Emergency Stop Test

During my own research preparation, I came across the following analogy which I thought was quite creative and to the point.


When writing, it is important to be able to implement the emergency stop test – just as when driving – so that if the reader were to stop at any random point in your work, they could summarise what’s happening, what the key themes are, what the structure of the work is, what has already been discussed, what is about to be discussed, and what the thread of the argument is so far.

If headings are too vague, the writing lacks signposting, or the themes/argument are not explicit enough, it makes the reader’s job much harder.  Plus, I guess, if our poor readers had to stop for some kind of emergency – volcanic eruption, rogue pet chewing the furniture, favourite TV programme coming on – then we would want them to be able to pick back up where they left off with ease.

Dunleavy, P. (2003). Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


Learning Has Style

As you may know, there are different ways in which individuals learn.  However, what I hadn’t realised is just how many different ways there are.  Whilst reading Bates’ text on learning models and theories, I was amazed at all of the concepts.  So I have created a summary of what seem to be the essentials for our sessions, to be utilised in terms of how we engage with writers, as well as helping writers to understand themselves more:

R.H. Dave (70s)

Produced a prominent learning taxonomy to explain how people master skills, by working through each level upwards:

  • Level 1: Imitation (observe and replicate actions)
  • Level 2: Manipulation (reproduce the action from memory)
  • Level 3: Precision (demonstrate/execute the action accurately without help)
  • Level 4: Articulation (integrate/adapt a range of skills)
  • Level 5: Naturalisation (automatic mastery/creation of new designs or knowledge)

Myers-Briggs (60s, 70s, and 80s)

 I would challenge anyone not to have heard of the Myers-Briggs test by now.  Their Type Indicator (MBTI) is a personality descriptor, with four different scales, resulting in 16 different possible personality types:                         aThis results in different individuals responding differently to deadlines, directions, sensory experience, problem-solving activities, generating new ideas, applying knowledge, avoiding or enjoying routine tasks, interaction with others, how they express themselves and how well, and their varied preference for concreate information or more abstract ideas.  It is another reason why we should vary our approaches when mentoring.

David Kolb (80s)

Theorised that learning is based on two continuous dimensions concerning how people take in information and how they internalise information, to create four dominant styles:


Honey and Mumford (80s, and 2004)

Developed Kolb’s inventory to characterise people’s preferred (but not necessarily best) learning styles as:

  • Activists (learn by doing, are open-minded, try new ideas, enjoy group work, and dislike routine)
  • Reflectors (observe, have a meticulous approach, consider why things happen, and can be slow to make decisions)
  • Theorists (think of original ways of achieving goals, and explore how new information fits their existing understanding, but can get impatient with those who disagree on ideas)
  • Pragmatists (are natural problem-solvers and are keen to use new ideas, but lose interest if things do not work)

 Anthony Gregorc (80s and 2006)

Proposed that there are four innate combinations of behaviours in terms of how we both perceive information and also in how we arrange, systemise, record, and dispose of information:


 Ned Herrman (90s)

Developed the notion of right and left brain thinking and divided the brain into quadrants:



Neil Fleming (2001)

Developed the VARK model, one of the most widely used assessment of learning styles, which can – and possibly should – be mixed:

  • Visual (learn best through mental images and pictures),
  • Auditory (learn best through lectures and group discussions),
  • Reading (learn best through, written material) and,
  • Kinaesthetic (learn best through interacting with others and local space).

Possible Learning Activities for Sessions

  • Mind maps
  • Analogies and metaphors
  • Presenting ideas in pictures or through music, even dance
  • Role plays and simulations
  • Case studies, anecdotes, and role models
  • Link between past and present to visualise the future
  • Films
  • Presenting or creating diagrams
  • Tactile activities- using the computer, drawing, playing with a stress ball
  • Encourage people out of their comfort zone into trying new learning styles
  • Comparative study of others’ works to gauge style and approach
  • Consider informing the writer what they will learn by the end of the session, vary the ways of showing them this knowledge/skill, and get them to put it into practice somehow
  • Allow opportunity for the writer to think creatively or to be led more based on their personality/learning style requirements
  • Encouraging mentees to make notes rather than respond to questions verbally

Bates, B. (2016). Learning Theories Simplified and how to apply them to teaching: 100+ theories and models from great thinkers. London: SAGE.

Helping Writers Help Themselves

This piece has been more of a voyage of discovery for me, and for my own mentoring development, but it may be of use to others, so I have blogged it.

While I believe in the power of asking questions in sessions, I have also realised that this is a technique for, and not a goal of, mentoring.  In fact, following a lively team meeting, I found one underlying topic point worth exploring in greater detail: the difference between ‘what’ and ‘how’.  As in, concentrating on how students can improve their skills in sessions, rather than focusing on what those skills are, the details of the skills, and implementation of them.

While I am certain we could quibble over the semantics, the point I am trying to make is that as a mentor (rather than as a teacher, study guide, or friend), I am beginning to wonder if I should be giving other students information.  I don’t even have the right to, where that information covers the content of someone’s essay, hence the Centre’s ‘no editing/proofreading’ policy.  But dare I say, this duty to refrain may also cover dispensing advice on study techniques: from the format references should take, to how to manage one’s time effectively.  Before you gasp in horror, please let me explain!

