Learning Development and the Hidden Curriculum

I learned about the hidden curriculum during my PGCE. It was an eye opener.

What is it?

The hidden curriculum is the incidental, unintended, internalised, informal, unacknowledged, unofficial lessons that are embedded – ingrained – in the curriculum so deeply that we’re hardly aware we’re passing them on with the learning outcomes that we openly state. This is good behaviour, this is the correct way to communicate, this is the appropriate thing to do, this is the right sort of person to be. The hidden curriculum is the result of our own social norms, values, beliefs etc, that creep in alongside what we intend to teach. Education is after all a form of socialisation.

These implicit lessons may help to create a positive learning environment, but they may also take the form of prejudice; invisible lessons about gender, class, ability or race, as we socialise students into what we feel is ‘their place’ in academia and in doing so potentially reinforce social inequalities. It’s not just a matter of the individual teacher’s practice; as part of the curriculum, it’s systemic. It could be right there in the reading list, in the examples used to illustrate, in what’s included or left out of the module, in a marking scheme, in the phrasing of a question, in the dynamics of a seminar.

How might it relate to Learning Development?

A big part of the work we do as learning developers, positioned as we often are as part of widening participation, retention and transition, is to help students (and lecturers!) see, interrogate, negotiate and even challenge the hidden curriculum. University culture has evolved from a very specific social and historical context, and students and staff alike are still struggling with its limitations. For example, academic writing is a cultural product which has evolved from this particular social context. Those students who by virtue of their social background already have the cultural capital to navigate university culture will, for example, find it much easier to articulate their learning – to render it clearly visible in an acceptable form  – to the assessor. Others will find that they’re having to learn that the way they present their learning is not acceptable; that their learning is not acceptable, maybe they are not acceptable. ‘Writing’ is not neutral, self-evident, objective or universal; it’s a discourse through which we inculcate and reinforce certain behaviours and values and we might not always be aware of what they are. Some of this might be very positive and conducive to learning; other aspects of this hidden curriculum might be at best culturally specific or at worst discriminatory. At other times, our hidden curriculum might be in conflict with those learned in other stages of education, such as the need to respectfully defer to a teacher or expert scholar rather than critique them. Students can be left floundering as the lessons they never realised they had learned turn out not to be true any more.

One of the main challenges for learning developers is that the hidden curriculum isn’t just what we accidentally teach students; it’s also what we assess students on, but don’t teach them. It’s knowledge that, through oblique comments on its presence or absence, is held out to students as being worth learning and vital to success, but when asked about it, academics often can’t articulate it. It’s reduced to ‘clear writing’ or ‘knowing your stuff’, ‘having a good head for your subject’, obvious, simple. This is often the result of overlearning, unconscious competence and forgetting what it was like to be a beginner. In their discipline communities, scholars may become so familiar with the norms and conventions of their practice that they can’t see them any more, or they view them as somehow ‘natural’, inevitable, common sense. Moreover, unless they do interdisciplinary work, they rarely stray outside that closed community of practice, are not exposed to ‘other’ forms of practice, and assume that theirs is generic, the norm. That writing is writing is writing. And writing or other practices that don’t conform to this hidden curriculum just….look wrong, somehow.

Students often find themselves playing a game without being told the rules. They also learn that the first rule is that you don’t ask about the rules; you should just know this stuff, it’s common sense, isn’t it? Honestly, what do they teach in schools these days?! Some educators see the need to explain the hidden curriculum as ‘dumbing down’, or ‘spoon feeding’. And yet – I make the comparison to chess. Chess is a very complex and difficult game – explaining the rules to a new player hardly makes it any easier to play, it’s not ‘giving the game away’ to tell a new player how it works. We wouldn’t reasonably expect someone to learn chess by first figuring out the rules through guessing. Similarly, reflecting on and explaining some of the ‘side effect’ lessons of Higher Education isn’t rendering the whole exercise pointless.

How might we teach it to students?

That’s where the Learning Developer comes in. We’re outsiders to the discipline, so although we’re not the subject expert, sometimes we can see things just a little more clearly. We can analyse the curriculum to expose and articulate the hidden lessons buried in it. We can model this questioning technique to students, explain the rules of the game, hold a mirror up to the hidden curriculum and invite students not just to aspire to and emulate it (academic socialisation) but to interrogate it, negotiate with it, challenge it and co-exist with it (academic literacies).

