Juxtaposition and negotiation: a key technique in LD formulation

I’ve been working a lot recently on formulation, an approach to one to one work borrowed from Clinical Psychology, and thinking about how we could adopt it in Learning Development practice to ensure that it is genuinely student-centred and emancipatory and that we are acknowledging the authority that the student themselves brings to their own learning. I developed the 5 Ps of LD model to structure a formulation approach, but I’ve been working too on what this might look like in practice.

In their seminal article on academic literacies, Lea and Street (1998) talk about how meanings are multiple and contested in academic culture, and how the student needs to switch between practices, develop a repertoire of approaches and, in a context imbued with hierarchical power and authority, negotiate the impact of this on their identity. Lillis (2001) too looks at the gap between what students want to say and what they can say in their writing. That bringing together of different perspectives, contexts and practices, the gaps between them, and the need to negotiate them, struck me as something which we Learning Developers could use in a positive way, situated in the context of a one to one in which a non-judgemental and non-hierarchical could mitigate some of the power issues involved in making meaning. Bringing two things together and seeing how they are similar, how they are different, is one way to better understand them – it’s why ‘compare and contrast’ is such a common essay title. Why not use that to our advantage?

I started to become interested in the notion of juxtaposition. Laying two things next to each other, and helping the student find meaning in the gap which lies between them through negotiation (in both senses of the word, to resolve through discussion and to find a path). There are many things we could bring together in this way through formulation.

  • On the most basic level, the learning developer helps the student explore the gap between their own perspective and that of their lecturer, or the institution. “Do you think your writing is “waffly”, or is that something you’ve been told in feedback?” “So that’s the point you wanted to make. What understanding does the lecturer seem to have come away with? What have they misunderstood?
  • We could also place alongside their experience of learning our own knowledge of pedagogy or educational psychology, or even ‘what students tell us’. “You were saying that you tend to work in long blocks focussing on one topic in depth. There’s some research that has shown that switching between topics can aid retention and concentration. (How) is that reflected in your experience?
  • We could help them juxtapose past and present: “so this strategy worked for you in your first year – what do you think is different now you’re in second year?
  • We could also look together at different contexts: “You mentioned that critical thinking is a new thing for you at university. Is there anywhere in your home or work life where you’d need to check someone’s reasoning? How similar or different is that?
  • We can see if we can help them see their own writing through two perspectives, perhaps that of reader and writer: “If you imagine you’re reading this section looking for evidence of criticality, what might you point to?
  • Putting together two of the five Ps might also be fruitful: “Let’s think about what you’ve told me about your Process for reading for this report. How much of your notes made it into the final draft (Product)? How do you feel has it impacted on your structure or word count?

I think the key to this juxtaposition is to decide skilfully what two (or three…) things might best be brought together to help the student create the meaning that will enable them to develop their learning, but also to be as neutral as possible, creating an open space between the two in which the student can have agency, rather than filling it ourselves. This might mean avoiding where possible any causal connectors such as BUT or SO which lead the student – after all, the meaning they create in that space between things might be quite different to ours (and if it is, we can juxtapose those….!) and it’s important not to impose our meaning onto them. In helping them negotiate the tricky power differentials inherent in academic discourse, it’s important not to throw yet another one into the mix to contend with! There’s lots of open, hopefully non-leading questions and invitations to the student to comment, interpret, choose. Out of this process of negotiation hopefully comes an insight, a reconciliation and a way forward, one that’s arisen from the student’s own learning. That’s got to be more student-centred than just telling them what to do!


Biting the Hand that Employs Us

I posted last time about emancipatory practice, why I feel it’s a core and indeed defining value in Learning Development, and what that might mean in practice. Emancipatory practice arises out of the implications of academic literacies, the main underpinning theoretical basis for Learning Development in the UK. Theory helps me critically examine my practice – not just am I doing it right, but is it the right thing to do? Once you start thinking like this though, it raises all kinds of tensions, conflicts and problems which need to be faced! But theorising practice is a vital part of being a professional.

Universities have historically employed learning developers to support the weaker students – those from widening participation backgrounds who need additional help to catch up and keep up so they don’t drop out and mar our retention stats; international students whose lack of familiarity with how they should write and the norms of western higher education mean they don’t do well and cause all sorts of bother with plagiarism cases; students with specific learning difficulties or other disabilities who need some additional input to help them learn, and modern students who these days just don’t have the skills they should be bringing to university, and need to be taught them so that lecturers can get on with focussing on the subject teaching. That’s what we’re paid to do. That’s why our institutions have created our posts and hired us.

I’ve talked about how Academic Literacies theory problematizes this view of the issue, and how using this theory to inform our work calls us to commit to emancipatory practice.  This being so, we must face the fact that the very premise of our employment is often highly flawed. This creates all kinds of problems for us. We are in essence telling our employers and managers that the problem they hired us to solve is not actually the problem. The problem we should be solving is a far bigger, more complex and more worthwhile problem – and it can’t be neatly located in the students. The problem we’re addressing is in fact located as much in the assumptions and practices of the discourse and the institution as in the students. It’s going to need a lot of complicated work from all parties. And who wants to hear that?!

Students too may be resistant to this approach, particularly those who have been persuaded by the dominant study skills narrative. If an authority figure tells you that your study skills are lacking, its very hard to reframe that in a more empowering way, especially when the marks you get seem to give concrete evidence that you are failing, a weak student. Moreover, dispiriting and disempowering though it is to be told your study skills are not up to scratch, fixing that can seem a simpler, less daunting task to address than a full on academic literacies partnership-working approach. ‘I don’t want to be emancipated, I just want to get a good degree’. Fair enough!

Harder still, we’re not in a very strong position to make this statement. We’re a young, hybrid, third space profession that isn’t as yet well established enough even to have a job title that’s widely recognisable to our employers – our job descriptions and remits are highly variable, written locally almost from scratch each time, arising out of the way the institution perceives the need to be met. More established professions such as lecturer, librarian or counsellor enjoy more familiarity with what they do, and therefore more consistency and autonomy in how they do it as there’s an established model and standard set by their profession. What we actually do isn’t very well understood yet, by ourselves or outside the LD community among colleagues or students, so we’re often at odds with those who manage us and use our services in terms of our best working practices and ethos.

