Learning Development and the Hidden Curriculum

I learned about the hidden curriculum during my PGCE. It was an eye opener.

What is it?

The hidden curriculum is the incidental, unintended, internalised, informal, unacknowledged, unofficial lessons that are embedded – ingrained – in the curriculum so deeply that we’re hardly aware we’re passing them on with the learning outcomes that we openly state. This is good behaviour, this is the correct way to communicate, this is the appropriate thing to do, this is the right sort of person to be. The hidden curriculum is the result of our own social norms, values, beliefs etc, that creep in alongside what we intend to teach. Education is after all a form of socialisation.

These implicit lessons may help to create a positive learning environment, but they may also take the form of prejudice; invisible lessons about gender, class, ability or race, as we socialise students into what we feel is ‘their place’ in academia and in doing so potentially reinforce social inequalities. It’s not just a matter of the individual teacher’s practice; as part of the curriculum, it’s systemic. It could be right there in the reading list, in the examples used to illustrate, in what’s included or left out of the module, in a marking scheme, in the phrasing of a question, in the dynamics of a seminar.

How might it relate to Learning Development?

A big part of the work we do as learning developers, positioned as we often are as part of widening participation, retention and transition, is to help students (and lecturers!) see, interrogate, negotiate and even challenge the hidden curriculum. University culture has evolved from a very specific social and historical context, and students and staff alike are still struggling with its limitations. For example, academic writing is a cultural product which has evolved from this particular social context. Those students who by virtue of their social background already have the cultural capital to navigate university culture will, for example, find it much easier to articulate their learning – to render it clearly visible in an acceptable form  – to the assessor. Others will find that they’re having to learn that the way they present their learning is not acceptable; that their learning is not acceptable, maybe they are not acceptable. ‘Writing’ is not neutral, self-evident, objective or universal; it’s a discourse through which we inculcate and reinforce certain behaviours and values and we might not always be aware of what they are. Some of this might be very positive and conducive to learning; other aspects of this hidden curriculum might be at best culturally specific or at worst discriminatory. At other times, our hidden curriculum might be in conflict with those learned in other stages of education, such as the need to respectfully defer to a teacher or expert scholar rather than critique them. Students can be left floundering as the lessons they never realised they had learned turn out not to be true any more.

One of the main challenges for learning developers is that the hidden curriculum isn’t just what we accidentally teach students; it’s also what we assess students on, but don’t teach them. It’s knowledge that, through oblique comments on its presence or absence, is held out to students as being worth learning and vital to success, but when asked about it, academics often can’t articulate it. It’s reduced to ‘clear writing’ or ‘knowing your stuff’, ‘having a good head for your subject’, obvious, simple. This is often the result of overlearning, unconscious competence and forgetting what it was like to be a beginner. In their discipline communities, scholars may become so familiar with the norms and conventions of their practice that they can’t see them any more, or they view them as somehow ‘natural’, inevitable, common sense. Moreover, unless they do interdisciplinary work, they rarely stray outside that closed community of practice, are not exposed to ‘other’ forms of practice, and assume that theirs is generic, the norm. That writing is writing is writing. And writing or other practices that don’t conform to this hidden curriculum just….look wrong, somehow.

Students often find themselves playing a game without being told the rules. They also learn that the first rule is that you don’t ask about the rules; you should just know this stuff, it’s common sense, isn’t it? Honestly, what do they teach in schools these days?! Some educators see the need to explain the hidden curriculum as ‘dumbing down’, or ‘spoon feeding’. And yet – I make the comparison to chess. Chess is a very complex and difficult game – explaining the rules to a new player hardly makes it any easier to play, it’s not ‘giving the game away’ to tell a new player how it works. We wouldn’t reasonably expect someone to learn chess by first figuring out the rules through guessing. Similarly, reflecting on and explaining some of the ‘side effect’ lessons of Higher Education isn’t rendering the whole exercise pointless.

How might we teach it to students?

That’s where the Learning Developer comes in. We’re outsiders to the discipline, so although we’re not the subject expert, sometimes we can see things just a little more clearly. We can analyse the curriculum to expose and articulate the hidden lessons buried in it. We can model this questioning technique to students, explain the rules of the game, hold a mirror up to the hidden curriculum and invite students not just to aspire to and emulate it (academic socialisation) but to interrogate it, negotiate with it, challenge it and co-exist with it (academic literacies).

How might we apply it ourselves in the classroom?

We learning developers do however need to be aware of the possibility that we’re enforcing and supporting elements of the hidden curriculum that clash with our ethos of social justice and the independent learner. We need to be constantly reflecting, challenging our assumptions and questioning our own practice to ensure we’re not complicit in gatekeeping, endorsing or passing on unintended learning which doesn’t sit well with our role.


Writing as a workshop activity

A recent email to the LDHEN JISCmail list from one of the list members nudged me to think a bit further about something that’s been at the back of my mind for a while. The email was a request for active writing exercises for workshops – not just reading examples of writing, but actually getting students to write themselves. And I don’t have any suggestions. I’ve been dimly aware that although I too frequently use examples of writing for students to look at and learn from, I also rarely actually get them to do much ‘real’ writing in my workshops. I ask them to jot down their answers, I get them to do a bit of freewriting on their own, I might ask them to paraphrase something or amend a given text, but it’s rare I ask them to produce a bit of more extended writing of the sort they’ll be producing in their essays, to translate the strategies and techniques we’re identifying in the examples into their own writing. I’d love to get them writing an introduction, a paragraph, a very tiny literature review, putting strategies into practice and reflecting on them with feedback. But I don’t.

I’ve been poking a bit more into why I feel this reluctance.