How might we apply it ourselves in the classroom?

We learning developers do however need to be aware of the possibility that we’re enforcing and supporting elements of the hidden curriculum that clash with our ethos of social justice and the independent learner. We need to be constantly reflecting, challenging our assumptions and questioning our own practice to ensure we’re not complicit in gatekeeping, endorsing or passing on unintended learning which doesn’t sit well with our role.


Writing as a workshop activity

A recent email to the LDHEN JISCmail list from one of the list members nudged me to think a bit further about something that’s been at the back of my mind for a while. The email was a request for active writing exercises for workshops – not just reading examples of writing, but actually getting students to write themselves. And I don’t have any suggestions. I’ve been dimly aware that although I too frequently use examples of writing for students to look at and learn from, I also rarely actually get them to do much ‘real’ writing in my workshops. I ask them to jot down their answers, I get them to do a bit of freewriting on their own, I might ask them to paraphrase something or amend a given text, but it’s rare I ask them to produce a bit of more extended writing of the sort they’ll be producing in their essays, to translate the strategies and techniques we’re identifying in the examples into their own writing. I’d love to get them writing an introduction, a paragraph, a very tiny literature review, putting strategies into practice and reflecting on them with feedback. But I don’t.

I’ve been poking a bit more into why I feel this reluctance.

My first response is that writing in such a public way in a workshop is potentially quite difficult for students, for lots of reasons. Freewriting, which no one but you will ever see, is one thing, but writing for consumption by others is another. Academic writing for assignments is writing for assessment and critique- by definition, it invites judgement. And while freewriting is a very valuable skill to develop thinking and drafting, we learning developers also need to get students practising the kind of authentic ‘end result’ texts they’ll really be working on, texts for a reader. People often think of writing as an end product – it’s rare (but valuable!) to see it happening in front of you. For all it’s a public activity, it’s also a very personal one, a way we project ourselves into the world, a very private individual process, and often a focus of mystique, criticism, insecurity and shame. When writing in such a public way in a workshop, fear of judgement might be very intimidating, and do I want to put students in such an uncomfortable position? Fear about the process – that they aren’t writing enough, or not fast enough, not legibly enough, that they’ve gone blank. Fear of the product – that their ideas are stupid, that they’re making too many mistakes, that they don’t know what to say, that they don’t have a chance to polish it. Students with dyslexia or whose first language is not English may be particularly uncomfortable, but so might mature students or those from non-traditional backgrounds. For once we’ve got them to write something, the obvious thing is to get them to swap it with a reader to see how it works – a peer, or worse still, us. How to make students feel safe?

Secondly, my reluctance is for pragmatic reasons. Writing is hard work, and it needs to be worthwhile for the students to invest that energy in, which means it needs to be aligned to what they’re actually currently doing towards their studies. Far more often than I’d like, I don’t know enough about the curriculum to devise a writing task that makes sense to them and is helpful. Too early, before assignments have even been set, and they may not have anything to write about, or know enough about the topic to have anything to say. Or very often I may not have any idea what assignments they’re working on and am not sure myself what to get them to write. An inauthentic, generic writing task is possible, but isn’t going to get their buy-in or deliver learning payoff in quite the same way.  I’d love to be able to integrate workshops more with the curriculum through liaison with lecturers, but that doesn’t always happen. What to set as a writing activity? What to write about?

My third, slightly harder to identify response is more to do with my teaching practice, and is much less justifiable – it’s to do with my fear. If students don’t write, if they don’t engage in what I’ve asked them to do, it’s horribly visible and exposing for me. More so than if their group discussion is off-topic or if they don’t respond to questions or requests for suggestions or contributions. And if an activity depends on them all having produced some writing, we’re rather stuck if they don’t. I’ve outlined reasons both above and elsewhere for non-engagement in workshop writing activities, but still – I guess it’s human and understandable in the moment to worry most about what it says about my teaching rather than their learning! Safer to ask them to contribute in less concrete ways by talking to each other, by ‘thinking about’ activities or jotting down a few scribbled ideas, rather than risk having lack of participation demonstrated so visibly. Safer to keep talking myself, so at least *something* learning-related is happening, and my failure to engage them isn’t so exposed.

