How do we help students become more resilient writers?

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about this idea of resilience in learning and writing recently. This is partly because I have started a big project – a single-authored book – and I am really struggling to find my voice and the words, and the frustration is knocking me back a bit. This is also partly based on my ups and downs with peer review on papers I have written in the last two years, and how I have made sense of the process of peer review, even when it has hurt, so that I can keep moving forward. And I have been wondering how we develop resilience in academia, and as writers and thinkers, and whether and how we can help or teach students to develop this too.

Resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back from difficulties or setbacks, and to keep going without letting the setbacks overwhelm you; it is also defined as an elastic property of objects, that they can use to reform themselves into their proper shape when something has bent or pushed them out of shape. Resilience is a key element of success; you need to be able to get yourself up and keep going after a setback. For writers, setbacks often take the form of critical feedback that signals more work to do, more thinking, more writing. Sometime way more than we expected to have to do, or even want to do.

If you are an academic who has chosen a career that involves much writing and publishing, you accept that you will be knocked back but that you will have to keep moving. No journal article or book chapter is written in the first try – many drafts and revisions will need to be completed before it is ready to be read by your peers in a published form. But, for undergraduate students, this notion of writing and revising is not something familiar or even normal. Most assignments are written once, handed in, marked (sometimes with and sometimes without feedback or comments), and then moved on from. Few students have repeated opportunities to write a draft, have it read and commented on, and then make revisions to improve the paper.

The system of peer review, feedback, drafting and revision is not readily built into most undergraduate education, or even early postgraduate education, for example in a coursework or taught Masters programme. Perhaps this is why many students struggle to develop resilience against having their work or ideas critiqued, which should then prompt them to rethink, revise, and not feel defeated. A project I worked on several years ago built a first draft-revisions-final draft system into a course where students had previously had no opportunities to get feedback on an essay in progress. I thought most students would really like this system, but I found when I talked to them after the project that many had been frustrated and discouraged receiving feedback that meant they had more reading and writing to do, as they believed their essays were fine as they were. They didn’t want to make revisions; they wanted to give up and move on to something else.

I wondered, though, if this wasn’t a normal reaction from a first-year student encountering critical commentary on her work for the first time. Of course she would have that kind of reaction. Even experienced, published writers dread feedback as much as they appreciate the opportunities it affords them to improve their work. I further wondered if, given further drafting-feedback-revising opportunities in courses across the curriculum and thus made a normal part of undergraduate education, those students would have developed writer-resilience over time. Sure, the feedback may still have initially been upsetting or difficult to read, but with input from tutors and lecturers on how to use feedback to revise their work, these students may well have learned to get back up and keep writing, and would certainly have gained a great deal, both intellectually and emotionally, from that process.


I am aware that increasingly large classes, and linguistically and educationally diverse student bodies, make creating and sustaining writing intensive courses a challenge. But, some of this challenge stems less from the time it takes to read and comment on student work, and more from the nature of the curriculum being too full of things students need to learn and know and less with time for things students need to be able to do with what they know, such a problem-solving and argument-construction. I think this is an imbalance that may need to be corrected if we do take seriously helping our students to become more resilient thinkers and writers, an ability that will surely stand them in strong stead in further studies, and in the world of work.

Learning about our writing through feedback: giving and receiving

When we think about academic writing, generally, and how we might characterise it for students learning how to express their thinking at university, what might we tell them? This blog has discussed some of this here, and here, but let’s just say for the purposes of this post that we might tell students that academic writing is not vague – it has something specific to say, and generally it tends to try and say it as clearly, and concisely as possible. An excellent article I read recently has really helped me to better express a great deal of my advice to writers I work with on how to be less vague, and more focused. There is a lot of advice out there for writers on how to polish, strengthen and improve their writing.

But students, especially undergraduate students, find it difficult to turn all of this advice into improved writing – at least, this takes some time, and they tend to need a good deal of guidance and opportunity to practice, make errors, and receive feedback that can help them to avoid those errors in future writing. Theresa Lillis wrote in her 2001 book on student writing that essay writing advice is often most helpful to writers who already have some experience of writing in the right sorts of ways. Fresh out of school, with no real sense of what an academic argument is or how to create one in a piece of research-led writing, most undergraduate students read essay writing advice with a sense of overwhelmed confusion, and their attempts to put the advice into practice tend to produce different kinds of results, some more successful than others.