‘But can’t you just…

  • do more, but shorter appointments
  • tell students how to write an essay in week one
  • run diagnostic study skills testing
  • do a workshop for the weaker students
  • give simple, transactional study skills advice
  • put guidance online so we know they’ve been ‘told’
  • help the international student work on correcting their language
  • show them how we detect plagiarism so they know not to do it…’

What can we do? What can be done when we try to promote best practice, to be met with ‘that’s not really what we hired you to do’ or ‘just tell us how to improve our marks’? Well, there are a number of things we can do on an individual basis:

  • We can have a clear and research-based statement of our approach and rationale (and my blog is one place I use to rehearse this, as well as reading around).
  • We can be transparent with students about what we’re trying to do and why, and the benefits of this approach to them.
  • We can find champions among academic and other professional colleagues who can see the value in what we do, building a showcase of our approach so that even more colleagues will see it and want a bit of that.
  • And we can evaluate our practice to show that it works (not easy) and make the case for its genuine usefulness in addressing the issues staff and students experience.

We have to be determined and persistent about what we believe to be good practice, and try to avoid burnout or disillusionment, taking the path of least resistance. But alone, it’s very easy to be dismissed: ‘Well that’s just your view. You’re so theoretical – just get on with it and stop overthinking it, can’t you?  That’s not in your job description. Just fix the students like you’re being paid to.’

What I think is absolutely key to this situation is strong communal support. If we are professionals, then we owe allegiance, we are accountable to, not just our employing institutions but also to our profession. This is where a professional body is invaluable; an organisation which represents a clear, defining statement of what we are, what we do and why, is a very powerful source to appeal to. It says that this is not a nice-to-have, not an option to be rejected as undesirable, but non-negotiable. Any LD professional would and should have the same approach. ALDinHE’s new values, central to its recognition scheme, are a really good start, and something I can point to, to say to employers, ‘my practice must be emancipatory and research-based. Otherwise, I’m not giving you the professional provision you’re paying for, but something which doesn’t conform to standards of recognised good practice’. It’s something I can show to say, ‘its not just me being quirky or difficult, this is a recognised view widely accepted by a distinct community of practice’. ALDinHE membership and certification adds value to my work, weight to my approach and helps my employer understand a bit more what they’re getting and accept it as standard, rather than each of us having to argue the case individually each time. It’s also some protection against de-professionalisation – being outsourced, replaced by unskilled, lower grade roles, or deleted altogether. There’s a long way to go yet, but we’re getting there as a community, and the more we LDers discuss, share, work out, consolidate and find consensus on our thinking, the more we can help our professional body to represent and support us in upholding it.


Emancipatory practice: the defining LD value?

I’ve been trying to write this post for quite a while now, as I have long had the feeling that emancipatory practice is the core defining value of Learning Development, but have struggled to fully understand and articulate what it means and how to do it. I suspect that it has profound implications for our work and also how we position ourselves as a profession. As often happens when you’re mulling something over in the back of your mind, it has repeatedly popped up in various guises and contexts recently and started to crystallise into something meaningful through some very helpful discussions with #LoveLD colleagues (particular thanks to @DanceswithCloud, @LeeFallin, @SandieDonnelly2 @kimshahabudin and @estebanrooney).

There has long been a streak of social justice in educational theory, questioning how the institutional structures of education might exclude or disadvantage students who lack the expected cultural, social and economic capital. The origins of Learning Development lie in the widening participation agenda, and its value base is strongly rooted in social justice, equality, empowerment and inclusivity. Our theoretical basis rests on the concept of Academic Literacies (Lea and Street, Lillis), which acknowledges the hierarchies of power and authority involved in academic discourse and practices. Emancipatory practice, therefore, has long been a tacit aspect of the way we work, and last year, was formalised as one of ALDinHE’s professional values. I think it’s worth exploring further, however, partly in order to reflect deeply and ensure that we’re genuinely emancipatory in our work, and also to consider some of the challenges in emancipatory practice.

We know that there are issues with a ‘study skills’ approach, not least that it fails to acknowledge that learning does not consist of generic, transferable skills but comprises practices and discourses situated in the specific socio-cultural contexts of the university and its disciplines. More to our point here though, a study skills approach pathologises the individual student, locating the ‘problem’ in them, as they have a ‘deficit’ which must be ‘remediated’ so they learn what they ‘should’ know. Not very uplifting or empowering. Emancipatory practice, then, demands that we look more widely at the social context which creates conditions in which some students succeed and others encounter barriers due to their cultural capital. Widening participation in Higher Education means supporting students in fully and equally accessing Higher Education, removing barriers and making university study accessible to students from all backgrounds. This approach places the Learning Developer as the kindly guide, demystifying academic culture and teaching students ‘the way we do things round here’ so they can learn the appropriate conventions and practices on an equal footing with those who have more ‘appropriate’ cultural capital.

However, we Learning Developers also have problems with this academic socialisation model, which not only wrongly assumes a monolithic ‘academic culture’ into which students must be inducted, but also fails to appreciate that this culture is not merely heterogeneous but contested, that it is characterised by complex hierarchies of power and authority over meaning, identity and ‘correctness’ which the student must negotiate, on unequal terms. To simply serve the widening participation agenda as outlined above actually places Learning Developers as representatives and even enforcers of the status quo. Should we really be expecting students to conform unquestioningly to our values and norms, to approach their own learning on our terms rather than theirs, to share our view of them as novices seeking admittance to our community of practice rather than engaging with education for their own purposes? Do we really see academic culture as being so unproblematic that we’d be happy to assimilate students into it as it stands? Whose learning is it, anyway?

In instances where a student is objectively wrong about some aspect of the curriculum, or where they are not enacting some of the necessary epistemological or methodological implications of their discipline, then fine, but in many instances, as we know, what they are being assessed on is their ability to fulfil socio-cultural conventions which have more to do with class, race or gender than actual learning. The Hidden Curriculum in Higher Education often implicitly demands that students reject their own ways of making and articulating meaning, their own identities and ways of knowing and seeing the world, as being less valid than those of the university, alienating them from their own learning.

A truly emancipatory, academic literacies approach would need to ask how we can address and challenge the structures of power and authority which impose the hidden curriculum, so that students can learn on their own terms. There has been much recent discussion about decolonising the curriculum; diversifying it to include and reflect the perspectives and experiences of students who aren’t white, middle class, western or male. In various contexts, this has meant things like studying the literary works or histories of women, BAME people or the working class, alongside those of the traditional Dead White Men.