All of which is a shame, because I can think of a lot of reasons to get students writing in workshops. We can discuss what might go into a good introduction, or what makes a paragraph, we can look at examples, good and not so good, and draw our conclusions from those, set writing goals, list dos and don’ts. But unless students actually write a paragraph and test it out on themselves and a peer reader, how easily can they put this guidance into practice and judge for themselves if it’s working for them? How can they ask reflective questions about new writing techniques unless they’ve got some recent experience to reflect on, and someone to bounce off in a supportive environment? Once students leave a workshop, I’m left hoping that once they get to writing (and I’m not always sure when that will next be), they’ll have already had enough experience to contextualise what we talked about and make sense of it and then retained enough of what we discussed to be able to put it into practice. I’m also hoping that if they want to follow up, they’ll be able to talk to a clued-up lecturer, or get an appointment for a one to one with one of the Learning Development team. It’s leaving a lot to chance. Far better to do that in the workshop when we can offer reflection and followup. And better for us too – Learning Developers don’t formally assess coursework, but of course we need to assess informally to see if students are picking it up and if we’re getting it right too.

The three reasons I outlined above might be valid, but all of them can be overcome with the right approach – and the benefits are well worth the risk taken by us and by the students. I’m going to follow up some of the suggestions in the email thread, and push myself and the students I teach, to write!

Tailoring for levels of study

One of the central tenets of Learning Development is that the skills we teach aren’t generic, but take different forms according to the discipline – hence ‘academic literacies’ are spoken of in the plural. It’s also surely true that these skills vary according to the level of study – that everything from academic writing and critical thinking to note-taking and time management will take different forms depending on the expectations of that level of study. For example, the ‘authorial voice’ expected of a first year undergraduate vs a PhD student in the same subject will differ quite markedly according to the originality and authority they are expected to project through their writing. These new demands also put a strain on students’ existing study practices, as they are qualitatively more complex, as well as quantitatively longer, and students may need to adapt or risk their habitual strategies failing under the strain.

As someone outside the discipline though, it’s sometimes quite hard for a Learning Developer to pitch a session right. For many reasons, there’s quite a lot of variation between levels across different subjects. Some subjects just do focus far more on acquiring knowledge than others, especially in the first year (often medical and physical sciences), some programmes are designed as ‘conversion’ courses to a new subject and may not necessarily represent a step up, at least at first, from the previous level of education (undergraduate programmes in subjects not represented at A-Level, some masters courses). And as each subject has its own epistemology, it’s hard to know from the outside what the expectations around concepts such as critical analysis are in a particular subject – each has its own concept of what constitutes knowledge.

A very useful leaflet on originality was circulated on Twitter recently by the University of Melbourne, to help PhD students understand the expectations of that defining characteristic of doctoral level work. I like it a lot, but there was some discussion when I retweeted it about how it positions originality against lower levels of study. If originality is the defining characteristic of the PhD, then understandings of undergraduate and even masters work have to be positioned as lacking it, and there were some justified comments on Twitter about how this mapping didn’t align with assessment critieria in subjects which demand analysis, and therefore a creative contribution, right from year one of undergraduate, not just the reproduction of knowledge.

As with most conceptual issues like this, I tend to reach for a food-based metaphor to help students understand abstract expectations. I like food – everyone likes food – it’s universally comprehensible and very often a very apt metaphor for learning!*

Here’s my analogy.

At Undergraduate level, particularly in the first year, you are learning to cook. To do so, you learn the basic techniques, learn how to check that your ingredients are of a suitable quality, and that they’re what the recipe calls for, and how to interpret and follow a recipe. Even though you are following set recipes, you are still creating – ok, maybe it’s nothing that hasn’t been made a hundred times before before by someone else, but you’re still actively creating it for yourself. In the first year, it might be more akin to using a meal kit with the ingredients largely assembled for you, and by final year, you might be choosing a recipe and shopping around for ingredients yourself.

