Understanding Motivation

Hoskins, S.L., and Newstead, S.E. (2009).  Encouraging student motivation. In: Fry, H. et al (eds). A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education: enhancing academic practice. 3rd edn. Abingdon: Routledge, specifically pp 27-29.


I have previously wondered about how to deal with a lack of writer motivation in sessions, and in reading general pedagogical research, lately, I came across this great breakdown of different types of motivation, which can enable understanding of how and why it works.

Researchers Hoskins and Newstead were struck, themselves, back in 1996, by how little research there was into student motivation.  They therefore carried out a study, asking students to offer a single reason for why they came to university.  The researchers then classified the answers into three groups, which seemed to fit the other literature well:

Means to an end constituting 66% of answers: relating to the desire for qualifications, and career advancement.

Personal development as 24% of all answers: a genuine interest in the subject, and wishing to realise their potential.

Stopgap as just 10% of responses: those who could not think of anything else to do, deferring career decisions, wanting to enjoy themselves, or laziness.

The researchers then explore how these categories fit the classification of motivation by other researchers:

Extrinsic motivation: desiring external rewards and/or notoriety.

Intrinsic motivation: wanting to master a subject, curiosity, and enjoyment of challenges.

And the concept of amotivation, which arises when speaking to those who don’t know why they’re at university, feel little control over their future, feel incompetent, and generally show an absence of motivation in other words.

Hoskins and Newstead point out that ‘This highlights that motivation has strength as well as direction’.  So, as supporters of learning, we need to be aware not only of the variety of motivational goals people have, but we also need to identify the strength of people’s motivations.  They may share the same goal as others, the researchers note, but not to the same degree, and so end up being less motivated to achieve said goals.  Thus, there appear to be three types of motivation in all:

Intrinsic, extrinsic, and also achievement motivation (to which amotivation [a lack of motivation] is at the opposite end of the spectrum).

I believe it is worth knowing about this, and why people feel the way they do, in order to best accommodate their learning.  We could, for instance, relate academic work to real world situations for extrinsic motivation, focus on problem-solving more for those intrinsically motivated, or work on boosting morale for those guided by achievement motivation.  And I guess the way to find out which kind of motivation we might be dealing with, is just to ask the writer.


What’s in a Question?

If you’ve read my posts, you’ll have probably realised that an important feature of my mentoring style is the centrality of questions.  However, in reading for the HEA Associate Fellowship application, I have discovered there is much more to the question than first appears.

Most people will have come across the difference between open questions (‘What do you think about X?) and closed questions (Do you like X?).  But did you know that questions, and the listening process as a whole, can be further categorised into ‘diagnostic’ or ‘active’?

According to Connor and Pokora (2012), it is important to distinguish between the two, and to implement the latter, for mentoring.  They point out that diagnostic listening and related questions are selective and are essentially about problem-solving, about ready ‘suggestions framed as questions’, or asking questions the mentee already knows the answer to, and they tend to be closed.  In short, they seem to benefit the mentor more than the mentee.

I think it’s worth acknowledging that these kinds of questions may work well at the start of the mentoring session, in which we need to know certain facts in order for the session to run smoothly: What’s the topic? Is this a draft or finished piece?  Have you considered the Tutor feedback?  But we need to progress to more active listening for the mentee to really benefit in the main part of the session.

According to the literature, we can achieve active listening by focusing on the mentee as a whole rather than a specific issue, and by:

  • using questions that paraphrase the mentee, in order to show we have heard and understood them without filtering or evaluating, as well as allowing them to hear their own words aloud to allow for reflection on their own meaning;
  • asking genuine questions to explore all avenues of information and interpretations;
  • asking no questions at all, but instead falling silent, to allow for reflection and to create a space for the mentee to elaborate on their ideas;
  • utilising non-verbal cues to see how the mentee is feeling, and also how their body language might say something different to their words;
  • raising discrepancies we might hear between what the mentee says and what is on the page they present;
  • repeating key words that the mentee uses in order to query/challenge the usage;
  • and making any suggestions in a tentative way, to allow the mentee time to consider them as options only.

So what’s in a question?  Apparently a lot, if it’s the right type of question!


