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.
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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.

resilience

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.

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A new tool for talking writing: LCT and semantic waves

I completed my PhD last year, and I’m now embarking on postdoctoral research. One of the things I am really excited about is applying my conceptual framework to different kinds of teaching, learning and academic work to the case studies I looked at in my PhD. Specifically, I would like to connect my framework – Legitimation Code Theory – with my academic writing and academic literacies work where possible. This post reflects some of that thinking, so indulge me a little, if you will :).

Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), very briefly, builds on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Basil Bernstein, but subsumes and extends aspects of these two eminent sociologists’ work to create a conceptual and analytical ‘toolkit’ that enables researchers to ‘dig’ beneath what they can see on the surface to find the organising principles underlying practices. It is a critical realist framework, and in terms of my own research in education – pedagogy in particular – it has been very useful because it enables a focus on knowledges as well as on the knowers without conflating the two as a social constructivist epistemology can end up doing. In sum, the toolkit can enable close-up, detailed research that can look meaningfully at what underlies our practices, beliefs and approaches to teaching and learning, for example, so that we can understand the whats, whys and hows, and think more carefully about how to change what needs changing.

One aspect of the ‘toolkit’ I have been using in my own research is Semantics, which comprises two tools: semantic gravity and semantic density. I’ll just be looking at the first tool, semantic gravity, in this post. Drawing on Karl Maton’s 2013 book, Knowledge and Knowers, semantic gravity concerns the degree of connection between meanings and the contexts in which they find application. So a concept/term that does not require a specific context to be understood, and is more abstract or generalised, displays weaker semantic gravity because it is further from any particular context. It could be brought into and transformed in a range of contexts, or applications. A concept/term that cannot easily be understood or applied outside of a particular application or context displays stronger semantic gravity – it is more dependent for meaning on the context in which it has been introduced.

If we work too much in spaces with either weaker or stronger semantic gravity we run the risk of either making it difficult for students to understand how to apply and work with abstract knowledge OR making it very difficult for students to extract abstract meanings from problems and applications to be able to move into different contexts and work ably within them. What is necessary, for students to integrate conceptual understandings with application or problem-solving for example, is a waving movement from stronger to weaker semantic gravity as concepts are drawn up, for example, from students’ own contextual and applied knowledge, and then crucially back into the context to show how using different kinds of conceptual knowledge can lead to different ways of working within that context and then back up to abstraction again and so on. This can be called a ‘gravity wave’ and it could look, heuristically, a  bit like this:

 

Generic semantic gravity wave

Generic semantic gravity wave

I want to now reflect on how we started to use this tool to think about our conversations with students, focused on developing their writing, and them as writers. I started with a tutor workshop, showing the tutors the tools and getting them to try them out a little. Then I asked them to explicitly think about ‘waving’ in their peer tutorials with students, and reflect on whether and how this worked for them, or didn’t, in their narrative reports written about each tutorial. The conjecture we wanted to start thinking about using Semantics was this: If we work only or mostly in the context of each individual written task, talking about, for example, this introduction, rather than talking about introductions in writing more generally and then using that ‘concept’ to analyse the specific introduction in front of us with a view to revisions, are we not doing students’ longer-term growth as reflective writers a disservice? How would our conversations, and students’ view of their writing, change if we were able to more clearly focus on moving between the assignment itself and more generalised or abstracted meanings that can attach to parts of academic writing, like introductions and arguments?

The tutors offered some very interesting feedback in their reports as they started to apply this tool, very lightly, in their tutorial sessions. I was also able to observe them, and was able to ‘hear’ how they were trying to wave the conversations up and down, rather than staying down in the context of the assignment students were working on. Several tutors, for example, commented that they started in the contexts, always: asking students how they are, what they are working on, what concerns or problems they’d like to talk about in the session. Then they moved to the essay, asking students to talk to them about what they had done thus far, and where the draft was in terms of work in progress. Then, depending on their prior reading of the task and analysis of the key issues, tutors tried to shift up the wave a bit, asking students for more generalised understandings of, for example, what referencing is and why we do it, or what an introduction looks like generally, and what purpose it serves in a piece of writing. After establishing more general ‘principles’ like this, the tutors then tried to bring students back down the wave into the referencing or introduction in the assignment in front of them, asking students to then think about where they might be able to improve or make changes, and why.