Lucy writing advice

Image credit: Charles Schultz

So, how can we assist students, practically and practicably, with their writing? How can we show them what better and poorer writing looks like in our disciplines or fields of study (rather than in a generic way), and how to turn the weaker aspects of their writing into strengths over time? Feedback, I hear you say. Yes, I would agree, but feedback from whom? Many lecturers would groan on hearing this word ‘feedback’, especially those who teach increasingly large classes in disciplines where students need to write a great deal, the more the better for their learning (think here especially of the humanities and many of the social sciences). With large classes and reams of written work to mark, lecturers often skimp on the detailed written feedback, or give only the most cursory comments, perhaps supplementing this with ‘global’ feedback in a lecture for the whole class on common errors and misunderstandings. This tends to mean that students keep making these errors, and the development of their thinking, writing and ability to create and critique knowledge in the discipline takes far longer to progress.

Yet, feedback is what all writers need. Critical, thoughtful, clear feedback that praises what is well-considered and realised in our writing, and points to what has been less well realised and needs further revision and rewriting. Whether in larger or smaller classes, in disciplines where students write a great deal, and are expected to improve with each piece of writing, feedback is essential. Preferably individual feedback that engages students in thinking differently about their writing, although this is often a logistical challenge for many lecturers and tutors.

Peer feedback, then, has been used as a partial solution to these challenges in many university courses globally. Students give feedback on writing to their peers, either in classes or in tutorials, in structured tasks that try to guide students on what kinds of feedback to give and how to give it well. Many of these instances of peer feedback work well, probably as many struggle to achieve their goals. Giving constructive, kind-but-critical, and helpful feedback on a piece of writing – feedback that will make it possible for the writer to make effective revisions – is hard work. Telling someone a paragraph they have written has no point is not that hard, but giving them advice that helps them to understand why there is no point, and how to both create a point and then reconstruct a paragraph that makes sense within the piece of writing – that is much more challenging. Many students, especially undergraduates, need guidance in order to provide their peers with this kind of feedback – this is a practice that needs to be learned, and that can be taught or scaffolded.

There are many, many research studies that have been published on feedback – the principles of good feedback, how to work with feedback as a writer, how to structure peer feedback-giving exercises, why feedback is ignored by students and how to get them to pay attention, and so on and so on. One of the questions asked in many of these studies goes something like: ‘how do we get students to learn from feedback, and improve their writing?‘ (The corollary of this seems to be ‘why don’t students learn from the feedback they get?’) One paper I read recently on a peer feedback-giving exercise revealed an unexpected finding in the students’ evaluation of the exercise: that they learned more about their own writing from giving feedback to their peer than they did from the feedback they received.

This is interesting, because many of the studies I have read focus almost solely on what to do with feedback received, and how to make sure that feedback givers give better feedback, so that the receiver can do more with it to improve their writing. But what of the lessons about writing that feedback-givers can consciously learn, and act on in their own writing? To return to the example above, if you need to give a writer feedback on how to improve a pointless paragraph, or one that doesn’t quite develop its point, you may find yourself reflecting on this aspect of your own writing and seeing it differently. Going back to it with fresher eyes, you may find yourself revising your own paragraphs, ensuring the the points you are making expand your argument, and are well supported with evidence.

Students can learn from the feedback they receive if it is given in understandable, actionable ways. But creating peer feedback-giving exercises in writing programmes, courses, or centres provides an excellent opportunity not only for students to learn how to give useful feedback, but also to learn more about their own writing through being asked to read, think about, and comment on a peer’s writing with the aim of giving them clear, constructive and useful comments and advice.

Giving feedback that encourages engagement with writing and thinking

Image from Linchi Kwok’s blog

We have posted on this blog about feedback this year already, but I have been thinking a lot lately about what counts as useful feedback and what kinds of feedback constrain rather than enable a writer’s further engagement with their own writing. So, I thought a less ‘academic’ take on feedback might be useful.

