#Take5 #25 The best way to support writing?

The what, why and how of the RLF Consultant Fellowship Scheme

By Cath Senker, RLF Consultant Fellow

Place ‘professional writers in higher education institutions to offer writing support to all students.’[1] This is the inspired idea behind the Royal Literary Fund Fellowship scheme, which has been sending authors into universities since 1999 to offer one-to-one tutorials to students. And it’s proved extraordinarily successful. Why? Writers face several of the same challenges as students: how to develop an idea into a piece of writing; how to plan and structure it; and how to edit a rough draft, smoothing out the bumps in the flow and improving the expression of ideas to create a polished piece. With an in-depth knowledge and understanding of different writing genres, the RLF Fellows can apply their knowledge to academic writing.

Enter the Consultant Fellows

The Fellowship scheme has now been extended from individual tutorials to workshops. Since 2013, the Consultant Fellows’ (CF) programme has trained experienced RLF Fellows to facilitate writing-development sessions with groups of undergraduates, postgraduates and staff in universities. As CFs, we tailor our provision to fit with the university and liaise closely and cooperatively with in-house learning developers, writing developers and academic staff. Thirty-two CFs currently work with about forty universities, extending provision in a cost-effective way. We can provide anything from a one-off workshop to a series of essay-writing sessions for students. Some of us run one- or two-day workshops for postgraduates and staff aimed at increasing the quality and quantity of publications. A few facilitate on-campus immersives or off-campus retreats extending over two days or more and providing a blend of in-depth group work and one-to-one guidance. Coming from outside the university, we hope to bring a fresh perspective ­– we appreciate the challenges of writing but exude a love of the craft.

Writing Workshops at Sussex

I’ve been running workshops at the University of Sussex since 2013, when I started running workshops for First Generation Scholars. Now, my CF colleague Jen Green and I lead sessions on all aspects of the writing process for undergraduates and postgraduates. I have recently begun to co-facilitate workshops with course convenors to deliver subject-specific sessions and help to embed writing development in the curriculum.

Cath Senker Uni of Sussex workshop_small

CF, blogs and Learning Developers

Another of my roles is to commission and edit the weekly RLF CF blogs (https://rlfconsultants.com/). Top Tips delivers handy advice for students and other writers, gathered from the experiences of Consultant Fellows working as authors and facilitators. In CFs Share Insights, Fellows reveal how their work as writers energises and informs their writing workshops and other training activities with university staff and students.

We hope that learning developers will share our Top Tips and comment on our CFs Share Insights posts – we would love to hear what you think and have a conversation about developments in teaching and learning.


Cath Senker is a freelance author who has written around 160 children’s non-fiction books and two titles for adults. A former RLF Writing Fellow at the universities of Sussex, Chichester and Southampton, she currently runs writing-development workshops at the University of Sussex.

[1] https://www.rlf.org.uk/education/rlf-fellowshipscheme/


#Take5 #24: The Best Way to Commute?

The birth of our online resource: Studying on your commute

This #Take5 blogpost comes from Janette Myers, a learning developer at St George’s, University of London 

Sometimes it can feel that the concept of higher education is based on students who live on Campus or who live in or near their place of study. This vision excludes many students and their experiences. Many of our students travel long distances to our Campus, and many more have long journeys to clinical placements in hospitals and community settings all over the South of England.

The students I see often talk about how commuting limits the time available for study. So I thought, why not change this perception and highlight the positives of commuting for the busy student? So I set out to normalise the process of being a commuting student by including a section on studying on the commute in Study+, our online learning development resource.

I wanted to make it simple and short, and keep visual distractions to a minimum. The resource itself is divided up into Planning, Reviewing, Thinking, Reading and Listening on your commute.

Each section consists of a transport themed picture and a short piece of text based on the themes we use across all learning development activity: active and engaged learning based on the mantra, link it, use it, transform it.


Studying on Your Commute was reviewed by our Learning Advocates, student volunteers who work with me to make, review and publicise learning resources. There was particularly positive feedback on developing flash cards as revision aids, and a group of students are organising to explore the potential of flash cards as you are reading this. A section for the sharing of peer advice has also been suggested.

Bio: I’m Janette Myers, a learning developer at St George’s, University of London and I commute 1 hour and 10 mins each way on the London Underground. We are a small, specialist healthcare university based in Tooting at St George’s Hospital – yes that’s the one in 24 Hours in A&E.


The St George’s learning development team, Rosie MacLachlan and Janette Myers, starting its commute home.