Connor, M., and Pokora, J. (2012). Coaching and Mentoring at Work: Developing Effective Practice. 2nd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press.


Managing Dissatisfaction

I recently attended a training course at Bangor University, with Dr Fay Short, on how to manage dissatisfaction, which I found to be surprisingly illuminating and useful for a number of settings.  One of which, of course, was mentoring.  So I’ll provide a brief summary of what I learned that could help us in our sessions.

Modern life promotes dissatisfaction, even within ourselves

Fay explained how evaluation forms are everywhere.  Cute and fun selfies abound on social media.  Gossip bubbles up in every classroom and office.  Lifestyles of the rich and famous are shown constantly on TV.  TripAdvisor reviews skim over the great parts to really shout about the few tiny ‘disasters’ that happened on every holiday.  And we are almost conditioned now, not just to compare people and events, but also to look for negatives rather than positives; which, as academics, you know goes hand in hand with a balanced criticality.  In fact, at times, we also focus too much on looking to have our expectations not only met, but surpassed.  But, again, in academia, provided that an argument is strong, with evidence to back it up, there is really no need to seek a Nobel Prize for every essay or article written.  Graduation and publication should suffice.

Dissatisfaction in the mentoring context

Therefore, it’s possible that the way might be paved for dissatisfaction to creep into our mentoring sessions, perhaps in sneaky ways.

How many sessions have we had in which:

  • a mentee hands their essay over for you to check (could this writer simply want a proof reading service?),
  • or comes in looking desperate and saying that they didn’t know where else to turn (could they want this hour to change their entire academic career?),
  • or says that they want to know everything about referencing so they don’t get into trouble again (is this possible in an hour, especially when paraphrasing takes time to practice?),
  • or that they want to write English fluently (sometimes this cannot – and should not – be achieved in a lifetime?)?

Perhaps being more aware that these kind of expectations lead to potential dissatisfaction can help us to approach the session with more proactive questions and firmer boundaries: we cannot do that, but we can offer you this service instead; that’s a lot to achieve in an hour, so what would you like to start with?

We also need to be aware of our own potential expectations of a session.  How open minded are we before a session?  Has our preparation beforehand set up too many expectations of how a session will go, only to find that it takes a completely different turn?  How often do we hope that writers don’t ask us about certain topics, or wish that the writer had brought their essay or assignment details, even if they can tell us everything we need to know?  Again, maybe we need to learn to recognise our thinking, and learn how to wipe the slate clean, so that we can come to each session fresh and ready for anything.

But how can we deal with the dissatisfaction that we, and others, feel?

Ways to alleviate or avoid dissatisfaction

We can change our expectations.  Fay is right: how can we enjoy a gruelling essay, for instance, which is usually how we rate satisfaction?  But it pushes us, and we feel great afterwards, having learned a lot, improved our skills, and boosted our employability.

Breaking a habit, such a negative thinking, can be achieved more easily by relearning a new more positive one.  So, instead of allowing a writer to complain about things, we can reflect with them on how smoothly a session activity is going, or focus on what they have already achieved, and what they learned from this session that they didn’t know at the start.  We can ask them – and ourselves – to think of three positives about an otherwise negative situation or problem, and we can turn ‘what if’ statements from worries into hope: what if I get an A?  What if it’s a really fun session?

And a really great message from the training was that managing dissatisfaction is not about ignoring or avoiding the negatives in life, but an attempt to stop looking for them, and look for positives instead.

In the School of Psychology, they’ve also come up with a great structured model for dealing with dissatisfaction too (along the same lines as the skills you pick up if you work in customer service for long enough!).  As this is a public blog, I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that the more background to a problem you can get, and the more questions you ask someone with a complaint, the better you are both able to move forward to resolve whatever the issue is.

A mentoring example

So, to put this advice into practice, let’s take a possible example in the mentoring context.

A writer comes to a session to complain about the grade and feedback they got for an essay recently.  First of all, is the dissatisfaction really about the grade and feedback?  Is the feedback, for instance, when you read it yourself, way too vague and lacking in examples, or too personal, maybe too negative?  Or is the writer’s problem based more on how the feedback makes them feel guilty about staying out late the night before the essay deadline, or that they simply disagreed with a tutor about an interpretation of the material, or perhaps they’re feeling overwhelmed by other things and this grade just isn’t helping?