Emancipatory practice in Learning Development means decolonising the Hidden Curriculum, and learning itself

This involves diversifying the assumptions and expectations about the desirable values, discourse, practices and cultural capital which educational institutions implicitly demand of their students in their teaching and assessment, not just to socialise students into them or even remove barriers to participation but to make room for the broader values, discourses and practices which reflect and value the diverse learning experiences and approaches of our students.

It’s not so simple though – students don’t have the power to rise up and overthrow centuries of academic norms, situated as they are within the power structures of educational institutions and the curriculum. Learning Development should be empowering, but we can’t simply say to students, ‘meaning is contested, assert your authority to decide what your writing means!’ They’d fail their degree! And we Learning Developers don’t have that much power either – we’re a young, vulnerable, third-space, hybrid profession, often positioned as non-academic. So what would emancipatory practice mean in the real world?

Firstly, it means being very aware of my role, and that I am not unthinkingly upholding the hidden curriculum. I am not the kindly guide demystifying academic culture so that non-traditional students may be better assimilated within it. I am a neutral party, an intermediary between the student and the institution, enabling the two to negotiate on a more equal basis the place of learning between the individual and the curriculum (we are, after all, Learning, not Learner, Development). Some of the emancipatory things I can do in my work include:

  • help to render the hidden curriculum visible to the student – the practices, values, conventions and norms, and help them understand the reasons why it is this way, both legitimate and oppressive
  •  adopt a neutral stance regarding these conventions rather than promoting or endorsing them as desirable cultural capital- be descriptive not prescriptive and avoid directive language such as ‘you should’
  • create a non-judgemental space in which the student can reflect on the implications for them, and validate their reaction as legitimate
  • respect the student’s authority alongside that of the institution or discipline, and open up spaces to value it and reflect it
  • help students think through their pragmatic response to these conventions and find a negotiated compromise on their own terms, in some instances acting as a ‘resident’ of this new culture and inhabiting it as a novice member, and in others, behaving as a ‘visitor’ who uses it as means to an end without compromising their own identity, values or ownership of their learning (thanks to Sandie Donnelly for highlighting the applicability of the Digital Visitor/Resident model here)
  • help academics become aware of their own hidden curriculum and reflect on the assumptions they’re making about what constitutes a good student or valid learning, to better articulate their expectations and rationale – or reject them!
  • feed our privileged, unique insight into the student perspective and respect for their authority into resource creation, teaching and assessment design and staff development so it better recognises a diversity of perspectives on learning
  • push for opportunities for students to be empowered to co-create the expectations around learning, teaching and assessment
  • work with Educational Developers, module leaders and other academic and administrative colleagues to challenge features of the hidden curriculum, and promote its decolonisation.
  • think very carefully before aligning Learning Development with agendas such as Employability or Resilience. Do they place students’ education on terms other than their own, or do they place the onus on the individual student to resolve pressures which are created by wider social and institutional systems?
  • continually reflect on and challenge my own assumptions and reactions…

It’s a big task, but if we really take an Academic literacies approach, then we must take emancipatory practice seriously. We must reflect very carefully on our own role to ensure that we are not complicit in enforcing the hidden curriculum and reinforcing oppression, and consider the changes we can bring about, in the learning of individual students right up to influencing change at institutional level and beyond, to decolonise learning itself. Standing outside the curriculum and outside subject discourses as we do, directly between the student and the university, we are in a unique position to do this, and this is why above all the others, I feel that emancipatory practice is a characteristically, definitively Learning Development value. I’m not sure I’ve fully got my head round this topic, and I’m sure my understanding will evolve further as I work it through, but I’d love to hear what emancipatory practice means to others and the position it holds in their practice.

Whose authority?

There are some values that are deeply ingrained in our learning development practice. One of these is that the learning development one to one should be a ‘safe space’ in which the student can openly discuss and reflect on their learning in a non-judgemental environment, empowering them in a non-directive way to take ownership of their own learning. So far, so uncontroversial. However, the implications of this can surface some underlying tensions in the LDer’s practice which need thinking through, around the authority we embody in our work.

I’ve been reading *Peter Carino’s 2003 chapter on ‘Power and Authority in Peer Tutoring’, a discussion about whether a writing tutor should, in the interests of creating a non-threatening ‘safe space’ to discuss writing, engineer a non-hierarchical relationship with the student by divesting themselves of their natural authority. He sums up the tradition of ‘peer practice’ in the American tradition of writing centers**, and notes the occasional dissenting voice in the prevailing orthodoxy, which he attempts to take seriously and resolve. ‘“Power” and “authority” are not nice words’, he writes, and ‘none of us likes to feel less empowered than another in interpersonal relations, and students who enter writing centers should be made to feel as comfortable as possible, if for no other reason than basic human decency’. Fair enough.

Wanting to be nice and make people comfortable is not in itself the basis of a pedagogy, however. Moreover, Carino notes an inherent problem: ‘to pretend that there is not a hierarchical relationship between tutor and student is a fallacy, and to engineer peer tutoring techniques that divest the tutor of power and authority is at times foolish and can even be unethical”. Is it then disingenuous of us to take, in the phrasing of ALDinHE’s values, a partnership approach to working alongside students? Either we’re dishonestly creating the illusion of empowerment through non-directive sleight of hand while leading the student by the nose to the conclusion we think they should have come to all along, just to make them feel we’re being nice to them – or we’re giving up the one thing we have of value to help them, our authoritative knowledge.

Carino poses some theories as to why we might be doing this – either we lack the institutional power in a struggle with the more central authority of the subject classroom to assert ourselves, or we are defensively protecting ourselves from accusations of collusion from academic subject colleagues by seeming to misappropriate the student’s work. None of these reasons, though, is about the student, and what might best help them. In adopting a non-hierarchical approach, are then, we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

However, I think that the whole issue of hierarchy and authority in learning development is misconstrued in this discussion. It never really unpacks what this authority supposedly held by the learning developer actually consists of, and does not consider that the student may have any authority of their own worth respecting. The argument that our authority naturally stands in a hierarchical relationship with that of the student is based on rather shaky terms. Carino seems to suggest that the value of the learning developer lies in ‘rhetorical knowledge and academic success’ – that is, that we are better, more experienced and know more than the student about the same things. If one party has more, the other party has less. A zero sum game.