#Take5 #23: The best way to start the new academic year? It’s meditation, Jim…

MeditationThe Meditation Project – Kent

We decided to start the new academic year with a meditation – rather than either a bang or a whimper, appropriate as either would be – and have invited Louise Frith, University of Kent, to share her experiences of building meditation resources with and for her students. This is what Louise has to say:

“The meditation sessions were great, I realised it was not just me who is feeling overwhelmed.” (Stage 1 student).

The meditation project at Kent was developed from a growing awareness of the stress that students experienced related to their studies. Firstly we established a weekly meditation session using YouTube videos of guided meditations to facilitate the sessions. The sessions were well attended and students seemed to really find them useful, but the YouTube resources were not targeted specifically at students.

From this beginning, a project was established using expertise from around the university to produce our own meditation resources. We established a community of practice which brought together students and staff from many different areas of the university:

The University Chaplin, nine counsellors and one student recorded their own guided meditations.

A university music technician recorded and mixed them to a professional standard.

An art student produced the graphics for the CD cover.

Another University technician developed the website using content provided by me.

A journalism student recorded and produced the video – and …

Two MSc computing students, under the supervision of a computing academic, developed the apps.

“I learned so much from this project and I loved working with all the different people around the university. It literally changed my life!” (Student co-ordinator).

Working within this community was the most enriching part of the project. Everyone gave their time and expertise freely and they were allowed creative control of their area which meant that every contributor felt they had a stake in the project. The co-ordination was done by myself in partnership with a student working as co-creator.

What we produced, we share

The outcomes of the project included; recording a CD of 11 guided meditations and two original sound tracks – and making that available free to students online. We produced a website with information about study and stress, producing a video explaining and advertising the project and developing two apps using the recordings of guided meditations for students to access from their mobile devices: https://www.kent.ac.uk/smfa/currentstudents/meditationmix2015.html

And …

The project won the University’s Learning and Teaching Support prize in 2015. All of the resources are now freely available and are used extensively by Kent students especially in the lead-up to exams. The collaborations between departments is ongoing – and the Student Learning Advice Service work much more closely with the Student Support and Well-being team. Since the first two apps, four more study-skills apps have been developed as a result of collaboration between SLAS and the School of Computing.

Louise Frith is a Student Learning Adviser at the University of Kent. Medway campus. She teaches academic skills across the discipline and co-ordinates the Academic Peer Mentoring scheme at Medway. She has co-authored two books; ‘Professional Writing for Social Workers’ McGraw-Hill, and ‘The Students’ Guide to Peer Mentoring’ Palgrave.

Image supplied by LFrith.



#Take5 #22: The best way to make PhD Students write?

The Thesis Boot Camp

Thank you to Heather Campbell for this #Take5 post

Take twenty-six PhD students, keep them in a room for 24 hours over a weekend, feed them, water them, motivate them and encourage them, and what happens? They write. In fact, collectively they write over 200,000 words towards their theses.

Here at Queen Mary University of London the Thinking Writing team have just completed our fourth Thesis Boot Camp and the event seems to be going from strength to strength. The premise of providing the time, space and motivation for PhD students to write may be a simple one, but the impact of the boot camp on the students seems to be immense. One reason is that we also provide something less immediately obvious – support. Whether it be gently pushing them to achieve more than they think they can, helping them to overcome writers’ block, or being a shoulder to cry on when the task of completing a thesis seems overwhelming, students often state in their feedback how reinvigorated they are. They’ve realised they can do it. They can write a thesis!

Thesis Boot Camp is not easy – not for the students and not for the staff. Preparations start months in advance, when application forms have to be judged as to who would get the most from the Thesis Boot Camp. Last May we had over fifty applications for twenty-six places, so we would factor in, who is closest to their final deadline and so forth? Rooms have to be booked, food has to be ordered, out-of-hours cleaners and porters informed. By now we’re a well-oiled machine in organising pizza deliveries, stocking up on tea and biscuits, booking Pilates teachers and finding fans or blankets at the last minute, but it still requires a lot of time.

Generally speaking, the days are divided into large chunks of time when the students are writing, interspersed with some group discussions and short activities around goal setting, motivation and writing. We also build into the schedule an ‘active break’ on the Sat and Sun (hence the Pilates teacher) as we find that sitting down for long periods of time is not the best for the body. Starting at 4pm on Friday, Thesis Boot Camp runs until 8pm that day, and on Sat and Sun goes from 9:30am to 8:30pm. Since students are not encouraged to leave Thesis Boot Camp once they get here, we provide all the food – dinner on Friday, lunch and dinner on Saturday and Sunday, and tea, coffee, water, juice, fruit, biscuits, crisps, and pastries throughout.