At final year of undergraduate when working on a dissertation, and at Masters level, you’re not just working with knowledge, you’re really learning how knowledge is made. An understanding not just of the techniques of cooking, and how to follow a recipe, but of the principles that underlie it, why it works (or not…). With this understanding, you can adapt recipes, combine them, add your own tweaks, maybe create some of the ingredients (data) from scratch and grow your own rather than using prepared ones. Maybe you can even cook a well-known dish without a recipe, working it out yourself.

At Doctoral level, you’re creating new recipes, new dishes (new foods?), ones that no one’s made before.  It might be a novel twist on an old favourite, it might be using a familiar ingredient in an unexpected dish, it might even be an entirely new technique or flavour.

I like this analogy, as it allows for creativity and originality at each level, and sees originality from the student’s perspective. And because it’s a metaphor, it’s not overly concrete or prescriptive – it’s a framework that’s flexible enough to encompass disciplinary differences. Students can use it to make sense of the expectations of their own discipline and level of study – I ask them how this applies in their own context, getting them to fill in the details where, as a disciplinary outsider, I can’t.


*exception – apart from attempts to position students as consumers of learning – that doesn’t work for me!

Discipline specific


I’m not, for once, talking about subject discipline, but actual classroom management, dealing with disruptive student behaviour. I don’t know if this is one of those issues that raises its head about this time every year (isn’t it getting dark early? aren’t students getting more badly behaved?), or whether it’s genuinely getting worse, but I’ve had several discussions recently about how we address behaviours in our group teaching which are… well, shall we say not conducive to learning, and not professional or respectful. I know I’ve had a few troublesome experiences this term, and anecdotally have heard the same from colleagues in my own institution (subject lecturers as well as student services colleagues), and my counterparts elsewhere.

I mean, I know compared to teaching colleagues in primary and secondary education, we have it pretty easy – no one, by and large, is pulling anyone else’s hair, throwing chairs, hitting each other or shouting and swearing. We’re teaching adults, after all. And the vast majority of them are a joy to work with.

As learning developers, the way we work raises a number of issues which may be contributing factors.

  • Not only do we not know the students, but they don’t know us – we very rarely have any kind of ongoing relationship with a class we teach beyond one or two sessions. We have to build rapport and good will very fast, in the knowledge that it’s an investment on both sides which is ephemeral, for an hour or two only. We have to find a way of making that investment worth it for the students.
  • We’re often working out of context, outside the students’ expectations of the ‘norm’. We don’t ‘teach’ in a traditional way – we are not the authorities imparting subject knowledge at the front of the lecture theatre, we’re facilitators of workshops with reflection and development. However, if we are teaching a session embedded in a module, standing at the front of the lecture room in the same weekly timeslot as their subject lecturers, it’s very hard to run a proper workshop against all the connotations and associations and baggage of traditional teaching which that situation brings. Students may be unsettled and not sure how to respond.
  •  We’re often working in a very reflective way, swimming against all the currents of remedial, deficit model assumptions often made about study skills. It can feel very exposing to students, who may not feel comfortable making themselves so vulnerable among their peers or admitting that they are not sure how to approach their studies. Our non-judgmental ethos is easier to maintain in the one to one; harder to ensure when publically losing face in front of peers is at stake. In a new group of first years or masters students, or in a ‘generic’, cross-university session, not only do they not know us, they may also not know, or trust, each other yet. We need to find a way to make students feel safe.
  • We’re often an (optional) extra, factored into the timetable. sometimes at unpopular timetable slots, on top of all the other things they have to do. Not another thing…. we need to make it worthwhile in the students’ eyes.
  • We have no teacherly authority over students, real or imagined. Not that lecturers really do either – universities are not in loco parentis any more and even lecturers can’t really ‘punish’ students as teachers (used to) do. Students may however imagine that poor behaviour towards their lecturer might mean poor marks later down the line… Not from us though. No bad references for future employers. Nor will they necessarily ever see us again after the one session – no awkwardness to face for the rest of the term or the degree. The only authority we have is one that students invest in us, due to the value of what we can offer them and how we work with them.

Against this, it’s perhaps natural that students can be confused or unsettled in our sessions, and that this can lead to or exacerbate behaviours that challenge the learning environment. Again, I’m not talking about anything major – overtly inattentive body language (asleep on the desk), using social media, talking and laughing when the facilitator or another student is talking, mildly offensive or disrespectful responses (especially on digital response systems), outright refusal to engage with tasks… all minor things in some ways, but cumulatively can start to affect the dynamic of the whole group in a negative way, both other students’ attitudes and your own confidence.

