Category Archives: Professional development

Training – the How of LD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Filed under Professional development, Uncategorized

Training: The What or the How of LD?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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What is a Learning Developer?

‘I’m a Learning Developer’.

It’s not easy explaining what you do. Friends and acquaintances will gain only a hazy idea from this term, teachers and lecturers may feel that they, too, develop learning, don’t they? and colleagues in other student services such as English for Academic Purposes or Librarians may be on the defensive, as you describe in more detail what you offer: ‘but we teach that!’.

I’m fascinated by and enjoy interprofessional working – I love finding out how other colleagues work and how they conceptualise what they do – those glimpses into the arcane knowledge of another profession. Since Learning Development in large part arose from those professions – counselling, disability support, English for Academic Purposes, librarian information literacy teaching, subject teaching – it’s hard to situate what we do as distinct, which can muddy waters for staff and students, and lead to tensions in interprofessional working.

But I think it is distinct. My gut reaction is that what I do as a Learning Developer is different to what I did when I was a subject lecturer who took an interest in developing my students’ study skills alongside their discipline knowledge. It’s different from the approach I observe in other professions even when they’re teaching topics which ostensibly also fall on ‘our patch’, such as writing or referencing. My view is that these approaches and the different professional perspectives that they emerge from are valuable, complementary and holistic, and the more we work together and understand what we can each bring, the better. However, to really make the best use of this collaboration, we need to have a clearer articulation of what each role brings. If we reduce it, discipline-style, to study skills topics, and carve it up between us as a curriculum, we’re going to lose so much. Better, I think, to try to capture what it is about the approach characteristic of a Learning Developer, alongside those of other professions, so we can see what lens each brings to bear on our shared central goal of helping our students learn effectively.

For me, Learning Development is what can occur in the space which opens up when we step away from formal assessment. I’ve been a subject teacher- albeit one very interested in developing her students’ study skills, but when I took on a learning development role outside subject teaching, even when discussing the same study skills, often with students from the same discipline as my former one, I realised that students were interacting with me differently, we were able to achieve something a little bit different that I couldn’t have done in my former role.

For me, the key difference was this: students knew I wasn’t formally assessing them. I wasn’t giving them grades or marks, passes or fails; telling them what was correct and what was incorrect. I was simply working with them to explore their learning, not my subject discipline. I was encouraging them to explore their own goals and standards, not meet mine. I didn’t hold the curriculum; the students held the agenda. Learning development is intrinsically non-judgemental. As a subject lecturer, my teaching was by definition judgemental (in the most supportive and well-intentioned way!). We do assess as Learning Developers, of course, all the time – it’s one of our tools to see if students’ learning is developing, to gauge their progress and the effectiveness of the strategies they’re using, but this is formative, informal and ungraded. We’re also an outsider to the discipline. We don’t prescribe, we help students describe what they see in their discipline’s study conventions, and make their own decisions based on those observations. We can of course suggest what may be more or less effective, but we’re then acting as mentors, not teachers. It’s not our role to hold the answers, and that can liberate both us and the students.

One to one work with students is, as Murray and Glass (2011) note, central to learning development work. However, I don’t think that this is because one to one tutorials are the definitive format for that work; Learning development isn’t one to one work. Lecturers, pastoral tutors, counsellors, librarians, all see students one to one in some developmental capacity, and we also offer group sessions, online learning, any format that helps us achieve the purpose. Instead, I think one to one work is at the core of Learning Development work as that is the space where we can most clearly step away from formal assessment, outside the long-established norms of the lecture hall, or seminar room, the academic’s office surrounded by their books. Embedded learning development is effective and important, but I think even there, we bring a little of that outside, non-judgemental space with us into that context, and that’s what makes it learning development even when we teach as part of a subject module. That’s what we bring that the subject lecturer can’t.

To me, then, a defining characteristic of the learning developer is that we do not formally mark student work. Learning development is a very loosely defined and diverse role, and many of us are based in faculties, closely involved in subject teaching, indeed may have dual roles as lecturers and learning developers. Many of us who identify as learning developers may then find themselves disagreeing with this definition. I would absolutely not want my understanding of the role to be exclusive or divisive however – that would be completely counterproductive.  I think the resolution of this tension lies in a return to the question, posed by Murray and Glass (2011) of whether we are a community of practice or a profession.

My response is that we are primarily a profession, for reasons I’ll explore in another blog post. A Learning Developer in this sense would be the one I outline above. However, I think learning development can at the same time be a community of practice – the distinct perspective, expertise and skills of the learning developer can of course be adopted and brought to bear by those in other roles to a greater or lesser extent by carefully managing that switching between assessing and non-assessing roles. But when you formally assess, that learning development space is closed off, and it can be tricky to open up again when needed, as you’re changing the relationship you have with the students, from learning developer to lecturer and back. Fully embodying that characteristic non-judgemental value is hard in this circumstance.

Operating outside formal assessment, and as an outsider to the curriculum has opened that space up for me and my students, and the really interesting thing is – I’d say that’s where a great deal of my expertise as a Learning Developer has come from. Students have shared their insights and concerns with me in that space in a way they never felt able to when I was a subject lecturer, and I’ve learned an awful lot from them that my teacher training never gave me access to. That’s a distinct and valuable expertise I can bring to interprofessional work with colleagues in other roles, and enables me to work in a different and characteristically learning development way.


Murray, Linda and Glass, Bob, 2011. ‘Learning Development in Higher Education: Community of Practice or Profession?’ in Peter Hartley, John Hilsdon, Christine Keenan, Sandra Sinfield and Michelle Verity, eds. Learning Development in Higher Education Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan. 28-39.


Filed under Learning Development, Professional development, Professionalism, Uncategorized