Study Skills Snake Oil

A while ago I wrote a post for our Newcastle Writing Development Centre blog which unpicked something that had been troubling me in a lot of the study skills advice I’d been reading. Advice which sounded full of good sense and very appealing, but which on closer inspection didn’t seem to offer any concrete benefits, and might even make students feel worse.

  • ‘Always make sure your writing is clear!’
  • ‘Your essay should have a logical structure!’
  • ‘Manage your time effectively!’

…and similar tips.

What advice like this has in common is adjectives which are meaningless out of context,  black and white, inflexible and idealistic imperatives, and no practical sense of how any of it is to be practically achieved or how you would even know if you had. It sounds great but in its attempt to make study sound reassuring, simple, bite-size and do-able, it actually disempowers students. If it really were that simple, students wouldn’t need telling!

I wanted to make sure I wasn’t passing off similar ‘placebo’ advice to students in my own practice, so came up with some key questions I could use to interrogate the advice we give in the WDC and ensure that it’s top quality:

  • What exactly do we mean by that?
  • How are students supposed to do that?
  • How might that work for them individually?
  • How can they check and be sure they’ve done it?

Creating something that’s straightforward to read but nuanced enough to reflect the complex reality of university study is a tricky balance, but hopefully these questions are helping us find that.

The original blog post can be found here, but I recently reworked it as a poster for the ALDinHE conference April 2017, where it was well received. It’s a bit daft and by no means a model academic poster but hopefully provoked a few thoughts and raised a smile!

poster thumbnail.png

The files are here, for a closer look:

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Negotiating learning outcomes in LD

Learning Development is, amongst other things, a form of teaching, and as such, we draw constantly on the theory and practice of teachers. Many of us are qualified teachers, or have undertaken professional development on the fundamentals of teaching. And one of the first things you learn as a teacher is how to determine your learning outcomes. You, as the subject expert, design or interpret the curriculum, and ascertain for each teaching session, module or course, what the learning outcomes will be. By the end of the session, students will be able to… [insert Bloom’s Taxonomy Verb here] etc etc.

As a qualified teacher myself, this was the starting point of my practice as a learning developer. I’d planned courses and classes as a subject lecturer, and it seemed to carry over quite naturally into planning workshops. In practice, however, I found that this task – tricky at the best of times – was even more problematic in my learning development practice than when I was a subject lecturer. Why?

Learning outcomes arise from the gap between where the students are now, and where we need to get them to after the teaching. Learning outcomes give a direction to our teaching, and a basis to assess whether that teaching was successful. But that starting point – where are the students now – is really hard to establish as a learning developer. We may be seeing them for the first (and only) time, know very little about them and their prior learning experiences or, if embedding in subject teaching, we might not be entirely familiar with the course and what we might reasonably expect them to know or need to know. Or as a group, they may simply be so diverse that it’s hard to make any generalisation about what ‘they’ know!

The end point – where we need to get them to – is also tricky. As learning developers, we don’t have a body of subject knowledge to pass on as such. We’re not in the business of imposing as subject experts what we deem to be key prescribed knowledge, but working in equal partnership through negotiation to ascertain what would help both lecturers and students meet their own learning outcomes, not primarily ours.

So we’re not the only party who has a say in that goal. If you’ve been commissioned by a lecturer to offer a session supporting their module or course, you’ll have been given an extensive, diverse and possibly quite scattergun and unrealistic list of things they want the session to achieve. The students too, have their own ideas about what they want to get out of a session – from ‘Nothing, attendance is compulsory and you’re teaching us to suck eggs’ to a need which is pressing, clearly articulated, possibly unrealistic and… not quite what your planned session is actually about.

As learning developers, student-centredness is one of our core values, and we need to recognise that students are ultimately the experts in their own individual learning. I feel we should give at least equal attention to what students say they want to learn, as to what their lecturers request, or even what we feel might be helpful. After all, our only agenda is that the students become confident, successful independent learners, whatever that means to them, which is very different to the subject lecturer whose role is to ensure that students learn what is deemed by the subject discipline community to be the core knowledge of that subject. Students have far less input into that sort of curriculum; it’s the role of the subject expert to determine. However, I think that in order to set effective learning outcomes as a learning developers, we need to give students a say in them.

So in creating our learning outcomes as Learning Developers, our role is actually balancing the perspectives of both the students and lecturing staff, and bringing our own expertise to bear in terms of what we feel is most relevant to both parties, achievable and within our remit.