Most tutors found that this more explicit notion of what could be considered ‘abstract’ and ‘contextual’ in written assignments, and especially the idea of needing to move a student between the two in successive waves over the course of a conversation about an assignment, very interesting, and useful. Often, due to time constraints, student panic, and tutors really wanting to help students improve a piece of writing, we stay too much in the context of this assignment, these writing challenges, these revisions. The worry is that, while this assignment may improve, students may not necessarily take forward from the experience a wider or less specific understanding of what they did well or not, and may therefore struggle with the same issues in similar ways in future assignments, slowing their growth as confident and competent writers.

Rather than staying ‘down’ in the context, being able to bring students ‘up’, even a little, to where they can see the whole picture, and a wider understanding of principles of academic writing more generally, may enable them to go back down, over and over, into different assignments with increasingly greater dexterity in adapting the principles to effectively respond to assignment criteria, and cumulatively develop a deeper understanding of academic writing and what it takes to do it well.

Maton, K. 2013. Knowledge and knowers. Towards a realist sociology of education. London: Routledge.

Thinking about the questions we ask students in writing tutorials

As peer writing tutors, we make use of different questioning techniques during tutorials to generate interesting discussions and assist students who come to us at different stages of the writing process to improve their writing. These techniques often vary depending on the student who needs help and the task being examined.  Although we always ask questions, we are seldom conscious of why we ask different types of questions and how useful these questions are in attaining the outcomes of a set tutorial. In this post, we will reflect on the extent to which our questioning techniques have evolved so far this year, or since we started tutoring at the Writing Centre in an attempt to understand the kinds of questions we ask and why as well as how we ask them. Our interest in the approaches to questioning in the context of writing tutoring was sparked by discussions following observations that were conducted as part of a mentorship programme that is ongoing at the UWC Writing Centre.

In terms of starting a discussion with students, we make use of introductory questions to build rapport, glean information on students’ socio-cultural and linguistic background, ease tension, understand and also manage students’ expectations. These types of questions are important in opening up space for conversation and learning to take place. When we meet students for the first time, in order to make them feel comfortable, we ask questions that help us ‘break the ice’ and ‘kickstart’ the tutoring process for both student and tutor. Students respond to us better when we indicate to them that we are interested in their wellbeing as writers and not just in their writing. The focus of such questions is more on getting to know the student as a writer. This gives us an opportunity to understand the emotions that students experience when faced with academic writing tasks. Beard, Clegg & Smith (2005: 235) concur by highlighting the importance of understanding ‘…the affective dimension in pedagogic encounters and the life world of students, and that it is possible to do so without a collapse into therapeutic discourses’. Writing tutorials provide a unique space for students to talk about how they feel about what they are reading and writing about and we encourage them to do that by asking the right questions. These introductory questions also help us to understand student’s own purpose for visiting the Writing Centre and to find out the help that students need in order to improve their writing. For instance, these sorts of questions help tutors distinguish between initial and follow-up tutorials, as well as students who come to us on their own volition and those that are compelled by lecturers and/or tutors to do so. Such information is very useful in informing the strategies that we use to help students understand the process approach to writing which informs our practice.

Introductory questions are usually followed by task and assignment related questions. These include questions that are intended to probe students’ knowledge about academic writing within a specific discourse, as well as their knowledge of the subject matter or content of a specific topic. More open questions are asked to get general information about a topic. Open questions here refer to questions that perform the dual function of encouraging students to talk generally about their writing in order to provide information to the tutor, while also leading the discussion in a specific direction as the tutor can identify gaps or areas for further discussion based on the information provided. Juxtaposing discussions about the task provided and what a student has written in a draft offers a way forward by giving us a sense as to where students need to make revisions. One way in which this can be done is by starting with smaller questions to scaffold into task analysis, always keeping in mind where we want the student to end up in terms of understanding the task at hand. Examples of these would include why, what and how questions. We more often use why and how questions rather than what questions,because these why and how questions shift the discussion from the tutor to the student,  increase the level of engagement between the student and the tutor, and help the tutor to guide the student towards productive answers. Therefore, we ask questions that are carefully crafted to encourage reflection and ultimately to push students’ thinking forward in a process of engaging with and improving their writing. An emphasis on process here indicates we perceive the students who come to us as being on a journey and we help make explicit to them the ways to get to where they need to go through questioning.