My first response is that writing in such a public way in a workshop is potentially quite difficult for students, for lots of reasons. Freewriting, which no one but you will ever see, is one thing, but writing for consumption by others is another. Academic writing for assignments is writing for assessment and critique- by definition, it invites judgement. And while freewriting is a very valuable skill to develop thinking and drafting, we learning developers also need to get students practising the kind of authentic ‘end result’ texts they’ll really be working on, texts for a reader. People often think of writing as an end product – it’s rare (but valuable!) to see it happening in front of you. For all it’s a public activity, it’s also a very personal one, a way we project ourselves into the world, a very private individual process, and often a focus of mystique, criticism, insecurity and shame. When writing in such a public way in a workshop, fear of judgement might be very intimidating, and do I want to put students in such an uncomfortable position? Fear about the process – that they aren’t writing enough, or not fast enough, not legibly enough, that they’ve gone blank. Fear of the product – that their ideas are stupid, that they’re making too many mistakes, that they don’t know what to say, that they don’t have a chance to polish it. Students with dyslexia or whose first language is not English may be particularly uncomfortable, but so might mature students or those from non-traditional backgrounds. For once we’ve got them to write something, the obvious thing is to get them to swap it with a reader to see how it works – a peer, or worse still, us. How to make students feel safe?

Secondly, my reluctance is for pragmatic reasons. Writing is hard work, and it needs to be worthwhile for the students to invest that energy in, which means it needs to be aligned to what they’re actually currently doing towards their studies. Far more often than I’d like, I don’t know enough about the curriculum to devise a writing task that makes sense to them and is helpful. Too early, before assignments have even been set, and they may not have anything to write about, or know enough about the topic to have anything to say. Or very often I may not have any idea what assignments they’re working on and am not sure myself what to get them to write. An inauthentic, generic writing task is possible, but isn’t going to get their buy-in or deliver learning payoff in quite the same way.  I’d love to be able to integrate workshops more with the curriculum through liaison with lecturers, but that doesn’t always happen. What to set as a writing activity? What to write about?

My third, slightly harder to identify response is more to do with my teaching practice, and is much less justifiable – it’s to do with my fear. If students don’t write, if they don’t engage in what I’ve asked them to do, it’s horribly visible and exposing for me. More so than if their group discussion is off-topic or if they don’t respond to questions or requests for suggestions or contributions. And if an activity depends on them all having produced some writing, we’re rather stuck if they don’t. I’ve outlined reasons both above and elsewhere for non-engagement in workshop writing activities, but still – I guess it’s human and understandable in the moment to worry most about what it says about my teaching rather than their learning! Safer to ask them to contribute in less concrete ways by talking to each other, by ‘thinking about’ activities or jotting down a few scribbled ideas, rather than risk having lack of participation demonstrated so visibly. Safer to keep talking myself, so at least *something* learning-related is happening, and my failure to engage them isn’t so exposed.

All of which is a shame, because I can think of a lot of reasons to get students writing in workshops. We can discuss what might go into a good introduction, or what makes a paragraph, we can look at examples, good and not so good, and draw our conclusions from those, set writing goals, list dos and don’ts. But unless students actually write a paragraph and test it out on themselves and a peer reader, how easily can they put this guidance into practice and judge for themselves if it’s working for them? How can they ask reflective questions about new writing techniques unless they’ve got some recent experience to reflect on, and someone to bounce off in a supportive environment? Once students leave a workshop, I’m left hoping that once they get to writing (and I’m not always sure when that will next be), they’ll have already had enough experience to contextualise what we talked about and make sense of it and then retained enough of what we discussed to be able to put it into practice. I’m also hoping that if they want to follow up, they’ll be able to talk to a clued-up lecturer, or get an appointment for a one to one with one of the Learning Development team. It’s leaving a lot to chance. Far better to do that in the workshop when we can offer reflection and followup. And better for us too – Learning Developers don’t formally assess coursework, but of course we need to assess informally to see if students are picking it up and if we’re getting it right too.

The three reasons I outlined above might be valid, but all of them can be overcome with the right approach – and the benefits are well worth the risk taken by us and by the students. I’m going to follow up some of the suggestions in the email thread, and push myself and the students I teach, to write!

Behaviourism and Learning Development

I’m currently thinking again about what training for Learning Developers might look like. The day on One to One work focussed on the professional skills we need for this context, but bits kept creeping in from what I called the What of LD, rather than the How.

One of the elements I suggested might form the What of LD was an understanding of How Students Learn. To support the development of learning, a learning developer probably should understand what learning is and how it comes about! I’ve been looking back and reviewing things I learned during my PGCE, and in this and future posts, wanted to re-examine the theories I learned then, and reflect on how they might come into my work as a Learning Developer rather than a teacher. Theory is often derided as abstract and irrelevant, but to me, it’s a very practical tool to understand what I’m doing and how to do it better.

Let’s start with the Granddaddy of modern learning theory: Behaviourism.

What is it?

Behaviourism limits its approach to what can be outwardly observed, described and measured: physical behaviour. The environment acts on, that is, provides a stimulus to, the learner, which results in a physical response. It’s therefore the external environment which determines learning, not the individual learner. That resulting response or behaviour has a consequence which determines how the learner will behave in future. The definition of learning in this approach is the acquisition of a new behaviour.  A desired new behaviour, the pre-determined learning outcome, can be shaped by the teacher using what Skinner termed operant conditioning: breaking down a complex activity and rewarding behaviour which takes steps in the right direction (positive reinforcement), or punishing undesired behaviours (negative reinforcement). (Pavlov and his salivating dogs was a simpler version of this conditioning approach, looking at reinforcing on command behaviours the learner has already done before, like, well, drool…).

You can see the limitations of this model of learning in Higher Education immediately. It takes no account of learning that can’t be outwardly observed, such as understanding, conceptualising, making meaning and sense – the stuff we’re primarily interested in at University! It downplays the learner’s agency and autonomy in favour of goals predetermined by the teacher and brought about by the ‘stimuli’ they create – not really suited to adult education or student-centred, student-led learning. It also undervalues intrinsic motivation in favour of external rewards, so the ideal of the ‘independent learner’ isn’t really factored in.

How might it relate to Learning Development?

