Category Archives: LD pedagogy

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.



Filed under LD pedagogy

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!)


Filed under LD pedagogy, Teaching tools and tips

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!


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Filed under LD pedagogy