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Current Editor: Dr. Robert T. Howell  bhowell@fhsu.edu
Volume 35, Number 2
Winter 1998


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Study Skills of Students at a Post-Secondary Vocational-Technical Institute

John R. Slate
Valdosta State University
Craig H. Jones
Arkansas State University
E. Joyce Harlan
Delta Technical Institute

One of the National Education Goals of America 2000 (1991) is that "Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship" (p. 3). To reach this goal in an increasingly technological and rapidly changing society, workers will need the basic learning tools required to update their job-related skills on a continuous basis. As a result, educators in vocational-technical programs cannot be satisfied simply to train students in the job skills currently needed for employment. Rather, these educators must be concerned about the extent to which students possess independent learning skills. Although the use of appropriate study skills is an integral part of the learning process and contributes significantly to students' academic achievement, educators often overlook students' study skills (Rohwer, 1984). Indeed, many educators expect students to acquire study skills on their own. Research, however, indicates that this expectation is unlikely to be fulfilled and that academically unsuccessful students typically continue to use ineffective study strategies (Diekhoff & Dansereau, 1982). In addition, study skills are best learned when they are integrated with domain-specific content in the courses students are currently taking (Langer & Neal, 1987). Study skills taught in isolation from course content are unlikely to be utilized effectively. Thus, classroom teachers must be involved in the development of study skills.

Not surprisingly, recent investigations have found a significant lack of study skills among both high school students (Jones, Slate, Bell, & Saddler, 1991; Jones, Slate, Blake, & Holifield, 1992; Slate, Jones, & Dawson, 1993) and college students in baccalaureate degree programs (Agnew, Slate, Jones, & Agnew, 1993; Jones, Slate, & Kyle, 1992; Jones, Slate, Mahan, Green, Marini, & DeWater, 1994; Jones, Slate, Marini, & DeWater, 1993; Lawler-Prince, Slate, & Jones, 1993; Slate, Jones, & Charlesworth, 1990). The weakest study skill most frequently found during these investigations was the use of passive reading strategies that reduce comprehension. That is, these students typically read text from beginning to end without having developed advanced organizers prior to reading, and without stopping while reading to take notes or to think about what they have read. Other common study problems found during these investigations were the lack of effective time management skills and the failure to use metacognitive strategies to effectively organize information.

Given the poor study skills of many students in high school as well as baccalaureate programs, students in post-secondary vocational-technical education programs can be expected to lack appropriate study skills. If this is the case, educators in these programs will need to be concerned with the development of their students' study skills. That is, without training in appropriate study skills such as note-taking and test-taking, many students will be unable to obtain the full benefit of vocational-technical education programs and will have considerable difficulty updating job- related skills on their own.

Teachers and administrators in vocational-technical education programs can benefit from knowing the study skills deficits of their students. This knowledge will increase both the effectiveness and efficiency of programming by allowing educators to target interventions at specific areas of need.

This study was designed to extend the previous findings of Jones, Slate, and their colleagues to students in vocational-technical programs by describing the study skills of students enrolled in courses at a vocational- technical institute in the Mid-South. Two specific research questions were addressed:

  1. What are the specific strengths and weaknesses in the study skills of students at this vocational-technical institute?
  2. What specific behaviors distinguish between the students with the strongest study skills and the students with the weakest study skills?

Method

Sample

A total of 132 students enrolled in accounting, secretarial, or data processing programs at a post-secondary vocational-technical institute in the Mid-South participated in this study. All participants were in their first semester of enrollment at the vocational-technical institute. Students ranged in age from 18 to 63 years (M = 29.8 years). Gender was not recorded; however, 93% of all students enrolled at this institution were women.

Instrumentation

Participants completed the Study Habits Inventory (SHI) during regular class periods. The SHI is a study skills instrument developed for use with college students (Jones & Slate, 1990) consisting of 63 items on which students describe the way they typically study using a true-false format. Thirty items on the SHI describe appropriate study behaviors (i.e., items worded to describe effective ways of studying). The remaining 33 items describe inappropriate study behaviors, (i.e., items worded to describe ineffective ways of studying). Wording of these items was based on standard recommendations for how college students should study (see Burns, 1985; Grasha, 1983; Robinson, 1970). Items indicating inappropriate study behaviors were reverse scored and responses summed to yield an index of study skills. As a result, higher scores on this index indicate better study skills.

Jones and Slate (1990) reported on both the reliability and validity of the SHI. They reported good internal consistency with an average coefficient alpha of .85 across a number of studies. A two-week test-retest reliability of .82 was also reported. Internal consistency reliability for this study was comparable to that reported by Jones and Slate (1990) with a coefficient alpha of .86. Validity has been demonstrated by showing appropriate correlation with college students' grades, study time, dualistic thinking, locus of control, and attitudes toward intelligence.( Agnew et al., 1993; Jones et al., 1992; Jones et al., 1994; Jones, Slate, & Marini, 1995; Jones et al., 1993; Slate et al., 1989).