Firstly, the term ‘learning outcome’ will be very familiar to us. “By the end of this session/module, you will be able to [insert verb here]…” Learning developers work to help interpret the learning outcomes given to students in their module handbooks, and we are as teachers encouraged to develop our own learning outcomes for our workshops (I’ve written elsewhere why learning outcomes are a bit complicated in Learning Development). Despite the above limitations for Higher Education, university curricula are still fairly driven by a behaviourist approach in their focus on measurable (that is, outwardly observable) learning outcomes, which is evident in the way they are phrased as demonstrable actions. In a neoliberal age of education with the student and the employer as consumer and customer, and of greater accountability and transparency, an approach which favours the predetermined, the quantifiable, the measurable and the demonstrable makes sense. Understanding what a learning outcome actually is, how and why it’s formulated and assessed, can help us support students’ assessment literacy, understanding the ‘rules of the game’ they are required to play. It’s why we spend so much time defining those question verbs and marking criteria. Acting as mentors, we can help students reflect on their own understanding of their learning goals, and the way the curriculum conceptualises a learning outcome, we can help bridge any gap in assumptions, and support any interpretation or negotiation the student needs to undertake between the two to succeed on their own terms.

Secondly, it also helps us understand the overwhelming focus on the role of writing in learning and therefore in the work of learning developers. Writing can come to have an almost totemic importance in Higher Education, a self-evident good in and of itself, and the focus of much anxiety and shame. Understanding behaviourist approaches however helps us to see that writing is simply the means by which learning becomes externalised and therefore visible to the assessor. It is writing’s role in manifesting learning in an observable, measurable way which lends it its importance. It holds a privileged status, of course – there are other ways in which abstract learning processes can be assessed, but for both historical reasons (writing is an older technology) and expedience (it would be impractical to use the viva in increasingly large cohorts), it is preeminent. But in and of itself, writing does not inherently equal learning and there’s nothing particularly special about it.  This insight might help learning developers reassure students – often ‘non-traditional’, whose identity and self-esteem have been dented because there is apparently something ‘wrong’ with their writing. We can help them to reframe writing in its proper place in learning, understand why some elements have to be the way they are to make learning observable, and master, challenge or negotiate the elements that don’t really have anything to do with learning – or at least with the stated curriculum!

Thirdly, behaviourist approaches take no account of unintended learning outcomes and accidental learning. Nor do they value or measure the process of learning per se, only the product, which often only incompletely or obliquely reflects the process of learning. Learning developers can often see this for example in lecturer feedback which comments on features of the writing, but cannot see that this is a result not of writing skills at all but of reading and note-taking or assessment literacy (formative, scaffolded assignments can help with this) or even incidental, unexpected and exciting insights which seem to the student too good to be left out! Behaviourist approaches don’t foster an intrinsic interest in learning for its own sake, but rely on external reinforcements such as marks or feedback as rewards, promoting a surface approach. Learners can start to feel rather disenfranchised from their own experience of learning – the iterative, often messy process they went through, the unexpected insights and flashes of inspiration they reached, the excitement and pleasure they might have felt – as it is either not visible or not valued by the behaviourist approaches which still influence the curriculum and assessment. This learning doesn’t conform, but is no less valuable ‘learning’ for that. Recognising that assessment can only be a very partial snapshot of their learning, and reflecting with a learning developer on their own, very valid experience of their learning can help them feel that it’s valuable and boost intrinsic motivation, foster deep rather than surface learning, and interest in their studies for their own sake.

Fourthly, we can help students better understand their own understandings of learning and how learning happens. Drawing on past experience, students may conceive of learning in quite a surface way, focussing on learning as the acquisition of knowledge, to be assessed by testing whether it’s remembered or forgotten, correct or incorrect (see Saljo 1979). They may also have picked up on more behaviourist style drilling and testing from school pedagogies as the ‘right’ way to learn (it’s reassuringly traditional!). Applying this understanding of learning and these methods of going about learning may not serve them well at Higher Education, and learning developers can help them to articulate these assumptions and consider a broader range of techniques and possibilities.

How might we teach it to students?

We can help students themselves to apply behaviourist approaches to resolve some of the issues they may encounter in their studies. Procrastination, perfectionism, and just being overwhelmed by the complexity, unfamiliarity and quantity of what they’re asked to do are common issues that learning developers deal with. Acting as coaches, we can introduce students to techniques of breaking down complex activities into smaller steps and building them up, using rewards to reinforce habit forming, and articulating and monitoring their own work in discrete, concrete terms which can help combat magical thinking and anxiety. Operant conditioning techniques can be useful for some kinds of learning in HE – anything where a response or skill needs to become more immediate, intuitive or fluid, and can help, for example, in rote learning, revision for exams or mastery through overlearning (although it won’t necessarily help with understanding).  Recasting the student in the behaviourist roles of both teacher and learner can, in contrast to the dependence that behaviourism implies, support them in taking control of their own studies and become an independent learner.

How can we apply it ourselves in the classroom?

I’m not sure we’d ever really apply it as a teaching principle ourselves- maybe very subtly in classroom management to promote a good learning environment although we’re not really with students long enough to really shape behaviours!

To sum up, behaviourism sits rather oddly with the aims of a Higher Education curriculum, but still very much influences it. Learning developers can play a role in helping students resolve the tensions that naturally arise out of this. Understanding behaviourist learning theory can help learning developers interrogate the way things are, understand why they are that way and challenge the assumption  that ‘that’s just the way things naturally are, the way they have to be’. Given that we’re often tasked with supporting widening participation and retention, this insight can be married with our commitment to social justice to help us empower students to better understand how higher education works, and value and negotiate the role of their learning within it, possibly even help to change it. We can also teach students some behaviourist principles to help them shape their own study practices in a productive way. – but it’s certainly a useful tool in working with students and part of our expert knowledge as Learning Developers.

Ethics in Learning Development

Just how much damage could I do…?

Alright, so no one’s going to die if by accident or design, I don’t do my job properly. Much as I’m committed to my work as terribly meaningful and important, there’s a limit to the harm I could cause.

And yet… just as a thought experiment, let’s imagine Evil Me as a Learning Developer. Imagine, through mischief, neglect or pure ill will, what havoc I could wreak in my job….