I am a student, too, as readers of this blog will know, so I am currently getting and reading and working with a lot of feedback from my supervisor, and while some of the comments are tough because of all the extra thinking they ask me to do, all of them are actually helpful. But more than that, they encourage me to go deeper in terms of my engagement with and thinking about my own writing. They ask me to rethink things I have written; to question connections between parts of the text that I may have said are there but are not clear to the reader; to make links clearer and to edit out repetitive or vague comments that add little to my text or make it less coherent. They ask me to think, and to question and to challenge myself as a writer to grow and learn from errors and missteps. This kind of feedback, I think, is ideal. Writers only become more capable and more confident as they write, and they need to know what their readers think, and where the writing makes sense and where it does not. Further, if there are errors and missteps they need advice on how to correct these and get the writing onto the right path.

Feedback, then, needs to do two things: encourage further engagement between the writer and their writing, and offer useful advice on how to make that engagement constructive. Feedback that just tells you things are wrong, or vague or irrelevant is at best unhelpful and at worst demotivating, especially when no advice is given on what you could do differently to meet the reader or marker’s standards. It discourages students from doing more thinking, and reading and writing. It constrains further learning and growth. But this constructive, helpful and engaging feedback is not easy to give, and it can take time. It requires the reader to read carefully, and to step into the role of a critical friend, rather than just an assessor. The reader needs to think about what the writer has tried to achieve, and comment both on what has worked well, and also what has not. Rather than simply pointing out mistakes the reader needs to engage the writer, asking questions that will guide their thinking (‘could this paragraph make more sense if it came before the previous one rather than after? Think about the ideas you are linking together here’). The reader needs to offer advice that gives the writer choices (‘I would cut this section out because you have made this point already in the first part of the chapter. Maybe you could blend the best pieces of each section together to make one strong section earlier on’). The reader needs to encourage the writer realistically, so that hey know where they are in terms of the standards set and also what they still need to do to reach them (‘This is a good start, and the introduction and conclusion are well-written. However, parts of your argument are not well supported by evidence from the readings, so you will need to revise these, supporting your claims with relevant information where needed’).

The reality, often, is that when we hand in a piece of work we really want to be finished with it because we always have something else to move on to. Feedback, however, and the revisions that it asks for, are a necessary part of writing, whether you are writing an essay, a thesis or a novel. Mediating feedback by talking to students about it and explaining your own thinking as their reader is one way of foregrounding the role feedback plays in the writing process, and the fact that writing is a process and not just a product. Making time and finding creative ways of giving this kind of feedback can pay dividends in getting students, slowly, to learn how to read feedback, think about it and revise their writing. There are many different ‘tools’ you can use, like getting students to work out assignment criteria with you and give guided peer feedback, or getting students to submit essays on Google Drive and doing oral feedback as you read their essays. Whatever the tool, and however much feedback you give or however often, a guiding principle should be that it gets the writer to a next step in their writing process, and facilitates their own further engagement with their writing.

Revisions are the hardest thing to do

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Image from

I’m just going to come out and say it: I dread doing revisions on my written work. I have two big pieces of writing sitting on my desk right now, waiting to be revised and rethought about and reapproached, and I am trying to pretend that they are not there. One is a paper I am writing for a journal, with a colleague, and the other is the first three completed chapters of my PhD thesis. I am spending a lot of time fixing my reference list, and reorganising my desktop folders and refiling readings in order to avoid having to do these revisions. But it’s not the writing that is putting me off, it’s the thinking.

I have realised over the years that this is the hardest part of the revision process, and I think this is what students may be feeling overwhelmed by when they come to the writing centre and we give them advice and guidance on revisions they could and should do in order to improve their written work. Thinking is hard work. Or rather, academic thinking about theoretical and abstract ideas and how they apply to a particular argument or question is hard work. Often, thinking in the revision stage of the writing process is harder than the initial thinking that helped you write draft one, largely because you may have to unthink ideas that are irrelevant or misplaced or even wrong in the context of what you are reading and writing about. And then you have to think new ideas, and work out how these might fit with the older ideas that are good, and can stay. And often – almost always for me – this thinking process happens while I am rewriting pieces of the text that need to change. So I think and write, rather than think and then write. This often means that I go through a few drafts in revising my work before I am happy with what I have written. It’s a process in the true sense of the word – it’s tough, and can take a long time, and is very demanding of my emotional and mental resources. But I grow as I do it, every time, and I learn more about what I am writing about as well as how to write in ways that will make my work credible and readable.