While we would all acknowledge our requirement as mentors to:

  • allow the mentees to lead the session in terms of the needs they wish to discuss,
  • facilitate the session with helpful activities and by asking questions,
  • as well as to encourage the writers to share their own ideas and practices,

and we do this in a blend with sharing information, proposing certain activities, deciding which questions to ask, evaluating the writer’s practices, and so forth.

While, to a degree, these are natural and integral aspects to our work, I am starting to see that I could be operating at an even deeper level as well: helping writers to help themselves.  It sounds obvious, perhaps, but it means needing to obviate traditional teaching methods that are ingrained in our society.

To clarify, and to offer tangible examples for sessions, I have created the following table of possible approaches that could be taken in sessions (bearing in mind that it is impossible to create an exhaustive list, and that each session is different and we work with a variety of individuals, so none of this is set in stone!):

Help the mentees to: Not by (for example): But instead by (for instance):
Know about resources available, such as workshops, the counselling service, or Elcos Suggesting the writer tries X,Y,Z Ask what resources the writer might like to have/use.

What would the writer like to learn as a result of using these resources?

Ask what resources the writer knows about/has tried.

Ask if the writer knows about X,Y,Z.

Use the right tools, including: Mendeley, Microsoft Office, subject-specific dictionaries, mind maps, free writing, and the Study Skills webpage on essay terms Explain that there are tools available such as X,Y,Z.

Show them how to use X,Y,Z.

Ask what tools the writer might need.

Ask what tools the writer knows about/has tried.

Ask if the writer knows about X,Y,Z.

Offer to explore the tool together in the session.

Know what matters for an assignment, such as plagiarism, the need for evidence, or assessment criteria List all the requirements, such as the need to cite and check assessment criteria. Ask how the writer thinks the work will be marked.

Do they know about plagiarism and referencing?

Have they found a referencing style guide?

Do they know where to look for it?

Have they found their assessment criteria?

Explore this together, asking them what they think it means for their assignment.

Distinguish between different types of assignment from reflection to essay to report to creative writing Explain the assignment type and what is required. Ask the writer to clarify the assignment criteria.

Ask how this piece of work differs from other assignments they may have had.

Ask if they have considered looking at study guides on different assignment forms.

Look at some of these formats together, to find patterns between the types.

Unpack questions Help the writer to analyse and understand the question set. Ask the writer what the question means to them.

How would they explain it to someone else?

What do they think is not being asked?

What are the important words in the question?

Have they looked at the essay terms section of the Study Skills website?

Find information Show them the library catalogue and useful websites. Ask what they have done to find information.

Ask if there are other ways they haven’t tried yet, perhaps things a tutor has suggested or a friend does.

Suggest a range of options and ask if they’d like to explore one together to get a feel for it: e.g. finding relevant keywords.

Choose a good source of information over questionable websites Explain what is needed for a source to be useful and reliable. Ask them how they would know if a source was not reliable or useful.

Ask them what they need from a source of information, and how many sources they should have.

Ask them if they have been set a reading list, and how this relates to the searches they have carried out – are they purposefully looking for different sources, and why?

Know about and use study handbooks Suggest a range of study guides, and helpful chapters. Ask them if they have tried study guides, and which ones.

Ask them if they have heard of X,Y,Z.

Explore the library catalogue together for relevant examples.

Ask the right questions about aspects like gaps in others’ arguments, robustness of others’ evidence, and accessibility of various writing styles Tell them what to think about when reading or engaging in critical writing. Ask the writer if they think all works are equal, or if there might be differences in style or reliability, and can they find any.  Maybe even looking at a few texts as examples.

Ask the writer what kind of sources would be the most helpful for their work: what do they need from their sources?

And ask right people Suggest they speak to their tutor for example. Ask them who else they could ask about this matter.

List a range of people that they have in their support network from personal tutors, to module tutors, to friends in other disciplines, to counsellors (if appropriate – we don’t want to give people complexes!).  Ask if any of these people could help.

Get ideas down onto paper Propose that they take notes. Give them the notepad to take notes of the session, which can be analysed in the session.
Create a basic structure for an essay Explain the main structure: introduction, main section, and conclusion, along with the intricacies, like what one will and won’t discuss, and how one can propose future research. Ask about what they know of essay structure.

Ask them what they think the reader should know about what they will or will not be discussing, and what they need to explicitly state.

What is their main point in the essay?

How are they planning the essay?

Have they tried mind mapping, and would they like to now?

How will they adjust the plan as they go along?


Plan their time Tell them to create a timetable, considering all the best times of day for different kinds of work, and to work backwards from a deadline when planning  how long they have for reading, writing and editing etc. Ask what their current timetable is like now.

Ask if they can sketch it out.

Discuss any ways they can cut things out or reduce them.

Can anything be moved around?

What is their best time of day for serious thinking and for creativity, which may help specific tasks?

Can they sketch out a new timetable?

How will they know if the timetable is or isn’t working?

Edit Point out the faults.

