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:

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.

The Three Domains of Critical Reading

A couple of people have recently asked about a tool I developed to teach critical reading, so I thought I’d blog about it to add a bit of context to what is basically a workshop handout.

Working in a one to one context as a Learning Developer with students on assignments like literature reviews has allowed me to see behind the scenes of how students approach this task. What I’ve noticed is a mismatch between some of the feedback on the written product “Unfocussed! Doesn’t flow! Needs to be structured better! Too descriptive!” can actually be traced back to issues around reading and note-taking, not writing.

Students understandably find critiquing the work of far more experienced and authoritative scholars very daunting, and that’s the first thing I address. I fear sometimes that the message that students should only use ‘quality, peer-reviewed sources” is over-egged, and can disempower students – if it’s been peer-reviewed by more experienced scholars, and passed for publication, what more can be said? This can lead to descriptive writing, as quality, peer-reviewed literature is assumed to be unassailable and takes on the authority of established fact. My first aim is to establish with the students is that there is still potential for meaningful critique, by them.

Actually performing a critical reading is also hard. Academic writing is by nature highly persuasive, and the illusion created by our typically objective, neutral, reasonable ‘academic writing style’ can mask this. Students often find themselves quite naturally sucked into the agenda of the writer – that this article or book is the most important, innovative and correct contribution to the debate that you could possibly be reading (after all, in the context of the REF, it’s in the interests of academic authors to persuade their readers of this!). A straightforward reading can often and quite naturally result in the response “well, I suppose so… ” Even I respond this way, if I read purposelessly or inattentively.

The best approach I’ve come across to help students really get their teeth into critical reading are the CASP (Critical Appraisal Skills Programme) tools, created to help students and professionals in the Health Sciences interrogate different kinds of study. The use of questions is a great way to help students find a bit of distance from the text, and a bit of purpose when reading- the CASP tools offer a script of such questions. However, the CASP tools focus on one element only – whether the text, on its own, in its own right, is sound. When critical reading is taught explicitly, this is often the dimension which is addressed. Students need confidence in their own understanding of research methodology in order to answer these questions, but it’s a good place to start.

However, following only this approach may still result in a literature review that is unfocussed, unstructured and ‘bitty’ – even if it’s a highly critical account of individual papers! To develop my own tool, then, I’ve expanded on the approach used by CASP, to add two more domains in which students can interrogate a text.

Domain 1: The first domain of critical reading, then, remains The Text On Its Own, In Its Own Right. This domain asks “on its own terms, is this text valid?” Engaging with the text in this domain allows for detailed critique on a level which allows the student to make decisions about how much confidence to put in the text’s conclusions or findings.

Domain 2: The second domain, however, looks at The Text In the Context of Other Texts, in other words, synthesis. It asks “how does it relate to other contributions to the debate?” For example, are the findings similar (in which case we’re seeing a weight of evidence building up), different (in which case we may have a quirky outlier or an innovative new take)? Is it a new answer to an established research question, or a new direction entirely? This helps students to start to see the overall shape of a debate, weigh up the contribution of each text, contextualise what they’re reading and ultimately synthesise it into their own account of the field.

Domain 3: The third domain, The Text As It Relates To Me, considers the text from the point of view of the student’s own agenda. It basically asks “how does this text relate to what I’m doing? Can I make use of it?” Academic writing being as persuasive as it is, it’s really easy for the student to lose sight of this and end up with an exhaustive set of notes, an inflated wordcount and a descriptive writing style. This dimension allows the student to make critical decisions about the text on their own terms. “Yes, this article is probably very important and interesting, but does it help me make my argument?” If not, the student can make that most invisible of critical decisions, to leave it out.

The starting point need not be the first dimension either. I very often start with the third! If a text doesn’t look like it’s going to help me, I’m not going to bother with an in-depth, laborious critique of its methods! Other readings might want to start with the second dimension, to spy out the lay of the land in a field, and spot main debates and trends in research. The domains aren’t a process or a hierarchy, just different dimensions.