With no distractions, and nothing to worry about except writing, the amount of words the students produce during Thesis Boot Camp is significant. To prepare them for this we send out a series of emails in the run up to the boot camp with advice and information, and pre-boot camp tasks. The idea of Thesis Boot Camp is to write, not to read or to plan, so we encourage students to do all of this beforehand, so they arrive ready to write. And to make the push to write a bit more fun, we give out some squishy blocks (see picture). You get a green block when you write 5,000 words, a blue one when you reach 10,000, red for 15,000 and the rare ‘gold’ (*ahem* yellow) block for 20,000 words written over the weekend! These may be highly intelligent PhD students, but that doesn’t stop them getting excited about getting a squishy lego block!

So popular have our Thesis Boot Camps been that this July we are organising our first mini Thesis Boot Camp – same premise but will take place over one and a half days rather than two and a half. Fingers are crossed that this proves as useful for students as its bigger brother does!




Heather Campbell works for Thinking Writing, Learning Development at Queen Mary University of London. Thinking Writing is the part of Learning Development that works with academic colleagues and students around thinking and writing: thinking, writing, and thinking about writing. They help with designing modules and assessments, developing tasks and materials, teaching – on a collaborative basis – and practical advice on helping students with writing and running writing or reading retreats (including the Thesis Boot Camp).






#Take5 #21: The best way to develop presentation skills?

This #Take5 blog has been written by Lynne Crook and captures the essence of her excellent interactive session delivered in Hull at the 2017 ALDinHE Conference.

BIO: Lynne has worked in HE since 2003, and is currently an Academic Skills Consultant at the University of Salford. Her academic background and PhD are in English Literature, specifically the uses of comedy in the contemporary Irish novel. Since 2008, in her spare time, she has also performed stand-up comedy and then improvised comedy with several troupes around the north-west of England.

Using Improvisation Skills for Confidence Building in Public Speaking for Students

Trying to write anything about improvisation is a tricky task. Really, as Mick Napier (guru of improvisation) says, the only way to learn about it is by ‘…doing it. Doing it. Doing it’ (2004, p.2). As someone with a background in comedy improvisation, I have found that the main issue is not so much explaining the practical benefits. As a theatre format, it is clear to many that improvisation can help with skills such as body language and thinking on ones feet, especially in arenas such as public speaking.

However, I would argue that it is the less tangible benefits of a change in mindset that can be most helpful. It is this hunch which led to a new workshop – and associated research project – for our students at the University of Salford, combining (often silly) improvisational exercises and some of the skills needed for public speaking in Higher Education.

Public speaking is an increasingly important issue, with most students having to undertake a presentation, often in their first few weeks at university. ‘Public Speaking’ can also encompass other forms of assessment, such as vivas, and less formal aspects of being a student, such as speaking out in class.

Our team has run standard sessions on presentations for some time. These cover all aspects such as structure, content and PowerPoints. However, while some time was spent on dealing with nerves, many students (both in workshops and one-to-ones) cited this emotional aspect as their main issue. Additionally, across the sector there are increasing numbers of students declaring issues such as anxiety, impacting further on their confidence.

In practice, the new workshop involved a series of improvisation games, linking them to skills such as eye contact, brevity of expression and performing in front of an audience. However, this also draws on the ethos of improvisation as a collaborative process. Hopefully, this fosters a group dynamic in which students can ‘fail cheerfully…’ (Barker 2016), and draw upon each other as a source of support.

Some of our Games

The name game: stand in a circle. Each person says their name, then says an animal that begins with the same letter, then acts out the animal. E.g. I’m Lynne and I’m a lion *roar*. It just gets everyone used to looking silly.

I’m a treehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_4KacJam5c This is used to get the students used to standing up in front of each other and being the centre of attention.

Pass the claphttps://www.dramanotebook.com/drama-games/pass-the-clap/ (we also passed across the circle). This involves concentrating on eye contact and body language. Often worth noting how the students stand differently after the exercise – usually with far more open body language and less things like folded arms.

It worked!

The positive change in mindset suggested by Barker (2016), and the importance of collaborative support, seemed to be largely borne out in our research project. There seemed to be positive effects for students generally. What was noticeable was that this positive correlation was stronger for ‘nerves’ than ‘confidence’. Free text comments seemed to indicate that this may be because students with a formal presentation also felt they needed more advice on structuring, which would be provided by the existing presentation workshops.

However, the positive effect on nerves, and the free text comments which praised the group atmosphere, did underline how such improvisation could build a ‘community’ of support. With some students commenting that they would like further sessions to build on what they learnt, it did seem that there was some use to teaching students to be less afraid of the unknown!

