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!


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!”

Learning Developer as….Which role?

I’ve written a lot recently about the different roles which we take on in our work as Learning Developers, in particular, the four main ones: Teacher, Mentor, Coach and Listener. There are others, of course; sometimes I’m an adviser, sometimes I’m a critical friend, sometimes I’m a signpost or a sympathetic ear. But the four main ones are the ones I find myself working in the majority of the time.

Of course, I don’t mean that I choose one role and stick to it for the rest of the session; I will switch in and out of roles potentially several times in a session, depending on what’s required. But how to know in the moment which role might work best?

In an earlier post, I portrayed the four main roles along a continuum, spanning knowledge and agency, between student and tutor. Actually, if you separate these factors out, then what we have is a matrix, one which can help us decide which role might be most appropriate.

LD role matrix

The first axis is knowledge: the understanding itself, which may be held by either the tutor or the student, to a greater or lesser extent. In some matters, we’re the expert, for example, whether or not something is plagiarism, or what critical thinking might mean in an HE context. In others, the student is the expert, particularly anything which relates to their own life and experience, and their own discipline. This knowledge may be implicit, but it’s there. This helps to divide the teacher/mentor roles from the coach/listener roles, as they are distributed at different ends of this axis.

But once we’ve determined that knowledge lies more with us, it doesn’t help us choose to employ either the teacher or mentor role. Or if it lies with the student, would we best be working in coach or listener mode? To make this decision, we need to think about where agency lies – here, I mean the ability to decide what needs to be learned, what knowledge is needed. So the second axis is agency.

  • Teacher (LDer = knowledge and agency). Both knowledge and agency might lie with us. If we’re the ones who have the knowledge of grammar, or referencing and plagiarism, and the student is unaware that their writing practices are incorrect usage or run the risk of plagiaristic practices, then agency also lies with us to say, ‘you need to learn about this, and I will teach you’.
  • Mentor (LDer = knowledge, Student = agency) . However, if we’re the experts in assessment, but the student has a very specific question about the format of a past exam paper, then we’re operating in mentor mode. The student knows what they’re after, and they have the agency to ask us to help them learn the knowledge that we have and they don’t.
  • Listener (Student = knowledge and agency). If, however, it’s the student who knows the subject of their essay inside out, and has a definite, if rather inchoate sense of what they’re trying to argue, both the knowledge and agency lie with them – all we might do is act as listener to help them untangle their thinking and what points they want to make.
  • Coach (LDer = agency, Student = knowledge). However, if the student wants to know how best to revise or study, all the knowledge of their own preferences and strengths as a learner lie with them, but they may not have reflected on it enough to know how to make sense of this to inform their revision strategies or working habits. In this case, we may not know much about them as individuals, but we do know how to tease the relevant knowledge out with the right questions, and we’re coaching.

So to decide which role might work best in any instance, we need to ask ourselves two questions:

  1. where does the knowledge mostly reside?
  2. which of us – LDer or student – knows best what knowledge the student needs?

It’s very easy to slip into teacher mode, but it’s worth pausing occasionally and asking if either the knowledge or the agency actually reside with the student, and if it would be more student-centred and more effective to be less directive and to take on a different role in the conversation.

Learning Developer as Therapist?

There was recently a very interesting discussion on the LDHEN list about the role of Learning Development in shaping the university as a therapeutic community. I was interested in the word ‘therapeutic’ as it relates to Learning Development, and my contributions were largely about whether what we do could be construed as therapy, given that we sometimes work in similar ways to therapists such as counsellors. I pursued this line of thinking further offline, in discussion with other colleagues but also with my family members, who are clinical psychologists and social workers and very insightful on the topic. This was really useful in helping me further articulate what I think LD is, and where the boundaries are. I’ve reproduced some of my comments on the email list here together with the further thoughts from discussions with my family and colleagues.