However, if you take a formulation approach to LD one to one work, then development lies in the co-construction of a shared hypothesis or narrative that aids understanding of the issue and how to move forwards. “Co-construction” is the key word here. Each party brings something distinct and essential to the process of learning development. It’s not an unequal tussle over authority in the same area in which one party must submit to the superior authority of the other, or voluntarily pretend to cede it, but the juxtaposing of two different, equally valuable areas of authority to create a new understanding for both parties.

So what authority does the Learning Developer contribute? I’m not a learning developer because I know more about the subject – that authority is supplied by the subject lecturer and it would be redundant (and unrealistic!) to attempt to duplicate it. I’m not even an authority in writing – if we follow an academic literacies approach***, we know there is no one thing called ‘academic writing’ but a multiplicity of discourses which vary according to the discipline’s characteristic epistemology and ontology, the conventions and norms which have arisen out of its practice in the social context of the university, and the status of the writer in that community. I can’t possibly know more than the student about writing in all disciplines, as I’ve not trained in all disciplines – a superficial and probably flawed summary of the characteristic conventions might be all I could achieve. To assume that we have more authority on the basis of my superior ‘rhetorical knowledge and academic success’  is to take a generic academic socialisation approach.

And I’m not an authority on what it’s like to be that particular student – their history as a learner and what’s shaped them, their prior knowledge, natural preferences and abilities, how they’ve gone about their learning, how they perceive the HE context they’re learning in, their aims and hopes as a student. They’re the authority on that. They also know the specific details of their learning context far better than I do – they’ve sat in those lectures, got to know those academics, done those exams, read far more of that discourse’s literature than me. So this is the authority the student holds – they know themselves as a learner in their context best. Some of this may be implicit and it’s my job to help them articulate and reflect on it, but that authority and expertise resides with them. That’s their essential contribution to the formulation.

What I bring to this co-constructed narrative is an understanding of the many ways that learning works, founded in scholarship (educational psychology, neuroscience, sociology etc), and a repertoire of diverse strategies and approaches based on this understanding. I also bring a familiarity of how teaching and assessment work, based on my knowledge of pedagogic theory and the culture of Higher Education.  Uniting these, I also offer an insight into the issues at stake in learning development, informed by academic literacies and other critical pedagogical thinking. I throw this into the mix so that the student can draw on it to cast new light on the issue. More important than authoritative knowledge is my skilled practice, knowing what to bring to bear that might help, and how to elicit the student’s innate expertise to reflect on.

Together, I and the student bring our own distinct areas of authority and expertise to bear to collaboratively create an understanding and a way forward. This is the nature of the equal partnership between the student and the learning developer. Our contributions are different in quality, not quantity. Our authority sits alongside theirs. We neither impose nor disingenuously cede it. I don’t have the answers; I have skilled questions, and I have a part of the mix that will create the answer. I feel very uncomfortable with the idea that I am a greater authority than them – what me, know better than a student who’s studying a subject at degree level, know more than them on how to write a civil engineering report, a systematic review of medical literature, a business marketing analysis, when I’ve never done one in my life?!

If there are tensions and contests around authority in a learning development one to one, then it’s a sign to me that we’re no longer working in partnership, each bringing our own distinct and vital part to the problem. It’s a sign I’m not doing my job well. I’ve found I’ve had to let go of my notions of authority inherited from previous roles, when I’ve been a subject teacher or taught English. Authority works very differently in those roles, where it’s quite natural that I need to know more than the student in order to design learning and assess it. It was unnerving at first to let go of that as an LDer and I still sometimes grasp after that comfort. This though is another aspect of what makes Learning Development so distinct.


*Peter Carino (2003) ‘Power and Authority in Peer Tutoring’ in Michael Pemberton and Joyce Kinkead (eds) Centre Will Hold: Critical Perspectives on Writing Center Scholarship. Logan: Utah State University Press

** Carino works in the US system, where the basis of what we call Learning Development has evolved rather differently, but I think this makes it all the more important for us to really interrogate the discussion before we adopt it as good practice here in the UK. The American tradition has been around for longer than our British community, and we often look to it as it’s more established, as our own practice and scholarship is more in its infancy.

*** Carino was possibly writing too early for Academic Literacies to have really impacted significantly on the discussion, and I’m not sure how much it’s really influenced the American tradition since – there seems to be very little crossover between the US and the UK/Aus/NZ/Canadian ones. This is an area I’d like to understand better. But still, all the more reason to think carefully about citing US literature to underpin discussion of good practice in other contexts.

To Read in Advance, or Not to Read in Advance

This is another of the big questions in Learning Development practice. Does your one to one service require students to send a sample of work for the Learning Developer to read before the appointment, or do you ask them to bring it with them on the day so you can skim through it in situ?

This issue has implications for logistics and practice, but also fundamentally affects how we conceptualize Learning Development, so it’s worth giving serious thought to. My practice has always been in teams that don’t read work in advance, so it’s what I’m used to, but discussions with LDers whose services insist on written work in advance have been very useful in making me reflect on whether I practise this way because it’s familiar to me, or because there is a pedagogic justification for it. Having given it long thought, I’m sticking with No Work In Advance, for the following reasons.

Firstly, and leastly, sheer logistics. My team is tiny, and to accept work in advance would mean to set aside time to read it – which would significantly reduce the number of students we can see. Learning Development teams are rarely huge, and we’re often trying to manage high demand, and if it is possible to give just as good a service while reading work on the day, it will increase our impact and greater access to the service.

Far more importantly, though – how would accepting work in advance reflect our purpose and values as Learning Developers? To cite ALDinHE’s primary value: “Working alongside students to make sense of and get the most out of HE learning”. If I am reading work in advance, I am quite literally not working alongside the student. They’re not there. I am working with their writing, which is not the same thing. Sure, I get to work with the student when they arrive for their appointment, but by then I’ve already done a lot of “the work” – what we do in the appointment has already been determined by and will be driven by the work I did without them. Whatever I do in the one to one is feeding back from this work, not doing it in front of them, and certainly not with or alongside them.  If at any point, that text is in my hands, it becomes my problem, decreasing student responsibility for and ownership of the learning.