Get in touch

If anyone is interested in learning more about how the power of silliness can help your students, please feel free to contact me (l.v.crook@salford.ac.uk)


Barker, L.M. (2016). Invoking Viola Spolin: Improvisational Theater, Side-Coaching, and Leading Discussion. English Journal, 105(5). 23-28

Napier, M. (2004). Improvise: Scene from the inside out. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann


#Take5 #20 The Best Way to Manage OUR Writing?

Managing academic writing: how managerialism puts pressure on academics’ writing practices

By Sharon McCulloch of the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University

Writing is central to what academics do, mediating almost every aspect of their work, including research, teaching, administrative and service work as well as public engagement. Much has been written about student academic writing, but less is known about the range of writing that academics do these days and how this might be changing in light of changes in higher education such as marketization and the use of managerial principles in higher education.

This #Take5 blog shares findings from an ESRC-funded research project at Lancaster University that investigated academics’ writing practices in three English universities. We interviewed 75 academics in three disciplines (mathematics, history and marketing) at three different English universities, asking them about the writing they did in a typical day, how this fitted into their workload, and what tools and resources they used to do it. We also interviewed administrative staff and heads of departments to find out about management expectations regarding academics’ writing, and how writing work was shared within and beyond departments.

The academics we spoke to described writing a very wide range of text types, not all of which they saw as a core part of what they should be doing. For example, many of the academics we spoke to spent time writing module descriptors or course handbooks, as described here by David, a mathematician:

See what’s in the course handbooks, all have proper descriptions and agree with each other […] I can see the point of it but it all – like everything, it takes on its own momentum and people go really crazy about it.

With respect to this sort of administrative writing, academics in every discipline complained of having to repeat the same information in different ways, as illustrated by this comment by Diane, a professor in marketing:

God. You have to repeat everything endlessly […] I had to write pages and pages of stuff to justify what the aims of the course were, of this new master’s programme, and then you have to justify it and then you have to justify that there’s a market there and demonstrate evidence for the market.

This type of writing was viewed by many academics as more to do with demonstrating accountability or justifying the use of resources than the business of creating or disseminating disciplinary knowledge. Unsurprisingly, one source of resentment about this related to the time it took up, and how easily it could eat into time for research writing.

When we asked our participants about their writing, they invariably talked first and foremost about their research writing. The writing of journal articles, monographs and chapters was described as the ‘serious’ or ‘real’ writing that occupied a central role in shaping their identity as academics. However, many people talked about struggling to find time, particularly longer, uninterrupted chunks of time, for scholarly writing. The majority of our participants did all or part of their research writing at home, often carving out time for this by getting up early and putting in a couple of hours’ work before going to the office, or by writing in the evenings after the immediate daily demands of work and family had been dealt with.

Even when time could be found for scholarly writing, there was a perception that regulatory apparatus associated with the REF was piling on the pressure around the number and standard of papers to be written. Almost every academic we spoke to had performance targets linked to the REF written into their conditions of probation or promotion, either implicitly or explicitly. For Charles, who worked in a marketing department, there was a perception that these targets were becoming tougher and tougher to meet:

Now back when I started it was “Just get a couple of twos, maybe a couple of threes, if you get included in the REF that’s brilliant.” Now you need, as a junior member of staff or any member of staff in this department, you need to be able to get a four star journal.

This has implications not only for academics’ ability to meet their institutions’ expectations and progress in their career, but also for their sense of purpose and identity. Asked what he enjoyed about writing, Alex, a senior lecturer in history, replied,

Gosh, what a rare question to ask […] in the rhetoric of modern universities, lip service, and I do think it’s lip service, I’m afraid, is paid to, “Oh, staff are valued,” etc. I think increasingly, in a competitive higher education market, it is very target-driven, more boxes to tick. And therefore enjoyment isn’t really an issue, so I’m flummoxed because I can’t remember anyone’s ever asked me that before.

Enjoyment, or lack thereof, was also mentioned in relation to the effect of managerialism on teaching work. Michael, a marketing lecturer, describes below how managerial practices can erode academics’ willingness to innovate in their teaching practice:

The bits I tend to enjoy less and less is of course this sort of overwhelming standardisation of everything. The filling of forms about forms you’ve just filled. This constant derivatives of auditing practices. And I also tend to resent these days the way that even your ability to do innovation in teaching is so much constrained by all sorts of rules, expectations, sets of expectations, lists of this, lists of that, consultations through god knows how many committees. It is quite enough to discourage most of us to do something very different, or to try out anything.