But it is hard work. And I don’t like doing revisions because it’s difficult, especially if there has been a longer period of time between the first draft and the second draft, and it’s time consuming. Getting back into the right headspace takes effort, and often I want to be done with that piece of writing and move onto the next one, so I sometimes also feel resentful of the intrusion on my new thinking and writing spaces. But, I have also learned, for all this moaning, that the revision process is necessary and even good for you for a reason.  It helps you to realise that your thinking on any topic you are writing about is never really done. You could revisit a first year essay in second, and third year and as a postgrad, for example, and right very different versions of that essay which would hopefully show the widening and deepening of your knowledge and learning, and also the growth in yourself as a writer. The revision and rethinking/writing facilitates your growth as a writer and also the deepening of your knowledge and understanding as you work on clearer and more credible ways to articulate what you know and what it means in the context of the argument you are making. When we write and think about what we know we are forced to think about what it means, and why others need to read about it. We are forced to be articulate in ways that challenge what we think about our own writing and the topics we are writing about, so revising our work also makes us better scholars. Or, it can at least with the right help along the way.

Revisions can’t just be done by the scholar with the assumption that if you say ‘this needs revision’ they will know why and how. Often students hand in work that they know is not finished yet, or good enough yet, but they are stuck and can’t work out how to improve it on their own. They need guidance from those who know about the kind of writing they are doing, and also about what they are writing about. They need feedback that recognises what they have done well, and that can point out the gaps (and give suggestions on how to fill them), and probe thinking by asking the right kinds of questions. All writers need help, even the very good ones. This is why editors, reviewers, readers exist. We, at the writing centre, are one kind of reader or reviewer that can help undergraduate students think about and revise their writing. Lecturers and tutors in the disciplines are another.  Feedback that helps writers to make choices about their writing and understand where they are going wrong, why, and how they could get onto the right track is hard to give, but it is an essential part of the revision process. And the revision process is an essential part of students’ growth and intellectual development as they become knowers in their field. It is hard, yes, but it’s also ultimately rewarding when the thing you write receives recognition and praise. It makes all the hard work worth it.

Writing as an iterative process: finding the value in drafting and revising

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Image from

In the Writing Centre we talk a lot about writing being a process, and we try very hard to teach students through as many tutorials as they will come to, that indeed they will learn to become more confident, capable and skilled writers as they work on their writing, practice, get feedback and learn from their errors and missteps as well as from what they do well. This focus on writing as a process is central to the work that many Writing Centres and academic literacy specialists do around the world and in South Africa. Learning is not a linear process, so why would we imagine that writing about what we are learning would be a linear process too? However, when we present our writing, we do present it in a linear form: introduction, development of argument or discussion, and conclusion followed by references, and this can fool undergraduate students into thinking that the research and writing process should be quite simple and straightforward.

Key to this process is drafting, getting feedback and revision. Student-writers have to move through these steps, iteratively rather than linearly, in order to produce a piece of work they would call the final draft and submit for assessment. But this is a difficult process, and also one that many students do not necessarily welcome. I worked on a project in 2010 where we introduced a drafting, feedback and revision process where previously students had had only one chance to write an essay and receive a mark for it. Several of the students did not enjoy the drafting process and one even commented that it made her feel ‘stupid’ because she felt she should be able to get it right the first time, and upset that the essay was not finished yet. I have often wondered where this notion of getting writing right the first time came from. Did she bring it with her from school? I don’t remember drafting essays at school, and I rarely did so as an undergraduate. If I did, I made my own revisions, often in a very hit and miss manner because I did not often get useful feedback, and did not really understand how my lecturers wanted me to write. So I can empathise with her feeling stupid for not getting it ‘right’ on the first go, and also feeling disheartened when the feedback she got showed her how much work she still had to do. She is certainly not alone in feeling this way. Many academics who send papers to journals and are asked to revise and resubmit,   sometimes by overhauling the whole argument, have felt this way. Yet, we keep going and we keep writing. Why?

