Essential Skills for Education Students

Get the hard, soft, and online learning skills you need to be successful in your education degree program.

Last Updated: 03/30/2021

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Crystal-Yarbrough
Crystal Yarbrough

Full-time Student

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Crystal Yarbrough currently is a full-time student at the University of Wisconsin (UW) in the teacher education distance program, where she is working on a bachelor of science in elementary education with a minor in instruction. Upon completing her degree, Crystal’s goal is to teach in a classroom of her own.

There’s no question, teaching is a noble and rewarding profession. Educating others, regardless of subject, is a public service that’s essential to the success of our society. If you’re passionate about becoming an educator, you know it doesn’t happen without first getting an education yourself. Whether you’re already visiting campus or you’re ready to enroll in an online education degree program, certain skills will prove to be crucial as you progress as a student.

The combination of hard, soft, and online skills you’ll come to rely on as a student will also serve you as an education professional. From reading thoughtfully and writing effectively to thinking critically and creatively to solve problems, you’ll be grateful to have spent the time honing each of these skills as a student so you can employ them as an educator. Learn which skills will matter most to you as a student, discover how they will evolve when you’re a professional, and get expert advice on which skills make the biggest impact.

Hard Skills for Education Students

Hard skills are skills that are tangible, specific, associated with jobs or tasks, and readily learned in a class or from others. They may be taught in one of your degree courses and may be mandated for licensure. Regardless, you’ll need them to succeed in both your academic pursuits and career as an educator. Here are five hard skills especially important for education degree seekers.

Skill 1
Classroom Management & Teaching Skills

Practically all education degree programs that prepare students for teaching careers include student-teaching internships. Classroom-related hard skills include curriculum and lesson planning, testing and grading, record keeping, student supervision and discipline, computer and in-class technology skills, and more. Each of these is crucial for a smooth-running classroom where students can learn.

The best way to develop these skills is to watch, listen, and learn from the master teachers around you—your professors and mentors in schools where you student-teach. Ask lots of questions about why they do things certain ways. Another way to build these skills is to follow teacher bloggers as they give an inside look at their classrooms and introduce new ways of doing things. And remember, there’s no better teacher than first-hand experience, so look for opportunities to teach a class, do some tutoring, or work at a camp so you can see how these approaches play out with students at different ages.

Skill 2
Reading Comprehension Skills

To succeed in your education degree program you must be able to study and absorb a lot of material in a little amount of time. Much of what you study will be written material, so it stands to reason that being a fast reader with a high level of reading comprehension will be critical to your academic success.

Fortunately, there are a number of tried and true techniques you can learn to increase your reading comprehension. They include skimming the introductions, chapter titles, topic/subtopic headings, and end of chapter and book summaries to get a general idea of what the content includes; turning paragraph headings into questions to be answered by the content that follows; staying alert as you read the full content instead of assuming you know what it’s going to say; visualizing the material and perhaps even sketching the content in your notes (called sketch noting); and reviewing what you’ve read to make sure you clearly understand how all of the information fits together.

Skill 3
Research Skills

Courses in research theory and practice may very well be part of your education degree’s core curriculum. If so, you’ll be ahead of the game as you learn to define your research projects; write and properly format a research proposals; master use of library resources, databases, and search techniques; use proper referencing and citation skills; check your facts and guard against plagiarism; and many other important skills.

The best way to develop your research skills is to hone your own sense of curiosity. Keep a list of topics you’re curious about, and the next time you find yourself mindlessly scrolling during your downtime, dig into one of those topics and see what you can discover. You’ll build your research skills, find helpful sources, and learn lots of fascinating facts. Don’t just take the info at face value, though; train yourself to challenge your sources, asking where they get their info and if they’re trustworthy. You’ll find yourself reminding your students about these lessons again and again once you’re in a classroom of your own.