Dealing with this is difficult. People who don’t teach might suggest things like telling them off, humiliating them, threatening them (with what?!), sending them out. But let’s face it, that’s not actually going to help the disruptive student learn, which is after all what we ultimately want. It might also make things worse.  Transactional analysis is useful here- the minute you treat them like a child, with yourself as the stern parent, they may well respond to that role you’ve placed them in and thus your response may exacerbate the problem. Also, how you handle it will affect the dynamic of the whole group.

There will be some – many – a majority of – students who are equally exasperated and frustrated with their disruptive coursemates. It’s easy to forget that they’re there – they won’t necessarily be vocal about it, and their behaviour won’t necessarily stand out to you as it’s the expected ‘norm’ – quietly attentive, doing what they’re supposed to. But they’re there, and they’re on your side.

The key is I think to somehow make disruptive students aware that not only do you disapprove of their behaviour, but so do the majority of the group, their peers. It’s easy to kick off against a perceived authority figure, even if that’s not how you yourself position yourself as a learning developer. It’s less easy to set yourself against your peers, who want to engage and learn. The engaged (enraged!) students won’t necessarily want to be made visible though. And they will want to see that you are dealing with poor behaviour – that’s your job. One good suggestion I’ve heard recently is to say that there ‘have recently been student complaints about X behaviour’, so it’s the student peer voice which is setting the tone, albeit anonymously. And you will almost certainly have come across similar complaints so it wouldn’t be untrue. I recently had a one to one with a student who said they felt ‘lonely’ – not in a social sense, but in the way they felt isolated as one of the few who wanted to learn. It made me very sad for them, but also determined to do better for them and the many others who quietly felt that way, in the way I teach.

On the other hand, the minute the majority of the students start to feel sorry for the disruptive student, if they feel you’re humiliating them (particularly telling them off like a child), or they feel you’re being disproportionate and fear that you might turn on them too next, then you’ve lost the whole group. And if you don’t address disruption, if you don’t care about creating an optimal learning environment for them and value their learning, then they will understandably become disengaged themselves.

Practically, this isn’t easy. Making it clear you’ve noticed and that they aren’t as invisible/inaudible/anonymous as they thought can work. Long, uncomfortable silences can work (I kind of enjoy those…). Looming near offenders as you address the whole group can make them feel uncomfortably visible as all eyes are directed to their part of the room. Gentle humour can work as long as you’re not ‘punching down’ but showing that you too understand the trials of the Monday 9am lecture or the dubious joys of referencing. Showing that you value their participation and learning can make them value it more. And sometimes you do just need to tell students off. Positioning this as adult to adult, however you phrase it, is the key, I think – it’s hard to find the right words in the moment sometimes. I’m still reflecting on managing classroom dynamics and managing disruptive behaviours – as learning developers we are operating within a slightly different set of circumstances than others who teach and don’t always have the same strategies available to us for managing the classroom. I’d love to hear other people’s strategies. Maybe you’re fiercer than me!

Losing Control: Student-led sessions

“Running a workshop is a stressful form of teaching as it does not allow the levels of control most teachers are used to; nor does it allow a facilitator the authority derived from being the ‘master’ of the workshop’s content. ” (Peelo 1994, p.113)

I came across this quotation again a few months ago while researching for the training I am developing for new learning developers. I must have first read it over a decade ago, when I was myself new to the role (and relatively new to teaching, despite my PGCE), and found any form of teaching stressful! Coming back to it years later, with more experience with which to compare subject teaching and learning development, the truth of it struck me far more forcefully than it did on that first reading. Reading it again made me reflect deeply on my professional journey as a learning developer, and how it helped me find a peace with workshop teaching and a way to let that stress go.

I’ve written recently about issues of control in the LD classroom in terms of managing problematic student behaviour, but I think Moira Peelo, a trained counsellor by background, meant something a bit different by “control”. I think it’s more akin to a post I wrote a while ago about learning outcomes in LD – how they aren’t *ours* but belong just as much to the subject lecturer whose students we work with, and also to the students themselves, who are the experts in their own learning. We aren’t the only ones who have a say in what we teach; it’s not our curriculum. We facilitate workshops, we don’t teach classes.