To help students apply The Three Domains, I turned it into a framework to help students think about the kinds of specific questions they could ask in each area. Generalising the kinds of questions that CASP tools pose for medical sciences, I proposed five areas that students could ask questions about (these five aren’t necessarily exhaustive, but are one way to approach it!) They are:

  • Context: discipline/profession, authors, currency, bias
  • What are they doing? Research Question/Aims/Hypothesis
  • How did they do it? Methods, Models and Materials
  • How do they know? Argument, evidence, logic and reasoning
  • What do they say? Findings and conclusions

Here’s the full thing: three domains of critical reading

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This version of the the handout has indicative questions for each domain (again, not exhaustive, but hopefully therefore not overwhelming!). So for the question How did They Do It? You might ask:

  • Domain 1: was the method appropriately chosen and used?
  • Domain 2: is this a standard method for this field of research, or a novel one?
  • Domain 3: can I borrow or adapt this method to help me answer my own research question? Or would a departure from it be my innovation?

The framework can help students focus their reading, give them a ‘way in’ with practical set of questions to interrogate a text, but also guide their note-taking, as they are encouraged not (just) to take notes of what the text says, but of their responses to the text – their answers to the questions. One of the nicest things that this framework has achieved for students is to validate the difficulty they are experiencing when reading critically. No, it’s not you, it is hard – you’re reading in three dimensions at once! This realisation can also help them ‘layer’ their reading, by reading for one dimension at a time, not all at once, and making it more manageable.

Near and Far Enemies in LD Practice

Buddhism (unexpected opening, bear with me!) discusses four states or virtues known as the Brahma-viharas, the Four Immeasurables, cultivated through meditation: Loving-Kindness, Compassion, Empathetic Joy and Equanimity. Each of these has an antithesis, of course – a ‘far enemy‘. The far enemy of loving-kindness is hatred; that of compassion is cruelty.  Empathetic joy – joy in the joy of others – is opposed to jealousy, and equanimity is the inverse of craving. These are easy to spot. However, each of the Four Immeasurables also has a ‘near enemy’– something that looks so much like the quality we strive for, but really, really isn’t it. The near enemy of loving-kindness would be a possessive affection, that of compassion would be condescending pity. Empathetic joy’s near enemy is perhaps a conditional, sentimental pride, and indifference can be mistaken for true equanimity.

It’s a useful idea in the practice of Learning Development too. We have our values, each of which might have a far enemy that’s easy to avoid, but also a sneaky near enemy which looks the part,  but really isn’t actually aligned to our mission of helping students to become successful, emancipated, independent learners. You can see the near enemies of Learning Development values in the Study Skills and Academic Socialization models – so very nearly right, but actually coming from completely the wrong place and entrenching the very issues we’re trying to work with.

The Four Roles of LD too each have their near and far enemies. Let’s take the Teacher.  Given that this is the most exposing of the four roles, being ‘found out’ as the far enemy of the Teacher (no knowledge, no teaching skill) is what every new teacher fears the most. But the near enemy? That’s the Expert. Someone who takes such pleasure and pride in their own learning that they leave no space for the student. That tutorial, when the student walks out the door, and you sit back exhausted from all the wisdom you’ve imparted…and a sneaky voice says “ok, so you proved you could solve it, but where was the student in all of that? How have they been helped to learn? Were you just…showing off…?

The Mentor too is prone to over-involvement. The near enemy of the Mentor is the Editor. “This is how I would have written it. That’s what you should put. That’s not right. I wouldn’t do it like that, if I were you“. If at the end of a tutorial, you realise that what you’ve really offered is an ‘editing-with-commentary’, that’s not mentoring, or even Learning Development. That’s not offering up your own experience to help the student form criteria on which to base their own decisions. That’s just telling them what to do, if they were you. Which they’re not…

What about the Coach? The Coach is supposed to recognize that the learner themselves has the key to resolving the issue, and their role is to draw it out. Their near enemy is the Sheepdog. They have a clear idea of where the student actually needs to go, and every question, while seemingly open, is actually leading, herding the student to pen them where they ‘ought’ to be. “Have you tried…?” “Why don’t you…?” We pride ourselves with the subtlety with which we drew the student to a conclusion which seemed to them to be their own idea.  Which, of course, it should have been all along.