I don’t think Learning Development is a therapeutic activity. For me, therapy is a healing activity – very worthwhile, but to speak of learning development as therapy therefore  implies that the student is unwell and needs to be brought to health, is disordered, and needs to be helped to good order, is abnormal and needs to be brought to normality. Learning development, on the other hand, I think, accepts that learning is by its very nature challenging, destabilising, unsettling, ‘troublesome’. Learning is more than just accumulating more facts. To learn something is to integrate new knowledge with old and reconstitute it, not just to add it, to challenge your worldview, to unlearn what you thought you knew and see it differently, to transform yourself. That moment when the lightbulb goes on and shows you the world you thought you knew in a whole different way, and everything’s changed! To experience this, you need to take risks, make mistakes, push beyond into the unknown, let go of certainties and security. We’re talking threshold concepts here, which in themselves are neutral. Students can have very strong feelings about them, though, and these feelings can be positive or negative: wonder, exhilaration, joy, or frustration, discomfort, anxiety.

As Learning Developers we do help students explore their feelings around learning, which are bound to be strong if they are really engaged and learning deeply. But I think to call this therapy implies that the feelings that come with learning are in some way problematic instead of a perfectly natural and inevitable part of the process. Or that only the positive feelings are appropriate, and the negative ones are abnormal or not a healthy response. Learning can be therapeutic, certainly; but that’s incidental and down to the individual, rather than the aim that we as professionals are trying to achieve. Learning can also be stressful by its very nature. Helping students address the feelings that learning necessarily gives rise to is part of our role. But it’s not therapy.

Where the problem arises is that due to various political agendas, universities have become a very unsafe place to experience this unsettling, troublesome activity of learning. None of this – the employability agenda, fees and student debt, the examination regime in schools, the economic climate, the commodification of HE, has really got anything to do with actual learning and in fact is profoundly unhelpful. How can students feel secure enough to take risks, explore the unknown, make mistakes in this environment? How can they, when the environment itself is so unsafe? How can they learn in such a culture? The rise in students reporting mental health issues and stress, and the pressure that we can see they are under, has led to a more problematic range of emotional issues arising in our work, and it’s no wonder. It’s heartbreaking to see, and we naturally want to help.

Where to draw the line? If something is impacting on a student’s learning, then it is my job to listen carefully to that, to take it into account in the guidance I offer, and to refer if needed. One of the Five Ps of Learning Development which I outlined in a previous post is Pertinent Factors – anything we should be aware of that is impacting on learning. But we aren’t counsellors and for individual students, I can’t support  mental health issues or other things that impact on their ability to learn. I can take them into account in my work, but I can’t help resolve them. Sometimes an individual has so much going on in their lives that the upheaval of university isn’t a good thing to add to the mix at that time. And there comes a point when a person is so distressed that learning ain’t going to happen, and further LD work isn’t possible at that time.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs might be helpful here.


I’d say that Learning Development addresses the top two levels – we can help build confidence in learning and we can help them realise their potential as learners. Sometimes there is another level above Self-actualisation: Transcendence, or the need to help others achieve self-actualisation. Not only does this drive us as Learning Developers, but it also applies to the peer mentors we support and the group interactions in our workshops as students work together. But those levels of need aren’t possible unless the lower ones have been met; if a student is feeling hungry, ill, unsafe, unloved, then learning isn’t going to go well. I can’t help with the lower levels, but there are professions dedicated to each to which I can refer (Counselling. The Police. The Doctor. The University Canteen…) and I can help the student in making the decision to seek appropriate help.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t care, that I won’t listen sympathetically. But I have to be very clear with the student and myself that this isn’t therapy – it’s not going to help them therapeutically. Given that they are interacting with me in a professional capacity, they may have false assumptions or expectations about what this professional encounter can achieve. And I might feel awful for them and really want to do something to help (or secretly feel that helping them meets my own social and esteem needs of  feeling good about myself). But that’s not my particular professional role or my expertise and the most helpful thing I can do is to refer.

Trying to help might be actively counterproductive. Allowing them to talk to me may be distracting them from seeking real help. Why go to counselling when I’m such a sympathetic ear? In holding onto the issue, I’m blocking them from better avenues of support. And what if they won’t seek appropriate professional help? If they were sick, but wouldn’t go to the doctor, then I would still not be justified in giving medical advice or medication; if they won’t seek counselling or their personal tutor, I really shouldn’t be offering a placebo either. It might sound harsh, but we need to feel able to say ‘that’s not my job, I can’t help’. We don’t mean it in a jobsworth way, it’s not that we can’t be bothered or don’t care,  but we need to accept, and help the student to accept, that we don’t have the expertise. We can’t be what the student needs, and won’t really be helping if we try. But we do know someone who can help and signpost them there.