Skill 4
Test-Taking Skills

As an education degree student you’ll be taking a lot of tests (and later as an educator you may be giving tests), so it’s important to develop a solid package of general test-taking skills. Look up memory-improvement techniques and anxiety-reducing strategies, plus specific skills and strategies for each testing format (multiple choice exams, true-false questions, subjective/opinion-based tests, short-answer exams, essay exams, etc.). Hold onto the strategies that work so you can teach them to your future students and help them become effective test takers as well.

Skill 5
Writing Skills

The ability to write clearly, concisely, and effectively is critical to the success of college students in any major, but it’s particularly important to education students who must demonstrate effective writing skills to obtain teaching licensure. Effective writing begins with a solid foundational knowledge of English grammar (spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, etc.). But that’s just the beginning. You’ll need to go deeper, understanding and writing for a specific audience; formulating clear and concise topics and theses; using persuasive writing techniques; editing and revising; and using your knowledge of proper academic essay structures and formats.

The best way to practice these skills is to write, write, write. Write a little every day or use an app or book of writing prompts to challenge yourself to get your writing flowing. Forming a writer’s group with other education students is beneficial as well; this network can exchange ideas, share sources, edit one another’s worth, and provide feedback for the clearest writing possible.

Other Important Skills

State teacher licensure or certification is required to teach in public schools in all states. Specific requirements vary by state but in most cases prospective teachers must pass a basics skills test in the subjects of reading, writing, and mathematics. Therefore, education students need to develop hard skills in these three subjects as part of their degree’s core curriculum. Plus, you may seek an endorsement in a specialty area, which comes with additional requirements and specialized exams. Specializations may be grade-level-specific (early childhood, elementary, middle school, secondary, etc.), academic subject-specific (math, chemistry, physics, social sciences, art, music, journalism, etc.), or related to other education subjects (principal/administrative, librarian, technology, speech pathology, gifted and talented, English as a second language, etc.). So even once you have your teaching license, you may not be done taking tests an exercising the hard skills that you need.

Soft Skills for Education Students

Soft skills are personal traits or habits, innate or learned, that relate to how you work effectively both alone and through interaction with others. They might also be described as “emotional intelligence skills” or “people skills.” Whatever you call them, soft skills are essential for academic and professional success. Below are five important soft skills for education students.

Skill 1
Collaboration

Teachers don’t work in a bubble, and neither do education students. That’s why strong collaboration and teamwork skills are an absolute must for anyone pursuing an education degree. While you’re in school, collaboration skills will most often apply to working with fellow students on group projects. But you may also find yourself collaborating with instructors as a teaching assistant or in a fellowship role assisting professors on important scholarly research. Specific collaboration skills include open-mindedness and willingness to accept suggestions and solutions proposed by others; an ability to recognize your fellow collaborators’ talents and utilize them properly; and taking responsibility for your mistakes while recognizing and crediting the contributions of others.

The good news is that you likely practice these skills every day, whether it’s working in a small group, attending a club or student association meeting, or simply attending a virtual or in-person class. As you work with others, remind yourself to be open-minded and seek out the opinions of others who haven’t spoken up. Challenge yourself to try new and different approaches suggested by others (sometimes even when you don’t think they’ll work) and see what you learn from these approaches. Remember, collaboration can yield some of the most creative solutions to problems and challenges.

Skill 2
Communication

Communication is likely the broadest and most important skill for professional educators and education students alike, and no doubt your degree program will focus on strong communication skills. Effective communication in college academics begins with the establishment of trust between you, your instructors, and your fellow students. Start by getting to know each as individuals—their likes and dislikes, academic strengths and weaknesses, etc. Once you’ve established a strong foundation of trust, start working on specific communication skills, including open-mindedness, confidence, empathy, active listening, clarity and cohesion of both verbal and written communications, and the development of strong nonverbal skills (maintaining eye contact, appropriate emotional responses, etc.).

Again, your day is full of opportunities to practice and improve your communication skills. Look around you; who is in your sphere but not someone you really know well? Spend some time talking with them about their opinions and experiences to open those lines of communication. Practice active listening, which means really paying attention to what someone is saying rather than thinking about what you’re going to say or do next. Make the moment all about communicating with them. If this is difficult, add a sticky note to your notebook or planner with a goal of actively listening in at least three conversations every day. Another option is to put a reminder in your calendar on your phone, with a message such as “Are you really listening?” that pops up several times a day until clearer communication becomes a habit.