Results

Overall Strengths and Weaknesses

The overall mean on the SHI was 38.3 (SD = 9.0), indicating that these students typically performed 61% of the behaviors measured by the SHI in an appropriate manner. Item analysis was used to address the first research question by identifying the characteristic study skills strengths and weaknesses in the sample. Following a procedure employed by Jones et al. (1992), study skills strengths were defined as those items on which 75% or more of the students

Table 1
Characteristic Strengths & Weaknesses in Students' Academic Behaviors Percent Responding

Study Habits Item Percent
Responding
Appropriately

STRENGTHS
MOTIVATION
I have to wait for the mood to strike me before attempting to study 87.1
I sometimes skip classes, especially when attendance is not required 91.7
NOTE-TAKING
When taking notes in class, I abbreviate words and jot down phrases
rather than complete sentences
78.8
I take notes on odd, loose sips of paper instead of in a notebook 87.9
I tape record lectures instead of taking notes 95.5
TIME MANAGEMENT
I spend to much time on loafing, movies, dates, and so forth that
I should be spending on my coursework
78.8
My study periods are too short for me to get "warmed up" and 
really concentrate on studying
76.5
I often do not have reports ready on time, or they are done poorly 
if I am forced to have them in on time
89.4
I try to complete assigned readings before my instructor discusses
them in class
76.5
I frequently get up, write notes to friends, or look at other people
when I should be studying
82.6
I often sit down to study only to find that I do not have the 
necessary books, notes, or other materials
90.2
STUDY BEHAVIORS
I often try to make shool work more enjoyable by having a beer
while I study
97.0
In studying a textbook, I try to memorize the eact words in the text 75.0
I use the facts I learned in one course to help me understand
the material in another course
75.8
I use the facts learned in school to help me understand events
outside of school
87.9
Whenever possible, I use the workbook that accompanies a textbook 93.2
WEAKNESSES
Before reading a chapter, I jot down a few questions and a list of key
terms to focus my attention while reading
12.9
Sometimes I discover that I have "read" several pages without knowing
what was on them
24.2
Sometimes I make simple charts or diagrams to show how the facts
I am learning are related to each other
23.5
I keep a special indexed notebook or card system for recording new
words and their meanings.
9.1

responded in an appropriate manner (i.e., responding "true" to items describing appropriate behavior and "false" to items describing inappropriate behavior). Study skills weaknesses were defined as those items on which 25% or fewer of the students responded in an appropriate manner. This procedure resulted in the identification of 16 characteristic strengths within the sample and four characteristic weaknesses (see Table 1).

Strengths. Content analysis of the identified strengths indicated that these strengths fell into four general categories: motivation, note-taking, time management, and specific study behaviors. With regard to motivation, students attended class regularly, even when attendance was not required. They also did not have to wait for the "mood to strike them" in order to study.

When taking notes, students used notebooks rather than loose paper to take notes, and wrote abbreviations and phrases rather than complete sentences. They were also unlikely to use a tape recorder as a replacement for, rather than an adjunct to, taking notes. With regard to time management, the students typically needed materials available at the start of study periods, and were unlikely to loaf when they should be studying. Study periods were sufficiently long and time was devoted to study rather than to irrelevant activities. The students were also likely to have reading assignments and papers completed on time.

When studying, students with good study skills avoided consumption of alcoholic beverages. They also stressed strategies that would increase the meaningfulness of material. For example, they related course materials to everyday life and to material in other courses rather than engaging in rote memorization. The students were also likely to use ancillary study materials such as the workbooks that accompany textbooks.

Weaknesses. Two of the four identified weaknesses involved passive reading. Students who achieved low scores on the SHI did not generate advance organizers to guide their reading and often read several pages without knowing what was on them. Low scoring students did not make a special effort to learn new terminology, nor did they use charts and diagrams to help them understand relationships between concepts.

Differences Between High and Low Scorers

The second research question was addressed by conducting a discriminant analysis - a statistical method for determining how groups differ with regard to a set of discriminating variables (Klecka, 1980). In this study, the groups were comprised of those students achieving SHI scores above 45 (n = 35) and those who achieved scores on the SHI below 31 (n = 34). Students in the high scoring group comprised the upper quartile of the SHI total score distribution. While low scoring students represented the lower quartile of the total score distribution, the discriminating variables were the students' responses to the 63 individual SHI items.