For tutors working at the UWC Writing Centre, questioning techniques are negotiated based on the draft received and the student or group of students who sit(s) in front of us during a tutorial. We tend to lean on our intuition instead of having pre-planned questions. However, our intuition is guided by theoretical and practical knowledge of the academic writing process and academic literacies. Therefore, as our conceptual understanding of academic writing has shifted and our confidence has grown, we tend to ask more questions and do less telling during writing tutorials. This approach provides more space for student-centred and learning-centred writing tutorials. What do you think about our approaches to questioning during writing tutorials? What can you relate to and what strategies do you use that are different? We would love to hear from you.

**This post was authored by Thecla Mulu and Lovertte Esambe (peer writing tutors)**

Reference

Beard, C., Clegg, S., and Smith, K. 2005. Acknowledging the affective in higher education, British Educational Research Journal, 33(2), 235–252

What does ‘active’ participation look like?

Image from blog.newchurchlive.tv

Image from blog.newchurchlive.tv

I was mulling this question over recently with some of the tutors I work with. We talk a lot in the Writing Centre about getting students to participate ‘actively’ in the writing tutorials, and not sit passively expecting us to give them all the answers to their questions. A great deal of our training focuses on helping tutors to ask the right questions and draw students into the conversation in ways that enable them to talk about their writing ‘actively’. In education in general ‘active participation’ seems to be contrast in a binary way with ‘passive learning’, the latter being undesirable. I am wondering, here, if we need to be questioning more closely what we mean by actively? Do we mean loudly? Forcefully? With conviction and clear ideas? Or do we mean something else, something less – overt?

This is a difficult question to answer, I think, without wandering into tricky territory fraught with binary oppositions, which are rarely very useful to think with, like active vs passive; teaching as transmission vs teaching as collaborative meaning-making… I am sure there are many others I am not able to think of or express very succinctly here. and I am aware that I am probably gliding over lots of theory and research in this topic. But, this question is an important one because active participation in one’s own learning is so valued in higher education in general, and because much of the current constructivist and ‘authentic learning’ emphasis in approaches to curriculum development and teaching and learning relies on students to be active makers of meaning in their own contexts both within and outside of the classroom.

The question I am pondering, in a very un-theoretical way for the time being is: what does an active learner look like, and if we think he or she looks like just one kind of thing, does this lead us to exclude or discount other kinds of learning and students because they don’t look like this? I think perhaps the Writing Centre has a definition of an ‘active’ participant that we need to examine carefully, to ensure that we are not getting frustrated with students who don’t fit this definition, accusing them perhaps of not being very engaged or interested in their own learning, and wanting to be ‘spoonfed’ the answers. I think, further, that many lecturers think of active learning in certain ways – maybe ways that are quite tacit even to them – and that they often get frustrated or even angry when students in their classrooms do things that fall outside of this ideal that seem not to be active or engaged in these ways.

So, what I will be suggesting to my tutors when we reconvene next term is that we deconstruct our collective and individual notions of what an ‘active’ writing tutorial looks like. What if we sit with a student who doesn’t ask lots of questions and offer answers to all of our questions? Is that student less of an active and participatory student than one who has lots of questions and answers about their own writing? Is that student learning less or making less sense of their writing than the one who asks lots of questions? It is difficult to know the answer to this, and I think we have to be careful if we are assuming that students who raise their hands in class and have lots of answers and ideas are more active learners, and therefore getting more learning done than the quieter students who spend their time making notes, thinking and participating in their own learning differently.

Can we take what we think and know about writing as a process and apply it to our understanding of students and their learning; can we see active learning on a continuum, rather than in binary opposition to passivity and wanting to be ‘spoonfed’? I think if we, and if lecturers, could more critically examine some of our taken-for-granted ideas about the ideal students and their ideal behaviour (and we all, to different extents, have these students in mind when we design curricula and learning programmes) we could approach a larger number of students in ways that both meet them where they are and also include them in the newer and less familiar spaces they need to become comfortable in at university. We could have ideas about what active learning could be in terms of a process of growing and becoming more confident, capable and knowledgeable by degrees, and this could enable us to create more inclusive learning and teaching environments that make space for greater numbers of students to feel like they are okay, that they do belong, and that they are part of a process that will help them to grow, learn, change and become the people they hope to be (and we hope they can be too). Idealistic? Perhaps. Necessary and possible? Definitely.

Writing tutors tutoring students, or writing consultants assisting clients: just semantics?