This is by definition diagnostic work. My reading of the text is not informed by the context the student could have provided, and all I am doing is looking for signs (assess) which I can interpret as category problems such as Structure or Clarity or Criticality (diagnose) and thinking about what strategies or changes I might suggest for them (prescribe). I’m also more in control of determining the learning outcomes than I’d like – the student might mention in a booking that they’d like me to look for, e.g. structure, but otherwise I’m letting the learning outcomes arise from my diagnosis, not out of conversation with the student. Without a meaningful discussion with the student, all I can do is what the lecturer would do. I’m giving feedback, I’m offering editing-with-commentary. My reading is privileged over that of the student, who isn’t present to help co-create and interpret that meaning-making on an equal basis. Reading work in advance cannot by definition take a formulation approach, but is diagnostic, which is by its nature remedial and deficit. And if the text speaks to us in the absence of the student, it will no doubt tell us things the student wasn’t aware that it would disclose to us, which doesn’t feel very consensual.

Focussing on a piece of writing also directs our attention to surface features. Even if in the one to one appointment, we push beyond these into a discussion of deeper issues, this is where our work starts and may also therefore be where it ends. If we take seriously the idea that writing is not a transparent, neutral act of communication comprised of atomised, mechanistic skills but is situated in all kinds of negotiated, contested notions about identity and meaning and who has the authority to make it, it makes no sense to start with a piece of student writing in the absence of the student, expecting it to speak for them. Reading work in advance is by definition a ‘study skills’ approach (in the Lea and Street sense) – why try to then bolt an academic literacies model on top of it in the appointment itself?

Moreover, insisting on seeing writing in advance very much limits the scope of the work we can do, and the timeliness of that work. A student can only see us if they’ve got as far as producing a piece of writing. We’re focussing solely on the product – certainly we can discuss issues of process which have impacted on this product, but it’s rather late in the day to be addressing them, if the issue was around planning or interpreting the question. The student is already heavily committed to a particular approach, and time may be getting too short for changing it. And if the issue was writer’s block, we’re unlikely to see them at the very point they needed us! Not only does this limit Learning Development to issues around writing (Writing Development?), it also excludes a whole lot of issues which have nothing to do with writing – time management, revision, critical reading, how to learn in lectures etc. where there is no associated piece of writing to send.

Reading work in advance also means that the student misses out on an opportunity that (unlike feedback or editorial input) they are unlikely to get anywhere but a Learning Development one to one appointment. Whatever work I did before they arrived for their appointment remains invisible and mysterious to them. This causes problems when managing their expectations (the extent to which they assume that I have proofread and can be expected to take responsibility for errors). But it also means the students miss out from seeing me do that work, and learning from that opportunity to observe. Out of sight, literally out of mind…

Firstly, when I read in front of a student, I am giving them an insight, live in real time and right there in front of them, of how a reader responds to their writing. Students almost never get to see the marker marking. When I read with a student, I make the process of reading and responding as transparent and visible as possible. I don’t read for long stretches in silence – in fact, I don’t read in silence at all (it’s unnerving!). I subvocalise and follow along with a pen, so they can literally see and hear my progress through their text, where I’m directing my attention, when I speed up or slow down, what I pick up on. I also verbalise my reactions – hm, I’m getting a bit lost here. Oh! That was unexpected! Hey, impressive, I like that. How do you know that, though? Haven’t I seen that idea before…? Ah – interesting, I want to know more... Oh wait, no, you explain that in the next paragraph, I was getting worried tho. Once the reader’s reaction is apparent, we can both unpick it together, and figure out how they as a writer can therefore anticipate, manage and satisfy their reader’s response. “So if the reader is getting a bit lost at that point, what might have thrown them off track? And how might you help them in the text to understand the main point of this section?” etc. It gives the student far more agency than just telling them how they should have written it, and it’s a lens they can apply to future work, once they know how to see the text through the reader’s eyes. Writing becomes a negotiation, a dialogue.

Secondly, when I read in front of a student, I am very transparent in the strategies I’m using to look at their work. If they want to work on structure, I will tell them the strategy I am using and then model it for them. Not only does this get informed consent about what I am about to do with/to their writing, it also shows them strategies they can then try themselves, and take away for the future. So, when I’m looking for structure, I read the first line of each paragraph…. If I want to check if points are being fully developed and unpacked, I pause after each sentence and ask, what questions remain? Why? How? What? etc. Very often, as I ensure the writing is physically positioned between us, the student starts to apply the strategy over my shoulder and anticipate me, and then I will hand the text back to them for them to have a go.

To work in this way, I’ve needed to develop the confidence to make sense very quickly of complex information outside my expertise, but also to realise how little I really need to understand it in order to develop learning! I got very hung up in the early days about not looking like an idiot because I didn’t understand a text or know anything about the subject; I now realise that not only is that bit not my job, but I can usefully harness my own ignorance to help students develop their own awareness of the discipline and when and how to demonstrate their own understanding to the marker.

Working in this way is challenging, tiring and very highly skilled, but I’d argue it results in something the student can’t get elsewhere. Not feedback, not editorial comment, but learning development.


The Five Ps of LD – Conference Presentation

I’m presenting today at this week’s ICALLD online symposium, on the Five Ps of LD. ICALLD, the International Consortium of Academic Language and Learning Developers brings together the LDers from the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, so I’m looking forward to exchanging ideas with colleagues in other countries!

It’s an online symposium, so I’m presenting at 10:20pm UK time (past my bedtime!) but it’s awesome that we can ‘meet’ in this way.

They will be recording the sessions and making them available, but my presentation is also here:

It contains this picture, of which I am very, very proud*.


*I just don’t want JK to sue me for using film stills

ETA: a recording of the session is here.

Subject Aligned Learning Developers?

I had a bit of a treat this term. I got an email from a lecturer in the German department asking if we could run a workshop for their first years, who are finding essay writing tricky. All the four years I’ve worked at Newcastle as a Learning Developer, I’ve been secretly awaiting that call. Why? Because 25 years ago, I was a student myself on that very course; 18 years ago, I returned to teach it myself as a trainee teacher on my PGCE placement. I know it better than anyone. It’s home turf. My background not just as a modern linguist and a Germanist at that, but as a graduate and former teacher of that particular course, makes me perfectly positioned to support those students with their academic literacies. I understand, guys, I get it, I’ve been there

Or does it?

Does it help if Learning Developers have familiarity with the disciplines they are supporting? Surely if they are aligned with a faculty or school, they can better tailor their provision to the subject conventions of that discipline – a discipline that is the same or similar to their own original background.