Asking questions – as with everything in mentoring 😉 – helps a lot here.  We need to establish, for example, what the situation is, what the mentee knows already, if they have already spoken to the tutor about the feedback, and whether they have re-read the essay in light of the feedback, to check if it makes sense?  Is there any background to the situation that the writer might not even know?  If a tutor is suddenly curt, for instance, have they had their own crisis to deal with recently?

Once you know what the writer’s issue is, then you can start discussing with the mentee how to resolve it.  But it’s important that they come up with some possible solutions of their own here, especially if it appears that the writer simply wishes to complain about everything and dismisses all of your suggestions, because maybe they just wanted to vent.  Asking the writer to come up with ideas of their own can shift the onus of resolving the problem to the dissatisfied person, while allowing them a feeling of empowerment, helping them to narrow down the session topic, and it can show a person how difficult it is to change a situation sometimes.  Maybe, for instance, the marking criteria is fixed for a reason, and they just didn’t meet it in a particular area.  But this is something they can learn to do for next time.  Or maybe they’d like a chance to resubmit on a different topic, and this is something they can discuss with their School?  Alternatively, the writer decides they want to learn how to better structure an argument, and then they’ve definitely come to the right place.

Following this discussion, it’s worth making an action plan, as we do on each of our Appointment Record Forms, for how the writer can take the matter forward, positively, such discussing the feedback with the tutor, or by analysing the feedback and choosing two major things to work on for the next essay.


Thus, a lot of what we do already reflects this training.  But I think what I really learned the other day was both why these actions are so important, and also how to recognise our deep-seated perceptions and feelings that can lead to dissatisfaction and complaining.  Also, how to approach these impressions and expectations head on with focussed questions, to see that ‘in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity’ – Albert Einstein.



Cain, Susan (2013). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. London: Penguin Books.

Out of a desire to understand myself, and others, better, I recently read a popular psychology text on personalities: specifically introversion and its role in society, as compared with extraversion.  Relevant, well-researched, and highly engaging, I found this book to be a revelation on some deep-seated behaviours which people exhibit and on contemporary beliefs about how people ‘ought’ to be.

Not only has this given me greater clarity on my own personality, to see more of my strengths as well as my weaknesses, but I also feel I can use this information in mentoring.  This is partly because of an improved awareness of the variety of people I’m in contact with, but partly also because I can now see in what ways I can adapt to get the best out of everyone, students’ needs not being equal.

This reading works well alongside knowledge of different learning methods, for instance kinaesthetic activities as opposed to visual aids, and also alongside more specific discussions we may have in sessions covering, for example, giving presentations, working on group assignments, or even how best to take notes.  I would definitely recommend reading this work, especially to those working in a pedagogical setting.

Here are a few of the things I learned which pertains to our mentoring work:

Firstly, it is important to recognise that there is a spectrum of introversion and extraversion, and that there is bound to be some situational variation, while everyone is unique and has a different upbringing.  Yet, personality type is a topic worth exploring and acknowledging, enabling people to collaborate more successfully.  For instance, it appears from this reading that there is cultural variation, with more introversion in the East than in the West, which could explain why some students find it harder to criticise published work or tend to struggle with paraphrasing out of respect for the experts and hesitancy to voice their own ideas.

At the beginning of the book, Cain explains some of this background, specifically the cultural trend in the West: how, in North America, public speaking moved from the arena of lawyers, politicians, and clergy, to the business world almost overnight.  Dale Carnegie best harnessed this change in need and ethos in the early 20th century, a change from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality, an equally recent concept.  So the self-help book we know so well today evolved from something like seventeenth century John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’ Progress, foregrounding the importance of morality, integrity, and duty, to promoting charisma, energy, and social dominance as in Carnegie’s world famous How to Win Friends and Influence People.