I can’t do therapy, I can’t heal, and learning isn’t something to be healed anyway. But I can fight for a university community which does its best to create a safe place to experience the unsettlingness of learning in a compassionate way, which is as inclusive and diverse as possible, remembering that its whole purpose is to help students learn and to assess that learning, and try to fight against the whole culture that counteracts learning. In the meantime, what I can do to help is to familiarise myself with the sources of support in the university (and to some extent beyond) who can help them, and learn how to refer effectively. I’ve done Mental Health First Aid, I’ve looked at resources such as the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, I’ve been over to Student Services so I can physically see how it works and how a student would navigate it, and I’ve made sure to speak to colleagues in other services in the university about how and when to refer, so I can do so in a supportive, effective way rather than just waving a distressed student off to more pillars and posts.

The Five Ps of Learning Development

One of the initial elements of a learning development one to one is establishing with the student what they hope to achieve. This is often framed around identifying the ‘problem’ or ‘issue’ – I’m sure most learning developers would rather reframe it in less remedial terms, perhaps as the “Learning Development need”. However, clarifying precisely what this need is can be challenging. Sometimes the student themselves isn’t sure – they know that their marks aren’t what they’d like but not the cause, they’ve got stuck and they aren’t sure why, or they’ve been told to improve some vague aspect of their work such as their ‘writing’, and they ask for our help in figuring out what’s going on. Sometimes the student has identified a specific issue, possibly with the input of lecturer feedback, and yet this isn’t actually the real or most pressing issue – perhaps it’s a surface issue masking a deeper one, or a mistaken understanding of a curriculum outcome or the expectations of university culture. Maybe the lecturer themselves is wrong about what the issue really is! I sometimes see students whose lecturers have referred them to me about their grammar, and there’s nothing wrong with their grammar…

It’s worth therefore spending a little time with the student building up a full picture of what’s going on, and their perception of it, and also their perception of the lecturers’ perspective.  It may be tempting, but jumping in too soon to ‘diagnose’ the issue and resolve it can exclude the student from their own development as well as fail to clarify the issue accurately. They miss out on deeper understanding of what’s going on, if they are not involved in the process, and  the onus to identify and resolve an issue may end up resting too much with you, not them. Building a shared, co-created picture of the learning development need together with the student is of course more student-centred practice, empowers them through reflection on their study practices and beliefs, and fosters personal ownership of the learning need instead of locating it in “what the lecturers want”.

Counselling and related therapies have their five Ps which are used to construct a model of the problem from the perspective of the client– the Presenting Problem, with the Predisposing, Precipitating,  Protective and Perpetuating factors. It’s a useful tool to build an exploratory discussion around, and I propose a similar model for Learning Developers to explore with students:

the Five Ps of Learning Development

The Presenting Problem – the issue as the student first lays it out. There are two aspects to explore here. What is the problem, as precisely as the student can identity it, and why do they identify this as the problem? It may be the student’s perception, based on their own reflection on their experience of study, or it may be that of the lecturer, as communicated in feedback, so it’s worth exploring both sides with the student, looking at any feedback if it’s available. There may well be tensions or contradictions between the two perspectives which you may be able to resolve with the student; perhaps the student thought the essay was fine, but the lecturer said it needed more work, or the lecturer says it’s a good attempt, and the student reads this as damning with faint praise. And of course, the judgement of either the student or the lecturer or both may be inaccurate, on further examination! You may also find that the presenting problem isn’t appropriate or one which falls in your remit (“can you proofread my dissertation?”), but that on further discussion as to why it’s arisen, a deeper learning development need emerges which does fall under your role (“no, but I can teach you editing strategies and independent confidence in your editorial decisions”).

