How long does it take to develop learning?

Another question about the decisions involved in running a Learning Development service, and their implications for the profession – how long should a one to one session be? This one is a more controversial one, as I suspect one to one appointment times have shortened over the history of Learning Development as services have moved from the early days in subject teaching, EAP, Counselling or SpLD contexts where the hour is standard, and increasingly into libraries where the dominant model is the reference interview which doesn’t take as long. The amount of time we feel is appropriate is naturally influenced by our specific professional background, and whatever is the ‘norm’ in the context we work in. But I’d like to take a step back and think about what a real LD approach needs, rather than the adopted models we’ve inherited from other professions and the pressures to do more for less which we are all subject to.  

In the Learning Development services I’ve worked in during my career, the core provision, the flagship, the gold standard, has been the 50 minute one to one tutorial. Sure, there’s a place for the shorter drop-in, the preliminary initial assessment, and not all tutorials go the full academic hour, but that 50 min tutorial was at the heart of the service. Any student who booked with us had that time guaranteed for them, to work together with the Learning Developer on the issue they wanted to raise. And time is space – space to think, to relax and take the pressure off, to gain trust, a deeper understanding, wrestle with new insights. That space that we offer to students is precious. They rarely get it anywhere else.

But student numbers are rising, Learning Development teams are small – wouldn’t it make sense to offer shorter appointments, see more students? Wouldn’t half an hour do, even 20 mins? Isn’t that near-hour long appointment a bit of a luxury? Is it really necessary? I’d argue strongly that it is necessary, and indeed that time is what fundamentally and inherently makes it a true Learning Development interaction. At any rate, I’d like to suggest that the time we have available for a one to one appointment fundamentally impacts on the very nature of the work we do. 

Learning Developers know how people learn- we know that learning something is not simply a matter of being given information. Following a constructivist approach, we know that to really learn something, especially something complex and conceptual, means deconstructing and reconstituting your mental map of the world to make new connections and accommodate the new understanding. We know that this can be brought about by social interaction, that learning is interactive, a dialogue, and that this dialogue is facilitated and not dominated by the teacher. The shorter the appointment, the more we’re moving away from a teaching-and-learning scenario, and towards a giving-advice-and-guidance model. There is a world of difference between creating the conditions to facilitate a student’s understanding and promote a shift in their understanding, and cutting to the chase and just giving them the desired learning outcome as advice and guidance to save time. 

Learning Developers aim to promote successful, independent learning. Independent learning involves using coaching techniques and socratic questioning, foregrounding the student’s own expertise in their own learning, building on what they already know, helping them form their own conclusions and action plans, take ownership of their learning and reflect on how they got there so that next time, they can do it themselves. The shorter the appointment, the more we are pushed towards a delivery model rather than a coaching approach which fosters independence, giving them the answer as if it were a prescription rather than helping them find it and own it for themselves, building onto their existing capability. And the more we work on a prescriptive model, the less ownership the student may feel over the advice, and reject it, falling into that “yes but” response of rejecting guidance as it’s been foisted on them without really including them in the process. The shorter the time available, the more the focus falls on us rather than on the student, and the less we’re able to help them become independent. 

Students are after all individuals, and learning is diverse. There is no one right way to plan an essay, to revise for an exam, to manage time, to experience the writing process. Students will bring their own prior knowledge, their own experiences, preferences, abilities and strengths, and we need time to figure out where they are at, what their understanding is, explore the range of strategies that will best suit them, think about the pros and cons of various approaches, construct a plan to go forwards. To stretch our students, we need to find their Zone of Proximal Development so we can encourage them to reach a little further, but finding out where they’re starting from takes time. We need to tailor our input to them, but the shorter the appointment, the more impersonal, dogmatic and generic the advice has to be. 