There are lots of different terms used for the people who work in writing centres, as well as for what the ‘units of time’, if we can call them that for now, are named. In many writing centres in South Africa and globally, the people who work in writing centres are called ‘writing consultants’ and the units of time are similarly named ‘writing consultations’. Another commonly used pair of terms is ‘writing coaches’ and ‘sessions’; a rather vague name for what happens within that unit of time. There are also different kinds of people working in different writing centres, and this has implications, I would think, for what they are named, and also how they are trained, supported and remunerated. For example, in some writing centres the consultants are postgraduate students; many American writing centres employ high-achieveing undergraduates to assist other students as peers; and in some UK and South African writing centres the consultants are academics, often with PhDs and academic posts. I am not going to get into all these details too much, because I want to think rather about whether the titles we give these people and the way we name the units of time  is just ‘semantics’ or whether there is a bit more to it than that.

In the UWC Writing Centre the people who work with students are students, at MA and PhD level, and they are chosen because they are good writers, but also because they have displayed an aptitude for and willingness to do the work that we do. They are passionate in their own ways about writing, and about helping other students to become more confident and capable writers. We started off, in 2009, calling ourselves ‘writing consultants’ working with student writers in ‘writing consultations’. At the time we used the terms that seemed to be most commonly used because I didn’t really know what else to call ourselves. However, in 2010 I realised that the terms didn’t sit well because they were too closely connected to the language of management. The terms ‘consultant’ and ‘consultation’ are often and everywhere used in the broad field of business – ‘management consultants’, tax consultants’, HR consultants’ and so on. All of these professionals provide ‘expert advice’ or a ‘professional service’ according to both thefreedictionary.com and Wikipedia, and they are supposed to have a wide range of specialised or expert knowledge on the subject about which they are consulting. A consultation, then, could be defined as a meeting between one without expert knowledge who needs to be given professional or expert advice in order to become more knowledgeable and take certain action, like seeing a tax consultant and then being able to file a tax return that earns them a large refund. None of this really sounds like a what I think a conversation about writing should sound like between two students – both with knowledge but one needing assistance or help in talking or thinking about it. Also, the language of management, and the ‘managerial turn’ so many universities have taken on where so many academics are valued only in terms of their ability to produce x research units, or y pass rates and so on is not a language we should be speaking in the writing centre, and thus these terms did not feel like a good fit for us.

In 2010, very briefly, I tried out ‘writing coaches’ liking for a while the idea of us being helpers of a sort rather than service providers. But that didn’t really feel like a good fit either – coaches are also experts, and are hired to produce excellent results or risk losing their jobs, even if this metaphor is closer to what we do than ‘consulting’ (think of the South African national soccer coach turnover and number of match wins for the last few years!). So in 2010, and since then, we have been called ‘peer writing tutors’ working with student writers in ‘writing tutorials’, and this feels like the right fit.

These terms are the right fit for us in our writing centre because the term ‘tutor’ is defined as a ‘person employed in the education of others’ (Wikipedia again). The article goes on to discuss the role of a tutor as playing a collaborative role in helping other students to adapt to different ways of learning through sharing their knowledge as well as giving advice or guidance. This is what we aim to do in our writing centre, and many writing centres have this goal. We cannot be specialists or experts in all of the subjects that students are writing about, and our goal is not to be the cleverest person in the room. Rather, though having a conversation that, with careful and insightful questioning borne of training, our own experiences as writers, and our own knowledge about writing in the university, leads students to gain confidence in the knowledge they do have and the way they are writing, and helps them to grow in the ways that they need to. Thus what we do is tutor – we guide, advise, support and collaborate. We are knowledgeable peers, but peers rather than experts or professionals.

I think the language we use to talk about what we do is important. Words are never just words – they have meaning and power, and even though we may make different meanings for the same words in different contexts, in our context the words that we have chosen describe the ways in which we work, and the roles we claim. This is more than just ‘semantics’ – they say something powerful about us, and what we do when we work with student writers.

What words do you use to talk about the work you do in writing centres or higher education? What do they say about you, and the roles you claim?

The Real and the Ideal: do we have a ‘normative’ sense of writing tutorials?

In this post we want to reflect on the kinds of things we value in our approaches to student writing tutorials, and how these ‘normative’ kinds of judgements might shape the way we talk to students, and the way students tend to respond.

Often, there is, at least initially, a kind of ‘clash’ between our goals for the writing tutorial and the goals of the students. In some ways, this can most basically be described as a clash between a ‘process-oriented’ approach and a ‘product-oriented approach’ to academic writing. We will try to unpack this while trying to avoid essentialising these issues. 
  