Skill 3
Creative Thinking

Creativity is the combination of imagination and critical thinking to create something new and innovative. Coursework can teach you about creativity (creative thinking theories and techniques), but the big question is: Can creativity be taught? The answer, according to recent studies, is yes and applies to adults and children alike. That’s important since, not only do you need creative thinking skills in your degree program, but you’ll also be able to use those same skills as teachers when teaching creativity to your students.

With a quick Google search, you’ll find dozens of techniques you can use to develop your creativity for success in your degree program. Techniques for brainstorming help you develop a range of options for a research paper or teaching activity. Storyboarding involves using a graphic organizer to plan out information and maintain logical flow. Metaphorical thinking involves comparing disparate qualities of objects to find surprising links between them. Mind mapping gets you to draw out your ideas and find new and unexpected connections. All of these techniques contribute to building your creativity and giving you new ways to look at familiar topics.

Skill 4
Critical Thinking

Critical thinking can be thought of as the partner of creative thinking in that each is equally important to success in the classroom, both as a student and as a teacher. Critical thinking is the intellectual process of identifying, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing knowledge leading to clear, rational, and informed conclusions and decisions. Critical thinking takes the emotion out of a question and boils it down to the facts.

Specific critical thinking elements include identification of premises (breaking down issues and arguments into basic statements that can be specifically addressed); establishment of relevant facts; the application of logic and reasoning (deduction, induction, abduction); and the resulting logical conclusions. If you’re struggling with a topic or problem, try making a column on a piece of paper for each of these steps and then working to dissect the problem into manageable bits. If you’re still having problems, ask a classmate to do the same and see how your conclusions are similar and different. You’ll both learn a lot from the exercise.

Skill 5
Cultural Awareness

Cultural awareness (or cultural competence) in education refers to an understanding of one’s own culture, the cultures of others, and the various roles culture plays in the education environment. Many schools today have students from dozens of different countries speaking a variety of languages. By knowing about these cultures, you’ll have taken the first step in bridging any gaps and building true understanding.

Effective cultural competence involves recognizing your own biases and prejudices. Admitting your own biases can be difficult, but everyone has them. Once you recognize those biases, you can begin observing and tuning into how some students are treated differently than others due to cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Commit to becoming an instrument of change for the improvement of fairness and equality for all students. Speak up, stand up, watch, and learn so you can help shift education to serve every learner.

Other Important Skills

The list of soft skills that you use every day as an education student and, in the future, as a teacher is practically endless. These include empathy, time management, conflict resolution, adaptability, engagement, enthusiasm, multitasking, innovation, a passion for self-improvement and lifelong learning, and just plain old thinking on your feet. There are classes you can take for many of these skills. Others simply require self-awareness and a willingness to practice, improve, and master them. One thing is certain: employing these soft skills in the classroom will make you a better student and a better teacher.

Online Skills for Education Students

If you’re new to distance learning, there are a number of important skills you’ll need to acquire quickly. Some, like communication and effective time management, are covered in the soft skills section listed above. Not only will you use the skills below as a student, but once you’re the teacher you’ll use them to make sure your students are learning all they possibly can in online or hybrid classes.

Skill 1
Technology Skills

Right off the bat, get to know your online learning environment. Brush up on your basic computer skills if you need to. If you haven’t already, become familiar with common apps and programs like Microsoft Word, Excel, and Google Drive. You’ll likely be using them a lot. Then, spend some time exploring the components of your program’s learning management system: your home page; courseware; communication apps and portals (email, chat, teleconferencing, whiteboard, forums, etc.); student management tools (online grading, progress tracking); and online library and other reference resources. Test out the programs, do tutorials and demos, and Google videos that walk you through the tech. The bottom line is, the only way to develop the technology skills you’ll need for effective online learning is by actually using that technology and getting comfortable with it.