We think when we write – before we write, while we write and even after we write. New ideas occur, new connections between ideas become clearer, and sharper and more concise ways of stating our points, supporting them and referring to sources emerge and take shape as we work through the iterative process that is writing. We read and research, think and make notes, write something in the form of a first draft, and hopefully are brave  enough to show someone – a tutor, a friend, a lecturer – who can read critically, offer advice and point our thinking in new directions. Along with our own continued thinking about our work, we use this advice and feedback to reshape what we have written, improving on it and learning more as we do. This is a tough process, and it is time- and energy-consuming. But, it is ultimately also rewarding; there is pleasure in crafting a piece of writing that represents your thinking and that can communicate it skillfully to a reader who enjoys reading it. So this iterative process is one that helps us to grow – in knowledge, ability and also in self-confidence.

I did not appreciate the value of drafting, revising and rethinking my writing until I was a Masters student. I think that some of this had to do with needing to mature emotionally and intellectually. As an undergraduate I did not really see the connections between all the pieces of knowledge I was learning, or how writing about them could help me to do much more than earn the marks I needed to graduate well. Later, as a more mature student, I could appreciate how different each draft was, and I with them. This appreciation for, and even pleasure in, revising and rewriting has served me well as a PhD student, too.

I also think that my coming late to finding value in drafting and revising my own writing had to do with a difference in focus between my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. As an undergraduate the focus was on the thing I produced; the essay or the portfolio or so on. It was not on the process of writing it. I seldom received feedback or was given chances to draft and revise before the final submission. At postgraduate level, even though I had to produce writing that was assessed, the focus in seminars and also in the papers we wrote was far more on the process of thinking, rethinking, debating, challenging and learning as we went, and the writing I did reflected this.

Perhaps this is what is lacking in undergraduate curricula. The focus is more often than not on the the product at the expense of time for the process that is involved in creating a product that shows one’s intellectual ability and also growth. We need to rethink, quite radically, the way we teach and value writing and thinking as iterative rather than linear processes if we are to see the intellectual and also emotional qualities we want in our graduates and postgraduates.

The nature and role of feedback to students during writing tutorials: from the tutors’ perspective

In the UWC Writing Centre, we as tutors need to be aware of the way we give our feedback to students so that their work can be revised with greater ease and understanding. The nature of the feedback that is given to students can either help them to understand why they have to do any form of revision, or it may further confuse the students. This blog post intends to highlight how and why we think that feedback is very useful for students’ improvement on the academic writing process, and some guidelines for giving constructive feedback.

