Top critical review
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Basic, Rather Than Ultimate, I Feel
on 26 June 2011
Coming at this book as a university lecturer, I was hoping that it would give me advice that I could pass on to my students. Unfortunately, I don't think that's really the case; pretty much everything covered is stuff that by now strikes me as rather obvious and common sense. That doesn't mean that the book wouldn't be of use to those either in their first year or, perhaps better, about to go to university.
The book's thirteen chapters cover: 1) being an active learner, 2) talking to experts, 3) learning styles, 4) making notes, 5) research skills, 6) academic writing, 7) punctuation and referencing, 8) time management, 9) group work, 10) presentations, 11) managing stress, 12) numeracy, and 13) future decisions. That, I think, covers most of what students need to know from the academic side of things (the most glaring apparent error - exam technique - in fact occupies much of chapter 11). I would, however, have two main criticisms:
1) The material isn't as well-organized as it could be. I don't mind a bit of repetition, and I accept that some material would fit in different places almost equally well (for instance, the section on group presentations). Nonetheless, I often found chapters lacking any internal logic, so sometimes they were no more than disconnected points around some particular topic. Moreover, the chapter 'summaries' - while perhaps underlining the important take-home points - didn't do a very good job of summarizing the preceding material and, in a few cases I thought, made new points altogether!
2) Not only is the material often rather elementary, but it's rather padded out. The authors include a number of exercises for the reader, which I do not object to as such, since they serve to check understanding and encourage active learning. Often, however, these take up quite a bit of space, especially since blank boxes are given for the reader to write their responses in the book itself. I would have thought these unnecessary, given that a piece of paper would suffice (and allow the exercise to be used again). The consequence of all these various boxes, tables, and summaries is that what looks like 212 pages of text (excluding references and index) doesn't actually cover as much as it might.
In light of these criticisms, I don't think that I could give the book a particularly strong recommendation. That's not to say it's without use: most of the information and advice seems to me fairly sensible (though the authors do come close to endorsing, rather than merely acknowledging, essay writing all nighters!). While most students would no doubt acquire the necessary 'study skills' over the first year or two of their degree anyway, having the basics set out here can save the motivated student from learning the hard way. Perhaps, however, that's the biggest problem: I expect that the students diligent enough to read through such a book are the ones who least need to. On that note, the main message of the book is arguably that what students get out of their education depends on the work that they put in; a point worth underlining in the current age of consumerist expectations and for that reason alone I give it a cautious endorsement.