Pertinent factors: any relevant personal issues, past or present, which might impact on their learning, and which it would be helpful for you to take into account in your guiadance. This might be a Specific Learning Difficulty, health issue, events in their family or personal lives, or past experiences of education which have shaped their feelings about it. This can be very light touch, and the student may well themselves volunteer any relevant information. You might be able to observe it for yourself- if a student had clearly had a heavy night the night before, you may need to recalibrate how much you’ll be able to get done in the 10am session!

Perception of the Task: what the student thought they were being asked to do. You might ask them to reflect on their interpretation of an assignment brief or marking criteria, or ask them to summarise their understanding of a writing convention or grammar rule, what they understand by ‘criticality’ or what their expectations are around ‘independent learning’. This can bring to light areas of confusion, tension, misunderstanding, or simply where they’ve got the wrong end of the stick or gone off at a tangent.

Process: how the student has gone about the learning. Depending on the presenting issue you might ask them how they plan an essay, check their work, manage their time or make notes. It’s important again to ask them to reflect on why they go about it in this way. This might reveal that they’ve followed rather prescriptive, inappropriate or simplistic advice which doesn’t quite work for them individually or in this context or level of study, or that there’s a misconception or assumption been made about how one ‘should’ study, or that they’ve not really reflected much on how they learn.

Product: the concrete outcome of learning and the student’s perception of it. This might be a draft of an essay, a study timetable, or simply an account of how well revision and exam performance went for them. It’s important to keep the focus on the student’s perception of the product rather than jumping in too early to examining it yourself and coming to your own conclusions independently. Can the student identify where in the text they feel the presenting issue is manifested? Can they pick up passages where their reader’s interpretation might be at odds with what they think they said? Are there any areas where they feel their exam performance or time management didn’t match the amount of work they put in? Exploring any tensions here between what the student intended and what the reader perceives or the actual outcome is useful.

This model needn’t be approached rigidly, in any particular order or exhaustively. You may need to explicitly elicit some aspects, others will naturally come out in the course of the conversation. It would be implemented differently according to how we work. Some of us (and this is my preference) work through appointments or drop-ins where we do not read the work in advance and therefore an initial discussion around the 5 Ps can contextualise our handling of any text that the student then shows us, and ensures that the student is engaged as an equal partner in learning from the start. Others of us receive work in advance, and therefore are working alone in ‘expert, diagnostic’ mode from the start, which I feel may risk excluding the student’s agency and equality in the process – they send off their work to us to diagnose and fix, and the resulting discussion risks becoming a one-sided account of what we did to or with their work in their absence to resolve for them what we unilaterally decided the issue was. Having handed their work over to us, we still need to ensure that they retain ownership of and responsibility for not just the text but the learning. Incorporating the  5 Ps may help – perhaps through the booking system, inviting the student to give their own account first, if they are willing, or by setting aside your ‘diagnosis’ at the start of the session til you’ve discussed the student’s approach with them, or working in the 5 Ps throughout the discussion, inviting reflection before giving any opinion or advice. The 5 Ps might also underpin a group workshop too, enabling deeper reflection on the process of study, perhaps through case studies or scaffolded activities.


(with thanks to my psychologist sister for discussing professional practice with me on this and other aspects of LD work!)

Learning Developer as Teacher

Given that we’re “learning developers”, a phrase which could be practically synonymous with “teacher”, and given that we’re working in Higher Education, teaching is perhaps the first and most obvious role that we might see ourselves as inhabiting.

It’s odd then that this post has been harder to write than my explorations of mentor, coach and listener! I’m not sure if it’s almost too obvious and close to me to get a handle on. Many of the skills and functions I explored in those other roles I would expect to see also in a good teacher (in Higher Education, anyway). When I’m exploring the role of ‘teacher’ here, then, I’m using it in a narrower sense than all the skills that a good teacher might encompass.

A teacher in this sense differs from the other roles due to its position on the spectrum of expertise and agency which I laid out in a previous post. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from Listener, in which all the expertise and agency resides in the student; here, it’s the Learning Developer who has the knowledge and the agency (in deciding what has to be learned and how to assess it as correct or incorrect). A Learning Developer might occupy the role of teacher when the knowledge is something the student does not possess, they might not even know that they need to know it, and where there is a clear right/wrong answer, which the student may not be in a position to ascertain themselves, but the Learning Developer is. Listening and coaching is not going to help the student progress in these instances, as the knowledge is external to them and can’t be elicited unless something is supplied.