This vastly changed the landscape for people’s aspirations and models of success, pushing introverts into the corner of a growing party, in which one’s social CV has come to mean as much – if not more – than a person’s skills, knowledge, and interests.  So Harvard Business School, for instance, bases its education around the notion that leaders need to think on their feet and appear consistently self-assured, so as not to lose the confidence of investors.  Though this means they can make swift decisions without the necessary facts, and can be prone to goal and reward-driven behaviour akin to gambling addictions.  Hollywood stars have become idolised, and fast talkers are frequently given job opportunities and promotions over steadier but quieter workers.  In addition, multitaskers may be heralded as the height of efficiency, though it has been shown in scientific studies that multitasking is actually just ‘switching back and forth between multiple tasks’, reducing productivity and accuracy by up to 50%.

However, the introverts who leave a party early, are lodged in the library on a Saturday night, delay their response to a question that others might answer immediately, or share a conversation after which you find you know very little about them but feel like you’ve been heard and understood for the first time in a long while, offer a vast array of talents which may be overlooked by today’s society.  For instance:

  • Great at listening, they excel in sales roles because they empathise with customers and their needs, and can solve their problem, not just push a product;
  • They have a fondness for in-depth conversation, so make great counsellors, instead of jumping in with their own life story at every turn;
  • They engage in better preparation for events like a presentation or interview;
  • Persistence, like Gandhi’s, is an introvert trait too, and when it comes to solving problems, they often stick with an issue for much longer than extraverts;
  • Better at avoiding pitfalls due to greater forethought, reflection, and threat sensitivity, they are not as reward sensitive, so take fewer risks and have less ambition than extraverts. Extraverts might win big, but they also might lose more often too;
  • And although introverts might be more likely to blush when feeling embarrassed, one study shows that people who blush are judged more positively by other, as it ‘signified concern for others’.

The book also includes advice throughout on how to cope in the world as an introvert.  For example:

  • Introverts can read social cues as well as, if not better than, extraverts, but they are not necessarily able to do this at the same time as having the conversation and concentrating on the content, hence they may prefer to people-watch more, or try one-to-ones, in which there is less incoming information;
  • If, however, an introvert is attending a party, or giving a talk for example, they should arrive at the venue early so that when other people come, they join a space the introvert has grown comfortable in;
  • When public speaking, it is perfectly normal to feel nervous with hundreds of eyes on us, as from an evolutionary perspective, it often meant that we were going to be dinner for something, so we all need to accept this feeling. But it can help to concentrate on subjects we’re passionate about, while paying attention to how our body feels when we’re relaxed and confident, to be able to emulate this when feeling nervous;
  • Introverts can also try breathing exercises to increase muscle usage, and thus volume and power when speaking;
  • As introversion often correlates with high sensitivity – that is a strong biological reception to incoming information with almost no filter, they need more quiet time, less coffee, and to approach new experiences slowly and gradually, like a child at the ocean’s edge dipping their toes into the water before going swimming. Even excitement needs to be regulated, so that the introvert does not become overwhelmed and end up experiencing an emotional crash;
  • And it is crucial to take time at the end of the day, between meetings, and so on, to recharge with a hobby, pets, a walk in the park, writing in a diary, or yoga. Where extraverts crave company to boost their energy, introverts may have to cancel a social event before a big meeting, or catch a breath of fresh air after a seminar.  While this behaviour may be occurring already, it’s important to recognise this as perfectly healthy, and it should also become more socially acceptable as any other equal rights issue.

What I love most about this book is that its main message is not that introversion is better than extraversion, or vice versa; but that both complement one another perfectly in a ‘healthy mix’.  Therefore, we should seek not only to discover who we are and what we can offer, but also to recognise the value others bring to the table, and how we can best work together.

So, for instance, one study looked at how extraverted and introverted leaders best suit different types of employees.  With proactive employees, who work hard and want to generate ideas, an introverted leader allows them the most freedom to try things, and boosts this productivity in a successive cycle.  Whereas, with passive employees, an extravert leader will best inspire them to achieve more.

And in other studies, it is shown that by trying to be someone you’re not – the opposite personality type – the body suffers from illnesses like stress and cardiovascular disease, while this behaviour colours our perception and even lexical choices: we are more likely to opt for negative words after repressing ourselves, than if allowed to feel how we need to at any given time.