There are sometimes pragmatic reasons why a familiarity with the disciplines they support can’t be a requirement in Learning Development. Many of us are centrally located in an institution, and for starters our teams often aren’t big enough to dedicate one LDer per School or Faculty, and ensure that they have a degree in that subject. LDers often tend to have a background in the Arts and Humanities, so that would leave some disciplines rather poorly supplied.

But I think there are other reasons why I’m wary of the assumption that an Learning Developer with a background in the discipline they are supporting is a necessary or even desirable thing, in doing a good job.

Firstly the temptation to overstep the boundary into subject teaching. I’ve felt it myself when a student brings me an assignment in a one to one which is on Modern Languages, Literature, History and especially Medieval Studies, my own research specialism. It’s a huge challenge to my professionalism as a Learning Developer. Its so hard not to slip in the odd bit of subject knowledge to impress, or steer them towards the ‘right answer’ and away from what I can see are content errors. Or, worse, to sway them towards the essay that I would have written. I do my absolute best to adhere to my own rule on this – if any other member of my team couldn’t have given that advice, then I shouldn’t be giving it either. If I couldn’t give the same quality of advice to a student from a different subject, one I don’t know so well, then I shouldn’t be privileging those from my ‘home’ discipline. Students should have the same service from me than they should from any member of the team. And there are some subjects I really, really don’t enjoy working with – they are quite alien to me, and not only do I not find the content enjoyable, I feel out of my depth, not sure in possession of the practices of that discipline. But not to give them the same care and attention as I do my ‘home’ subjects feels unfair, inequitable. Unprofessional.

But behind these instincts lies something more fundamental about what it means to be a Learning Developer. I’ve said here before that if my practice is truly to be student-centred and empowering, then it is not my job to have the answers. My expertise does not reside in content to convey – in this, Learning Development is not like subject teaching. My role is to have the questions, not the answers. In my roles as Listener and Coach, my role is to value and respect the expertise the student themselves bring, both in themselves as a learner, and their understanding of their discipline community, and ‘all’ I’m doing is to help them make this explicit. In my role as Mentor, I’m drawing on what I know of the institutional practices of teaching and learning, not of the subject itself. Acting as Teacher should be my last resort, and not encompassing subject knowledge. In most cases, to impose my own familiarity with the discipline would be to disregard and override the student’s own emerging perspective and knowledge. That’s a shortcut that doesn’t feel very LD. If I’m doing my job as Learning Developer well, I really, really shouldn’t need a familiarity with the discipline. Indeed, that would be to practice Academic Socialisation, not Academic Literacies. Standing apart from the discipline often allows me to see it more clearly. And to promote independent learning and emancipation, what I’m teaching students is not passing on the conventions of a discipline, but the art of analysing a community of practice to identify what’s going on, and if adopting its practices is desirable, or should be challenged or rejected.

I’ve taught technical writing to Mechanical Engineers, systematic reviews to Medics, making posters to scientists, writing Methodologies to social scientists and reflective commentaries on Fine Art. If I’m doing my job well, what I’m doing is to create an opportunity in which the student can draw on their own experience and expertise to divine the discipline’s characteristic practices for themselves. Sometimes, I think my own subject knowledge can be a distraction. Sometimes, it takes an outsider to see it clearly. Sometimes, an insider can be too invested in the community of practice to see what’s best for the student.

I’ll try to bear this in mind, when I sit where I sat quarter of a century ago, and try to remember who and what I am! I’m a Learning Developer.

Up to You: Non-directive, non-prescriptive practice

The Magic Strategy. The One True Study Technique. Success Guaranteed with This Approach. The Right Way to Learn(TM). You’ll Be Amazed.

It’s a real temptation, to be the one to offer students what they’ve all been waiting for, or to teach them the orthodox path to study success. Maybe it worked for you or your own tutor, so comes with a guarantee and a pedigree, or maybe it’s something novel the students won’t have heard before from anyone else. But I’m always suspicious when I see study skills advice that promotes one approach over others, or presents itself as the only way to study right.

It’s almost like fashion – ten years ago, every study skills session or resource was promoting mindmapping as the revolutionary solution to notetaking – these days it seems to be the Cornell method. There’s nothing wrong with either of those – but then again, there’s nothing outstandingly superior about either of them, over other methods. They each have their pros and cons. Sometimes it’s more well-worn approaches which are set down in stone as the way to do it – “you MUST plan before you start writing!” Well, no, not necessarily. Or it’s the latest digital tool which will solve all their problems – until the next tool comes out. Use Mendeley! Use Scrivener! Use Evernote!

I’ve seen this happen in one to one sessions, I’ve seen workshops which offer only one strategy for students to try out, I’ve seen books which promote the author’s own approach to learning, I’ve seen training which focusses on the tool at the expense of the task it’s supposed to fulfil. It’s understandable, for all sorts of reasons, whether we have to ‘sell’ our own offering over that of others, or whether we like the little glow we get from offering the students something they won’t get anywhere else, or which will work better than anyone else’s advice. I know I’ve felt that. Certainly I have my own favoured approaches, my pet techniques that I hope will work for students better than any other.

If I get this impulse, I go back to my core values as a Learning Developer. One of these is that my provision should be ’empowering’ – students should not be dependent on me to make decisions about their study, but able to make these choices for themselves. Another core value therefore is that I am non-directive- I don’t tell students what to do. I try not to use words like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘need to’… these are all dogmatic statements which the student must take from me on trust, and instead of impressing on them all the things I think they ought to be doing, I’d rather help them to make their own informed decisions and choices. I’m not going to prescribe.

In my practice, then, what I try to do in one to one tutorials or workshops, or in writing study resources, is to always offer the student a range of approaches or tools, and then, crucially, suggest some criteria that they can apply, or a set of reflective questions to ask themselves, when they are experimenting. I try to recognise that what works for me won’t necessarily work for others, and that we all have different needs and preferences which need to be taken into account when selecting an approach. I also find that whatever our own preferred approach (whether it’s a matter of long ingrained habit or a deliberate attempt to align to one’s supposed learning style*), there will be times when it doesn’t work for us, and that developing a repertoire of tools, approaches or strategies helps us to respond flexibly at these times as we evolve as individual learners and adapt to new study contexts. Or maybe just have an off day.

