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.

The Danger of the Comfort Zone

I don’t care about writing.

For someone with a degree in Modern Languages, who heads something called the Writing Development Centre, who loves literature and language and who winces at grocer’s apostrophe’s, that’s a pretty bold statement.

Many students and academic staff expect that a major part of my role is to be the Grammar Police, waging a war against poor writing, the abused apostrophe, the careless comma, the split infinitive and the dangling modifier. Lecturers ask me to teach students to improve their grammar and sort out their syntax; students perk up when I show them a list of conjunctions which will improve their cohesion, a ‘recipe’ for writing a paragraph or the rules of their/there/they’re. That’s what they want me to do, that’s what they think will help.

In the context of Learning Development though, I care about writing only in as much as it is the medium through which students learn, and through which their learning is assessed.

It’s not even the only medium. Just the most privileged one.

The fixation on the role of writing in Learning Development work, in particular the surface features of writing, is to me indicative of a danger that we, our academic colleagues and our students are looking for the comforting, comfortable solution over an engagement with the challenging, strenuous and sometimes threatening nature of learning. It’s favouring surface learning – factual, unambiguous, tangible and concrete, over deep learning- ambiguous, abstract, context-dependent, constructed and negotiated. And we know that in Higher Education, learners who take a surface approach don’t do as well.

But students like it. Memorising a list of words or set of rules which will make their writing sound more academic is an appealing magic bullet, and not hard to do. Academic colleagues like it. It neatly collects a mess of complex and annoying issues into a one-hour fix-it-all session – delivered by someone else. And learning developers – sometimes – like it. It’s easy to teach, makes us feel authoritative, and is always well received.

But we’re Learning Developers. Not linguistics lecturers, not EAP tutors (though that may be our background), not editors, not the grammar police. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that learning is complex, challenging and difficult. That’s the nature of it. To learn something is to challenge your worldview and identity. It’s our role to help students negotiate that successfully. That makes our work complex, challenging and difficult too!

Teaching students to use language effectively as a medium through which their learning can be assessed and the discourse through which their intellectual identity is constructed and conveyed is part of our job. And yes, that might entail teaching the proper use of a semi-colon, how to structure a paragraph, or signpost with a range of ways to say ‘therefore’. But as Learning Developers, I’d argue that this starts and finishes with that complex learning and that constructed identity and that navigation and negotiation with the world. Getting it right in the head is as important as how it comes out on the page.

I do teach students about how to structure a paragraph, to signpost or use conjunctions accurately and effectively. They’re important. But unless I start with critical thinking and developing an argument in a logical, structured way, I’m just giving students a list of words to be sprinkled like fairy dust over the page, a ‘lucky’ formula to replicate mechanically, lending a superficial air of ‘academicness’ without the learning or the identity which those words are meant to convey to the reader.

Those students who prefer the surface approach and the definite answer may not always respond well to what looks abstract and theoretical, context-dependent. We might worry that we’re going over their heads or turning them off. I agree that we should adapt how we teach, to ensure that we’re engaging all learners, but not what we teach. Higher Education is Higher Education, and Learning Development is more than a set of linguistic recipes and formulas, but an exploration with students about how they learn and how that changes who they are. Let’s challenge ourselves to go beyond the comfort zone, for fear that it’s not doing as much good as it appears.


Training – the How of LD

Last time, I blogged about what the balance should be between the What (the knowledge and content) and the How (the skills) in training, particularly in respect of the one-to-one training I’m putting together for Learning Developers. I looked at what the What might be – the expert knowledge that we possess that we pass onto our students, as well as allowing it to inform our work. This time, I’d like to flesh out the How a little more.

What are the skills needed by a learning developer to do their job well? In another recent post, I looked at the various hats we might wear in the performance of our role.