To start with the product-oriented approach to writing that many students adopt (and that many lecturers adopt too): this approach is what it sounds like, really. Many students come to the Writing Centre tasked with producing a piece of academic writing, in a certain form and following certain guidelines or rules, many of which they do not fully understand at undergraduate level, and which are often tacit. Most students at undergraduate level that we tutor are very focused on that product, on getting it written as quickly and painlessly as possible and on getting the best possible mark they can. They seldom (at least at the start of coming to the Centre) see themselves as beginning a process-oriented approach to writing, where their own personal and academic growth is a focus, and where the product is one of a series of products that link together to create a sense of forward motion, personal growth, knowledge building and confidence-building. This process-oriented approach may be valued in the university in some corners and places, like Writing Centres, academic-development-type courses and with certain lecturers and tutors. But on the whole, the approach to writing, learning and assessment in higher education globally is dominated by a focus on the product, and often the person producing it is overlooked or under-considered. We in the Writing Centre take issue with this, because this is not the approach that we value. But we need to be aware of the kinds of concerns a focus on the product creates for students about academic writing, so that we can understand our own approaches to academic writing and our methods of guiding, advising and encouraging students more reflectively and critically.

When we discussed the idea behind this blog post – a musing about whether there is something ‘normative’ about our approach to academic writing, and whether and how we might be imposing this onto writing tutorials perhaps unconsciously and what effects this might have – we started with the idea of a ‘traditional’ and a ‘non-traditional’ approach to tutoring in the university. In the sense that we are using these terms in our thinking, a ‘traditional’ tutorial places the authority in the tutor to direct the tutorial and set the agenda, and it also makes the tutor the holder of knowledge and knowing about what is under discussion. In the ‘non-’ or ‘less traditional’ approach, the power dynamics are challenged, because the tutor shares the agenda-setting and authority over directing the discussion with the student, and both the tutor and student have knowledge that is included and drawn on in the discussion – the students’ knowledge about the assignment topic is actively sought because writing tutors do not have subject-specific knowledge for every assignment that they need to assist students with. We find, though, that the dominant approach according to students is the more traditional approach, and that when students are invited to work with the peer writing tutors differently they tend to initially find this disconcerting or challenging. Many of them would like us to give them yes and no answers and tell them what to write and how to write it so that they can complete their product. Many students do eventually enjoy the different way of working when they get used to it, but it is initially tricky to get many students to open up and start talking and take on some of that authority and confidence in their ideas and their writing. This leads us to wonder what we are valuing in our approach over the alternative, and why we insist on drawing students into discussion and conversation, rather than simply capitulating and telling them what they want to know. Are we making value judgements here about what counts as the ‘right’ way to assist students with their writing? Are we saying, tacitly, that a writing tutorial ought to go a certain way or have certain outcomes? And, if we are, how are these judgements impacting on how we manage our time with students?

In short, we think the answer is probably ‘yes’. Yes, we are making certain value judgements about what academic writing is and is not (and these are not just ours because they are informed by theory and practice in our field). We are saying that writing is a process, and that there are certain things that need to be valued in that process, like giving the student full ownership over their own writing, and giving guidance and advice that develops the student-writer’s capacity and confidence, rather than just developing single assignments. We are valuing a focus on the ‘deeper’ elements of writing, like the way the ideas are organised and the way the writer is creating coherence for the reader, as well as the use of evidence to support their claims and warrants, over a focus on the ‘polishing’ in terms of fixing typos and correcting spelling and grammatical errors (unless polishing is what is needed). We are, to an extent, making a normative kind of judgement – we ought to go about things in a certain way because of what we value, and not necessarily because we are trying to make the writing easier to read or nicer to look at. There are normative criteria that shape academic writing, and what we value taps into those as well, like how to structure an essay and how to argue academically and why we do so in certain ways, and why we don’t use exclamation marks or rhetorical questions, for example.

We do not always communicate these value judgements overtly; often this is tacit, in the way we gently guide the conversation through questions and prompts to the issues we think the student would benefit most from working on with us. We often know what we need to talk about based on the task before the students as well as our own experience as writers and tutors, so we don’t often stop and think about what might be underpinning what we are doing in those conversations.  This blog post was an attempt to do a bit of that reflection and thinking. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue too? What do your value in your writing centres, and how does this shape your encounters with students, and with other academics?