As a young lecturer, there were many sources of stress in teaching, but at least I had the consolation that I was the expert, and I was in charge. I knew what I was doing, even if I wasn’t doing it particularly well. Having constantly to be that authority and master of the content was in itself a source of stress of course (what if the students ask me something I don’t know?! What if I make a mistake!?), but it was a comfort too. As a new learning developer though, I had no subject expertise to be master of, just a remit of rather intangible and mutable ‘skills’. I had no say in and often no knowledge of the courses, modules and assessments which I was supporting, which led to uncertainty and a few nasty surprises. Making the transition from subject teaching to LD was, initially, terrifying.

The natural response is to try to retain this control and authority, to treat learning development like any other form of teaching. That’s what I had been trained to do, that’s what I felt should be ‘right’. Apart from the stress – that never went away. In fact, the harder I tried to hold onto some measure of control, or to assert my authority, the worse it got. And, I now suspect, the worse a learning experience the students had. I piled up slide after slide, learning outcome after learning outcome, activities with clear cut right and wrong answers, trying to crowd out any loss of control or authority through sheer weight of content.

I’m not sure what exactly changed my approach, but it did change. I think, looking back, that the turning point was probably a couple of sessions which were going badly from a teaching perspective, but which from a learning perspective somehow ended up going rather well. Sessions when I didn’t feel I had a clue what to cover, or when I didn’t have quite enough time to prepare a tightly structured, ‘controlled’ session. But I do know exactly what it was that I did differently, that lifted that stress caused by that need for control and authority. I gave it up and let go.

It’s traditional, at the end of a lecture or class, to invite “any questions?”. But I began to ask it at the start. And I learned to forget about having the answers.

I realised that although I didn’t really know enough about the courses to determine what the content of my teaching should be, the students did. So I started my workshops by asking students what questions they had, what they wanted to address, and focussing the rest of the session around that. This did take some confidence, but it also boosted my confidence as I now knew how to tailor and spin my material to what the students needed, to their learning outcomes and context – they could help me do the work of contructively aligning my session to their learning. I started to share that control and authority with them, and collaboratively develop the workshop with them as we went. And it went down a lot better.

I still take too much material with me, but now it’s a deliberate strategy – I’ll bring my bag of tricks, and the students themselves can decide which of them they want and how they apply to their learning. Powerpoints have got much less linear, using embedded links to jump between slides (thanks to Phil Race for this trick!).  I’ve also moved away from very rigidly structured lesson plans and closed outcome activities – I’ve found that a better approach is to bring a text (an assigment, a case study etc) into which are written and embedded a number of issues, and see what the students pick up on, where they want to direct the discussion, what the ‘narrative’ of the session should be. These activities are far more open ended, and students often surprise me by picking up on things I hadn’t realised were there, even if I’d written the text. Even if, due to group size, I do have to have a more structured, ‘teacherly’ session, I can at least sound out the students first, ask for FAQs, take votes on priorities, and comment on how the content meets their requests. Or – in some cases, if I’ve pitched it entirely wrong, abandon what I’ve brought and run it as a Q&A.

There are a few tricks to doing this successfully. Setting clear parameters to your role and expertise will head off any disappointed queries about subject content, statistics analysis software or journal databases. Paying attention to the timing – very early in the academic year, students may themselves not know what they want to know. Open ended activities help free up the direction we choose to take. Most importantly, building trust and making students feel safe in asking what they fear might be ‘stupid’ questions or ‘maybe it’s just me’. I often use anonymous methods like giving each student a post-it note to pose a question (or in larger groups, a digital tool to post questions or vote), or asking them before  the session, if possible. In groups who know each other and have grown more confident, they might be happy just to shout out. And most of all, trusting yourself – you’re a learning developer, not a teacher, and your job isn’t to have the answers. It’s to ask the questions that prompt reflection and learning. Wherever it ends up after that, however unpredictable, is where it needs to be.

Not only have I lost the stress which used to come with teacherly assumptions of control and authority, I have also learned a lot about what students really want to know and how they articulate those questions. And best of all, I have more engaged students, as they’ve had a say in the learning outcomes and the session is doing what they want it to do.