That’s the approach I developed for the Ten Days of Twitter course, where instead of trying to sell Twitter, I just designed tasks to fulfil with it and a reflective set of questions for participants to consider as they did so. With the forebear of #10DoT, LD5D, there was a reflective framework for participants to use when blogging about each digital tool we explored. These days, when teaching study skills workshops, I like to get students to do a little reflective activity which prompts them to think about their own profiles and needs as learners*, and then do a SWOT on a range of study strategies or tools, to help them think through for themselves what would suit them best, while recognising that no approach is perfect.

Hopefully, this then equips them not only to make these decisions about other study strategies in the future, but also to mistrust any suggestion that The Next Latest Thing is necessarily for them. I think there is a danger here in overselling a particular approach – what if that Guaranteed Right Way to Study doesn’t work for that student? It disempowers them and makes them feel the problem is with them – they must be lacking something if they can’t make it work; maybe nothing will work, if that didn’t. And I’d hate to leave students with that.



*I hate Learning Styles. #DieLearningStylesDie

The Scholastic Rat is Always Right

I came across this quotation attributed to BF Skinner recently- he of the operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, press-a-lever-and-get-a-treat school of Behaviourism.

The Rat is Always RightAlways Right

It immediately struck a chord/rang a bell/sounded a buzzer/flashed a light with me, and not just because of the Scholastic Rat’s well-known appreciation of her rodenty friends. What this quotation means is that when you’re trying to encourage a particular desired behaviour but the rat doesn’t do what you expect him to do, it’s not that the rat is wrong- he is simply interpreting the signals you’re giving and responding to the situation as makes sense to him. An unexpected or undesired response isn’t the rat’s fault; it’s that this is what your training has, unintentionally or accidentally, set him up to do. Don’t blame the rat; in his own way, the rat is right.

It applies to non-murine students too, though. I’m sure there are a hundred and one irritating, frustrating, unwanted learning behaviours which students engage in, which we or our academic colleagues may moan about. But if we’re fair, and we think about it, we may realise that it’s what we’ve implicitly trained them to do. In trying to shape their behaviour towards one goal, we’ve actually steered it towards another. I wrote a while ago about the hidden curriculum; well, there are parts of that curriculum that are hidden even from us, but which we still teach by accident, and which have unintended and unwanted outcomes.

A lot of these unwanted attitudes and behaviours are to do with abstract values such as originality, independence or academic integrity, which we’ve tried to frame in less alienating, concrete and quantifiable terms to make them clear. The result is surface, extrinsically motivated behaviours which we may deplore, but which we’ve somehow encouraged and which are a perfectly reasonable reaction to the messages we’re giving out. Here are some of the most common ones I encounter:

‘How much of this text do I need to change to make it “my own words”?’

What we’re aiming to do is to encourage students to show evidence of their understanding through explaining to us what the texts they are reading mean to them. Paraphrase involves a lot of higher order thinking and a high degree of fluency. However, through tools such as Turnitin, which matches text and spits out percentages of similarity, we’ve unwittingly encouraged students to view paraphrase as a matter of mechanically changing each word in the original until a magical percentage is reached and they’ve made ‘the red go away’. This actually does satisfy the tool- but it doesn’t satisfy the deeper learning outcome. We might get irritated with this question, but students are responding in a perfectly rational way to the tools we’re using to shape their behaviour.

‘What do I need to include to get a first?’

We have in our minds a preconception of the kind of answer we’re looking for. We know, and they know that we know. We certainly know when an answer falls short. Two percent short. One percent short. I see a lot of students who are bumping up against that seeming glass ceiling of the 2:1 / 1st class barrier. Just two extra percentage points, one little mark… what was it, what, that they could or should have included that would have tipped it over into that coveted first? Can’t be much, in itself it’s only a couple of percentage points… so what was it, that little thing that would have made the difference?! And if you look at the way we traditionally articulate our assessment, it’s a reasonable question, from their point of view. Are we assessing them on what they’ve learned, or their ability to mindread what we’re looking for?! Why can’t we just be straight with them? There are of course reasons why assessment isn’t that straightforward, but I have to admit, the way we express it must seem frustratingly tantalising!

I’m, like, 17 words over the 10% extra wordcount – I’ve been up cutting out words half the night. I’m really sorry. Does it matter?

What we wanted to do was to encourage students to explore an intellectual problem of a certain dimension and depth with an appropriate degree of focus and relevance. This being hard to articulate, we’ve gone for the most concrete, quantifiable way to frame this. Gone over the wordcount? Bzzzt! Penalty*. But the number of words was never really the issue- yet that’s what we’ve shaped student’s behaviour to focus on.  (*Skinner didn’t actually advocate positive punishment)

All of these instances are occasions where students are focussed on superficial, instrumental elements of learning or assessment, to the detriment of the deep learning we want to elicit. But all of them are a response, a reasonable response, to the signals we’ve been giving out. They’re examples of behaviour-shaping gone wrong. And that’s on us – as individual teachers, as institutions, and as a sector. The student is always right – not because they are a customer, but because they are a learner, responding as best they can to our teaching in the broader context of higher education in the C21st.

The rat is always right*.

*In the context of training. This doesn’t mean yoggies on demand or that it’s fine to chew the skirtingboard, ok?

Bloom’s Taxonomy in Learning Development

Another post in my series re-visiting educational theory from my PGCE in the context of LD work! But this time, there’s one theory in particular from my teacher training which has stuck with me and which I draw on every single day in my Learning Development work – although I use it in a slightly unexpected way.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives was admitted by its own author to be one of the most cited but least read texts in education. I’ve read it – well, some of it – well, a bit of it – it’s pretty dense! It boils down to such a nice, concise, self-explanatory graphic  though that very few teachers have felt the need to return to the original book. As with many easily condensed, neatly depicted theories, however, it has at times been oversimplified and applied in far too rigid and literal a way. However, Bloom’s taxonomy has been so influential and impacts so directly on learners that I think it’s a key theory in the Learning Developer’s repertoire.

What is it?

