#Take5 #27 The Best Way of Blending Learning?

LESSONS FROM A TEACHER DEVELOPMENT PROJECT: One positive instance of using technology for student learning, rather than its own sake.

This guest blog explores the authentic embedding of digital practices within our pedagogic toolbox and has been prepared for #Take5 by Dr Paul Breen (@CharltonMen) who also shares, below, a link to his free book: Developing Educators for the Digital Age.


Image: Teachers in Paul Breen’s PhD Study using iPads in the classroom

The tools for the job

“SHOULD teaching take place within an academic bubble detached from the outside world, or should it make use of all that is new, authentic, engaging and multi-dimensional?”

This was a question raised by one of the participants in my recent study of teacher development within the context of an English Language Centre in a UK Higher Educational environment. In this case, the teacher argued that for teaching to be effective for today’s students we need to make maximum use of the digital age. In his own work, he drew on Guardian Podcasts as a means of inspiring Academic English students to go out and make their own recordings of real life events related to their specific subjects.

By getting his class to do this, he was actively engaging the students in demonstrating knowledge through content creation. Furthermore, students were now active rather than passive recipients of information and their knowledge was being tested in a way that was innovative rather than in a traditional one dimensional exam format.

Assess that – differently

Not everybody expresses their learning or knowledge in the same way, and this teacher’s work with podcasts was offering new outlets of expression for particular types of students. In this case, the greatest beneficiaries were perhaps those who learn by seeing and then doing, but arguably the challenge of this task would engage the majority of his students. New technologies had given these students the chance to be creative and expressive in a way that historically they might not have been able to realise quite so easily. They were putting into action skills that are vital in the higher educational environment – creativity, organisation, multi-tasking, plus elements of finding a balance between independence and interdependence.

TPACK: It’s Digital Literacy Jim…

Using technology in this way is also a good example of not simply using technology for technology’s sake, which is still a major problem on many courses and in many classrooms. If a particular tool just doesn’t add anything, then don’t integrate – just the same as if your daughter doesn’t like playing with dolls, don’t force her to just because that’s what little girls are expected to do.

This idea of not using technology just for technology’s sake lies at the heart of Punya Mishra and Matthew Koehler’s (2006) TPACK framework – Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge. This is a contemporary framework designed to ease the process for teachers who are integrating technology into their lessons. The goal is to achieve a synergy of technology, pedagogy and content during instances of teaching where such an integration is appropriate.

What this means in basic, practical terms is that there is an intersection of all three core components to produce what the authors’ term as ‘expert teaching.’ Though I don’t like that precise term, the example of creating podcasts is one where the teacher has met some of the fundamental requirements of TPACK. He has not pre-determined which technologies should be used. Rather, their usage evolved gradually.

In this case, he started out using podcasts as a means of helping students practice listening and research skills… and it became much more than that. Going back to the daughter and the dolls analogy, he didn’t set out with a prescriptive idea of particular tools that would be used and insist that certain toys had to be chosen because that was the norm.

Instead he let usage flow naturally, and then let subsequent usage flow naturally again from that. Having seen the enthusiasm that students showed for Guardian Podcasts he sent them off to make their own. In doing so, he found a way to motivate them further and build a deeper set of academic skills.


Experimenting and allowing the value of the practice to emerge, allowed the students to discover their own learning identities, again like the child who starts playing with bridges in farm sets and then decides she wants to progress to Meccano next time around. By letting a child find their own learning style, in that case, you might well have planted the seeds of a future engineer, or even scientist.

In this case of learners making their own Podcasts, you have certainly created a student who is more capable of finding the balance between independence and interdependence that is essential to undertaking higher educational studies in the UK.


Mishra, P. and Koehler, M.J., 2006. Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers college record, 108(6), p.1017.

Bio: PAUL BREEN is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Westminster’s Professional Language Centre, and author of a recent publication on teacher development entitled ‘Developing Educators for the Digital Age.’ The book is available here in print form or as a free open-access download through the University of Westminster Press.  