  • I could deliberately or accidentally get a student accused of academic misconduct…
  • I could make a student fail their assignment, module or degree by giving misleading advice…
  • I could ghostwrite essays for students…and teach them how not to get caught
  • I could spuriously convince a student that they must be  dyslexic/autistic/ abnormal/mentally unwell…and that I could help
  • I could offer preferential treatment or withhold provision, in exchange for “favours” or to punish…
  • I could ask them prurient questions which have nothing to do with helping them with their studies to satisfy my salacious curiosity…
  • I could convince a student that they are stupid, hopeless and will fail…
  • I could lead them to believe that I’m a subject expert to indulge my fantasies of academic respectability…

And that’s just off the top of my head. Actually, there’s quite a bit of damage I could do.

There’s lots of ways in which I could just not be doing my job properly. And that’s common to any job – not doing the work agreed in exchange for the payment offered. What makes a professional job, however, is the particular role and function we occupy. As professionals, we profess to have specialist expertise that the lay person does not, but which they need us to exercise on their behalf. This expertise, this knowledge base, skillset and practice,  gives us authority and a measure of power over those we work with. They trust us to do…whatever mysterious thing that we do, and act in their interests. They don’t necessarily need or want to know what it is beyond the broadest sense. They may not even know enough to know if we aren’t doing our job properly. The more abstract a profession is, the more this is true. And this opens up the possibility of abuse or neglect of that power and that trust. We have greater potential to do harm. This is why professions have values, ethics and codes of conduct, and professional bodies to set standards and enforce them. It’s a moral imperative.

Ethics aren’t the same as values. Values inform us as to how to do our job well. Ethics prevent us from doing actual harm. There are ethics common to all professions, things like transparency, accountability, respect, duty of care, not abusing your status for personal gain, not sleeping with your patients/students….  They basically guard against three main things: neglect, abuse of power and exploitation, and grandiosely misrepresenting what you can do.

As people who see themselves as ‘professional’ in the most everyday sense, we learning developers will each our own individual ethical code, things which we set ourselves as standards or which are for us beyond the pale. What makes professional ethics so powerful though are that they are commonly held by a professional community, represented and articulated by a professional body. This means that there is consistency and therefore transparency for the lay people we work with, and an element of policing, whether it’s just a shared sense of ‘that’s not how we do things, that’s not on’ or in some professions, being struck off.

Does Learning Development need a code of conduct, a statement of its ethics? I’d certainly argue that we can do harm. To our students, the academic community and – as we gain recognition as a community of practice, to our own and each others’ reputations. This potential for harm is specific to and derives from our expertise as learning developers. It may be that the generic professional ethics cover us, or it may be that the kinds of harm we could do might merit a specific LD code of conduct. I can’t see the LD police striking anyone off, but it would be interesting to see if as a community we could agree on what our ethics should be. And if we want to be taken seriously, just as professional as counsellors, doctors, lawyers, then a code of conduct is one of the defining traits of a profession.



Tailoring for levels of study

One of the central tenets of Learning Development is that the skills we teach aren’t generic, but take different forms according to the discipline – hence ‘academic literacies’ are spoken of in the plural. It’s also surely true that these skills vary according to the level of study – that everything from academic writing and critical thinking to note-taking and time management will take different forms depending on the expectations of that level of study. For example, the ‘authorial voice’ expected of a first year undergraduate vs a PhD student in the same subject will differ quite markedly according to the originality and authority they are expected to project through their writing. These new demands also put a strain on students’ existing study practices, as they are qualitatively more complex, as well as quantitatively longer, and students may need to adapt or risk their habitual strategies failing under the strain.

As someone outside the discipline though, it’s sometimes quite hard for a Learning Developer to pitch a session right. For many reasons, there’s quite a lot of variation between levels across different subjects. Some subjects just do focus far more on acquiring knowledge than others, especially in the first year (often medical and physical sciences), some programmes are designed as ‘conversion’ courses to a new subject and may not necessarily represent a step up, at least at first, from the previous level of education (undergraduate programmes in subjects not represented at A-Level, some masters courses). And as each subject has its own epistemology, it’s hard to know from the outside what the expectations around concepts such as critical analysis are in a particular subject – each has its own concept of what constitutes knowledge.

A very useful leaflet on originality was circulated on Twitter recently by the University of Melbourne, to help PhD students understand the expectations of that defining characteristic of doctoral level work. I like it a lot, but there was some discussion when I retweeted it about how it positions originality against lower levels of study. If originality is the defining characteristic of the PhD, then understandings of undergraduate and even masters work have to be positioned as lacking it, and there were some justified comments on Twitter about how this mapping didn’t align with assessment critieria in subjects which demand analysis, and therefore a creative contribution, right from year one of undergraduate, not just the reproduction of knowledge.

As with most conceptual issues like this, I tend to reach for a food-based metaphor to help students understand abstract expectations. I like food – everyone likes food – it’s universally comprehensible and very often a very apt metaphor for learning!*

Here’s my analogy.

At Undergraduate level, particularly in the first year, you are learning to cook. To do so, you learn the basic techniques, learn how to check that your ingredients are of a suitable quality, and that they’re what the recipe calls for, and how to interpret and follow a recipe. Even though you are following set recipes, you are still creating – ok, maybe it’s nothing that hasn’t been made a hundred times before before by someone else, but you’re still actively creating it for yourself. In the first year, it might be more akin to using a meal kit with the ingredients largely assembled for you, and by final year, you might be choosing a recipe and shopping around for ingredients yourself.

At final year of undergraduate when working on a dissertation, and at Masters level, you’re not just working with knowledge, you’re really learning how knowledge is made. An understanding not just of the techniques of cooking, and how to follow a recipe, but of the principles that underlie it, why it works (or not…). With this understanding, you can adapt recipes, combine them, add your own tweaks, maybe create some of the ingredients (data) from scratch and grow your own rather than using prepared ones. Maybe you can even cook a well-known dish without a recipe, working it out yourself.