What has emerged from the Academics’ Writing project is a picture in which research writing is subject to a number of ever-moving targets and metrics, and is squeezed into the margins of academics’ working lives by other forms of writing aimed at demonstrating compliance with standards. These combined pressures risk suppressing the joy and creativity of life in the academy and undermining the sense of intellectual and pedagogical purpose that most academics hold dear.


Sharon McCulloch is an associate lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University. She is also a postgraduate tutor at UCL and a teaching fellow at the University of Bath. Her research interests are in literacy practices as they pertain to both students and professional writers in higher education. You can read more about the Academics Writing project here, more specifically on academic writing and the REF here.

Link to my profile at UCL: https://uclappliedlinguistics.wordpress.com/postgraduate-tutors/

Link to my profile at Lancaster: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/linguistics/about-us/people/sharon-mcculloch

Twitter: @samcculloch1




#Take5 #19: Learning Development – the best values?

For this #Take5 we have we have invited Helen Webster from Newcastle University to blog about Learning Development values. This is in honour of our ALDinHE Conference, 10-12 April, University of Hull: http://www.aldinhe.ac.uk/events/9/aldinhe_conference_2017.html?p=7_9, and follows her recent interesting discussion on the LDHEN list.  So – thank you Helen! Everybody else – do leave a comment – pass the post on – have a great Conference … and think about offering your own blogpost very soon!

The Value(s) of Learning Development

What are professional values? I remember when I was doing my teacher training that values didn’t really get much attention in amongst all the complex abstract education theory we were learning. They definitely seemed a bit ‘fluffy’ and irrelevant amidst the practicalities of my early teaching placements. I wasn’t very sure what a value was, let alone what my own values as a teacher were. It’s only later in my career as a learning developer that I’ve come to reflect on how much my values, even half-articulated, underpin everything I do in my teaching practice, how important they are to our status as professionals, and how very practical a tool they can be. Values give us the ethical principles to interrogate and guide our practice as professionals and therefore standards to aspire to and hold ourselves to account to. They are a means of communicating and building trust with those we work with.

This thinking led me to undertake an exercise in our learning development team, in which we established the professional values we aim to embody in our work. This allowed us to reflect on our beliefs and assumptions as a team, establish agreed common standards for our practice, build our confidence and quality in our practice and assert our professionalism. I ran a similar exercise during a regional event for ALDinHE in January, which participants also found thought-provoking. We started off looking at the values formally espoused by more established professions, before thinking about what might work for Learning Development in our own institutional context. Some of the values for the Newcastle Learning Development service arose from our particular circumstances; others are, I hope, relevant to the Learning Development community more widely, and some may be recognisable to colleagues in the more established professions from which Learning Development has grown, including subject teaching in higher education.

In Newcastle, we’ve used our values document in various ways. On an individual level, we use it to examine our own practice and look at the impact of even the smallest interaction on student learning. Opening a one-to-one with a throwaway phrase like ‘so how can I help you?’ or a workshop with ‘now, what I want you all to do is…’ can, for example, subtly but negatively affect the whole dynamic of a session. On the other hand, a reframing along lines more in keeping with our values of empowerment, respect and student-centredness can really turn a session around. On a larger scale, they’ve helped formulate our whole approach to workshop design with co-created learning outcomes from which we learn as much as our student partners, redesign the spaces in which we see students for one to one appointments and find a more nuanced approach to digital resource development than just ‘putting content online’. I believe that working to embody these values in our practice is making a tangible if implicit difference to the quality of our provision which is evident to students and academic colleagues. The next step for us is to start communicating this more explicitly in the way we present ourselves as professionals, in our publicity and service statements with colleagues and students and build it more formally into evaluation and quality assurance.

We’ve certainly found reflecting on and articulating our values a very useful activity at Newcastle on many levels, and having shared them more widely beyond our team and institution, the process has been received with much interest from other Learning Developers. Whether you feel this thinking about values ‘chimes’ with your practice or not, I hope you find the values we shared to the LDHEN list a thought-provoking aid in reflecting on your own practice, individually and when working with others! I’d love to hear any responses.

Helen Webster is Head of the Writing Development Centre at Newcastle University. She is a learning developer who has worked over the last decade at UEA, Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin Universities, before returning to work at Newcastle, where she did her first degree in German. She’s a former medievalist who did a PhD on learning and the laity in the fourteenth century and taught Medieval Studies at Oxford, Cambridge and UCL, realising she preferred working with living rather than long-dead students. She has a PGCE in Further and Higher Education, and is a Senior Fellow of the HEA. She is currently developing CPD resources for the Association of Learning Developers in Higher Education. Helen tweets at: @scholastic_rat