Teach: at this end of the spectrum, we are imparting knowledge to students which they don’t already have themselves. The skills we need here are how to do this effectively – good teaching is not just telling. We need to master a number of models of teaching, from offering multimodal and active ways of exploring a topic, to scaffolding students into a greater understanding and ability to apply new knowledge, to facilitating their own construction of understanding through problem-based learning.

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 which they feel they can apply in their own circumstances.

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.

Counsellor: We aren’t counsellors, of course, but we are ‘skilled helpers’, and one of the skillsets we need to develop is active listening, and knowing when to shut up!  Using active listening, we can ensure that the student feels heard, validate their experience of studying at university, become a sounding board, allow them space to explore an issue, rehearse solutions and perhaps talk themselves into a course of action or insight. Sometimes the best and most helpful tutorials are the ones in which you, the tutor, doesn’t say a word….

There are more roles, I’m sure, that could usefully be included in one-to-one training but these are the core skills I’m aiming to focus on in the day event- are there any others I should add in?


Training: The What or the How of LD?

What do you expect from professional training? As I’m developing some training for ALDinHE on one to one work, I’ve given quite a bit of thought as to what participants might expect, and whether I’ll be meeting those expectations. As I see it, training offers two main aspects, the What (i.e. the content) and the How (i.e. the skills), and the balance between these can vary enormously in training programmes.

For example, when I did my PGCE, the focus of that training was exclusively on the How – it was assumed that our original degrees or other professional background had already covered the What. Talking to our Student Union advisers, however, their training and CPD seemed to consist almost entirely of the What – the legislative background which underpinned the advice they were providing, and very little of the How to advise effectively – it was expected that you’d pick that up on the job. Somewhere in the middle, colleagues in Specific Learning Difficulties said that their training had covered a lot about What dyslexia is and the laws and policies which ensure an inclusive educational environment, but beyond how to make materials accessible, perhaps not enough of the How to work with students one to one.

My instinct is that LD training would be slightly heavier on the side of How to do LD work – as I’ve discussed in a previous post, there’s a lot of LD work in which we don’t hold the knowledge at all, but need the skills to help students and academic staff articulate what they already know or construct their own understanding from their experience. We aren’t “just” teachers – it’s not our role to have all the answers.

But the end of the LD spectrum which is closer to teaching does imply that there is a What – a subject knowledge basis which LDers need to have not just to do their job, but which they impart to students as the content of their teaching. What is this knowedge? I think it’s a little bit of the following three things:

  • An understanding of how students learn (we are learning development, after all!). Anyone who teaches will benefit from this knowlege to inform the way they teach, but in the case of LD, I’d argue that this is also part of our ‘subject knowledge’ that we pass on to students. We don’t teach this for theory’s sake (we aren’t Education or Psychology lecturers) but as the practical knowledge our students need to apply to their own practice. A little bit of educational and pedagogic theory, a bit of neuroscience, a bit of psychology… all of which helps us teach students how to revise, how to use lectures or seminars, how to manage their time or how to take notes in a way that works for them.
  • An understanding of the curriculum, or what students learn – not the subject-specific bits, but the higher level thinking skills that students are expected to develop in Higher Education, found in marking criteria across any discipline at this level. It often falls to us to help students understand what critical thinking is, what analysis means, how to synthesise literature and creatively arrive at their own conclusions, how to go into more depth.
  • An understanding of assessment – the ways in which students need to articulate their learning so that it can be assessed. At one level, this might be the surface features of grammar, syntax, punctuation and formatting so that students’ writing is accurate and correct. More interestingly, it also encompasses academic literacies – negotiating the conventions of academic writing style in a particular discipline, characteristics of academic register and discourse, the features of various genres of academic writing (essays, reports, reflective assignments, as well as non-written formats like posters or presentations).

