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Study Skills Snake Oil

A while ago I wrote a post for our Newcastle Writing Development Centre blog which unpicked something that had been troubling me in a lot of the study skills advice I’d been reading. Advice which sounded full of good sense and very appealing, but which on closer inspection didn’t seem to offer any concrete benefits, and might even make students feel worse.

  • ‘Always make sure your writing is clear!’
  • ‘Your essay should have a logical structure!’
  • ‘Manage your time effectively!’

…and similar tips.

What advice like this has in common is adjectives which are meaningless out of context,  black and white, inflexible and idealistic imperatives, and no practical sense of how any of it is to be practically achieved or how you would even know if you had. It sounds great but in its attempt to make study sound reassuring, simple, bite-size and do-able, it actually disempowers students. If it really were that simple, students wouldn’t need telling!

I wanted to make sure I wasn’t passing off similar ‘placebo’ advice to students in my own practice, so came up with some key questions I could use to interrogate the advice we give in the WDC and ensure that it’s top quality:

  • What exactly do we mean by that?
  • How are students supposed to do that?
  • How might that work for them individually?
  • How can they check and be sure they’ve done it?

Creating something that’s straightforward to read but nuanced enough to reflect the complex reality of university study is a tricky balance, but hopefully these questions are helping us find that.

The original blog post can be found here, but I recently reworked it as a poster for the ALDinHE conference April 2017, where it was well received. It’s a bit daft and by no means a model academic poster but hopefully provoked a few thoughts and raised a smile!

poster thumbnail.png

The files are here, for a closer look:

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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.


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A Mystical Strategy for Research Projects

Back in the mists of time, when my research field was medieval mystical literature for laywomen (alright, so not exactly what my school careers adviser would have wanted for me), two of the key concepts I would encounter in the accounts of those fourteenth-century mystically inclined writers were The Cloud of Unknowing and the Dark Night of the Soul. To make spiritual progress towards divine union, one must let go of one’s preconceived, limited notions of knowledge, thus challenging one’s very identity and sense of self, which frees one up to embrace a Higher Truth and all that. This process understandably leaves the hapless mystic floundering for a while. However, as these medieval writers would stress, it is a natural and necessary part of the process. The parallels with the research process are striking, for me (see? medieval mystical literature does have vocational value!). One of my very wise supervisors put it like this: “If you don’t despair at least once during a research process, then you haven’t really thought about it properly.” And in my experience, it’s far better to get this phase out of the way at the beginning of the process than at the end…

There’s a moment in a research project when something triggers the switch between the divergent phase of research, where ideas are developing and running away from you in all sorts of enticingly creative directions, and the convergent phase, when It All Comes Together. And for me, that trigger is usually a very fundamental, seemingly simple question. Discussions with students and colleagues have raised many such valuable, challenging and perceptive questions, ones which have highlighted the fundamental assumptions which need unpicking, the arguments and justifications which need to be made, and the perspectives which need to be taken into account. Thinking through the answers and trying to articulate what I’m doing really helps me to begin to bring together a research project in a coherent way. Unlike the medieval mystic, it is not solitude which brings about this flash of revelation, but company; it is not necessarily a Higher Being or senior colleague who might trigger a perceptive question or insight, but equally a student, a friend, or a peer. We often think of the research process in the Humanities as being a solitary endeavour, but working together as peers is for me a vital part of the process. It’s therefore odd how little time we spend in the Humanities actually talking to other Humans – collaboration is rare, and there is little space for genuine peer discussion (as opposed to presenting and defending our ideas to those at the same grade as us).

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