Moreover, the book points out how solitude can actually be ‘magical’ in its own right, regardless of personality type.  Its benefits include:

  • ‘Deliberate Practice’, identified as key to exceptional achievement, as it allows the individual to identify their particular needs, to strive for improvement, monitor progress, and prevents distraction;
  • Perhaps surprisingly, compared to individual separate offices, open-plan offices (or libraries I guess) have a higher staff turn-over, less social cohesion, while they are also associated with greater sickness levels, less productivity, and impaired memory, on account of the lack of privacy and increased distraction raising heart rates and cortisol levels (the fight-or-flight hormone) more often. Plus, there is obviously less quiet time for intense work with frequent interruptions of all kinds;
  • Email and other online collaboration (take Wikipedia, for instance) can be much more productive and effective than face-to-face meetings, or Alex Osborn’s concept of group brainstorming. This was born in the 1940s and 1950s to encourage people to share their ideas more, though a later, unbiased study actually showed that a larger volume of ideas, which were of equal or higher quality, were actually contributed by individuals and not groups.  This is because not everyone feels comfortable shouting out in a group, some will sit back and let everyone else do the work, and some people take more time to generate the ideas in the first place.  Scarily, even brain activity is affected by being in a group, so that conforming isn’t just a conscious attempt to fit in, but a biological inevitability.

That’s a lot to ponder, and to adapt to in our sessions.  If you’re intrigued to learn more, I’d definitely recommend you read Cain’s book for more anecdotes, research, and tricks and tips on navigating everyday situations whichever end of the spectrum you may be on.

And if you’re wondering if you could share the personality of a host of famous introverts like Peter Pan’s author, J.M. Barrie, Frédéric Chopin, Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, and Apple Cofounder Steve Wozniak, you can try Cain’s quiz on p13.

Happy reading; and I wish you all a quiet evening – at least once in a while.



A Mentor’s Journey

How did I not know this, as someone who studied Classics?!  The word mentor actually comes from Homer’s Odyssey, and has had a bit of a journey itself:

The story of Mentor comes from Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus, king of Ithaca, fights in the Trojan War and entrusts the care of his household to Mentor, who serves as teacher and overseer of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus.

After the war, Odysseus is condemned to wander vainly for ten years in his attempt to return home. In time, Telemachus, now grown, ventures in search of his father. Athena, Goddess of War and patroness of the arts and industry, assumes the form of Mentor and accompanies Telemachus on his quest. Father and son reunite and cast down would-be usurpers of Odysseus’ throne and Telemachus’s birthright.

The word Mentor evolved to mean trusted advisor, friend, teacher and wise person. History offers many examples of helpful mentoring relationships: Socrates and Plato, Hayden and Beethoven, Freud and Jung. Mentoring is a fundamental form of human development where one person invests time, energy and personal know-how in assisting the growth and ability of another person.

History and legend record the deeds of princes and kings, but each of us has a birthright to actualize our potential. Through their deeds and work, mentors help us to move toward that actualization.

*From Shea, Gordon F. (1997) Mentoring (Rev. Ed.). Menlo Park, CA: Crisp Publications


In Homer’s Odyssey, the character, Mentor, first appears in Book 2, and the goddess Athena even ends the entire epic poem in Mentor’s guise.  She does this to bring peace to the local warring households that have tried to seize Odysseus’ wife Penelope’s hand in marriage and Odysseus’ estate in Ithaca in his twenty years away: at the Trojan War and on his voyage back home.


A bit more on the word itself:

mentor (n.)

“wise adviser,” 1750, from Greek Mentor, friend of Odysseus and adviser of Telemachus (but often actually Athene in disguise) in the “Odyssey,” perhaps ultimately meaning “adviser,” because the name appears to be an agent noun of mentos “intent, purpose, spirit, passion” from PIE *mon-eyo- (source also of Sanskrit man-tar- “one who thinks,” Latin mon-i-tor “one who admonishes”), causative form of root *men- (1) “to think.” The general use of the word probably is via later popular romances, in which Mentor played a larger part than he does in Homer.

mentor (v.)

1888, from mentor (n.). Related: Mentored; mentoring.


I love learning something every day!  Including, that we have a lot of history to live up to; so I guess it’s back to the library to prepare for our next round of sessions!