Discriminant analysis generates an equation, called a discriminant function, for predicting group membership. In this study a forward stepwise procedure was used with statistical significance at the .05 level as the entry and exit criteria. That is, discriminating variables were added to the equation one at a time beginning with the variable that had the strongest relationship to group membership. Only variables that had a statistically significant relationship to group membership were allowed to enter into the equation. If, as new variables were added, a variable no longer contributed significantly to group membership, this variable would be eliminated from the equation. This process continued until all the variables that were significantly related to group membership were included in the equation. The resulting discriminant function was statistically significant X2 (13, N = 69) = 171.48, p < .0001, and accounted for 94% of the between groups variance

Table 2
SHI Items that Discriminated the Under and Lower Quartiles of the Total Score Distribution in the Discriminant Analysis

SHI Item Standardized
Coefficient

As son as possible after class, I recopy my lecture notes -.62
I put my class notes, handouts, and so forth away after a test and
never look at them again
-.45
I spend too much time on some subjects and not enough on others .43
I usually write reports several days before they are due, so that I
can correct them if necessary
.54
I do most of my reviewing for a test the night before the examination .34
I stick to my study schedule except for very good resons. .49
I have a tendency to doodle or daydream when I am trying to study. 1.06
I often sit down to study only to find that I do not have the necessary
books, notes or other materials
.66
Before reading a chapter, I jot down a few questions and a list of key terms
to focus my attention while reading
.38
I try to break large amounts of information into small clusters that can be 
studied seperately
.45
If I plan to study with friends, I do not study by myself ahead of time .50
I often read too slowly to complete reading assignments on time .29
When taking notes in class, I simply try to get everything down and do
not take time to think about what the material means
.
.62

Note: Positive coefficients indicate the students in the upper quartile reported more appropriate behavior; negative coefficients indicate that students in the lower quartile reported more appropriate behavior.

relative importance of each item to be determined by direct comparison of the coefficients. For example, sitting down to study without needed materials (coefficient = .66) contributes approximately twice as much to the prediction of group membership as does doing most reviewing the night before a test (coefficient = .34). The group centroids (the average score on the discriminant function for students in each group), were -4.00 for students in the lower quartile and 3.88 for students in the upper quartile. Thus, positive discriminant function coefficients indicated that students in the upper quartile were more likely to respond appropriately to an item than were students in the lower quartile. Conversely, a negative coefficient indicated that students in the lower quartile were more likely to respond appropriately to an item than were students in the upper quartile. The SHI item that best discriminated students in the upper and lower quartiles dealt with the tendency to doodle or daydream during study periods. As noted above, the positive coefficient indicates that students in the upper quartile were much less likely to engage in these nonproductive behaviors than were students in the lower quartile. Students in the upper quartile were also more likely to stick to their study schedule, to not wait until the night before a test to study, and to write reports ahead of time. In addition, students in the upper quartile were more likely to have necessary materials handy when they sat down to study and to study ahead of time before studying with friends. Students in the upper quartile were also better at distributing their time among various subjects. In short, students in the upper quartile had fewer problems with motivation, preparation, and concentration than did students in the lower quartile. Students in the upper quartile also differed from students in the lower quartile with regard to use of several specific study tactics. First, students in the upper quartile were less likely to take verbatim notes. In addition, students in the upper quartile were more likely to develop advance organizers before reading, and to break large amounts of information into smaller pieces. Students in the upper quartile also had fewer problems with reading too slowly. Given that reading speed is positively correlated with reading comprehension (Slocum, Street, & Gilberts, 1995), all of these differences indicate that students in the upper quartile used learning strategies that result in more meaningful, less rote, learning than did students in the lower quartile.

Even the two items on which students in the lower quartile reported more appropriate behavior than did students in the upper quartile may reflect study skills deficiencies among students in the lower quartile. That is, students in the lower quartile were more likely to report recopying lecture notes as soon as possible after class. If these students wrote recopied notes, rather than simultaneously converting the notes into a more meaningful form, this practice would simply waste a good deal of students' study time. Similarly, students in the lower quarter may have been more likely to re-examine study materials after a test because low grades made this process necessary.

Discussion

Summary of Findings

The most surprising result of this study was the numerous study skills strengths and relatively few weaknesses reported by the students surveyed. This finding is in marked contrast to the numerous weaknesses reported by both secondary school students (Jones, et al., 1991; Jones, et al., 1992; Slate, et al., 1993) and college students in baccalaureate degree programs (Agnew, et al., 1992; Jones, et al., 1992; Jones, et al., 1994; Jones, et al., 1993; Lawler-Prince, et al., 1993; Slate, et al., 1989). Indeed, the mean SHI score of 38.3 for the vocational-technical students in this study is significantly higher than the mean of 33.7 (SD = 9.18) in Jones et al. (1994) reported for baccalaureate degree students at a different university, t(504) = 5.05, p < .001.