A little expert knowledge in each of these areas is what lifts professional Learning Development above the homespun “common sense” study advice you might get from your mum or your mates. And it’s only a little knowledge – we’re not talking a full on education degree here! It’s easy for staff and students to get hung up on this knowledge, especially the more tangible, factual aspects such as grammar, and indeed without it our work will not be ‘expert’. But too much focus on it may also lead us to assume the teacher role more than might be appropriate, giving students the answers, and neglecting the many aspects of our job in which the How is more important, giving students the space to contribute their own knowledge – of themselves and of their discipline.

The What of LD can be picked up in a PGCE or other teaching qualification, from an education textbook, from experience, research and reflection, as well as from training. And only part of our role consists of imparting subject knowledge to students. I’m coming to think that, in developing LD training, it might be productive to weight it more towards the How of LD, how to operate skillfully in the variety of roles we need to take on in order to develop students’ learning. I’d be very interested though in finding out about what your expectations for learning development training would be! What do you feel you need to know?

The many hats of a Learning Developer

Learning Development’s a varied job- we’re never bored! Every hour could bring a different student, studying a different discipline with a different need. And, I’d argue, we too are different each hour in response.  

I’ve addressed the question of what is a learning developer from various angles, but this time I’d like to look at how we’re more than just one thing. In our work, we play a number of roles, and wear a number of hats, depending on what suits the circumstances.  At the ALDinHE Regional Development day at Newcastle University back in January, and again at a meeting of National Teaching Fellows in LD hosted by Sally Brown and Giskin Day at Imperial College, I encouraged participants to explore this diversity with an activity which looked at their responses to a number of roles. I distributed a number of cards, each with a different hat on. Those hats each had a different label: Teacher. Trainer. Coach. Mentor. Critical Friend. Adviser. Tutor. And so on. There were about 15 hats in all- I’m sure there could be more. 

I asked the participants to discuss each of the roles- how they reacted to those terms, what the distinctions between the roles were, which they felt were a good fit for Learning Developers, which could be adapted to fit us, and which don’t really suit us so much. They were then arranged into a hierarchy. The diversity of the discussion in itself demonstrated that there’s no single core identity, and that we feel that a number of roles might apply to us. Some of us might feel more drawn to certain roles due to our previous professional backgrounds – some felt that ‘teacher’ suited them best, others that ‘guide’ or ‘critical friend’ was a better fit. But there was general agreement that no one of those roles encompassed all of LD work. 

I feel that a good learning developer consciously occupies different roles in their work according to the varying need. Sometimes we are teachers- we have knowledge that the students don’t, and our role is to impart it to them. Sometimes we are coaches – it’s the students themselves have the knowledge of their own subject and their own practice, and our role is to facilitate their reflection on that. Sometimes we’re guides, exploring new territory alongside the student. Sometimes we’re just sounding boards. Each role comes with a different set of strategies to help develop the student’s learning, and each might be appropriate or inappropriate in different circumstances. 

There is therefore not a heirarchy but a spectrum of roles which runs from something akin to a teacher at one end, to something which is more like a counsellor at the other, and at each end, it’s rooted in where knowledge lies – knowledge and the agency that goes with it.  

At one end of this spectrum, the knowledge lies with us. It might be knowledge of pedagogy – what marking criteria mean, how people learn, what plagiarism is, technical aspects of grammar – which the student does not possess. We determine and impart what the student needs to know. In these circumstances, we wear our Teacher hats, and use strategies appropriate to this role. On another occasion, a student might want our feedback on how a draft is reading, whether a dissertation proposal makes sense, or how well their presentation style comes across, in which case we don’t need to impart knowledge, we need to become mentors, modelling good practice, sharing our views and experience as senior peers. In other cases, a student might want advice on how to manage their time, or be confident which essay question to choose, which revision strategies might work best, or how to get better marks in their engineering report writing. In these cases, we don’t have the answers at all – and this is because this expertise actually resides with the student – they know themselves best, they’ve read more engineering reports than we have! We put our coaching hat on, asking questions to help them come to their own conclusions from their tacit knowledge. And sometimes – rarely, but just sometimes, we just listen. Like a counsellor, we use active listening, mirroring and silence as the student simply talks themselves into their own decisions or understanding, with the odd ‘uh huh’ or ‘right’ from us. 