Bouncing Back from Feedback


We are all told – as students – about the importance of reading and noting the feedback we get from Tutors and Supervisors, as well as from other readers, whether in written or spoken form.

However, in all these cases, it is possible that the feedback comments could be less than helpful: maybe because they are not detailed enough with examples, feel too much like a subjective judgment rather than an objective critique, or simply confuse the writer who felt confident heading off in one direction…only to be told (suddenly) to change their approach.

I have been there before, mystified by a reader’s feedback, while more recently a friend of mine has undergone a painful reassessment of their work on the basis of an unavoidable – but only partially articulated – requirement to update.

As such, I thought it might be helpful to have a little look at online advice regarding this matter, and have broken down the information as follows.  Hopefully, this may help mentees to work with Tutor feedback more effectively, while it may also boost our approach as commentators – and students – ourselves.

To pre-empt unhelpful feedback:

Considering pre-empting a Tutor by asking questions like:

  • Am I on track?
  • How might I improve?
  • What aspects should I focus on in this piece of work?
  • What are my strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement?

Consider, also a self-assessment.  How do you feel about your work?  What do you struggle with, that you might like help with?  What are you particularly proud of?  Can you discuss these aspects in more detail with Tutors?

Moreover, have you edited your work before submitting? In terms of structure, argument, references, and grammar/spelling/punctuation?

To respond to unhelpful feedback:

Academics are rarely taught how to give feedback; but as students, we’re not taught to receive feedback either!  Therefore, this area needs a careful approach – ideally from both sides, but certainly as the student, we need to take the lead for our own degree.  So try to make this process as useful, positive, and constructive as possible.

It is worthwhile remembering that it is a compliment to have someone spend time and energy assessing your work, especially when they are experts in your field.

The more preparation you do before engaging in feedback reading/discussion, the more open you will be to the feedback.  So ask yourself first: how did that work really go?  What would I have changed if I could do it again?  What will I try again because it worked well?  How might I put these changes into effect?

Read your feedback immediately. It is important that the work is still fresh in your mind, for the feedback to make the most sense.  If you have only had oral feedback, request something in writing that will be more tangible and longer lasting.

But, after reading the feedback, let it sink in before charging into the Tutor’s office to demand a re-mark!  We can read things differently (more negatively) in the heat of the moment, or fail to realise that a particular comment may have been more accurate than we’d like it to be.  Plus, you need to decide what are the most useful questions you need to ask before having that conversation.

Note that there are three major types of written feedback:

  • Referential: editorial, organisational, and content comments
  • Directive: suggestions for change, questions, and instructions
  • Expressive: praise, criticism, and opinion

Another way of breaking down the comments is by content or technical issues: are they discussing your inability to criticise sources, or the referencing format?

Also, try to separate fact from opinion, as well as the delivery from the content of the message.  A comment like, ‘I think this is great and well-referenced’, for instance, is different to ‘This work adds a new perspective on this topic by examining X, and there are plenty of accurate and relevant citations.’  Or ‘clearly you haven’t bothered to read Y’s theory’ as compared to ‘In this section, you demonstrate no awareness of Y’s theory in relation to this topic’.

If you cannot work out what the Tutor is asking for or criticising, ask for specific examples or actions to take, such as ‘In paragraph 4, line 3, you need to add another example of why you think Z’ or ‘try, next time, to use more varied language instead of repeating however’.

To this end, I came across a fantastic UCL website (listed below), offering a list of typical phrases used in feedback.  The site decodes them, with instructions and examples.  For instance, on the subject of ‘developing a point’, it states that it might be useful to supply more examples and explain the implications of the point raised.  Or on a ‘lack of criticality’, the site shows an instance of adding comments to, and not just paraphrasing, a source.

Another thing to find out, regarding feedback, is what to do with it: can you/do you have to try the work again, and when is this for?  Can you revise a small section for a review – whether or not it will affect your marks?  Even if it was amazing feedback that makes you dance around, still try to learn how you can produce the same results next time!

