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.


7 thoughts on “To Read in Advance, or Not to Read in Advance

  1. So glad you’ve written about this. For similar reasons, we do not accept work in advance. Our system technically allows it, but there is a real chance we will put in preparation for an appointment that is later cancelled or the student does not turn up for. This isn’t a big problem for us, but any wasted effort is never positive.

    The only exception I find is if it is an online/telephone appointment, where in some situations it really helps the process to look at ahead of time. There may also be a minority of cases (often our IT/technical/info literacy) support side, where it helps us to know more about the problem. This is generally not the case for writing/assessment/learning related appointments.

    Time and logistics aside, the real problem I have is that reading in advance removes a valuable experience for the student – the experience of watching someone read your work. I think this is something you picked up really well in your post, linked to the ALDinHE values. Watching someone read your work is incredibly valuable and gives the student insight into what the marker may say/feel as they are reading their work. It is one of the few chances they get to see this in action.

    I also fine work shared in advance adds an expectation that takes control from the student somewhat. You inevitable make notes on what is shared. As soon as a student sees this, they will want a copy. I make a point of never making any mark on student work in an appointment – it’s their work after all. I don’t intend to take control.

    I agree wholeheartedly about the contextual importance of any LD encounter.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I agree, I don’t make notes or marks on the student’s work -I don’t even touch their work without permission! Even the body language involved in handling their text speaks volumes in a context which is charged with authority and power.

      There’s an argument that making the student ‘invest’ in an appointment by committing some work to it in advance might reduce no-shows, but as you’ve found in your experience, I’m not convinced! We do read work in advance of a telephone/Skype appointment, but it changes the whole dynamic and I just feel it’s not a satisfactory experience compared to in-person, tho better than nothing.

      It takes huge amount of skill to do what we do, and the more I reflect on it, the more I value that and want to champion it! “Yes, we do read damn fast. We’re that good!”

        1. Yep! When I first started as an LDer, I found it all so laborious and daunting- now I can size things up much faster- and very little of it depends on me understanding or knowing anything about the topic. Maybe that’s what’s behind the need to read in advice- the feeling that you need to understand it all too. I don’t think it’s necessary tho

  2. Reblogged this on Becoming An Educationalist and commented:
    #Becomingeducational It’s so nearly Christmas…
    This week we’ve become engrossed in Dr Helen Webster’s reflection on the ways we work as Learning Developers – speifically she’s discussing issues around whether or not we should read samples of the student’s writing in advance of having a one-to-one with the student (or, possibly worse (?), just reading and critiquing student writing without the student coming near us at all).
    Helen makes the point that we are committed to working alongside students to help them make sense of academia… and if we are reading and working on *their* writing then we literally not working alongside them – they are far away and we are working only with their writing…
    and we are instead saying: send me your work – and I will fix it for you!
    Whilst there are so many reasons why committed learning developers might want to do this – including a commitment to and an understanding of the pressured, time-poor student, we have to work out what is in the best long term interest of the student and of the student and their understanding and development of their writing…

  3. I’d love to know if anyone has found a good solution to this issue in the context of distance appointments. We do offer them, in the spirit of equal access to provision, but as the reading is done before the phone call, email or Skype, it’s really hard to maintain the ‘working alongside the student’ ethos and they always feel unsatisfactory. But reading with them feels a hundred times more awkward when you’re on the phone, so that’s not feasible either!

    1. I have a feeling that a lot of this comes down to technology and internet connection. If we can use a webinar platform, allowing a student to share their screen – then that would work great at allowing them to retain control and share their work…

      I have, however, tried this before and while screen sharing works great, it’s always a bit blurry with a long document and without going full screen (and so losing sight of the webcam and chat) it is ultimately difficult to read. You then have the awkward problem of either requesting control of their screen so you can scroll when needed, or you have to keep asking them to move when you’re ready. A better solution is probably to upload and share a PDF to the webinar platform, but then that takes it out of student control and they can’t scrawl all over it (if they want).

      – and while this is all possible, it doesn’t feel natural or easy in comparison to face:face.

      I have to say, however, anything with live dialogue is preferable to email appointments. They feel very much *here is my work – fix it*. At least with sharing work ahead of a telephone or online appointment, there is more of an expectation of conversation.

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