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a framework for understanding and working with learning objectives. It was developed by a committee led by Bloom in the 1950s to help clarify learning outcomes and ensure that they were suitably complex and challenging for university study. It’s also used to design teaching activities appropriate to those outcomes, and align assessment methods too. Bloom’s taxonomy incorporates three dimensions of learning: the cognitive, affective and psychomotor, but it is the first that is most widely used. The taxonomy organises learning outcomes into six categories, progressing from the least to the most cognitively complex and challenging. Most commonly depicted as a pyramid, the cognitive dimension encompasses, from least to most complex:

  • Knowledge:  Remembering facts and information
  • Understanding: Making sense of information and explaining what it means
  • Application: Using theory or methods to explain, predict or guide practice, or applying knowledge to different contexts
  • Analysis: Breaking knowledge down into its constituent parts and establishing how the parts relate to one another (like dissection)
  • Synthesis: Bringing different bits of knowledge together to create something new (like cooking!)
  • Evaluation: Making a value judgement – good/bad? important/not important? Relevant/not relevant?


A subsequent review of the taxonomy in 2001 reversed the top two levels, noting that synthesis, or creating new knowledge, should be regarded as more complex than evaluating existing knowledge, which seems fair enough!

How might it relate to Learning Development?

Implicitly or explicitly, Bloom underpins so much of the assumptions and language of teaching, learning and assessment. Universities publish marking criteria which not only assume a progressive complexity of objectives, but often also draw on the language of the taxonomy. Feedback is full of this language, and the way assignment questions are phrased alludes to it. However, the Learning Developer encounters three issues relating to Bloom’s taxonomy:

  • Where the language of Bloom’s taxonomy is explicitly invoked, it’s not very self-explanatory to students. Just giving them the marking criteria and referring back to it in feedback doesn’t necessarily mean we’re being transparent. Students know university study will be harder, but that doesn’t mean they automatically have a tangible sense of what that means in practice, often assuming it will be a quantitative, not qualitative difference (I remember one friend who’d done an undergraduate degree asking me what my PhD entailed – “what will you be doing, learning even more German?!”). Even lecturers may struggle to define what they mean in their discipline by a term such as ‘analysis’, though they know it when they see it.
  • While Bloom’s approach often underpins lecturers’ aspirations for their students’ learning, they themselves may not be explicitly familiar with it or aware of how the language they use relates to it. Thus students find themselves grappling with very vague terms like ‘explore’, ‘discuss’ ‘more depth’, ‘too descriptive’, neither they nor their lecturers always able to articulate in concrete terms what is meant. (I remember one lecturer telling me that “as long as the students know their stuff, they will be fine!”). And if it’s too implicit, we revert back to the problem that Bloom was initially trying to resolve in the 1950s – are our educational objectives valid?
  • Influential as it is, Bloom isn’t universally liked or accepted (there are other taxonomies). Criticisms that it might result in too narrow, mechanistic or prescriptive teaching and learning may be valid, if it’s applied too rigidly. And I’m not convinced that the six categories are in fact strictly sequential. However, in contrast to Educational Developers, who are staff-facing and work to bring about change – teaching and learning as it could or should be – we learning developers work with students to help them negotiate teaching and learning as it is, as they are currently experiencing it (which isn’t to say we don’t also push for change, but it’s not our primary focus). Bloom has been hugely influential, and is part of the teaching, learning and assessment landscape we’re helping them navigate. I’m not necessarily advocating for Bloom as a means to classify educational objectives, but I am working with it as an established fact of educational life.
  • Edited to add (after some debate on Twitter!) – this includes working with all the misunderstandings of Bloom. It’s often interpreted as a hierarchy (it’s not, it’s a taxonomy), as a model of learning or as a process for teaching (it isn’t and was never intended to be). The pyramid diagram, which it’s most often presented as, is often criticised as an over-simplistic representation of learning- but it doesn’t actually appear in Bloom’s original (and you’ll find other diagrammatic reworkings of it other than the pyramid). However, all of these misapplications impact on students, and the Learning Developer needs to be aware of them and factor them into their discussion with students! (Edited again to add- just found this fantastic post on common misrepresentations of Bloom: https://theeconomyofmeaning.com/2017/08/24/a-longer-piece-on-the-taxonomy-of-bloom/)

How might we teach it to students?

It was Bloom’s taxonomy that made me wonder why we aren’t more open about the ways we’re working with students – they’re adults, and intelligent ones, so why not share with them the models that guide our, and therefore their, practice? It’s rare that I could go through a day and not in some way refer back to Bloom – unpacking the language or unpicking the notion of progressive cognitive complexity it rests on. I use Bloom in a slightly different way to its original purpose, however. I use it as a heuristic, an interpretative framework, with students.

I use it to help students understand the expectations on them at each level of transition (“what does ‘more difficult, advanced, harder’ mean?“), or to help them examine what they understand by ‘learning’ (or “knowing your stuff“), what they value vs what their lecturers prize, or to unpack the way an assignment is phrased and spot the invitations or opportunities to demonstrate higher order thinking (“does ‘discuss’ just mean ‘talk about’, or something more?“). I use it to help interpret feedback and marks with them (“too descriptive means you’re demonstrating a lot of knowledge and understanding – it’s good that you have that knowledge, but what do you do with it?“), and see where they could push themselves more. I use it as an editing tool to highlight the proportion of their writing which is lower or higher order thinking, balancing breadth and depth. “Knowledge and understanding is what you have, from your lectures and reading”, I tell them. “we’re interested also in what you can DO with or to it. Don’t find an answer – make one”.  A simpler version of Bloom which I sometimes use is ICE – Ideas Connections Extensions.

How can we apply it ourselves in the classroom?

Learning developers’ use of Bloom is going to largely be less involved that that of academic colleagues who are planning formal programmes of study, modules, marking criteria and assessments. However, Bloom’s taxonomy is still a useful nudge to us when planning our workshops or also in one-to-one work, to ensure we’re challenging students to an appropriate level and using activities which reflect the complexity of what we’re asking them to learn. Given that emancipatory, student-centred, holistic practice is central to my work, Bloom is a useful reminder to me not just to focus on telling students things and giving them knowledge and understanding. They will need to switch independently between different discourses and codes, so I need to make sure they can analyse academic discourse and practice for themselves and apply the principles they derive. I also need to encourage them to evaluate the strategies we’re discussing and reflect on whether they are right for them individually, and to synthesise these into their own approach. It would be nice to be the fount of all knowledge, telling students all they need to know, but it would do them no favours, even if I knew all the answers, so Bloom is a reminder to me not to take the easy route. It’s also a reminder not to overlook the other two, often neglected, domains – the role of the affective in learning, and the impact of the psychomotor domain even on the cognitive.