Negotiating Learning Outcomes as a Learning Developer1

However, the second difficulty is the need to unpack those perspectives. Lecturers may have very clear ideas of what the students do (or more often, should) know as a result of their own prior teaching (or teaching that they assume the students have had from previous stages of education). These assumptions may not be entirely accurate, and can’t reliably be used as a sole guide to where the students are now, and where you can then build from. It’s also a possible source of anxiety for lecturing staff – if their students should know this and don’t (“but I’ve told them that!”), will you be judging their teaching? It’s as well to tactfully create an opportunity at the start for the students to tell us where they feel they are, so we can pitch a session right, as well as being a good basis for their own ongoing learning.

Likewise, students may have very clear ideas of what they already know- and this may equally be inaccurate. ‘But we already know how to write essays!’ Sure – they may know how to write A-level essays, but university study is different and this subject is different and if they try to apply what they know to this new context, then they will find expectations will have been raised, the rules of the game will have been changed. We know this – but it’s hard to articulate this in a way that moves beyond that view of writing-as-mechanical-skill to something more nuanced, context-specific and progressive, and which gets students on board with the aims of a session.

And of course both lecturers and students may have equally clear and yet wildly divergent ideas about what the students need to learn.  Lecturers may be picking up on a need in their assessment, but are not always able to identify it accurately in their feedback (how many times have I seen a student who’s been told to improve their grammar, when in reality, their writing is grammatically correct, but needs a bit of work on conforming to conventional academic style?). Students similarly may not be able to put their finger on or articulate what they need, have misunderstood the expectations on them, or they may feel the need to express it in a way that feels less shaming to them. This is another area in which anxiety may arise that we’re judging them, a fear which we need to allay to be able to enlist their help in setting appropriate learning outcomes.


Negotiating Learning Outcomes as a Learning Developer2

So setting learning outcomes as learning developers is tricky –

  • do we even have ‘learning outcomes’ in a traditional sense?
  • both students and lecturers also have a say in what those learning outcomes are…
  • …but neither may be clear about what the need really is

Our role as a learning developer is to step into this situation, negotiate between lecturers and students as to where the priorities for a session really are, try to untangle the reality of assumed prior and required learning which lies somewhere between the students’ and staff’s perceptions, and bring our own expertise to bear on what we feel would best meet the needs we’re seeing in a way that’s acceptable to all three parties.

No wonder setting learning outcomes is no simple matter as a learning developer!


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#Take5 #19: Learning Development – the best values?

Many thanks to Sandra for inviting me to blog for her!

Newcastle’s Learning Development Values Document: Standards Values and Principles

Take 5

For this #Take5 we have we have invited Helen Webster from Newcastle University to blog about Learning Development values. This is in honour of our ALDinHE Conference, 10-12 April, University of Hull:, and follows her recent interesting discussion on the LDHEN list.  So – thank you Helen! Everybody else – do leave a comment – pass the post on – have a great Conference … and think about offering your own blogpost very soon!

The Value(s) of Learning Development

What are professional values? I remember when I was doing my teacher training that values didn’t really get much attention in amongst all the complex abstract education theory we were learning. They definitely seemed a bit ‘fluffy’ and irrelevant amidst the practicalities of my early teaching placements. I wasn’t very sure what a value was, let alone what my own values as a teacher were. It’s only later in…

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What is a Learning Developer?

‘I’m a Learning Developer’.

It’s not easy explaining what you do. Friends and acquaintances will gain only a hazy idea from this term, teachers and lecturers may feel that they, too, develop learning, don’t they? and colleagues in other student services such as English for Academic Purposes or Librarians may be on the defensive, as you describe in more detail what you offer: ‘but we teach that!’.

I’m fascinated by and enjoy interprofessional working – I love finding out how other colleagues work and how they conceptualise what they do – those glimpses into the arcane knowledge of another profession. Since Learning Development in large part arose from those professions – counselling, disability support, English for Academic Purposes, librarian information literacy teaching, subject teaching – it’s hard to situate what we do as distinct, which can muddy waters for staff and students, and lead to tensions in interprofessional working.

But I think it is distinct. My gut reaction is that what I do as a Learning Developer is different to what I did when I was a subject lecturer who took an interest in developing my students’ study skills alongside their discipline knowledge. It’s different from the approach I observe in other professions even when they’re teaching topics which ostensibly also fall on ‘our patch’, such as writing or referencing. My view is that these approaches and the different professional perspectives that they emerge from are valuable, complementary and holistic, and the more we work together and understand what we can each bring, the better. However, to really make the best use of this collaboration, we need to have a clearer articulation of what each role brings. If we reduce it, discipline-style, to study skills topics, and carve it up between us as a curriculum, we’re going to lose so much. Better, I think, to try to capture what it is about the approach characteristic of a Learning Developer, alongside those of other professions, so we can see what lens each brings to bear on our shared central goal of helping our students learn effectively.