Chaudron (1988:150) views feedback as ‘treatment of error’ that may simply refer to ‘any teacher’s behaviour following an error that minimally attempts to inform the learner of the fact of error’. Lightbown and Spada (1999:171) also refer to feedback as:
Any indication to the learners that their use of the target language is incorrect. This includes various responses that the learners receive. When a language learner says, ‘He go to school everyday’, corrective feedback can be explicit, for example, ‘no, you should say goes, not go’ or implicit ‘yes he goes to school every day’, and may or may not include metalinguistic information, for example, ‘Don’t forget to make the verb agree with the subject’.
In like manner, Lyster and Ranta (1997) define feedback as a ‘student’s generated repair’ that is successful. They suggest four ways that such a repair can be accomplished;
  1. Clarification Request: indicates that the student’s writing is misunderstood by a teacher or that the writing is ill-formed in some way. In this regard, it can refer to either problems in accuracy or comprehensibility, or both.
  2. Repetition: redundancy to isolate student’s work, with changes in tone or inflection to highlight the error.
  3. Metalinguistic Feedback: may contain comments, information or questions related to the well-formedness of the student’s writing without explicitly providing the correct form. Points to the nature of the error but attempts to elicit the information from the student.
  4. Elicitation: strategic pauses to allow students to fill in the blanks, questions to elicit correct forms or asking students to rewrite a draft.
In line with this, Chaudron (1988) argues that error corrections in writing must be based on the following questions:
  •         Should learner’s errors be corrected?
  •         When should they be corrected?
  •         Which ones should be corrected?
  •         How should errors be corrected?
  •         Who should do the correcting, student or teacher?
To attempt an answer for the above, we speculated on where student writers tend to struggle with their writing. Fanselow (1977) suggests that students struggle with lack of confidence in themselves, lack of direction where the ideas are going to, the reading of related literature takes students astray (off track) and distractions. John: ‘As a writing coach, this has been very helpful to me as they help me as a tutor to identify where the student might be struggling’. Gordon: ‘Being able to identify their struggle is a first step to giving a good feedback. There are times when you prepare comments for students but during the face-to-face, you would notice that they had a different problem entirely’. Thus, we as tutors have found some of this theory useful in thinking about what students might be struggling with and how we might try to help them through our feedback.
There are two general types of feedback, summative and formative. Formative feedback entails commenting throughout the text on specific errors or missteps that encourages and informs a writer of any gaps in their writing. In view of this, we are of the opinion that feedback in a Writing Centre, focused as it is on writing as a process, needs to be encouraging and formative. Tutors and writers need to see writing a continuous process which can always be improved upon. In contrast, summative feedback is a little too general and it is usually given at the end of an assignment. It does have a place, but perhaps not in the Writing Centre, and certainly not on its own.
Based on the above argument, we believe that feedback is very useful for teachers and tutors because it helps the writers to improve on their writing (Lyster 2001). It might also help to move the text to the next step in the writing process. Feedback also helps to show the writer the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of the text – not only what to correct and how, but also why they need to correct it. As a result, feedback gives the writer opportunities to make informed choices about their revisions and it provokes critical thinking by asking writers and tutors to motivate for what works and what does not.
As a way of conclusion, we suggest a few DOs and DON’Ts (or SHOULDs and SHOULDN’Ts) of feedback:
  • Talk about the positives before the negatives – with the idea that we do not want the students to feel stupid, they should know that there is something that they are doing well.
  • Select the most pertinent points – because if all the mistakes are brought out at once, the student could be discouraged to continue or may become completely confused.
  • Be explicit enough – to make sure the student understands exactly what is being talked about, avoid the use of specialised words (or jargon).
  • Read over a whole paper/assignment before commenting – this can help a tutor to select the pertinent points for discussion and see the paper as a whole
  • Give choices to the writer  – avoid imposing what you would write or say on the student – so that they feel like part of their work
  • Play the role of a critical peer – make suggestions and comments rather than telling them what they must do so that they can understand that the writing process treats everyone the same way

  •  Do not use jargon or specialised terms uncritically – these words could be scaring because students might not understand what they mean e.g. coherence, task analysis etc.
  • Do not be vague in your feedback – you need to clear enough to make the students understand why they have to do a revision.
  • Do not be negative – that is, do not give them the impression that time is against them; let them rather understand that there can never be a perfect piece of writing but that they can always work on it and improve
  • Do not feedback paragraph by paragraph – this can be at times make some of your comments redundant, or prevent you and the student from seeing the work as a whole
  •  Do not force writer to own ideas they may not be comfortable with – provide them with choices and let them understand why they need to effect a change
  •  Do not be subjective or biased – focus on the assignment and the student, not on your own plans for the writing or thoughts on the topic

Written by John Foncha and Gordon Igbokwe, based on their presentation at a staff seminar

Chaudron, C. (1988). Second language classrooms: Research on teaching and learning.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Fanselow, J. F. (1977). The treatment of error in oral work. Foreign Language Annals 10:
Lightbown, P. M., and Spada, N. (1999). How languages are learned. Oxford, UK: Oxford
University Press.
Lyster, R. (2001). Negotiation of form, recasts and explicit correction in relation to error types and learner repair in immersion classrooms. Language Learning 51:265-301.
Lyster, R. and Ranta, L. (1997) Corrective feedback and learner uptake: Negotiation of form in  communicative classrooms. Corrective feedback in SLA.


From knowing to not knowing and back again: a student’s tale

This will be a fairly personal musing on the process of becoming an academic scholar, and the iterative and challenging nature of it. Here, I am referring to the journey from the first year of undergraduate studies to graduation three or four or more years later, and, for a number of graduates, the journey into Masters and Phd study beyond that.