And the Listener. Probably one of the hardest roles, in many ways. The Listener offers a mirror, a sounding board, a neutral space in which to rehearse, a way for the student to see more clearly for themselves. The near enemy of the Listener is the Beauty Therapist, which allows them to see only what we think they might best like to see. This might be seeing things in the best light, with false reassurance: “don’t worry, I’m sure it will be fine!“, or in the worst light, validating victimhood, “poor you – that really was a nasty bit of feedback and a very unfair assignment!” This makes us feel better, as it’s nice to be the one to make it all feel better, and play good cop to the academic’s bad cop, but it doesn’t help the student to see what’s really there, and find a way forward.

Feedback is a particularly problematic tool in combating these fake qualities and false practices. The near enemies of LD might us give a warm glow, a greedy pride that we’ve been helpful, we’ve been The One who made the difference, and the students are touchingly grateful and give us compliments and nice feedback. But sometimes glowing feedback should give us pause. Are we in this for gratitude and compliments? The nicest feedback I’ve ever got praised my skills as a speaker (“She should be on a TED talk!“). I glowed for a moment, before a little voice in my conscience said, “how can you yakking on, however entertainingly, ever be truly student-centered, Helen?” I know full well that by proofreading or even co-writing essays for students, overstepping the line into subject teaching, I would garner comments about how helpful I’d been, how I’d gone the extra mile, made such a difference. But deep down somewhere, I’d know I’d actually subverted what LD should be about – those students I’d ‘helped’ are now even more dependent on me for success, and even failure, if my interventions had strayed into collusion. Being ‘the one who it all depends on’ can be an enticing prospect -but it makes me faintly queasy.

It’s so easy to mistake the near enemies of LD for friends -they make us feel good, they might even make the students feel good, but reflecting on our values and ethics, and that queasy little feeling can help us see them for what they are. Mindfulness, which I first learned with the Buddhist Society when I was a student at Oxford, has become increasingly prominent as a way for students to manage stress and build reflection and self-awareness- I’m increasingly aware these days of how much a role it plays in my practice as a Learning Developer.


My First Keynote

In which I suffer massive imposter syndrome, take solace with my patron saints, slag off CS Lewis (but not JK Rowling), administer homeopathic doses of Bourdieu and Bakhtin and Barthes (oh my!), accidentally say ARSE, eff the ineffable and finally become a mermaid.

(I’ll write up an intelligible blogpost summary over the weekend!)

Defence against the Dark Arts of LD

I wrote previously about the 5 Ps of LD model I developed as part of the training on one to one work: Presenting Problem, Pertinent Factors, Perception of Task, Process and Product. In discussions with participants on those training days, it became clear that there’s a number of ways in which that model could be understood, not all of which are in keeping with the student-centred, ethical ethos we LDers promote.

The roots of the 5 Ps model lie in the practices of psychologists and counsellors. The original 5 Ps come from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and encompass the Presenting Problem, with the Predisposing, Precipitating,  Protective and Perpetuating factors, which, when explored with the client, build a multifacted mutual understanding of the problem.

The approach they belong to is called formulation, and it was developed to address the problems inherent in a diagnostic model when it is applied to the intangible and subjective qualities of mental, rather than physical health. Formulation is a very ethical practice, valuing and centring the client’s perspective, combining the professional’s psychological expertise with the client’s expert knowledge of themselves and their context, in a consensual and respectful way, so that both can share in the work of interpretation and reach a better understanding of what’s going on, what it means and how to move forwards. At the heart of formulation is the observation “at some level, it all makes sense” (Butler, 1998); the student’s response to teaching and assessment is, from their perspective, entirely rational and reasonable.