Moira Peelo, 1994. Helping Students with Study Problems. Maidenhead: OUP.

Teaching Introverts

“Get into pairs and discuss with the person next to you…”

It’s the go-to model for workshop activities. One to ones are by definition dialogues, and we also try to capitalise on the social constructivist nature of learning in our group sessions. The whole of my PGCE beautifully modelled social constructivist principles in the way it was taught. And the amount of independent learning in Higher Education means there’s plenty of time for students to work on their own outside class, if they want to. However, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how many of my workshops include paired or group discussion as a first resort.

Why? Because I can’t stand it myself as a student.

I’m an introvert. I like to think things through carefully and work out what I think and how to articulate it before I then bounce that idea off others. I don’t find that starting off with discussion helps me to develop my understanding of a topic. Discussion helps later to refine it, sure, but dialogue with peers isn’t the thing that first helps me put those building blocks of understanding together. I’m not shy, I love a good debate as much as the next learning developer, it’s just….. just give me a moment, ok? I’m thinking. And that’s alright – we all learn differently. It’s just that in any group teaching scenario – even a good lecture needn’t be a monologue – it’s the kind of group discussion work which favours extroverts which is the one that is our first choice as teachers. Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World which Can’t Stop Talking notes this in the context of education; her description of the highly extrovert learning culture at Harvard Business School made me feel quite ill!

Why do we teachers like groupwork in workshops so much, when we suspect it may not suit all learners? Partly as we know it’s supported by theory as being good practice, of course. But I think it’s also because it allows us to see and gauge activity concretely- it’s reassuring to us to hear and see learning happen. It’s unsettling to see a student in the midst of a group gazing blankly off into space – what are they thinking? Is it anything remotely to do with what I’ve asked them to do? Or are they thinking about lunch? Game of Thrones? Nothing at all? What about the person next to them – are they being denied their chance to socially construct their learning because they’re sitting next to someone who won’t engage with them? Oh no! We wander over to engage with them, nudge them into interaction with others, check what they’re thinking.

But I’m beginning to suspect this is more about our need for control as teachers than the student’s need to learn in a way that suits them. We’re teaching adults – do we really need to exert control in that way? Either they are engaging and learning in a way that suits them rather than us (and as long as it works for them, fine), or they are bored – or distracted – or tired – but sometimes we have to let go and accept that how and whether they engage is up to them, as long as they are not disrupting the group dynamic. They’re adult, independent learners. Just because we can’t hear them engaging doesn’t mean they’re not learning.

Learning may be socially constructed, but doesn’t happen in a social vacuum devoid of anything but learning. One error I used to make was not allowing for this in sessions in the first few weeks of term. Sure, I don’t know the students- but I’m a learning developer, I don’t get to build an ongoing relationship with a cohort. I accept that and deal with it. But that early on, they don’t know each other either. Issues of creating and saving face in a new peer group may take precedence over learning. So my cheery cries of ‘Now get into groups! Turn to the person next to you! Discuss with your partner!’ may not, as intended, have had the happy bonus of helping them make friends as well as learn something, but plunged them into a fraught negotiation of priorities with potentially lasting consequences for the rest of their degree. By an unspoken shared understanding, my team never, ever use icebreakers in our workshops. We’re all pretty introverted and find them excruciating and counterproductive.

Even later in the term when a cohort has got to know each other, I feel we can overemphasise the social element of learning in our teaching. Some of that cohort will meet up later to go over lecture notes, talk over an assignment, revise together. And some won’t. They’ll be quietly processing their learning alone, as they need to. There are still plenty of opportunities to learn socially, even for the introvert – discussion in seminars, feeding back in workshops, our learning development one to ones. Even a good essay is dialogic – written for a reader – and therefore social. So I think we should pause before we automatically include yet another paired or group discussion to aid learning. What’s the balance?

It’s also a more Western model, which students from Asia may find unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I do feel that when living and studying abroad, students need to engage as fully as possible with the models of pedagogy  in the host country – as a modern languages student, I’ve had to do this myself. I do wonder though if a more inclusive teaching environment might embrace a diversity of learning styles better, whether introvert/extrovert or cultural.

