Advising on audience

The question of how to pitch a piece of academic writing for assessment is a tricky one. Who exactly is the audience, how much knowledge or interest can be assumed, what needs to be clarified, in order for an essay or report to be easily understood by the reader? Getting this wrong can result in an assignment not doing justice to its author’s learning, and a lower mark than deserved.

Academic writing is ‘writerly’* – the responsibility for ‘meaning-making’ lies with the author, freeing the reader up to do what they need to do – critique, assess, learn, synthesise, think. This is the opposite to creative writing, which is ‘readerly’* – the enjoyment of a novel or poem is in the reader’s input, figuring out what it all means, what might happen next, ‘whodunnit’. In an academic essay or report, the student needs to make a number of decisions about the reader, to judge what work they themselves need to put in as writers. The tricky bit lies in the hierarchy of experience and knowledge of the discipline- which lies more with the reader than with the writer in this instance.

To help make decisions about pitch, students are often given the advice to ‘write as if for a lay audience – someone intelligent who doesn’t know much about the subject’. This advice is intended to help them identify the assumptions they’re making about the reader and what might be ‘clear’ to them, work harder to make the writing appealing, and help them figure out what meaning-making work they need to do on the reader’s behalf, so their arguments come across clearly. In essence, to err on the side of caution in deciding what they need to be explicit about.

But if you think about it, it’s odd advice.

The audience for a traditional essay is not a lay audience. It is not someone who knows little about the subject, or who has little intrinsic motivation to read about it. It’s the precise opposite – most academic writing for assessment is created for people who know quite a bit more about the subject than the student does, and have a vested interest in reading it. This odd dissonance – writing for someone who knows a lot, as if they knew nothing – can actually create more problems than it solves. Firstly, ‘a lay audience’ is in itself very diverse yet not very precisely defined – what kind of lay person are we pitching this to? An uninterested schoolkid with little wider context, someone who did a degree years ago and maintains a lingering interest, literally ‘the man in the street’? This advice doesn’t help the student decide what level of clarification is needed – they know they can’t assume no knowledge and go right back to explaining the very basics from scratch, but where between ‘no knowledge’ and ‘more knowledge than me’ should they pitch their writing? And in puzzling this out,  they’re circling around the issue that the ‘lay readership’ is inauthentic anyway – the writing is primarily, perhaps solely, for the audience of their marker. Why pretend otherwise?

Instead, I tend to reframe it this way – yes, you’re writing for your lecturer. Yes, they probably know and understand more than you do. But they don’t know how much you know. They know how they would interpret your data, but they don’t know that that’s how you interpret it. They know how they define that term, but they don’t know if you understand it in the same way. They know what obvious conclusion they would draw, but they can’t assume what conclusion you’re coming to. They know what they’ve taught you, but they don’t know what you’ve learned. They’ve already done their learning; they want to see evidence of yours.

I suggest that students remember that they’re writing for assessment, and consider this question- what knowledge, understanding, etc, do you need to demonstrate to your reader to show you meet the assessment criteria at the right level? I ask them, ‘if you were marking this, what evidence of what learning would you want to see?’

And forget about ‘being clear’; ‘clear’ is not an objective term. It means different things to different people. Instead, I suggest that students aim for lack of ambiguity:

is there any room for your reader to understand your meaning differently to the way you intended, or to be unsure whether you’re reaching the same conclusions that they are, for the same reasons, or to doubt that you know what you’re talking about? That’s where you need to think about pitching it.

 

*the terminology is from Barthes, but I tend to use them the other way round with students, as out of context, it’s confusing to talk of a writerly text being one in which the reader makes the meaning!

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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.
 

References:

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

 

 

Dissertations: What *are* you doing?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Introductions: What’s this all about then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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