#Take5 #26 ‘Do you write as well as you speak?’ A dialogic pedagogy to enhance student arguments in academic writing

This #Take5 blogpost has been produced by Dr. Tiffany Chiu and Dr. Olga Rodríguez Falcón

This project was conducted at UEL 2017, where we intended to address a growing concern over student transferable academic skills for employability in higher education. It aimed to implement and evaluate a dialogic approach to embedding academic literacy skills into the subject curriculum. As researchers and practitioners in higher education, we have observed that, very often, students have found it challenging to generate ideas/strong arguments for their assignments and present them logically in writing. We devised a range of writing exercises which are informed by a dialogic pedagogy and the connections between speaking and writing to foster the development of student academic voice and authorial identity.

Specifically, we engage students in actively discussing their academic ideas around assessments both in and out of class, audio-record these discussions and play them back for selective transcription, which can be used as a base for further development of their written coursework. The uses of dialogic approaches and speaking-writing relationships are derived from our experiences as well as informed by the existing literature where we believe dialogic interaction within a collaborative environment provides an excellent platform for students to construct meaning and generate strong arguments which hence improves their writing ability.

One of the examples of our exercises is as follows:

Image 1 Argument exercise

Diagram 1 Exercise – Strengthen your arguments

The exercise, as shown in diagram 1 above, was designed to support student essay writing. In many cases, students are either given an essay question or offered a limited choice from a list supplied by the tutor. To help them create and strengthen their arguments, we have found it extremely useful for students to get their ideas challenged by others and be able to articulate them clearly through interaction. In this exercise, we form students into groups of two or three with roles of defenders (those who put forward their argument(s) towards their given/chosen essay question) and challengers (those who try to provide counter-arguments towards their peers’ arguments).

The exercise sheet given to students is as follows:

Image 2 Argument worksheet

Diagram 2: Exercise sheet: Strengthen your arguments

As can be seen from the exercise sheet above, there are three stages. First, we advise students as challengers to ask questions of the defenders about their essay question and arguments/evidence towards it. During the questioning, challengers need to record defenders’ responses as detailed as possible in writing. We also encourage students to make good use of their digital devices such as smartphones or tablets to record the discussion. After this, challengers are given time to come up with counter-arguments to challenge defenders’ ideas. Again, the discussion will be recorded both in writing and audio. Finally, defenders will revise their arguments based on the recording and discussion notes taken by their challengers. This revised version will serve as the first step for drafting their essay.

Even though debates are already a much-used teaching strategy in the higher education sector, these spoken-to-written activities have helped students to make more direct connections between their own speech and writing. During the exercises, students soon realise that they have come to university with a wealth of prior linguistic resources they can tap into to develop their academic voice when writing.

These are some of our students’ comments during focus group discussions:

I just felt like after doing the activity, I was able to put my ideas down in writing much easier than I did the first time. I had a better understanding of what I wanted to say in writing after it.

When you discuss it, it’s a bit like rewriting it. Saying it out and listening to yourself and getting an opinion … give you more ideas or things you skipped that you wouldn’t necessarily remember. But it’s when it’s being discussed, then you have more ideas…

With the first stage when you’re writing it yourself, you kind of just do basic bits, but when you’re doing the interview, it helps you expand it more. And you also think of more things to add as well, because you’re sort of just rolling off the tongue.

These exercises can be easily adapted to use during seminars to support student writing – for learning and for assessments. We have many other examples of spoken-to-written activities tailored to different types of assessments, such as research reports or visual analysis. Other exercise sheets we have created can be accessed here: <https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1AF9cAecMbcfl_npSKtTs9iLwwrcxv18a>  and include:

  • Critical reading and writing
  • Research proposal writing
  • Research project writing
  • Paraphrasing
  • Visual analysis.

If you would like to know more about how we do these exercises in class, please feel free to contact us. We are happy to share more!


Dr. Tiffany Chiu is a Teaching Fellow in Educational Development at Imperial College London. She supports students and staff across disciplines to enhance learning, teaching and assessment practices. She has a PhD in Academic Language and Literacy. Tiffany’s teaching and research interests include learning and teaching in higher education, assessment and feedback practice, and academic literacy development.

Email: t.chiu@imperial.ac.uk

 Dr. Olga Rodríguez Falcón is an Academic Writing Tutor at the University of East London. In her role, she teaches academic literacies to support students’ transition to university study and their later writing skills development. She is also an active researcher on the student experience in the tertiary education sector, with a focus on academic literacies.

Email: o.rodriguez-falcon@uel.ac.uk

#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