Being a learning developer is having a range of hats to wear, and knowing the right occasion to bring them out.  

Dissertations: What *are* you doing?!

I wrote recently about using questions to think about writing as a dialogue rather than a monologue and make the reader more present in the writer’s mind. We’re getting towards the summer now, and therefore dissertations, and I’ve been coming back to the use of questions in my teaching to help students get a handle on their dissertation.

Dissertations are a one-off assignment. Students may do many essays over the course of a degree, which allows them to get a feel for them, within the predefined constraints of the task, and feed forward their learning into future essays. Not so with the dissertation. It’s often the longest thing they have written to date, and moreover the most open-ended, as its one of the few opportunities they will have to generate their own question. If writing assessment questions is hard enough for those of us with some teacher training, how much harder is it for students? And yet (albeit with supervisor guidance) they are often expected to generate a workable research question of their own. We let them loose on an open-ended exercise with little idea or experience of what makes a well-defined, appropriate question, with far more scope than they’ve ever had before, and…. well. It can be enormously rewarding. But it can also result in the kind of issues that are often brought to a learning developer over the summer!

I’m sure you’ll recognise these issues – overlong dissertations which far exceed the wordcount; unfocussed writing with few criteria for deciding what is relevant and what can and must be cut; long, descriptive passages with little angle of the student’s own from which to comment critically; stressed students who at this point are understandably too close to their project to see it clearly and and objectively and tell the wood from the trees!

Learning Developers aren’t subject specialists or supervisors, and it’s not our remit to help the student develop and refine a suitable research topic. However, we are developers of learning, and using questions, can help the student to view the dissertation through the reader’s eyes to rediscover the focus, use the focus to make decisions about relevance, spot the opportunities for criticality and their own angle, and produce something which is a viable dissertation within the scope of words and time available. I use an activity consisting of seven consecutive questions at an early stage to scaffold students as they think about developing and refining their proposal to a point where they can negotiate it further with a supervisor, and also in the later stages to keep it on track in terms of length and depth. I use this in workshops and in one to one appointments. The questions are these:

  1. What is your assignment about? (this gives students their topic, which is a good starting point, though some students have never thought past this first question! However, if they just write about a topic, they risk being too descriptive and too broad – when will they have finished ‘writing about’ it? What criteria do they have to omit irrelevant material, if it’s all loosely ‘about’ the topic?)

  2. What about it? What aspects will you focus on? (What possibilities are there to narrow it down? It’s very hard to know how ‘big’ a research question will turn out to be, especially if this is their first experience of research, as that’s the nature of it. How might they reduce its scope, if you need to?)

  3. What are you going to do? (A dissertation is not just going to describe everything there is to know about the topic. Encourage students to look to the kind of words they find in essays, assignment briefs and marking criteria – will the dissertation analyse how something works? Evaluate the best strategy or explanation? Argue for a new approach?)

  4. What question will you answer? (Encourage them to frame it as an actual question with a question mark. Where there is a question, there is an answer – an end point. Anything that’s about the topic but which doesn’t help them reach their answer to that question can be cut as irrelevant. Anything which is actually answering a different question, even if related, is off-topic. And when they’ve answered their question, they’re done!)

  5. What might your answer look like? (this gives them a sense of the sort of conclusion they will be reaching – a list of things, an explanation for something, a recommendation etc. and help them keep this end goal in mind, as well as a sense of the structure they might employ to bridge the question and the answer.

  6. What problem does it solve? (ask them to frame it as a problem. This helps to distinguish between what’s important, and what’s just nice to have, as well as justifying the research question in terms of its significance and the research gap).

  7. What sources and methods/tools/ideas/models/theories might you use to reach it? (this is the beginning of exploring the dissertation’s do-ability, which they can negotiate further with their supervisor).