This actually happens less often than we might think. Examples might be issues of university policy (this is/is not plagiarism), grammar or certain more rigid academic writing conventions (that is/is not correct usage), marking criteria (that is/is not what’s meant by critical analysis) referencing (that is/is not a correct citation), possibly some areas around argumentation (that is/is not logical). That’s not to say that teacher mode should be reserved for the more simplistic, black and white issues (most of the ones I mentioned are pretty complex!), just that these tend to be the ones which are most external to the student. Other questions, for example, ‘how do I structure an essay?’ have a range of possible correct approaches (and some definitely incorrect ones!), but here the student has some knowledge and agency in determining which of the options works best for them, so I’d argue there we’re better working in mentor or coach mode. Sometimes (although rarely) we may find that for some reason, in this instance, the student has no prior knowledge to build on or work with, so we’re working in teacher mode even if with other more experienced students might respond to mentoring or coaching. We may find that our approach is mixed, if there is a teaching element before we can move into coach mode: “Here are some new methods for taking notes which you may not have known about (teacher). Now, which do you think would work best for you? (coach)”

How do we work in teacher mode? One difference is the way we use questions – as a coach, our questions are genuinely open-ended; as a teacher, we know what answer we’re trying to get the student to, whether we’re scaffolding or assessing. Compare ‘Which of these strategies would work best for you?’ with ‘Which of these examples is plagiarism?’ Goals too – as mentor, coach or listener, the student has the main role to play in determining goals, but in teacher mode, it’s our place to say, ‘you do have to learn to reference’ (we can hope that the student takes ownership of this goal, but it may remain an extrinsic, instrumental motivation!). This directive approach is where our work takes a clear step away from professions such as counselling or coaching.

If we have the knowledge where the student does not, and we are able to assess whether they are correct and they are not, it may seem as if transmitting that knowledge through telling it to the student, and telling them if they get things right, is the most obvious method. However, we know that learning is not a matter of filling a bucket but lighting a fire, knowledge is constructed not transmitted, and telling is not teaching.

this is not how teaching works…


Explaining something is one approach of course, and we can make this lively, memorable, interesting etc. The student may need some time to practice what we’ve taught them in order to construct their own learning and integrate it. We also need to ensure that the student has understood it and can apply it correctly, so we’ll need to make sure that we assess this in some form. However – I try to make sure I think twice before I reach for this approach. We’re teaching adults – and bright ones. And we know that people learn through constructing their own understanding. So instead of offering my own pre-digested, pre-constructed understanding as an explanation, can I get the student to explain it to themselves? Can I supply them with the pieces they need in order to work it out for themselves and construct their own understanding, in the least directive and most authentic way possible? Can I show them a sample of text and ask them to deduce the circumstances in which a semi-colon is correctly used or the structure of an academic paragraph? Can I show them a case study which highlights a dilemma, and work out from that the plagiarism policy or referencing conventions and the reasoning behind them? Can I get them to teach themselves…?

Sometimes explaining something may be appropriate. It might be the quickest and easiest way, or sometimes the only way, if we know what they need to know, if we have the knowledge and the student does not. And alternatives can be overused- on my PGCE, we were asked so often to mindread what the lecturers wanted us to learn that we got a bit sick of it-“just tell us!” But before we do, it’s worth stopping and thinking whether the student has more knowledge and agency than we’ve realised, and if we should actually be working in another mode such as coaching, rather than teaching. And if we decide that the best role to adopt is teaching, then is there is a way to teach which starts with the student, not the learning developer, and involves giving them the means to teach themselves rather than being taught at? I know I use teacher mode in my work far more often than I should, as it’s an easy and expected role to resort to, especially when I’m tired or busy!


Learning Developer as Listener

We’re not counsellors.

The main concern of counselling is the emotional life of the client, helping them explore and better understand their own thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and work towards whole person change, usually in response to distressing and problematic issues. Counsellors are highly trained and qualified in what they do.

