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Academic Survival Skills for Life

Dr. Ken Beatty By Dr. Ken Beatty Published on November 4, 2015

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Would you buy a ticket from an airline that crashed 60 percent of the time? No? Would you be more willing to pay if you were getting a bachelor’s degree instead of a flight?

Among American students who started four-year undergraduate degrees in 2007, only 39.4 percent completed a degree (Digest of Education Statistics, Table 326.10). Of course, some students take time off to work or travel, but for those who start and do not return to classes, a key cause is a lack of academic survival skills that allow them to meet college and university expectations.

Daley suggests, “Many students are unprepared for the rigors of college academically. They have low academic skills: they do not read and write well enough” (para. 18). Freeman gives a specific example, quoting a first-year student at the University of Toronto:

"High schools don't prepare you very well for lectures ′cause they really spoon-feed you. They speak very slowly and put everything on the board, and you copy it down and you know exactly what they want you to know, whereas here (at the university) it's a lecture, and for an hour a guy's talking and you're like, “Oh My God I don't know what to write.” 

Note-taking is one of the many skills that help foster academic success, particularly during the initial culture shock of university life. Beyond opportunities for extensive reading and writing in a range of genres, here are seven key academic survival skills that today’s university students need to develop:

1. Critical thinking requires students to be challenged not with questions with set answers, but problems for which there are no clear answers. With knowledge changing at such a great pace these days, much of what students learn in university will have changed by the time they graduate or soon after. Consider the developments in computing, medicine and business practices over the past 20 years. It’s critical thinking skills that help students address a changing world with innovations, not references to how people used to think.

2. Visual literacy helps students interpret and produce charts, diagrams, graphs, illustrations, and maps. Textbooks have changed to look more like magazines than novels. They are heavily illustrated with a variety of visual elements and infographics that help students better understand a topic–as long as they are able to interpret them. By the same token, students need to incorporate visual materials in their university work and are as likely to prepare an Excel chart or a PowerPoint presentation as write an essay.

3. Citing and referencing avoid plagiarism when students research, present, and defend their work. Computing has taken much of the drudgery out of finding and including citations and references in one’s writing and also given tools to teachers to check for abuses. Computer tools like Turnitin will compare a student’s paper both to published sources and other papers on file. Some universities require that students complete this process themselves, before submitting their work to their teachers. It’s a wise shift of responsibility.

4. Summarizing and paraphrasing help students manage new ideas in ways that make them memorable and easier to relate to their studies. Too many students try to write down every word of a lecture or highlight every page of a textbook rather than breaking the ideas into memorable chunks. A recent trend has been for students to videotape complete lectures; one wonders how students have time to replay them, what they the students do if they look again, and whether there is additional retention when they do.

5. Group management helps group members take on defined roles to collaborate effectively and efficiently according to schedules that get work done in a timely manner. Every teacher has faced the tear-stained student complaining of group members not doing their share. But it’s not a phenomenon restricted to universities and the sooner students learn how to manage others, the sooner they will be ready for the workplace with the same assortment of personality types they encounter in their academic work groups.

6. Discussion techniques include negotiation and debate skills, where listening is as important as speaking. University students who aspire to rise in their future employment should know that chief executive officers spend up to 95 percent of their time talking. They are presented with problems and talk with others to work them out and set direction for their companies.

7. Presentation skills help students engage audiences in persuasive ways, including through the use of computer-based presentations. The technology is likely to change and students should change with it, learning how to communicate messages through social media as well as in traditional ways.

Well beyond university, these seven academic survival skills are vital for fostering success throughout graduates’ future careers.


Author of 130 books in the areas of language teaching and learning and computer-assisted language learning, Ken has lectured in 25 countries giving more than 400 presentations to teachers from ... Show More

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