Last, but absolutely not least, prioritise the issues raised.  Discuss with your Tutor which aspects to work: just on one or two of the most important issues first, before tackling everything else.  It is important not to overwhelm yourself, while you’re trying to learn everything else as well, this approach will also ensure lasting improvement.






Why does feedback hurt sometimes?


An Architects Guide To Essay Planning

Blog Post 2 Pic

Over the course of my essays in university I’ve come to realise I’m an architect when it comes to writing. That is I plan so much that when it comes to writing the essay itself there’s little thinking to be done. In the first year of my undergrad degree Dr. Lyle Skains of the School of Creative Studies and Media went through a planning format for producing a coherent essay that I still use to this day regardless of what kind of essay I happen to be planning. Since I, and several other students, have found this format to be very useful I thought it would be beneficial to write it out so that mentee’s who much prefer planning out their essays in great depth can be made aware of it during sessions…

First, make a note of the total word count of the essay, for this example let’s say we’re dealing with a 4,000 word essay:

Total word count = 4,000


Your introduction should take up roughly about 10% of the overall word count. In this case 10% of 4,000 comes to 400 hundred words so…

Intro = 400 words

Based on this method of planning a good introduction should do five things:

  • Make sure the subject is clear.

What we’re looking for here is something as simple as stating what kind of work is being written; argumentative essay, report, critical analysis, proposal, etc.

  • Purpose/Argument

What is the reason behind writing this essay? What is the main argument/point/information you’re trying to convey to your reader?

  • Background & Context

Establishing the state of the art, introducing (by name rather than explanation) the main theorists and theories being put forward.

  • Justification & Importance

Why is this essay being written? Why should we care that is has been? Is it looking at something new and interesting? Going to argue a point that has yet to be made?

  • Forecasting

My favourite line to use in mentor meetings: ‘essays are not mystery novels’ forecast the structure of the essay so the marker (and us as mentors) know what the essay should look like, the flow of thought behind it and what kind of conclusions you might come to.

Main Body

Having prepped an introduction the main body and conclusion of the essay would come next. Though I, personally, tend to leave the introduction till last as I find it easier to plan out with a planned essay body already made. A conclusion should be roughly about 5% of the total word count (so 200 words in this example) leaving us with a total of 3,600 words to write. A good paragraph that makes a coherent point in depth could be roughly 300 words, so that’s the total we’ll be working off here.

3,600 ÷ 300 = 12

Based off that we have about twelve decent paragraphs to plan out for this essay. The best way to do this is to think of each paragraph as its own mini essay and work accordingly. There should always be a topic sentence within each paragraph (preferably the first, occasionally the second sentence) which explains the subject-matter of that specific paragraph. This can be an argument being put forth, a subject that is being explained, etc. It is always vital to think how this topic being set out works to answer the overall essay question to help keep the piece of work on track; with that shall usually come 3-5 supporting statements that link back to supporting evidence that is then expanded upon to create an overall point for the essay. Finally, a closing statement should restate the topic of the paragraph (linking it back to the overall essay question by extension) and lead into the topic of the next paragraph as well. This helps with the flow of the essay and settles the reader into the introduction of a new topic/argument.


Having briefly mentioned this above, we know the total length of the conclusion in this case should be roughly 200 words and it is vital those words are used effectively. Within a conclusion there should be no new information or arguments as they should have already been covered. What a conclusion should do is restate the thesis (purpose/argument) and sum up all of the sub-arguments that were crafted within the essay paragraphs; it should also restate the importance of the research (justification & importance). Finally, if appropriate, the conclusion could mention further avenues for the research; new directions it could go, elements that could be expanded upon, or topics that were not covered in this essay whose relevance could be worth looking into in later (larger) projects.

By the time all this planning has been done writing the essay is the easy part as all you’re doing is transferring the information from a plan to essay format, writing it out eloquently and ensuring the spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct. I hope you guys have found this useful and if you ever get any mentee’s who’re looking to try a more architectural approach to essay writing this comes in useful.

Encouraging Others

I was having a nose around the web on how to encourage student writers more and came across this great succinct blog:

10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning…

1. Don’t make all the decisions

Allow choice. Encourage students to make decisions about how they learn best. Create opportunities for them to pursue their own interests and practise skills in a variety of ways.  Cater for different learning styles. Don’t expect everyone to respond in the same way. Integrate technology to encourage creative expression of learning.