At Doctoral level, you’re creating new recipes, new dishes (new foods?), ones that no one’s made before.  It might be a novel twist on an old favourite, it might be using a familiar ingredient in an unexpected dish, it might even be an entirely new technique or flavour.

I like this analogy, as it allows for creativity and originality at each level, and sees originality from the student’s perspective. And because it’s a metaphor, it’s not overly concrete or prescriptive – it’s a framework that’s flexible enough to encompass disciplinary differences. Students can use it to make sense of the expectations of their own discipline and level of study – I ask them how this applies in their own context, getting them to fill in the details where, as a disciplinary outsider, I can’t.


*exception – apart from attempts to position students as consumers of learning – that doesn’t work for me!

Discipline specific


I’m not, for once, talking about subject discipline, but actual classroom management, dealing with disruptive student behaviour. I don’t know if this is one of those issues that raises its head about this time every year (isn’t it getting dark early? aren’t students getting more badly behaved?), or whether it’s genuinely getting worse, but I’ve had several discussions recently about how we address behaviours in our group teaching which are… well, shall we say not conducive to learning, and not professional or respectful. I know I’ve had a few troublesome experiences this term, and anecdotally have heard the same from colleagues in my own institution (subject lecturers as well as student services colleagues), and my counterparts elsewhere.

I mean, I know compared to teaching colleagues in primary and secondary education, we have it pretty easy – no one, by and large, is pulling anyone else’s hair, throwing chairs, hitting each other or shouting and swearing. We’re teaching adults, after all. And the vast majority of them are a joy to work with.

As learning developers, the way we work raises a number of issues which may be contributing factors.

  • Not only do we not know the students, but they don’t know us – we very rarely have any kind of ongoing relationship with a class we teach beyond one or two sessions. We have to build rapport and good will very fast, in the knowledge that it’s an investment on both sides which is ephemeral, for an hour or two only. We have to find a way of making that investment worth it for the students.
  • We’re often working out of context, outside the students’ expectations of the ‘norm’. We don’t ‘teach’ in a traditional way – we are not the authorities imparting subject knowledge at the front of the lecture theatre, we’re facilitators of workshops with reflection and development. However, if we are teaching a session embedded in a module, standing at the front of the lecture room in the same weekly timeslot as their subject lecturers, it’s very hard to run a proper workshop against all the connotations and associations and baggage of traditional teaching which that situation brings. Students may be unsettled and not sure how to respond.
  •  We’re often working in a very reflective way, swimming against all the currents of remedial, deficit model assumptions often made about study skills. It can feel very exposing to students, who may not feel comfortable making themselves so vulnerable among their peers or admitting that they are not sure how to approach their studies. Our non-judgmental ethos is easier to maintain in the one to one; harder to ensure when publically losing face in front of peers is at stake. In a new group of first years or masters students, or in a ‘generic’, cross-university session, not only do they not know us, they may also not know, or trust, each other yet. We need to find a way to make students feel safe.
  • We’re often an (optional) extra, factored into the timetable. sometimes at unpopular timetable slots, on top of all the other things they have to do. Not another thing…. we need to make it worthwhile in the students’ eyes.
  • We have no teacherly authority over students, real or imagined. Not that lecturers really do either – universities are not in loco parentis any more and even lecturers can’t really ‘punish’ students as teachers (used to) do. Students may however imagine that poor behaviour towards their lecturer might mean poor marks later down the line… Not from us though. No bad references for future employers. Nor will they necessarily ever see us again after the one session – no awkwardness to face for the rest of the term or the degree. The only authority we have is one that students invest in us, due to the value of what we can offer them and how we work with them.

Against this, it’s perhaps natural that students can be confused or unsettled in our sessions, and that this can lead to or exacerbate behaviours that challenge the learning environment. Again, I’m not talking about anything major – overtly inattentive body language (asleep on the desk), using social media, talking and laughing when the facilitator or another student is talking, mildly offensive or disrespectful responses (especially on digital response systems), outright refusal to engage with tasks… all minor things in some ways, but cumulatively can start to affect the dynamic of the whole group in a negative way, both other students’ attitudes and your own confidence.

Dealing with this is difficult. People who don’t teach might suggest things like telling them off, humiliating them, threatening them (with what?!), sending them out. But let’s face it, that’s not actually going to help the disruptive student learn, which is after all what we ultimately want. It might also make things worse.  Transactional analysis is useful here- the minute you treat them like a child, with yourself as the stern parent, they may well respond to that role you’ve placed them in and thus your response may exacerbate the problem. Also, how you handle it will affect the dynamic of the whole group.

There will be some – many – a majority of – students who are equally exasperated and frustrated with their disruptive coursemates. It’s easy to forget that they’re there – they won’t necessarily be vocal about it, and their behaviour won’t necessarily stand out to you as it’s the expected ‘norm’ – quietly attentive, doing what they’re supposed to. But they’re there, and they’re on your side.

The key is I think to somehow make disruptive students aware that not only do you disapprove of their behaviour, but so do the majority of the group, their peers. It’s easy to kick off against a perceived authority figure, even if that’s not how you yourself position yourself as a learning developer. It’s less easy to set yourself against your peers, who want to engage and learn. The engaged (enraged!) students won’t necessarily want to be made visible though. And they will want to see that you are dealing with poor behaviour – that’s your job. One good suggestion I’ve heard recently is to say that there ‘have recently been student complaints about X behaviour’, so it’s the student peer voice which is setting the tone, albeit anonymously. And you will almost certainly have come across similar complaints so it wouldn’t be untrue. I recently had a one to one with a student who said they felt ‘lonely’ – not in a social sense, but in the way they felt isolated as one of the few who wanted to learn. It made me very sad for them, but also determined to do better for them and the many others who quietly felt that way, in the way I teach.

On the other hand, the minute the majority of the students start to feel sorry for the disruptive student, if they feel you’re humiliating them (particularly telling them off like a child), or they feel you’re being disproportionate and fear that you might turn on them too next, then you’ve lost the whole group. And if you don’t address disruption, if you don’t care about creating an optimal learning environment for them and value their learning, then they will understandably become disengaged themselves.