In my professional life currently I have two roles: I am a PhD student, but I also work in a writing centre, with undergraduate student writers. My work is focused on helping students to make sense of what they are learning about so that they can write about their knowledge and learning in new and varied forms, that show their lecturers and tutors that they are becoming people who know things. This is perhaps quite a simplistic way of looking at the matter, but this is, in essence, why students write: to demonstrate their ability to work with and communicate knowledge in the forms recognised by the disciplines or environments they are working in. In both of these roles, I have been thinking about this: what is involved in this process of becoming someone who knows and can demonstrate that knowledge, and be recognised as a knower? How can I, as both a student myself and someone who works with students, unpack and understand this process so that I can be more successful in both roles?

I will reflect on my role as a student first. I have been studying, on and off, for fourteen years now, and I am not yet finished. There was quite a long gap – five years – between finishing my MA and registering for my PhD. It took me a while to feel ready to take on this challenge, largely because I shifted fields as a result of the work I was doing during that time. So, I not only took on a hugely challenging task in the form of writing a PhD thesis and all that goes into that, I also took on the task of reading, thinking and writing my way into a new field of research, knowledge and practice. It has been, to say the least, a humbling process, even though it has been quite rewarding at times, and certainly interesting. It has been humbling because of this thing of knowledge and knowing, and the feeling of empowerment and confidence that comes with feeling that you know – what to say, what to write and how to make sense of what you hear and read and fit that new knowledge into what is already in your head.

I don’t often feel that I know, these days. The theory I am drawing on is very new to me, and at times very dense and incomprehensible, even. In my previous field and studies I felt I could speak and write and read with far more confidence, and when I hear people speaking about their research in that field, I feel this wonderful sense of familiarity and being ‘at home’. I have not yet reached this place entirely in my new field, but I am not completely in the dark either. I move between knowing and not knowing – between definitely,  maybe and I have no idea! – fairly often, and it’s not always easy. It’s often frustrating and I find it hard to stay motivated and keen when it gets really tough and I have loads of other pressures on me, from work and family and life in general.

This leads me to my role at work, in the writing centre. I work with undergraduate students who are on this journey from not knowing to knowing, and myself and the writing tutors work to help them make enough sense of what they do know and what they bring with them to tutoring sessions so that they can communicate this knowledge effectively and appropriately. My experience on my own learning journey has been a useful starting point for reflecting on just how frustrating and even alienating this process can be for students who are new to tertiary learning, and to the different ways in which disciplinary knowledge is taught and needs to be learnt and communicated. [It must also be recognised that in addition to this challenge many students in South Africa who come from poor home and school backgrounds have many other educational, personal and financial challenges that further add to their already full plates.] Learning is an iterative journey – students at any level move between knowing and not knowing and back again many times as they encounter new arguments and theories and practices. And the process of learning and integrating new knowledge with existing knowledge is a constant one that will continue beyond the university.

A big part of what tertiary education needs to do is to support students in navigating this iterative process by giving them the tools they need to manage this process effectively, inside and beyond the university. A writing centre is one space in which students can learn useful tools for connecting dots using language, and for practicing the different forms of communicating their knowledge to their peers in ways that will be recognised and rewarded. It is also a space, importantly, where is it okay to not know (at least for a little while :)). As a student and a tutor, these spaces where one can not know and muddle through to a place where knowing seems possible and things are clear, and then move back into a space of doubt and confusion (knowing and hoping it won’t last long!) is so important. It is important because I can be in that space with others who are on the same journey, but perhaps at different points along the way, so there is support and recognition and validation; it is a space where the doubt, confusion and questioning are recognised as a necessary and useful part of the iterative process of learning and becoming and coming to know, rather than viewed as evidence that one is not coping or in the wrong place.

I know, because of my own self-knowledge, and my previous learning experiences at university, that the confusion and doubt are not permanent states, but only part of the process. If I hang in there and keep reading and writing and asking questions, I will get to where I need to me. But, my experience has shown me that many undergraduate students, particularly those from poor socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, do not always have that same kind of self-confidence. For many the not knowing is overwhelming and the challenge of staying motivated and engaged in the learning process is too great.  One of the ways in which I think we could help these students is through creating more spaces, in and outside academic departments and disciplines where not knowing is recognised as a part of the journey towards knowing, and where the iterative and complex process of learning can be seen as such and supported in relevant and creative ways. I am proud to work in one of those spaces.