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Skills most students never learned that you could probably use to this day

Dr. Helen Johnson

5 Nov 2020

I teach at University level. Despite the fact that feedback from my students has included ‘tells too many dad jokes’...

I teach at University level. Despite the fact that feedback from my students has included ‘tells too many dad jokes’, along the way I have managed to teach a few useful skills. Here is my quick and dirty top three tips for students that you can actually use later in life:


You would be amazed how many students write whole paragraphs with bits of information – so and so said this, this concept means that, there are three ways of defining X etc etc – and they fail to mention the most important thing – the ‘SO WHAT?’ part that actually tells me why this piece of information is being laid out in front of me. Something I tell students all the time is to always ask themselves as they write ‘so what so what so what?’. If they can’t answer this question then they should exclude the information, otherwise they need to actually WRITE DOWN THE ANSWER TO SO WHAT. The ‘so what’ element is where the genius resides.

And so it is in real life. Speak your ‘so whats’ and people will understand you better and your words will have more impact. If there is no ‘so what’ then remain silent and rest those vocal chords. In other words, keep your eye on the WHYs. This trick also works when people are offering you information. We can be bombarded with other people’s ideas and it helps to consider why they are communicating these ideas to you (especially when the person is giving advice!).

2. Read strategically

You do NOT need to read everything in order to find answers. I don’t know if you still have to engage with boring articles, reports, or whatever, but there is a simple technique for reading with purpose. It feels like you are doing more work but it actually saves you time rather than trawling through useless information.

The format is this:

a) SURVEY – look at headings, references, the intro and conclusion, and the general structure. You will get a good idea of what the text is covering just from this.

b) QUESTION – after getting to know the text a bit, you decide what you want from it, what it might be able to tell you. Decide on questions you want answered. IT is working for YOU, instead of you being dragged around by its agenda.

c) READ – read only to answer the questions you have. Skim read and hone in on the relevant bits. Leave the rest! If other relevant bits pop out at you then focus in on that too. Make notes that answer your questions instead of copying everything that is said (in real life, taking only mental notes is acceptable of course).

d) RECALL and REVIEW – try to recall what you read and say it in your own words – this embeds your understanding, otherwise we think it is stored in our brains but somehow it gets lost or distorted and comes out wrong when we try to use it. When you have tested your recollection, go back through and check your understanding and fill in any gaps/go over stuff you need to strengthen.

I thought this was all obvious but apparently it is a product of conditioning and not at all innate. Reading with a purpose saves time – you have permission to skim the rest!

3. You MUST give due respect to different perspectives

Oh my, aren’t we all becoming very opinionated these days? Eek. Don’t get me wrong, I love a strong opinion BUT a good essay will never just take an idea and run with it, a good essay will always have a play around, look at things from different sides, test the strength of different viewpoints, and generally acknowledge strengths and weaknesses in a variety of views instead of just taking one side and launching a tirade…. It’s a shame that this isn’t the done thing on social media. Sigh.

I believe in testing even my most strongly held opinions on a regular basis. I try other ideas on and see how they ‘fit’ on me. I try to really really embody alternative perspectives. Some of these perspectives are thrown off in great relief but I am always glad I tried. Testing our ideas is what keeps us sharp and ultimately leads to progress. Being too rigid in our thinking alienates us from potential error and blinds us to the implications of our beliefs. I’m not saying to sit on the fence (bleurgh), just try to see what different sides of the fence are really like before you decide on one. I believe that intimacy is the answer to many social ills (more on this another time) and this means getting intimate with ideas that don’t appeal to us or that we think are ‘wrong’. We can’t even think about changing minds until we really understand thinking that is different from our own (and guess what, they might even be right… Or have something to teach you! No really, they might).

So that’s my top three tips for all learners, students and otherwise… Let me know if you try them out and how you get along.

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