Practically, this isn’t easy. Making it clear you’ve noticed and that they aren’t as invisible/inaudible/anonymous as they thought can work. Long, uncomfortable silences can work (I kind of enjoy those…). Looming near offenders as you address the whole group can make them feel uncomfortably visible as all eyes are directed to their part of the room. Gentle humour can work as long as you’re not ‘punching down’ but showing that you too understand the trials of the Monday 9am lecture or the dubious joys of referencing. Showing that you value their participation and learning can make them value it more. And sometimes you do just need to tell students off. Positioning this as adult to adult, however you phrase it, is the key, I think – it’s hard to find the right words in the moment sometimes. I’m still reflecting on managing classroom dynamics and managing disruptive behaviours – as learning developers we are operating within a slightly different set of circumstances than others who teach and don’t always have the same strategies available to us for managing the classroom. I’d love to hear other people’s strategies. Maybe you’re fiercer than me!

Advising on audience

The question of how to pitch a piece of academic writing for assessment is a tricky one. Who exactly is the audience, how much knowledge or interest can be assumed, what needs to be clarified, in order for an essay or report to be easily understood by the reader? Getting this wrong can result in an assignment not doing justice to its author’s learning, and a lower mark than deserved.

Academic writing is ‘writerly’* – the responsibility for ‘meaning-making’ lies with the author, freeing the reader up to do what they need to do – critique, assess, learn, synthesise, think. This is the opposite to creative writing, which is ‘readerly’* – the enjoyment of a novel or poem is in the reader’s input, figuring out what it all means, what might happen next, ‘whodunnit’. In an academic essay or report, the student needs to make a number of decisions about the reader, to judge what work they themselves need to put in as writers. The tricky bit lies in the hierarchy of experience and knowledge of the discipline- which lies more with the reader than with the writer in this instance.

To help make decisions about pitch, students are often given the advice to ‘write as if for a lay audience – someone intelligent who doesn’t know much about the subject’. This advice is intended to help them identify the assumptions they’re making about the reader and what might be ‘clear’ to them, work harder to make the writing appealing, and help them figure out what meaning-making work they need to do on the reader’s behalf, so their arguments come across clearly. In essence, to err on the side of caution in deciding what they need to be explicit about.

But if you think about it, it’s odd advice.

The audience for a traditional essay is not a lay audience. It is not someone who knows little about the subject, or who has little intrinsic motivation to read about it. It’s the precise opposite – most academic writing for assessment is created for people who know quite a bit more about the subject than the student does, and have a vested interest in reading it. This odd dissonance – writing for someone who knows a lot, as if they knew nothing – can actually create more problems than it solves. Firstly, ‘a lay audience’ is in itself very diverse yet not very precisely defined – what kind of lay person are we pitching this to? An uninterested schoolkid with little wider context, someone who did a degree years ago and maintains a lingering interest, literally ‘the man in the street’? This advice doesn’t help the student decide what level of clarification is needed – they know they can’t assume no knowledge and go right back to explaining the very basics from scratch, but where between ‘no knowledge’ and ‘more knowledge than me’ should they pitch their writing? And in puzzling this out,  they’re circling around the issue that the ‘lay readership’ is inauthentic anyway – the writing is primarily, perhaps solely, for the audience of their marker. Why pretend otherwise?

Instead, I tend to reframe it this way – yes, you’re writing for your lecturer. Yes, they probably know and understand more than you do. But they don’t know how much you know. They know how they would interpret your data, but they don’t know that that’s how you interpret it. They know how they define that term, but they don’t know if you understand it in the same way. They know what obvious conclusion they would draw, but they can’t assume what conclusion you’re coming to. They know what they’ve taught you, but they don’t know what you’ve learned. They’ve already done their learning; they want to see evidence of yours.

I suggest that students remember that they’re writing for assessment, and consider this question- what knowledge, understanding, etc, do you need to demonstrate to your reader to show you meet the assessment criteria at the right level? I ask them, ‘if you were marking this, what evidence of what learning would you want to see?’

And forget about ‘being clear’; ‘clear’ is not an objective term. It means different things to different people. Instead, I suggest that students aim for lack of ambiguity:

is there any room for your reader to understand your meaning differently to the way you intended, or to be unsure whether you’re reaching the same conclusions that they are, for the same reasons, or to doubt that you know what you’re talking about? That’s where you need to think about pitching it.


*the terminology is from Barthes, but I tend to use them the other way round with students, as out of context, it’s confusing to talk of a writerly text being one in which the reader makes the meaning!

Losing Control: Student-led sessions

“Running a workshop is a stressful form of teaching as it does not allow the levels of control most teachers are used to; nor does it allow a facilitator the authority derived from being the ‘master’ of the workshop’s content. ” (Peelo 1994, p.113)

I came across this quotation again a few months ago while researching for the training I am developing for new learning developers. I must have first read it over a decade ago, when I was myself new to the role (and relatively new to teaching, despite my PGCE), and found any form of teaching stressful! Coming back to it years later, with more experience with which to compare subject teaching and learning development, the truth of it struck me far more forcefully than it did on that first reading. Reading it again made me reflect deeply on my professional journey as a learning developer, and how it helped me find a peace with workshop teaching and a way to let that stress go.

I’ve written recently about issues of control in the LD classroom in terms of managing problematic student behaviour, but I think Moira Peelo, a trained counsellor by background, meant something a bit different by “control”. I think it’s more akin to a post I wrote a while ago about learning outcomes in LD – how they aren’t *ours* but belong just as much to the subject lecturer whose students we work with, and also to the students themselves, who are the experts in their own learning. We aren’t the only ones who have a say in what we teach; it’s not our curriculum. We facilitate workshops, we don’t teach classes.