2. Don’t play guess what’s in my head

Ask open-ended questions, with plenty of possible answers which lead to further questions.   Acknowledge all responses equally. Use Thinking Routines to provide a framework for students to engage with new learning by making connections, thinking critically and exploring possibilities.

3. Talk less

Minimise standing out front and talking at them.  Don’t have rows of learners facing the front of the class.  Arrange the seats so that students can communicate, think together, share ideas and construct meaning by discussing and collaborating. Every exchange doesn’t need to go through the teacher or get the teacher’s approval, encourage students to respond directly to each other.

4. Model behaviors and attitudes that promote learning.

Talk about your own learning. Be an inquirer. Make your thinking process explicit. Be an active participant in the learning community. Model and encourage enthusiasm, open-mindedness, curiosity and reflection.  Show that you value initiative above compliance.

5. Ask for feedback

Get your students to write down what they learned, whether they enjoyed a particular learning experience, what helped their learning, what hindered their learning and what might help them next time. Use a Thinking Routine like ‘Connect, extend, challenge’. Take notice of what they write and build learning experiences based on it.

6. Test less

Record student thinking and track development over time. Provide opportunities for applying learning in a variety of ways. Create meaningful assessment tasks that  allow transfer of learning to other contexts. Have students publish expressions of their learning on the internet for an authentic audience. Place as much value on process and progress as on the final product.

7.  Encourage goal setting and reflection.

Help students to define goals for their learning. Provide opportunities for ongoing self-evaluation and reflection. Provide constructive, specific feedback.   Student blogs are great tools for reflecting on learning and responding to their peers.

8. Don’t over plan.

If you know exactly where the lesson is leading and what you want the kids to think, then you‘re controlling the learning. Plan a strong provocation that will ‘invite the students in’ and get them excited to explore the topic further. But don’t  plan in too much detail where it will go from there.

9.  Focus on learning, not work.

Make sure you and your students know the reason for every learning experience. Don’t give ‘busy work’. Avoid worksheets where possible. Don’t start by planning activities, start with the ‘why‘ and then develop learning experiences which will support independent learning.  Include appropriate tech tools to support the learning.

10.  Organise student led conferences

Rather than reporting to parents about their children’s learning, have student led 3-way conferences, with teacher and parents. The student talks about her strengths and weaknesses, how her learning has progressed and areas for improvement. She can share the process and the product of her learning.



This webpage also led me to a great site on visible thinking: ‘a flexible and systematic research-based approach to integrating the development of students’ thinking with content learning across subject matters…to cultivate students’ thinking skills and dispositions, and…to deepen content learning. By thinking dispositions, we mean curiosity, concern for truth and understanding, a creative mindset, not just being skilled but also alert to thinking and learning opportunities and eager to take them’.

I hope to add another blog with a summary of this info soon.



Don’t forget the audience

Trupe, A. L. (2005) Organizing Ideas. In B. Rafoth (Ed.), A tutor’s guide: Helping writers one to one (2nd ed.). (pp. 98-106). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publihsers, Inc.

This book has a fantastic chapter on structuring  your writing (Chapter 11: Organizing Ideas). The most useful advice the chapter offers is to be aware of the perspective you take when organizing your writing. The author suggests that there are two primary viewpoints one can take in order to do this: the viewpoint of the writer and the viewpoint of the reader.

Taking the writer’s perspective will generate a question like ‘What do I want to say?’, and writers will often organize their writing based on the answer to that question. However, the chapter suggests moving towards an organization that is based, instead, on the reader. One such guiding question is, ‘What does the reader need to know?’ This will move the writer to take on the reader’s perspective, giving insight into any existing gaps that need to be filled.

We, as writers, can easily cloud our judgment about the coherence of our work simply due to the fact that we (usually) already know what we want to say. We already know that it makes sense. Of course, this coherence doesn’t always translate to the reader. After-all, the reader doesn’t necessarily have the same presuppositions as the writer. As such, this distinction can be helpful to ensure that no leaps in logic are made in the writing (as well as many other errors).

Hope you find this helpful.