So I am going to worry less if I see students in my sessions not engaging in discussion but staring into space or choosing to sit alone. I am also going to see if I can design in more workshop activities that start off with solitary work to suit the introverts, allowing them to build their understanding alone before sharing and refining it. And I am going to openly embrace the diversity by designing activities which give students the options to do either.

introvert extrovert



Switching Roles

In the course of a one-to-one session, a skilled Learning Developer might take on a number of different roles in turn, each ‘hat’ we wear carefully chosen to meet the need arising out of the conversation as it progresses. As we switch roles, adopting a range of techniques suited to each function, there’s one more thing we need to bear in mind: the role of the student.

If we are the teacher, the student is pupil. If we are coach or mentor, they are our coachee or mentee. If we are listener, they’re the one who needs to talk. Our roles might be taken on in reactive fashion, in response to the student’s first taking a position, but it’s more likely that we’re the one making that choice, and that choice determines and shapes the student’s counterpart response. The question is, do they know that?

Unlike a counsellor, we aren’t establishing a single, consistent role which is clarified and agreed at the start. We will have to make those judgements as to what role is most appropriate in the moment, as the session progresses, and integrate those roles into our mode of working without conflict or tension. We probably don’t need to present the student with a lengthy, in-depth explanation of all of this at the start of a session; time and student levels of interest are not in favour. However, the student does need to know where we stand with regards to them, and accordingly, how they then stand in relation to us. It’s partly a practical issue of an efficient working relationship, but also a values-based one of informed, consenting partnership.

You can see the potential for confusion.  For starters, two of the roles are very directive, and two very non-directive, which might well be seen as incongruent. Uniting all of our roles is, I would hope, a consistent persona which is reassuringly stable, consistent and authentic, but if a student is left in doubt as to what we’re getting at, what we’re doing, where we’re going, they may feel very lost as to what or how to respond. It’s most likely that the student will assume we’re operating in teacher mode, as they’ve come to consult us for some guidance, some answers, and in Higher Education, the role of ‘student’ is the role they’re likely to be most familiar with. And this assumption might undermine the other roles we work in.

One example is the difference in the use of questions between the teacher and coach roles. As teacher, our questions are directive- we know the answer, we know where the student needs to get to. We use questions to scaffold and assess. As coaches, we ask genuinely open questions, prompting reflection and exploration, with no preconceptions as to the response. You can imagine the anxiety or confusion it might create if the student isn’t sure which is which. Instead of empowering reflection, a coaching question such as ‘so what would you say your main point in this paragraph is?’ might instead prompt the student to try to second-guess ‘the right answer’ which they think we’re looking for, instead of looking to themselves, empowered and confident, to find the answer that’s right for them.

As mentors, we try to interpret academic culture, give access to others’ experiences of study (including our own) and model appropriate practices, all the while ensuring that the student retains their own agency in negotiating how to employ the experience we present. If they perceive us as acting as teachers, it’s likely that our mentoring will be seen as very directive, telling them what to do and how to fit in with ‘how it’s done round here’, which doesn’t leave them a space to negotiate and own that for themselves. Given the strong social justice, diversity and empowerment themes in LD, this might be very problematic. They might end up going along with something to please us but that doesn’t work for them, or kick against an imposed solution.

Silence is for many people not an easy thing, so if we cast ourselves in the role of listener, contributing minimally to the dialogue, but the student is unaware that we’re doing so because we feel that they are actually in the strongest position, you can well imagine how unnerving and awkward this might be for them! It might leave them entirely unsure what they’re expected to say, or close down the conversation entirely.

It’s possible however to clarify our role in any one instance with a very light touch, with self-deprecating, hesitant encouragement, body language and humour. We can watch out for signs of anxiety or confusion, and express ourselves in a way that helps signal the kind of interaction that’s going on:

“You know way more about this topic than I do – all of these points seem strong to me, I don’t know,  I wondered which you’d say was the main one?”

“There’s a number of different approaches, then, and I’ve seen students and lecturers successfully use all of them in different ways- but the main thing is that it works for you. What do you think, which would suit you best?”

“You’re way ahead of me – keep going!”

Learning Developer as….Which role?

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

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

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

LD role matrix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!