For me, Learning Development is what can occur in the space which opens up when we step away from formal assessment. I’ve been a subject teacher- albeit one very interested in developing her students’ study skills, but when I took on a learning development role outside subject teaching, even when discussing the same study skills, often with students from the same discipline as my former one, I realised that students were interacting with me differently, we were able to achieve something a little bit different that I couldn’t have done in my former role.

For me, the key difference was this: students knew I wasn’t formally assessing them. I wasn’t giving them grades or marks, passes or fails; telling them what was correct and what was incorrect. I was simply working with them to explore their learning, not my subject discipline. I was encouraging them to explore their own goals and standards, not meet mine. I didn’t hold the curriculum; the students held the agenda. Learning development is intrinsically non-judgemental. As a subject lecturer, my teaching was by definition judgemental (in the most supportive and well-intentioned way!). We do assess as Learning Developers, of course, all the time – it’s one of our tools to see if students’ learning is developing, to gauge their progress and the effectiveness of the strategies they’re using, but this is formative, informal and ungraded. We’re also an outsider to the discipline. We don’t prescribe, we help students describe what they see in their discipline’s study conventions, and make their own decisions based on those observations. We can of course suggest what may be more or less effective, but we’re then acting as mentors, not teachers. It’s not our role to hold the answers, and that can liberate both us and the students.

One to one work with students is, as Murray and Glass (2011) note, central to learning development work. However, I don’t think that this is because one to one tutorials are the definitive format for that work; Learning development isn’t one to one work. Lecturers, pastoral tutors, counsellors, librarians, all see students one to one in some developmental capacity, and we also offer group sessions, online learning, any format that helps us achieve the purpose. Instead, I think one to one work is at the core of Learning Development work as that is the space where we can most clearly step away from formal assessment, outside the long-established norms of the lecture hall, or seminar room, the academic’s office surrounded by their books. Embedded learning development is effective and important, but I think even there, we bring a little of that outside, non-judgemental space with us into that context, and that’s what makes it learning development even when we teach as part of a subject module. That’s what we bring that the subject lecturer can’t.

To me, then, a defining characteristic of the learning developer is that we do not formally mark student work. Learning development is a very loosely defined and diverse role, and many of us are based in faculties, closely involved in subject teaching, indeed may have dual roles as lecturers and learning developers. Many of us who identify as learning developers may then find themselves disagreeing with this definition. I would absolutely not want my understanding of the role to be exclusive or divisive however – that would be completely counterproductive.  I think the resolution of this tension lies in a return to the question, posed by Murray and Glass (2011) of whether we are a community of practice or a profession.

My response is that we are primarily a profession, for reasons I’ll explore in another blog post. A Learning Developer in this sense would be the one I outline above. However, I think learning development can at the same time be a community of practice – the distinct perspective, expertise and skills of the learning developer can of course be adopted and brought to bear by those in other roles to a greater or lesser extent by carefully managing that switching between assessing and non-assessing roles. But when you formally assess, that learning development space is closed off, and it can be tricky to open up again when needed, as you’re changing the relationship you have with the students, from learning developer to lecturer and back. Fully embodying that characteristic non-judgemental value is hard in this circumstance.

Operating outside formal assessment, and as an outsider to the curriculum has opened that space up for me and my students, and the really interesting thing is – I’d say that’s where a great deal of my expertise as a Learning Developer has come from. Students have shared their insights and concerns with me in that space in a way they never felt able to when I was a subject lecturer, and I’ve learned an awful lot from them that my teacher training never gave me access to. That’s a distinct and valuable expertise I can bring to interprofessional work with colleagues in other roles, and enables me to work in a different and characteristically learning development way.


Murray, Linda and Glass, Bob, 2011. ‘Learning Development in Higher Education: Community of Practice or Profession?’ in Peter Hartley, John Hilsdon, Christine Keenan, Sandra Sinfield and Michelle Verity, eds. Learning Development in Higher Education Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan. 28-39.


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Being a proper professional

EDIT: this post was written while I was working on short term contracts at Cambridge University.

I’m not a librarian, I’m… I’m a learning developer, a teacher, an academic, I’m lots of things. I’m a member of a profession so new that I’m still not sure how to handle that awkward silence at parties when people ask me what I do. I’m also in some ways a rather peripheral member of that profession, as I work at a very old institution, Cambridge University, which does not as yet have any formal learning development provision, so I am piecing together bits of things that together, I hope, allow me to continue developing as a professional in a coherent way, rather than just someone who hoovers up any work going, although with the short-term contracts I’ve been working on, eating and paying the rent is also a concern.