You  could, however, see Learning Developers in a parallel light. The main concern of Learning Development is the intellectual lives of our students, helping them explore and better understand their own learning, in the context of UK Higher Education (and beyond?). Like counsellors, we’re working with students in a one-to-one context to help them better understand their learning and work towards change (development). Though not our main priority, this can at times encompass the affective dimension – we know that learning is a process full of emotion: discomfort, anxiety, stress, fear, confusion, frustration- as well as joy, curiosity, delight, pride and triumph. Largely though, where counselling’s focus is on a client’s emotional life as a whole person, ours is on the student’s intellectual life and in a more focussed way on their goals as a student, but some of the same active listening skills apply.

I wouldn’t want to push this analogy too far- what we do isn’t therapy and I would be wary of the implication that learning development is remediation of an abnormal or disordered process. Learning challenges your world view and can be uncomfortable – thats an intrinsic and natural part of the process. I avoid language such as ‘issue’, ‘problem’ or ‘support’ where I can in my work. I would however like to explore the extent to which skills borrowed from counselling can help us in our work as Learning Developers, in our role as listener. Counselling may offer us a skillset which is a useful complement to other roles we take on, and promotes a more student-centred way of working.

One of the core skills of counselling is active listening.

Hopefully the use of body language, eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice and encouraging utterances comes naturally to most of us in our day to day interactions! It’s a good reminder though that it’s important to let the student lay out or explore their thinking without us interrupting or putting words in their mouth before they’ve had a chance to articulate themselves, and to show that we value and attend to what they say.  We’re watching the student’s body language, tone of voice, facial expressions etc as well as their words, and also what they don’t say. Active listening may on the face of it feel quite minimal, but it plays a number of important roles in our work.

Active listening ensures that we gain a genuine and accurate understanding of the individual’s student’s issues. It’s easy to jump ahead, make assumptions, fit them into categories or read into the question they’ve brought to us based on our experience of other students and ourselves, and rush into solving the issue for them. Active listening also acknowledges and values students as individuals, creates an environment of trust and, once in a while, we might actually learn a thing or two from listening to our students!

There are other benefits in active listening. Learning is socially constructed, and if by shutting up and encouraging our students to continue thinking aloud, we give them a space to construct their learning through articulating it, they may well be able to talk themselves through an issue into a clearer understanding of what they think or what they will do. Some of my most effective tutorials have been ones in which I have barely said a word. Use of small, encouraging phrases such as ‘ok’, ‘mmhmm’ or ‘go on…’ can help nudge them into deeper reflection and analysis of what they’re exploring, whether it’s an argument they’re constructing or an account of how they go about their studies. If this helps them, it’s worth looking at how students can independently recreate the ‘sounding board’ you’ve provided, through freewriting or recording themselves in future.

Part of active listening entails acting as a mirror and reflecting back what the student has said. Simply repeating a word or phrase can be incredibly useful – it allows you to raise something without being too directive. It might be that you think it could be defined or analysed further, or it might be based on faulty assumptions or might be more significant than the student had realised. You could also use this kind of reflection with different vocal emphases to bring out different or new angles, to foster critical, creative thinking. It can act as a summary of what the student just said, to focus a point they’re making (at which point you can ask them to identify where they feel that point comes across in their writing). You might use it to encourage them to examine any contradiction between what they say and what’s on the page, or to hear back what they’ve said from the outside, creating a distance from which they can examine it objectively and afresh.  And of course, it can also be used to explore and validate students’ feelings around study – frustrated, anxious, confident, thoughtful, to open up how learning changes and challenges the learner.

Silence is another simple but very powerful listening skill. It can also pay a great role in addressing ‘threshold concepts’ – a student may just need a moment to process an insight before they forget what they just said. Talking about learning may also raise uncertainty or frustration, uncomfortable feelings which students may be tempted to run away from. Silence can encourage them to stay with a feeling or unclear idea and allow them to probe it further and develop their understanding or an approach to addressing it.

It might not feel like you’re doing much when you’re ‘just’ listening, but you’re creating a lot of space for learning to happen if you stop teaching for a moment!