We also know that developing learning often means encountering threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge – insights that are slippery, counterintuitive, challenging and irrevocably and fundamentally change a student’s understanding of their learning, themselves and their world. Concepts such as criticality and discourse are actually counterintuitive and profoundly unsettling, they are not ‘facts’ that can be told and grasped in a moment: “oh right, ok then“. A student might need time and support to process this shift, to reflect on its impact, to probe their response and come to terms with it, to circle around it. Threshold concepts are liminal, and students encountering one in their approach to learning may need a Learning Developer to stand with them, teetering on that boundary, and encouraging them not to back away from it and close the door on the troubling glimpse of the world on the other side.  The shorter the appointment, the less support the student has to engage with troublesome knowledge and the more likely they are to reject it. 

We are often suggesting approaches to learning which may feel risky. A first year student who has used a particular approach for writing A-Level essays has longstanding experience of their approach working for them. They may not yet have had the experience of failure; or they may have started to realise that their tried-and-tested strategy isn’t fit for purpose at university, but are clinging to it in the absence of anything more certain to abandon it for. Learning Development is an interpersonal interaction and involves negotiation of risk. The student needs to trust us to let go of what’s familiar and what has worked in the past, and grasp onto what feels like straws, all on the say-so of someone they may only just have met. Without that time to build a rapport and that trust, why should students follow our advice? We’re also often dealing with the affective dimension of learning, experiences and perceptions that have shaped their self-worth and sense of who they are and who they can be. Admitting that you feel a failure is a really hard thing to do with a stranger, and the more time we have to build a connection, the further we can support the student. 

Learning Development practice is underpinned by Academic Literacies. We know that what we’re working with is not simply a technical ‘study skill’ or surface features of writing to emulate, but a complex, socially situated and contested set of discourse and epistemological practices. In a short appointment, we might be able to tell someone how to, for example, write a topic sentence to a paragraph, plan an essay with a mindmap, use a flashcard for revision. But this isn’t an academic literacies approach; it’s the remedial study skills approach which can only focus on the generic, the technical, the surface. An Academic Literacies approach involves surfacing the hierarchies of power and authority which underpin who gets to make meaning and decide whether communication is appropriate, and also negotiating between unequal, competing perspectives to find a way forward. Learning Development conversations are fraught with power and inequality, and emancipation is one of our key values. A conversation which reveals to the student that she is allowed to privilege her own meaning and articulate her learning in a way that feels authentic to her is not going to be a quick one. I distrust a simple answer to a complex problem, and Academic Literacies approach exposes that complexity. To downplay it with glib quick study skills tips is unethical, locating the problem in the student and setting them up to fail when it turns out to be not that simple. 

The kind of issues we work with rarely occur in isolation, but are part of an interconnected web of perceptions and practices. An overlong, descriptive writing style is linked to lack of selectivity in note-taking which is linked to reading practices which is linked to a misconception of what lecturers are looking for which is linked to a lack of confidence in critical thinking… Just looking at the presenting problem of cutting words is not going to solve the issue, yet that may be all there is time for in a short appointment. It could take a good quarter of an hour just to unpick the presenting problem. The shorter the appointment, the more likely you’re just scratching the surface or dealing with the wrong thing, or limiting ourselves to a small aspect of an issue, which means more repeat visits.  

Our ALDinHE values include working alongside students to help them make sense of and get the most out of HE learning, and making HE inclusive through emancipatory practice, partnership working and collaboration. The shorter the appointment, the more we have to work at, rather than alongside students, centring ourselves and imposing our way of making sense of HE, in a way which is far from emancipatory partnership, and more a medical, doctor-knows-best model of diagnosing a problem and prescribing a remedy. Learning Development is after all at its roots about learning, and the professions that conceptualise what they do as learning of some sort, rather than advice and guidance work or giving information, tend to go for the hour as the optimum length of time in which learning can happen. One to one tutorials (the term ‘tutorial’ is a giveaway) are the core of Learning Development, and the shorter the time, the less we are able to work in ways congruent with what we know about learning, and the values of our profession. 

I’m not saying that those of us who have to do shorter appointments are not doing Learning Development. But the shorter the time, the harder it is to enact a skilled, expert LD approach which puts the student at the centre and results in successful, independent learning. Giving study skills tips is not the same thing as a professional Learning Development approach, and doing more for less is a false economy when it comes to learning. 

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