The 5 Ps of LD, although they differ from the original CBT ones, are also rooted in this formulation approach. They can of course be used as a diagnostic checklist, ticked off by the Learning Developer as they expertly question the student and analyse samples of their work to establish the problem and dispense advice. However, I’d argue that this isn’t the most effective use of the model, as it pushes us into an almost medical model of observing symptoms, diagnosing a ‘pathology’ and prescribing an intervention. In positioning us as the expert who examines, pronounces and prescribes, it reduces the student’s role to a passive object of our practice, omits the vital interpretative perspective they can bring, and excludes them from agency in the ‘cure’, other than taking our advice like a good patient. Diagnosis is a Dark Art in Learning Development. It’s certainly an approach we might take, and effective in its way, but it’s akin to the practice of legilimency in the world of Harry Potter, the particular forte of that least ethical of teachers, Snape.  Legilimens! we cry, as we cast our 5 Ps spell to reveal the hapless student’s thoughts, read them as we see fit and make of them what we will.


It’s the opposite of empowering and emancipating practice, or promoting independent learning. And as Harry Potter learned, reading someone’s thoughts out of context, without their owner’s informed consent and interpretative input, can result in Siriusly misleading conclusions, not to mention a dysfunctional rapport with the student.

What is a better approach than legilimency, to gain access to student learning and empower them to be independent? Why, as Dumbledore would tell you*, it is the Pensieve. The LD wizard’s art lies in helping the learner identify and extract the relevant thoughts and memories to be placed between you, in a safe, objective space where you can observe and discuss them together with a helpful interpretative distance. It’s consensual, it’s mutual, and it draws on the expert commentary of both parties to make sense of what they see.


And it’s this formulation approach, rather than diagnostic, which is the real value of the 5 Ps of LD. Do we analyse a student’s work, interrogate them on how they approached and produced it and, having collected this data, pronounce on what it means? Or do we invite the student to join us in a shared exploration of these facets, explain to them why we’re asking particular questions and what we aim to achieve by them, include them in our tentative wondering aloud, ask them whether an explanation feels right to them, or what an idea means to them, what insights occur to them that might help us better understand?

Diagnostic Use of the 5 Ps of LD**:

After asking the student what problem they want help with, I note any pertinent factors which they reveal or which I observe, and draw on my expert knowledge to posit how that will impact on their learning. I read the assignment brief to identify what they were asked to do, and ask a series of questions about how they approached it, noting where this approach will have fallen short of meeting the lecturer’s learning outcomes. Finally, I analyse a sample of their writing to identify the features which do not conform to the conventions of academic writing, and recommend to the student a strategy for working more productively next time.

Key questions: “What did you…?” “Do you understand?”

Key statements: “I think that’s because…” “What this means is…” “What you need to do is…”

Formulation Use of the 5 Ps of LD**:

I ask the student what they’d like to work on, and invite discussion around whose problem this is (has the lecturer identified it or have they?) and why or to what extent it might be perceived as a ‘problem’ – what does that mean to them? I request the student’s help in understanding the context of their learning, and invite their reflections on how this context has shaped and impacted on their learning. I ask the student what the terms of reference of the essay question or feedback means to them and what experiences have informed that understanding, bring my pedagogic expertise to bear in modelling my interpretation of what I feel is likely to be the lecturer’s intention, invite their view on this (they know their lecturer better than me, after all) and negotiate how we might bridge any gap between these potentially disparate expectations. I ask them to describe how they approached the assignment and why they chose that approach, inviting their reflection on where they felt it worked or didn’t, and use my knowledge of educational psychology to theorise why it might be the case, inviting their views on my interpretation. I ask them to offer a commentary on their writing, why they made the linguistic choices they did or identifying areas they’re not sure of, and negotiating how they could reflect their intention in language their lecturer might conceive of as ‘conventional’. We discuss what might help them develop their learning.

Key questions: “What does that mean to you?” “Tell me a bit about your reasoning – why you…” “Does my interpretation feel right to you?”

Key statements: “I’m wondering if…” “I ask that because…”

Coaching techniques feature very strongly in a formulation approach to the 5 Ps of LD.



*Caveat 1: I would hesitate to say in general that we should aim to Be More Dumbledore in our professional practice – he did after all have some rather dubious notions of consent and transparency! Snape, if nothing else, was at least congruent in his teaching practice…

** Caveat 2: this conversation is in practice likely to be iterative rather than linear