission at the United Nations, says that “development has been too materially focused” and she opts for a more spiritual and emotional approach. “This is reflected in the way I teach. I like inspiring people, because we need inspiration if we are going to meet all the goals we set,” says Worth.

Ismail wants to extend an invitation to school principals, educators, parents, and pupils to consider getting involved in this course. His next phase is to take this programme to under-resourced and rural schools.

• For more information on the study skills course, a multiple intelligence seminar for educators, the critical thinking and leadership workshop, or to get your school involved, contact Imraan Ismail at 072 310 4009 or e-mail

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