As a young lecturer, there were many sources of stress in teaching, but at least I had the consolation that I was the expert, and I was in charge. I knew what I was doing, even if I wasn’t doing it particularly well. Having constantly to be that authority and master of the content was in itself a source of stress of course (what if the students ask me something I don’t know?! What if I make a mistake!?), but it was a comfort too. As a new learning developer though, I had no subject expertise to be master of, just a remit of rather intangible and mutable ‘skills’. I had no say in and often no knowledge of the courses, modules and assessments which I was supporting, which led to uncertainty and a few nasty surprises. Making the transition from subject teaching to LD was, initially, terrifying.

The natural response is to try to retain this control and authority, to treat learning development like any other form of teaching. That’s what I had been trained to do, that’s what I felt should be ‘right’. Apart from the stress – that never went away. In fact, the harder I tried to hold onto some measure of control, or to assert my authority, the worse it got. And, I now suspect, the worse a learning experience the students had. I piled up slide after slide, learning outcome after learning outcome, activities with clear cut right and wrong answers, trying to crowd out any loss of control or authority through sheer weight of content.

I’m not sure what exactly changed my approach, but it did change. I think, looking back, that the turning point was probably a couple of sessions which were going badly from a teaching perspective, but which from a learning perspective somehow ended up going rather well. Sessions when I didn’t feel I had a clue what to cover, or when I didn’t have quite enough time to prepare a tightly structured, ‘controlled’ session. But I do know exactly what it was that I did differently, that lifted that stress caused by that need for control and authority. I gave it up and let go.

It’s traditional, at the end of a lecture or class, to invite “any questions?”. But I began to ask it at the start. And I learned to forget about having the answers.

I realised that although I didn’t really know enough about the courses to determine what the content of my teaching should be, the students did. So I started my workshops by asking students what questions they had, what they wanted to address, and focussing the rest of the session around that. This did take some confidence, but it also boosted my confidence as I now knew how to tailor and spin my material to what the students needed, to their learning outcomes and context – they could help me do the work of contructively aligning my session to their learning. I started to share that control and authority with them, and collaboratively develop the workshop with them as we went. And it went down a lot better.

I still take too much material with me, but now it’s a deliberate strategy – I’ll bring my bag of tricks, and the students themselves can decide which of them they want and how they apply to their learning. Powerpoints have got much less linear, using embedded links to jump between slides (thanks to Phil Race for this trick!).  I’ve also moved away from very rigidly structured lesson plans and closed outcome activities – I’ve found that a better approach is to bring a text (an assigment, a case study etc) into which are written and embedded a number of issues, and see what the students pick up on, where they want to direct the discussion, what the ‘narrative’ of the session should be. These activities are far more open ended, and students often surprise me by picking up on things I hadn’t realised were there, even if I’d written the text. Even if, due to group size, I do have to have a more structured, ‘teacherly’ session, I can at least sound out the students first, ask for FAQs, take votes on priorities, and comment on how the content meets their requests. Or – in some cases, if I’ve pitched it entirely wrong, abandon what I’ve brought and run it as a Q&A.

There are a few tricks to doing this successfully. Setting clear parameters to your role and expertise will head off any disappointed queries about subject content, statistics analysis software or journal databases. Paying attention to the timing – very early in the academic year, students may themselves not know what they want to know. Open ended activities help free up the direction we choose to take. Most importantly, building trust and making students feel safe in asking what they fear might be ‘stupid’ questions or ‘maybe it’s just me’. I often use anonymous methods like giving each student a post-it note to pose a question (or in larger groups, a digital tool to post questions or vote), or asking them before  the session, if possible. In groups who know each other and have grown more confident, they might be happy just to shout out. And most of all, trusting yourself – you’re a learning developer, not a teacher, and your job isn’t to have the answers. It’s to ask the questions that prompt reflection and learning. Wherever it ends up after that, however unpredictable, is where it needs to be.

Not only have I lost the stress which used to come with teacherly assumptions of control and authority, I have also learned a lot about what students really want to know and how they articulate those questions. And best of all, I have more engaged students, as they’ve had a say in the learning outcomes and the session is doing what they want it to do.


Moira Peelo, 1994. Helping Students with Study Problems. Maidenhead: OUP.

Teaching Introverts

“Get into pairs and discuss with the person next to you…”

It’s the go-to model for workshop activities. One to ones are by definition dialogues, and we also try to capitalise on the social constructivist nature of learning in our group sessions. The whole of my PGCE beautifully modelled social constructivist principles in the way it was taught. And the amount of independent learning in Higher Education means there’s plenty of time for students to work on their own outside class, if they want to. However, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how many of my workshops include paired or group discussion as a first resort.

Why? Because I can’t stand it myself as a student.

I’m an introvert. I like to think things through carefully and work out what I think and how to articulate it before I then bounce that idea off others. I don’t find that starting off with discussion helps me to develop my understanding of a topic. Discussion helps later to refine it, sure, but dialogue with peers isn’t the thing that first helps me put those building blocks of understanding together. I’m not shy, I love a good debate as much as the next learning developer, it’s just….. just give me a moment, ok? I’m thinking. And that’s alright – we all learn differently. It’s just that in any group teaching scenario – even a good lecture needn’t be a monologue – it’s the kind of group discussion work which favours extroverts which is the one that is our first choice as teachers. Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World which Can’t Stop Talking notes this in the context of education; her description of the highly extrovert learning culture at Harvard Business School made me feel quite ill!

Why do we teachers like groupwork in workshops so much, when we suspect it may not suit all learners? Partly as we know it’s supported by theory as being good practice, of course. But I think it’s also because it allows us to see and gauge activity concretely- it’s reassuring to us to hear and see learning happen. It’s unsettling to see a student in the midst of a group gazing blankly off into space – what are they thinking? Is it anything remotely to do with what I’ve asked them to do? Or are they thinking about lunch? Game of Thrones? Nothing at all? What about the person next to them – are they being denied their chance to socially construct their learning because they’re sitting next to someone who won’t engage with them? Oh no! We wander over to engage with them, nudge them into interaction with others, check what they’re thinking.