Somewhere in those questions will be your actual dissertation title, and it doesn’t matter so much whether it’s more no. 1 or no 4. A title alone goes some way to helping you refine your thinking, but taken together, the seven questions help you think it through thoroughly.

Having worked through these questions, each one in turn scaffolding up to more focus and critical depth, I find that many students feel they are in a position to discuss their proposal further with their supervisor, or return to drafting and editing it with a clearer sense of what they’re doing.


ETA the student-version of this blogpost can be found here, with a downloadable handout. https://blogs.ncl.ac.uk/academicskills/2016/04/11/dissertation-toolkit-starting-on-the-right-track/

Introductions: What’s this all about then?

I think the point when I started to become a learning developer rather than a subject teacher was when I realised that I didn’t have to have the answers, only the questions. It was very liberating! Since then, I’ve used questions a lot in my work, but one of the most useful ways is in teaching students how to structure their work. Thinking of writing as a dialogue, not a monologue, anticipating what the reader’s questions will be, almost like an interview rather than an essay, helps them think of their audience and create this mysterious thing called ‘flow’ which writing is supposed to have.

It’s a particularly useful approach when teaching introductions. Introductions can be a pain to write – not the essay proper yet, none of the ‘real’ meat of the writing, but a necessary formality to get out of the way before you can get on with it. There are a number of recipes for what should go into an introduction, which can be helpful, but as these elements are prescribed for the writer as conventional courtesies, they don’t feel natural or encourage a real sense of ownership. The result can be a hurried, mechanical, meaning-free paragraph tacked on at the beginning which doesn’t tell the reader very much at all and doesn’t do much for the student other than give them writer’s block.

But what if we put ourselves in the reader’s shoes? What do they want to know, when they first pick up an essay? This can broadly be covered by three simple questions:

What are you doing? What is your understanding of the topic (give me some definitions, a bit of background to check we’re both talking about the same thing)? What is your interpretation of the assignment or what you’ve been asked to do, given the different directions it could be taken in (break the title down, negotiate any terms)?

Why are you doing it? Because you’ve been told to… but that’s the boring answer, the one that takes no ownership of the learning. Why do you think that this has been set, why is it a good question, why is it worth addressing? What’s the problem here which needs to be solved, and why? (unpack the question, problematise it and show its significance, mention the literature on the subject and any debates or gaps).

How will you do it? What structure will you use (signpost your structure – how many sections should I expect, how do they relate to each other, what keywords should I be looking for)? And if relevant, what parameters will you set to focus your discussion within the word limit (negotiate with the reader – you can’t cover all of it)? And finally, what theories, models, case studies, data, or examples will you use to explore the question?

This approach to introductions can help to make sense of the formalities and make them feel a bit more natural and purposeful. If your reader is the lecturer who taught you this material and set the assignment in the first place, it can feel odd to be introducing them to something they already know (the advice to write as if for an intelligent lay person can feel a bit false). But what the lecturer doesn’t know is how the student has understood the assignment, and the individual direction that particular student will take it in, out of all the other students in the class, each of whom will write something different. And if the student is working on a dissertation, these questions become even more pressing for the reader, who really may not know the individual topic they’re researching.

Using questions helps to bring a sense of that audience to the writing, and understand the purpose behind the elements that we’re often told to include in an introduction. The questions are broad enough to allow the student a bit of scope to decide for their particular assignment what is and isn’t relevant to tell the reader (whereas a list of specific elements to be included may not always apply). They can be a planning tool, to help students think through their own approach in advance, or an editing tool, to check that they have anticipated their reader’s questions and communicated clearly. And best of all, as the learning developer, I don’t need to know the answers myself! In asking these questions with the student, I’m bringing the voice of the reader to life.

(thanks to Michelle Schneider, who I was discussing this approach with recently and prompted this post!)