Skill 2
Self-Discipline Skills

Distance learning requires self-discipline, particularly in regard to study habits. One of the great selling points of an online degree program is that students can complete their coursework anywhere and at any time. This is handy when you’re pressed for time and need to squeeze in a little study session here and there during a busy day. But it’s important to your academic success that you don’t make a habit of taking care of not leaving enough time for your education. Instead, designate a specific place where you will do your studies and establish a precise study schedule. Figure out where and at what times of day you study the most efficiently and build your daily schedule to accommodate them. Most importantly, stick to that schedule. By doing so, completing your coursework on time will become a habit.

Skill 3
Participation Skills

One of the few major pitfalls to pursuing a degree online is that it’s easy to become anonymous in the virtual learning environment. Allowing this to happen, though, is a huge mistake. Class participation is essential to learning, whether online or in person.

Forming a habit requires two things: engagement and repetition. So, from the very start of your online program, be a visual and vocal presence to your professors and classmates. Be an active participant in virtual class discussion groups and take advantage of instructors’ virtual office hours to meet regularly to discuss course content and assignments. Most importantly, never hesitate to ask questions. If you live near your school’s physical campus and your program allows it, consider taking an in-person course or two to cement your link to the program and to the school.

Insight from an Education Student

Crystal-Yarbrough

Crystal Yarbrough

Crystal Yarbrough currently is a full-time student at the University of Wisconsin (UW) in the teacher education distance program, where she is working on a bachelor of science in elementary education with a minor in instruction. Upon completing her degree, Crystal’s goal is to teach in a classroom of her own.

1. Can you tell us a little about yourself and why you decided to pursue a BS in elementary education?

I graduated in 2004 with a BS in radiologic technology. I have been a radiologic technologist for 16+ years and still have my licensure in that area. My husband was in the Air Force and we were stationed in Italy. I was unable to work as a radiologic technologist there, so I began working as a substitute teacher at my children’s school on the base. I really enjoyed working with the children and fell in love with teaching as a career.

My husband retired from the Air Force in December 2019 and we moved to Wisconsin, where I started working part-time as a radiologic technologist and part-time as a substitute teacher. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit in March 2020 and I lost both positions. While at home I entertained the idea of becoming an elementary teacher. I reached out to several family members who work as educators in Wisconsin. They recommended the UW-Superior distance program.

2. Why did you choose an online degree program?

The online program was attractive to me for several reasons. First off, since I was not yet a Wisconsin resident, the tuition was cheaper than attending on-campus at any UW branch. Secondly, I decided that it would be a more flexible program to attend when I went back to work after the pandemic. Last, but perhaps the most important, taking courses online allowed me to assist my children as they attended school from home during the pandemic. My second-grade son and I share the dining room table Monday through Friday as we attend school and work on our classwork.

3. Are there any specific skills that you’re finding to be particularly useful in your degree work?

There are many special skills that an online student needs to have. First off, you need to be self-motivated. Since you don’t attend school at a certain time or on a certain day, it’s up to the individual to get their work done. You also must have good time-management skills. Otherwise, you’ll always be rushing to meet a deadline.

4. What skills have you developed in your degree program?

I had to work on my technology skills. I was not very computer literate when I first started last fall. I now know how to upload a video to YouTube and I have my own blog. I have also learned how to be an advocate for myself. All of our teachers are wonderful, but since our courses are online, they don’t always know when you have a question or need help. As an online student I need to make sure that I reach out if I have a question or concern about a concept or assignment.

5. Do you have any advice you’d like to share with prospective online education degree students that will help them succeed in their academic studies?

First off, make sure that you really consider the time that it will take to be involved in an online course. It’s very appealing to take a “flexible” online class because it will seemingly fit in a schedule around work and family time, but it’s hard to know just how much time you will need. Students should mark out a set time in their schedule for when they plan to work on their online class. This will help to ensure that they have enough time to devote to all of the online classes they take. Second is the importance of advocating for yourself. Don’t be scared to ask for help or for clarification.