Learning Developer as Coach

Learning developers very often work across a whole university, far beyond their own original discipline. Coming from a subject teaching background, one of the trickiest things to get my head around was how to help a student when they asked a question to which I had no answer. How do I write an engineering report? Is this OSCOLA reference correct? How should I revise for a multi-choice exam? Does this figure work well in a scientific poster? I have no experience and little knowledge of these activities, and in the early days, felt at a loss for a response. My solution then was to go and read up on all of these matters and any others which might potentially be raised in the hopes of salvaging some of my authority. However, that didn’t help me work with the student in front of me at that moment, and it’s an impossible task. And perhaps also, from the point of view of student learning, an undesirable one. So – how to teach what you don’t know?

The term ‘coach’ may have some unhelpful connotations in the context of education which make it less appealing as one of the roles which a learning developer might adopt. It’s often thought of primarily in terms of sports coaching, which a layperson might see as a very performance-related, directive, competitive approach to achieving goals. However, in the sense that it’s increasingly used in the fields of personal fulfilment (life coaching) or the world of work (career coaching), it has strong affinities for some aspects of learning development. Coaching can be thought of in essence as the process whereby a skilled facilitator (the coach) helps the coachee to identify clear, relevant and realistic goals and to explore the actions which would bring about the necessary change and help them to attain those goals. Such goals might well be associated with a student’s learning, and therefore coaching is a role which the learning developer might usefully add to their repertoire.

Coach: Coaching in the sense of using questions and other strategies to set goals, reflect, reframe and summarise is a key tool for learning developers, possibly as much as or more than teaching. It enables us to operate meaningfully in disciplines we aren’t familiar with, teach things we don’t know (and indeed, subject expertise is the opposite of what we offer!), and honour the knowledge and experience which students do have, helping them articulate and make sense of it.

Unlike a teacher or mentor, the coach doesn’t have to have experience or knowledge of the exact field in which the coachee wishes to achieve their goals. Their skillset is less What and more How – they use questioning and active listening to help their client clarify what they want to achieve and how they might best do so. The client remains the expert in their own area; the goals and actions are theirs. The coach facilitates this process using goal-setting, action-planning and problem-solving techniques. Unlike teaching questions which may scaffold and lead a student to an answer within the curriculum, coaching questions are genuinely open. Given that learning developers are by definition not acting as subject experts, the techniques of coaching becomes a very useful tool in teaching what we don’t know. Even if the student isn’t sure about how to go about it or judge the results, they remain far more knowledgeable than us in their own discipline conventions! It’s our role to help them reflect on what they implicitly know from being members of a community of practice, and draw this out into a plan of action and criteria to assess its success.

I don’t know how to write an engineering report. But I do know that the lecturer will have given some advice to some extent and in some form or other, and I know that the student has read or has access to texts in this or similar genres. Using questions, I can help the student tap into what they already know, however implicitly, think through any pros and cons of various approaches and also formulate any remaining questions, with a plan to find their own answers. Not only does this mean I can help the student even though I don’t have any answers for them, but it also models a problem-solving approach which, having built their confidence, they can use themselves independently in future. To be honest, I use coaching techniques even when I know full well  what the answers are- when I am on my own disciplinary turf, it saves me from straying into the role of subject expert – that’s not my job.

Ensuring that I engage in some goal-setting with the student prevents me from making any assumptions about what they want to achieve, and that the student takes responsibility for ensuring that our work together remains prioritised and realistic in the time we have. Establishing what they already know, even if they didn’t realise they knew it, builds confidence, and problem-solving and action-planning builds independent learning. The whole coaching process ensures that the student ‘owns’ the goal and the steps they need to take to achieve it (and I’m sure we’re all familiar with what happens when a student feels that guidance has been foisted on them….)

I’ve found that I’ve drawn on coaching techniques more and more in my practice, as I let go of my perceived need to have all the answers. I’ve realised that my role is really to have the questions that will help students construct their own answers. It’s taken a lot of the pressure off me, and has been far more developmental, empowering and student-centred for the student.


Learning Developer as Mentor

There’s a question that hovers in the air in a learning development tutorial.

“What would you do? How would you do this if you were me?”

