Learning by doing

Learning by doing

Anne Wilson

Anne WilsonInterlocking plastic bricks, modelling clay, coloured card and sparkly pipe cleaners — can playing with craft supplies and children’s construction toys really help improve your academic writing? I think it can. I use them in my workshops – even with senior academic staff – with surprising results. In a session to help Occupational Therapy staff develop creative approaches to support student writing, I asked the participants to construct a plastic-brick model to answer the question: ‘How does the social model of disability relate to the practice of occupational therapists?’ This was an undergraduate assignment that I knew their students found difficult and I wanted the staff to explore their expectations of how the essay should be structured. They found it challenging to ‘write’ the essay in a medium other than words, but their models – and the way they explained the models to their peers – was illuminating. The participants said they found the conversations the exercise triggered both stimulating and thought provoking. This simple kinaesthetic task helped them to express their thoughts about how the essay should be structured and to see how their approach differed from their colleagues’. It also helped them to appreciate some of the challenges faced by their students.

I believe that a successful workshop should be engaging, participative and should cater to a range of learning styles. Learning by touching, making and doing does not suit everyone, but by tapping into a different part of the brain, it can help you overcome some of those knotty problems that get in the way of writing. It can be a powerful tool for understanding key concepts, organising ideas and planning the structure of an academic essay, dissertation or article. I find that the sight of colourful construction pieces in a serious academic workshop lightens the mood and makes people feel that the workshop promises to be exciting and fun. And when high-achieving academics throw themselves into a construction task, it often lives up to that promise.

8 November 2017
Managing the writing process

Managing the writing process

When I was a Writing Fellow at the University of Bath, sometimes a doctoral student would arrive for their 50-minute one-to-one session with a glum expression on their face. They’d say something like, ‘I’m writing up my thesis and each day seems the same. I’m spending the whole day writing and it’s getting me down. Can you help?’ My response, after reassuring them that everything was OK, was to find out what exactly they did in their working day.

I’m aware that most academics and professional writers don’t sit down and write all day. Writing is an intensive and challenging activity. Most professional writers write for a few hours in the morning or evening and do other writing-related activities at other times — finding sources, reading, planning, and checking their writing. And thinking.

In my book about successful academic writing, I summarise the writing process like this:

The arrows show that writing does not flow smoothly forward. It is typical, particularly in academic writing, to backtrack and do further reading and research based on what you discover when you start writing.

The activities that make up the overall writing process can all be managed. When you’re writing your thesis, the working day can be split among different activities. I suggest you don’t do any of them for more than half of the day. Mix and match them according to your preferences.

Nowadays, I run thesis-writing workshops at several universities. When I unravel what a doctoral student does, I often find that they’re not very aware of their writing process. They don’t manage it well, wasting time with distractions and interruptions. I discover they have preferences about when to compose. Most prefer to compose in the morning or evening.

My advice? Find out what your preferences are, and work to them. Find a good place to compose. Set yourself targets, write in bite-sized chunks of an hour or so, and deal with emails and texts during breaks. Don’t waste time on distractions and interruptions. If you stay focused you can achieve a lot in three or four hours of writing a day. Then you can spend the rest of the time on other activities.

Writing a thesis is a marvellous opportunity, not only to improve the quality of your writing but also the way you manage your writing. These are skills that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life.

23 October 2017
How was it for you? Accepting feedback

How was it for you? Accepting feedback

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

Katie Grant

Feedback is an important learning tool, and because we all use it, we imagine we know how it works. Yet if we learn anything from the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the evolving scheme for rating undergraduate teaching in the UK, it’s that feedback isn’t working. As calculated by WonkHE, even some TEF gold-rated universities fell ‘significantly short’ in their undergraduate feedback. In writing workshops I’ve found that dissatisfaction with feedback also emerges as a key issue for academic staff. They may question the value both of the feedback they give students and the feedback they themselves receive, particularly on papers submitted to academic journals.

Years of wearing multiple writing hats – newspaper columnist, novelist, RLF Fellow and Consultant Fellow – have taught me that successful feedback combines two elements: from the giver, clarity; and for the receiver, emotional resilience, since feedback, however well-intentioned, can often feel like a punch in the guts.

With my own guts still aching from a recent punch, I’ll take the emotional side first. As I try to impress on academics and students in the workshops I run as a Consultant Fellow, key to emotional recovery is understanding that feedback isn’t personal. The editor/tutor is not focussed on you, the writer, but on the reader. Will the reader find logical gaps? A dearth of evidence? A grating tone? Once you’ve removed the personal, it’s easier to accept the feedback. Still, the best thing is to read it once, then close it and go for a brisk walk. When you return, read it again slowly. It’s this slow reading which often reveals that what, in your first anxious hurry, you read as negatively undermining is, in truth, positively improving.

On the practical side, feedback needs to be instantly comprehensible. The receiver should never have to ask ‘what does this feedback mean’? Three basic questions guide good practical feedback. What, exactly, needs looking at? Why, exactly, does it need looking at? How, precisely, might a solution be approached? For gold-standard feedback, detailed answers to these three questions are vital.

Years ago, in response to a first draft of my first novel, I received gold-standard feedback. The memory still kicks me in the guts. But ten novels, an academic writing website and countless newspaper columns later, it’s been incomparably valuable for my own work, and for my ability to help others give and receive the kind of transformative feedback that unlocks a writer’s full potential and presents a piece to its best advantage.

22 October 2017