It’s not been all that long either since there has been a professional body for learning developers. It grew organically out of a JISCmail list, LDHEN, and very quickly became ALDinHE, the membership association for anyone who works in learning development in Higher Education. We have an annual conference, regional events, a journal, and of course there is still the very active mailing list at the heart of it. Although a very young body supporting a very young profession, ALDinHE has been an invaluable support in my work as a very young learning developer. It’s one of the friendliest, most active and inclusive groups I’ve been involved with- and I have this on good authority from two librarian colleagues with whom I presented at the ALDinHE conference this year, who both decided that if this was LD, they wanted in!

But it’s still early days for ALDinHE. I recently joined their steering group for professional development, having initially been reluctant as I didn’t feel that my rather precarious and tenuous job situation made me a ‘proper’ Learning Developer. Having rethought this though, I decided that it was people in my position who might really benefit from coherent and formally recognised professional development, as well as those lucky ones who have that title on their permanent job contract… Joining the steering group has been a chance for me to think about what I need from a professional development body, and play a small role in making that happen.
So, what would I like from my professional association? Now’s a good time to get involved and make things happen! ALDinHE’s origins in a JISCmail list and naturally friendly and lovely members means that networking has been a major feature from the start. If I need ideas for a workshop, thoughts about good practice or advice on how to handle a situation, there is no lack of generous colleagues to help out. The conference and journal also help me showcase my work and give me a forum for credible publication.

One thing which would be useful,especially given the often temporary and part-time nature of many of our jobs, is some kind of professional acknowledgement or recognition of my particular expertise, which I can take to universities as part of a job application or appraisal. Its as if without a piece of paper saying “Learning Developer”, then my entitlement to call myself such depends on my job title. I have a PGCE, so I feel I can say I am a teacher; I have a PhD, so I can say I’m an academic or researcher, but my own professional definition at the moment rests with my employer, and whether they recognise my expertise, which at the moment, they don’t. Learning Developers at the moment come from all backgrounds- teaching, EFL, disability support, librarianship, counselling etc etc, and something to tie this together into a coherent profile would be great. It would also allow me to make the case for my employer to pay for further professional development to complete my profile- I’ve always felt that a basic qualification in counselling would be invaluable. I’m not sure what form this accreditation or qualification or whatever would take- perhaps something along the lines of the HEA. Speaking of which *cough* the HEA is another professional body I’ve been meaning to get around to joining. I had a summer job once, phoning round universities to ‘sell’ the ILT (now the HEA), and believe me, I know the advantages- I had to reel them off down the phone to sceptical university administrators! I will get around to it, I will. Soon. When I have time….

Joining the ALDinHE steering group for professional development has been a great experience. So now I get the chance to work towards some of the things I’ve been talking about! I’m going to run a version of the 23things programme for them, and have been making extensive notes of my experiences here!


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A Mystical Strategy for Research Projects

Back in the mists of time, when my research field was medieval mystical literature for laywomen (alright, so not exactly what my school careers adviser would have wanted for me), two of the key concepts I would encounter in the accounts of those fourteenth-century mystically inclined writers were The Cloud of Unknowing and the Dark Night of the Soul. To make spiritual progress towards divine union, one must let go of one’s preconceived, limited notions of knowledge, thus challenging one’s very identity and sense of self, which frees one up to embrace a Higher Truth and all that. This process understandably leaves the hapless mystic floundering for a while. However, as these medieval writers would stress, it is a natural and necessary part of the process. The parallels with the research process are striking, for me (see? medieval mystical literature does have vocational value!). One of my very wise supervisors put it like this: “If you don’t despair at least once during a research process, then you haven’t really thought about it properly.” And in my experience, it’s far better to get this phase out of the way at the beginning of the process than at the end…

There’s a moment in a research project when something triggers the switch between the divergent phase of research, where ideas are developing and running away from you in all sorts of enticingly creative directions, and the convergent phase, when It All Comes Together. And for me, that trigger is usually a very fundamental, seemingly simple question. Discussions with students and colleagues have raised many such valuable, challenging and perceptive questions, ones which have highlighted the fundamental assumptions which need unpicking, the arguments and justifications which need to be made, and the perspectives which need to be taken into account. Thinking through the answers and trying to articulate what I’m doing really helps me to begin to bring together a research project in a coherent way. Unlike the medieval mystic, it is not solitude which brings about this flash of revelation, but company; it is not necessarily a Higher Being or senior colleague who might trigger a perceptive question or insight, but equally a student, a friend, or a peer. We often think of the research process in the Humanities as being a solitary endeavour, but working together as peers is for me a vital part of the process. It’s therefore odd how little time we spend in the Humanities actually talking to other Humans – collaboration is rare, and there is little space for genuine peer discussion (as opposed to presenting and defending our ideas to those at the same grade as us).

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