Sometimes it’s voiced, sometimes it simply hangs unspoken at the margins of the conversation. When it’s asked, we might choose to answer it, with caveats, or we might turn the question back on the student – it’s not about what I would do, it’s your work, your decision. Does the question make us uncomfortable? Possibly. It somehow feels beside the point, too easy, too dependent, too deferent?

But it’s a valid and reasonable question. It reveals something about why the student has approached us, and what they value in our advice. I think we need to find a productive way of responding, while avoiding any of the pitfalls it opens up.

How do students see us? What do they see in us? Some of these perceptions might be inaccurate or unhelpful (Failed academic. Nice person who is nice to us, not like those lecturers. ‘Just’ a student services person. Person whose job it is to help me with whatever I ask for). But one thing they see in us and value is our experience as a former student and current more senior member of the academic community, someone who’s succeeded at what they themselves are currently trying to do, someone who’s been there and maybe struggled, and ‘gets’ it. Someone who can therefore advise them from a position of more experience.

One of the roles we hold when working with students is therefore that of Mentor. Mentoring is a relationship in which a more experienced person guides a less experienced person in the same field. This is how I defined it in a previous post:

Mentor: The skills to mentor someone are the ability to disclose your own experience in a productive way that doesn’t dismiss, diminish or detract from the centrality of the student and the issues they want to address. Modelling approaches, decision-making processes and techniques is one key strategy, together with non-directive advising, and the ability to draw out with the student the general principles of your experience which they feel they can apply in their own circumstances.

There are pitfalls in mentoring. Sometimes, it risks making the discussion all about us, and we don’t see the student’s individual experience except in as far as it reflects our own. Sometimes we project onto the student things we wish we’d done, motivations which guided us, circumstances which don’t apply. Sometimes it’s misleading- the anecdotal experience of one learning developer 20 years ago at a different university on a different course does not make for evidence-based, widely applicable guidance! Sometimes, as mentor is a hierarchical relationship, the authority we hold can end up with advice being given or taken in too directive a way. Sometimes it’s irrelevant, just a distraction from the real discussion. In all cases it needs to be contextualised within the expert professional knowledge of a Learning Developer – it’s an error to assume that just because someone did well at uni that they therefore automatically know how to teach others how to do the same – a Learning Developer is a bit more than that. Not to mention that experience of failure and struggle can be even more valuable than easy natural success!

In professions like counselling, it’s rare that a therapist would disclose information about themselves. But it can on occasion be a powerful tool in learning development, where one of the facets of our expertise that we’re drawing on this experience of having been a student and now being a more senior member of the academic community.

Disclosing our own experience in a mentoring capacity can serve a number of purposes. It can build a rapport, helping to create the environment of trust which learning development needs. It can validate and normalise a student’s experience of or feelings about their studies and make them feel heard, less alone, less of an impostor. It can show them alternative perspectives, interpretations or approaches outside their experience. It can be one of the ways that we legitimise and establish the authenticity of our guidance. Most practically of all, it can show them be used to model thinking, decision-making processes and study strategies, giving them access to process, not outcome. Modelling is the most important professional skill which I employ when acting as mentor, making sure to involve the student at every step of the process.

It needs to be handled with care so as to avoid being self-indulgent (ah! happy student days!), misguided (well, this worked for me, so it should work for you!), too directive (you should do this. That’s what I would do.) or inappropriate (when I was a student 20 years ago, we didn’t have 24 hour libraries or electronic journals, think yourself lucky!). We need to think carefully about whether any aspect of our experience is really (still)applicable, whether mentoring would be the best approach to achieve our aim, if it would further a student-centred approach if we focus discussion on ourselves, if it would help the student develop their own thinking or promote dependence.  Interestingly, the older I get, the less I disclose about my student experience as it recedes into history… it feels less credible in my forties than when I was closer to being their peer! I draw more now on my experience of subject lecturing and of working in a quasi-academic role.

There are always other facets of our expertise, other roles we can play if Mentor doesn’t suit, or if we don’t have the relevant experience of, for example, doing a PhD or marking assignments, to draw on. But it’s one of the options available to us, one that I think students naturally see in us, and one which can be used very effectively if done well.