Adventures in tutor training (part two)

In the first part of this post I outlined part of a new approach that we’re taking at the UWC Writing Centre towards the initial training of peer writing tutors. I described briefly using a PLA approach called the River of Life, the aim of which was to get the new and returning tutors to get to know one another, and chiefly to bring the tutors’ own experiences and knowledge into the training space, to open up a more open and interactive training environment.
 
The second PLA technique we used was Matrix ranking. The idea behind this technique is to get groups of people to collaboratively draw up a list of qualities or items that correspond to an issue they need to think about. These get written down in a vertical column. The facilitator then gets the group to come up with criteria for choosing between the different criteria or items they have come up with. These are written along the top in a horizontal column and a grid gets drawn up. The group then gets to cast votes, using beans or buttons as counters for what is most to least important or valuable to them, and the criteria or items are ranked. The idea, essentially, is to collectively share knowledge and ideas, and to give groups an opportunity to defend their choices to one another and to try and persuade the other groups members to choose along with them (Rowley 1999). We simplified this activity by removing the horizontal column, but the essence remained – the collective sharing of knowledge and ideas, and the group discussing and voting on the most to least important criteria or items. The issues we spoke about were the characteristics of a successful peer writing tutors and successful writing tutorials – this session led on from the first session in which we drew Rivers of Life and then, using a Think-Pair-Share activity, discussed three readings we regard as fairly foundational in terms of giving us a framework and a shared language for our work with student-writers. Thus we had some of the theoretical foundation in place and this activity was designed to extend and deepen that earlier conversation we started by creating a more practical application.
 
The tutors got themselves into three groups and discussed amongst themselves the characteristics of successful tutors and tutorials, and came up with eight characteristics per issue, per group. These they then voted on and ranked them, and presented their matrices to the whole group. I wandered around and listened in on their discussions and voting and gave advice and guidance where needed.  I then took all the matrices home and collated them – pulling all the similar characteristics together and creating a collective list of characteristics that reflected what they had written, presented and what I had overheard during facilitation. We now have two collaboratively designed and debated matrices that, very simply, represent what we, as a team, consider to be good practice. This is informed by the experiences of the returning tutors, the ideas and input of the new tutors, and all the tutors drawing on the relevant theory they have read. The matrices are here.
Following this session, on the second day of training, the tutors received simple scenarios and were divided into pairs and small groups. They then devised 5 minute role-plays for the whole group, being as creative as they wanted to be and bringing in their own experiences with students to add colour and life to the scenario. These were videotaped and then discussed with tutors giving one another feedback and then the facilitator stepping in, consolidating and adding relevant points where necessary. This role-playing has been a part of training since 2011, but every year we challenge ourselves to be more creative and make this a more informative, rewarding and fun experience for all the tutors. For the newer tutors the role plays provide a small insight into some of what can happen in a tutorial, so that they go into their first encounters with students a little more prepared. An example of one of the scenarios:
 
One-on-one: tutor has not read the draft – it’s just the first part of an essay, an intro and a couple of paragraphs and the student says they are stuck and don’t know what to write next; tutor uses questions to get the student talking about the task and their ideas and what research they need to do and how or why they have to do research before they can keep writing
 
The feedback on the interactivity of the revised and renewed tutorial programme was very positive.
 
‘The role plays were refreshing – quite a hands on experience of what transpires during consultations.’
 
‘Very empowering and exposure to the actual tutorial sessions.  More reflective and engaging.  More enriching to personal development.’
 
‘Today’s session has been productive in that new and old tutors shared very varied but good experiences.  A good building block for 2013 tutoring.’ 
 
‘Provided opportunity for students to share their ideas, experiences and goals.’
 
 As a result of the feedback, and my own experience of working in these newer and more engaged and interactive ways with the tutors, I feel that making the tutor training more collaborative, and also more up to the tutors themselves in as far as leading their own discussions and contributing so much of their own experiences, ideas and expertise made these the most enjoyable and informative, and also empowering tutor training workshops we have had thus far. I am encouraged by how well it went, and also by how we, through our own support of one another and mutual teaching and learning in our ongoing training, are extending what we do with student-writers into our own training space and taking on the issues of empowerment, collaboration, friendliness and peer-ness in new ways.
 
Reference:
Rowley, John. 1999. Tips for trainers: matrix ranking of PRA tools. Available online at: http:// http://www.participatorytraining.co.uk/Tipsfortrainers.pdf.