But I’m beginning to suspect this is more about our need for control as teachers than the student’s need to learn in a way that suits them. We’re teaching adults – do we really need to exert control in that way? Either they are engaging and learning in a way that suits them rather than us (and as long as it works for them, fine), or they are bored – or distracted – or tired – but sometimes we have to let go and accept that how and whether they engage is up to them, as long as they are not disrupting the group dynamic. They’re adult, independent learners. Just because we can’t hear them engaging doesn’t mean they’re not learning.

Learning may be socially constructed, but doesn’t happen in a social vacuum devoid of anything but learning. One error I used to make was not allowing for this in sessions in the first few weeks of term. Sure, I don’t know the students- but I’m a learning developer, I don’t get to build an ongoing relationship with a cohort. I accept that and deal with it. But that early on, they don’t know each other either. Issues of creating and saving face in a new peer group may take precedence over learning. So my cheery cries of ‘Now get into groups! Turn to the person next to you! Discuss with your partner!’ may not, as intended, have had the happy bonus of helping them make friends as well as learn something, but plunged them into a fraught negotiation of priorities with potentially lasting consequences for the rest of their degree. By an unspoken shared understanding, my team never, ever use icebreakers in our workshops. We’re all pretty introverted and find them excruciating and counterproductive.

Even later in the term when a cohort has got to know each other, I feel we can overemphasise the social element of learning in our teaching. Some of that cohort will meet up later to go over lecture notes, talk over an assignment, revise together. And some won’t. They’ll be quietly processing their learning alone, as they need to. There are still plenty of opportunities to learn socially, even for the introvert – discussion in seminars, feeding back in workshops, our learning development one to ones. Even a good essay is dialogic – written for a reader – and therefore social. So I think we should pause before we automatically include yet another paired or group discussion to aid learning. What’s the balance?

It’s also a more Western model, which students from Asia may find unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I do feel that when living and studying abroad, students need to engage as fully as possible with the models of pedagogy  in the host country – as a modern languages student, I’ve had to do this myself. I do wonder though if a more inclusive teaching environment might embrace a diversity of learning styles better, whether introvert/extrovert or cultural.

So I am going to worry less if I see students in my sessions not engaging in discussion but staring into space or choosing to sit alone. I am also going to see if I can design in more workshop activities that start off with solitary work to suit the introverts, allowing them to build their understanding alone before sharing and refining it. And I am going to openly embrace the diversity by designing activities which give students the options to do either.

introvert extrovert



Switching Roles

In the course of a one-to-one session, a skilled Learning Developer might take on a number of different roles in turn, each ‘hat’ we wear carefully chosen to meet the need arising out of the conversation as it progresses. As we switch roles, adopting a range of techniques suited to each function, there’s one more thing we need to bear in mind: the role of the student.

If we are the teacher, the student is pupil. If we are coach or mentor, they are our coachee or mentee. If we are listener, they’re the one who needs to talk. Our roles might be taken on in reactive fashion, in response to the student’s first taking a position, but it’s more likely that we’re the one making that choice, and that choice determines and shapes the student’s counterpart response. The question is, do they know that?

Unlike a counsellor, we aren’t establishing a single, consistent role which is clarified and agreed at the start. We will have to make those judgements as to what role is most appropriate in the moment, as the session progresses, and integrate those roles into our mode of working without conflict or tension. We probably don’t need to present the student with a lengthy, in-depth explanation of all of this at the start of a session; time and student levels of interest are not in favour. However, the student does need to know where we stand with regards to them, and accordingly, how they then stand in relation to us. It’s partly a practical issue of an efficient working relationship, but also a values-based one of informed, consenting partnership.

You can see the potential for confusion.  For starters, two of the roles are very directive, and two very non-directive, which might well be seen as incongruent. Uniting all of our roles is, I would hope, a consistent persona which is reassuringly stable, consistent and authentic, but if a student is left in doubt as to what we’re getting at, what we’re doing, where we’re going, they may feel very lost as to what or how to respond. It’s most likely that the student will assume we’re operating in teacher mode, as they’ve come to consult us for some guidance, some answers, and in Higher Education, the role of ‘student’ is the role they’re likely to be most familiar with. And this assumption might undermine the other roles we work in.

One example is the difference in the use of questions between the teacher and coach roles. As teacher, our questions are directive- we know the answer, we know where the student needs to get to. We use questions to scaffold and assess. As coaches, we ask genuinely open questions, prompting reflection and exploration, with no preconceptions as to the response. You can imagine the anxiety or confusion it might create if the student isn’t sure which is which. Instead of empowering reflection, a coaching question such as ‘so what would you say your main point in this paragraph is?’ might instead prompt the student to try to second-guess ‘the right answer’ which they think we’re looking for, instead of looking to themselves, empowered and confident, to find the answer that’s right for them.

As mentors, we try to interpret academic culture, give access to others’ experiences of study (including our own) and model appropriate practices, all the while ensuring that the student retains their own agency in negotiating how to employ the experience we present. If they perceive us as acting as teachers, it’s likely that our mentoring will be seen as very directive, telling them what to do and how to fit in with ‘how it’s done round here’, which doesn’t leave them a space to negotiate and own that for themselves. Given the strong social justice, diversity and empowerment themes in LD, this might be very problematic. They might end up going along with something to please us but that doesn’t work for them, or kick against an imposed solution.

Silence is for many people not an easy thing, so if we cast ourselves in the role of listener, contributing minimally to the dialogue, but the student is unaware that we’re doing so because we feel that they are actually in the strongest position, you can well imagine how unnerving and awkward this might be for them! It might leave them entirely unsure what they’re expected to say, or close down the conversation entirely.

It’s possible however to clarify our role in any one instance with a very light touch, with self-deprecating, hesitant encouragement, body language and humour. We can watch out for signs of anxiety or confusion, and express ourselves in a way that helps signal the kind of interaction that’s going on:

“You know way more about this topic than I do – all of these points seem strong to me, I don’t know,  I wondered which you’d say was the main one?”

“There’s a number of different approaches, then, and I’ve seen students and lecturers successfully use all of them in different ways- but the main thing is that it works for you. What do you think, which would suit you best?”

“You’re way ahead of me – keep going!”