The level of study skills reported by the students in this study, however, leaves ample room for improvement. On the average, these students reported inappropriate study behavior on 39% of the SHI items. Thus, teachers in post-secondary vocational-technical education programs still have an obligation to help their students improve their study skills. A comparison of students in the upper quartile of the SHI total score distribution with those students in the lower quartile revealed significant differences in the study skills of students in these groups. Indeed, students in the lower quartile tended to exhibit large deficiencies in preparation, concentration, and comprehension. These students need considerable help developing skills related to time management, attention, and reading comprehension. In addition, these students reported motivational problems that would interfere with the development and use of good study skills.

Limitations

Two limitations of this study require specific mention. One limitation is that the data are based upon students' self reports of their study behaviors. Self-reports always raise the issue of the believability of the data (Johnston & Pennypacker, 1993). To what extent can we believe that students accurately report their study behavior? The results of a series of studies by Johnston and his colleagues indicated that college students typically provide believable self reports of their study behaviors (Johnston, O'Neill, Walters, & Rasheed, 1975; O'Neill, Walters, Rasheed, & Johnston, 1975; Walters, O'Neill, Rasheed, & Johnston, 1975). Nevertheless, the possibility of inaccurate reporting cannot be entirely ruled out. The second limitation involves the generalizability of the specific findings. Of course, the specific study skills strengths and weaknesses identified in the present study may not generalize to other vocational- technical student populations. Given that the participants of this study were predominantly female and were enrolled exclusively in business- related programs, generalizations to males and to nonbusiness programs are particularly tenuous. Nevertheless, when viewed in the context of previous research on both secondary school and college students, the need for educators to help students develop more effective study skills should be broadly applicable. In addition, the study skills differences found between students in the upper and lower quartiles of the total score distribution also illustrate a need to individualize study skills instruction that should generalize across populations.

Applications

The results of the present study indicate that classroom teachers need to help students in vocational-technical programs develop more effective study skills. Study skills programs based upon assumed student needs, however, may waste significant time and other resources teaching students what they already know while leaving important deficiencies unremediated. Thus, program development should be based upon empirical assessment of students' actual strengths and weaknesses. For example, Slate, Jones, and Rodgers (1994) implemented a successful study skills program for secondary students that involved monthly assessment of students' study skills. These assessments allowed the teacher to adapt instruction continuously to students' most significant needs. Integration of study skills with domain-specific knowledge was accomplished by having students apply the study skills they were being taught to assignments provided by content area teachers. Similar programs can be effective in vocational-technical education. Although the specific results of the present study may not generalize to other populations, these results can be used to illustrate how a study skills analysis can be used to modify instruction. For example, the students in this study who had poor study skills tended to report motivational problems. This finding indicates that efforts to teach study skills to these students may fail because they have little incentive to learn and to utilize proper study behaviors.

Thus a study skills program for these students must address motivational problems in addition to teaching specific study skills. Because motivational problems often result from poor early performance in a course, teachers should arrange instruction to provide these students with early success experiences (Evertson, Emmer, Sanford, & Clements, 1983). One way to accomplish early success is to focus instruction on review of previously learned skills that will be needed to master new skills. In addition, teachers could use methods of instruction that gradually shape students' behavior. These methods produce fewer errors and avoid the use of trial-and-error methods of instruction that produce high error rates.

A study skills program for the students in this study should also focus on remediation of three of the common weaknesses identified because these weaknesses are related to the major differences between successful and unsuccessful college students reported by Rasheed, O'Neill, Walters, and Johnston (1975). One of these weaknesses is the extremely small number of students (only 9.1%) who reported engaging in any special effort to learn new terms. Rasheed and her colleagues found that successful students spend much more time learning new terminology than do unsuccessful students. Thus, a study skills program designed for the students in this study should help them develop effective ways to learn terminology such as the use of flash cards.

Rasheed and her colleagues (1975) also reported that unsuccessful students spent much more time rereading materials than successful students. Two of the common weakness reported by students in this study were that 87% of students did not develop advance organizers to help focus their reading and over 75% of them reported frequently reading several pages without knowing what was on them. Both of these weaknesses will result in students needing to spend large amounts of time rereading material. Thus, a study skills program for these students should help them develop more active reading skills. For example, teachers could give students a two step assignment in which they would first survey a chapter to develop advance organizers such as focus questions. Then students would be required to answer these focus questions while reading the chapter. The instructor could use students' answers to determine which students need additional help identifying the important material in a reading assignment.

Authors

Slate is Professor, Department of Educational Leadership, Valdosta State University, Valdosta, Georgia.

Jones is Professor, Department of Psychology and Counselor Education, Arkansas State University, Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Harlan is an Instructor, Department of Communications and Related Instruction, Delta Technical Institute, Marked Tree, Arkansas.

References

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Reference Citation: Slate, J., Jones, C., & Harlan, J. Study skills of students at a post-secondary vocational-technical institute. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 35(2), 57-70.


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