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.

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.

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.


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!)

Negotiating learning outcomes in LD

Learning Development is, amongst other things, a form of teaching, and as such, we draw constantly on the theory and practice of teachers. Many of us are qualified teachers, or have undertaken professional development on the fundamentals of teaching. And one of the first things you learn as a teacher is how to determine your learning outcomes. You, as the subject expert, design or interpret the curriculum, and ascertain for each teaching session, module or course, what the learning outcomes will be. By the end of the session, students will be able to… [insert Bloom’s Taxonomy Verb here] etc etc.

As a qualified teacher myself, this was the starting point of my practice as a learning developer. I’d planned courses and classes as a subject lecturer, and it seemed to carry over quite naturally into planning workshops. In practice, however, I found that this task – tricky at the best of times – was even more problematic in my learning development practice than when I was a subject lecturer. Why?

Learning outcomes arise from the gap between where the students are now, and where we need to get them to after the teaching. Learning outcomes give a direction to our teaching, and a basis to assess whether that teaching was successful. But that starting point – where are the students now – is really hard to establish as a learning developer. We may be seeing them for the first (and only) time, know very little about them and their prior learning experiences or, if embedding in subject teaching, we might not be entirely familiar with the course and what we might reasonably expect them to know or need to know. Or as a group, they may simply be so diverse that it’s hard to make any generalisation about what ‘they’ know!

The end point – where we need to get them to – is also tricky. As learning developers, we don’t have a body of subject knowledge to pass on as such. We’re not in the business of imposing as subject experts what we deem to be key prescribed knowledge, but working in equal partnership through negotiation to ascertain what would help both lecturers and students meet their own learning outcomes, not primarily ours.

So we’re not the only party who has a say in that goal. If you’ve been commissioned by a lecturer to offer a session supporting their module or course, you’ll have been given an extensive, diverse and possibly quite scattergun and unrealistic list of things they want the session to achieve. The students too, have their own ideas about what they want to get out of a session – from ‘Nothing, attendance is compulsory and you’re teaching us to suck eggs’ to a need which is pressing, clearly articulated, possibly unrealistic and… not quite what your planned session is actually about.

As learning developers, student-centredness is one of our core values, and we need to recognise that students are ultimately the experts in their own individual learning. I feel we should give at least equal attention to what students say they want to learn, as to what their lecturers request, or even what we feel might be helpful. After all, our only agenda is that the students become confident, successful independent learners, whatever that means to them, which is very different to the subject lecturer whose role is to ensure that students learn what is deemed by the subject discipline community to be the core knowledge of that subject. Students have far less input into that sort of curriculum; it’s the role of the subject expert to determine. However, I think that in order to set effective learning outcomes as a learning developers, we need to give students a say in them.

So in creating our learning outcomes as Learning Developers, our role is actually balancing the perspectives of both the students and lecturing staff, and bringing our own expertise to bear in terms of what we feel is most relevant to both parties, achievable and within our remit.


Negotiating Learning Outcomes as a Learning Developer1

However, the second difficulty is the need to unpack those perspectives. Lecturers may have very clear ideas of what the students do (or more often, should) know as a result of their own prior teaching (or teaching that they assume the students have had from previous stages of education). These assumptions may not be entirely accurate, and can’t reliably be used as a sole guide to where the students are now, and where you can then build from. It’s also a possible source of anxiety for lecturing staff – if their students should know this and don’t (“but I’ve told them that!”), will you be judging their teaching? It’s as well to tactfully create an opportunity at the start for the students to tell us where they feel they are, so we can pitch a session right, as well as being a good basis for their own ongoing learning.

Likewise, students may have very clear ideas of what they already know- and this may equally be inaccurate. ‘But we already know how to write essays!’ Sure – they may know how to write A-level essays, but university study is different and this subject is different and if they try to apply what they know to this new context, then they will find expectations will have been raised, the rules of the game will have been changed. We know this – but it’s hard to articulate this in a way that moves beyond that view of writing-as-mechanical-skill to something more nuanced, context-specific and progressive, and which gets students on board with the aims of a session.

And of course both lecturers and students may have equally clear and yet wildly divergent ideas about what the students need to learn.  Lecturers may be picking up on a need in their assessment, but are not always able to identify it accurately in their feedback (how many times have I seen a student who’s been told to improve their grammar, when in reality, their writing is grammatically correct, but needs a bit of work on conforming to conventional academic style?). Students similarly may not be able to put their finger on or articulate what they need, have misunderstood the expectations on them, or they may feel the need to express it in a way that feels less shaming to them. This is another area in which anxiety may arise that we’re judging them, a fear which we need to allay to be able to enlist their help in setting appropriate learning outcomes.


Negotiating Learning Outcomes as a Learning Developer2

So setting learning outcomes as learning developers is tricky –

  • do we even have ‘learning outcomes’ in a traditional sense?
  • both students and lecturers also have a say in what those learning outcomes are…
  • …but neither may be clear about what the need really is

Our role as a learning developer is to step into this situation, negotiate between lecturers and students as to where the priorities for a session really are, try to untangle the reality of assumed prior and required learning which lies somewhere between the students’ and staff’s perceptions, and bring our own expertise to bear on what we feel would best meet the needs we’re seeing in a way that’s acceptable to all three parties.

No wonder setting learning outcomes is no simple matter as a learning developer!