Suggest helpful grammar websites and ELCOS.


Ask them if they have had any specific feedback.

Ask them if they have struggled to write particular phrases or essay sections.

Explore if the problems are language or idea related.

Ask them to find faults in a section of writing and see any patterns emerging.

Ask them if they have tried grammar books and websites, or ELCOS.

How will they know if the essay isn’t hanging together well?

Avoid panic Give a few tips on how to manage time, or how to revise etc Ask them why they are worried.

Ask them what specifically bothers them about this particular situation.

Ask them how they keep calm in other situations.

Is there anything different they could try?

What do friends do, that they may try also?

What is the worst case scenario, and how likely is it?  How can they prevent that from happening?


These study skills that we help to build in others may seem obvious to all of us now, following our training and a lot of life experience.  But I remember painful times when I did not have this information to hand, and certainly not everyone has this basic toolkit, or anyone to ask about it until they come to our sessions.  Plus, mostly I have found that mentees do not have issues with content, having an opinion, or self-motivation; but instead struggle with how to structure said content, or add weight to an opinion, or how to read a lot of the right kind of sources.

Yet a key thing here, I believe, is that even when I am discussing the bigger picture study skills, rather than the actual module content and essay argument detail, perhaps I need to acknowledge that the mentees have their own training and experience, and again some level of content knowledge, as well as their own opinions, and self-motivation.  Therefore, even when they come to the Centre to build their skills rather than elaborate on their essay conclusion and so on, I need to ask myself if it is my duty – or indeed my right – to dispense information and offer hints and tips that:

  • may/may not work for the mentee,
  • the mentee may have already tried to no avail,
  • suggest there are only a handful of correct ways to solve a problem,
  • seem to demarcate authority in the session, especially if used with language such as ‘you should’, while I am genuinely just trying to be helpful,
  • restrict the opportunity for those less confident to make their own suggestions,
  • and that crucially stop the mentee from looking for and coming up with their own solutions.

I may instead:

  • Fall silent, which can seem daunting, but I have seen can be used to great effect by more experienced mentors!
  • Simply throw the question back to the writer.
  • Look the answer up together, which has an air of camaraderie about it.
  • Offer a clear range of possible options to show that there is a distinct flexibility in approach.
  • Use anecdotes without pointing out the message so that this is open to interpretation.
  • Ask them how they would handle this problem if they had no Study Skills Centre, or ask them to advise a hypothetical friend asking this question.
  • Ask them why their concern is a concern in the first place, which may find the underlying cause of the problem, and their own solution.
  • And if I do offer tips, clarify that these are very much based on my opinion and experience, and ask if the suggestions would fit the writer’s given situation, as well as inviting them to offer their own alternatives.

We have all heard the saying: ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’  Well, in short, this blog is proposing that we not just teach him what to do, but how to do it, to build transferable skills – all essays not being equal.  Plus, it then takes away our fear (or maybe just my own) that we might not be as helpful as we could in sessions, because we are not trying to share a huge amount of information, but point the mentees in the right direction of the right information.

Hence, maybe the approach should be something more along the lines of: how about we just show the man the rivers where the fish live and where to find the tools he may need, let him work out how to build a rod and how to fish for himself (like Tom Hanks did!), and we’ll feed his soul as well.

The Magic of Empowerment


We’ve all had (or will have) at least one ‘light bulb’ session.  One exciting moment when – perhaps after complex discussion – the writer’s face suddenly glows as information becomes clear, or an elusive plan of action becomes tangible, and they feel able to take on the assignment.  And I think it would be fair to say that, for most of us, this is the very reason we mentor.

Facilitating these encounters with enlightenment and independence is more than just the magical side of mentoring however.  It is also about more than just respecting the mentees we meet, though this is a very important and ethical part of our practice.  Helping to create ‘a-ha’ moments is actually crucial to empowering writers to become even better writers (North, 1984: 438), as well as better learners.  Indeed: Learning ‘is done by people – not to them’ (Race, 2015: 27).

But while the theory seems fairly obvious and uncontentious, the practice is always a bit trickier.  Therefore, I thought it might be useful to start a blog on concrete ways in which we can make more magic in our sessions.  I have found some information from the web and come up with examples from past sessions, below, but I would love it if others could comment on this blog with their own ideas too.  We all have a variety of experiences to draw from and, as we know well, each person and each session is different, so it’s useful to have a variety of tools at the ready!

  • Reassure writers that academia is hard work and that learning is a process. As my parents used to say: If you already knew everything, why would you bother going to University?  Acknowledge that there are key skills mentees can learn, such as how to reference, essay structure, and what sources to read – all of which we can help with – but also be clear that no one is somehow devoid of information that everyone else seems to have been born with.
  • Moreover, show the writer how exciting and challenging academia can be by openly discussing the voyage of discovery they are on, moving them away from any thinking about their foray into the unknown as a negative experience (Schwartz, 2008).
  • Ask the writers for help. This is not simply an arbitrary exercise in throwing their questions back to them, but it gives them licence to explore the wealth of their own ideas that perhaps they were too afraid to try out otherwise.  If they ask for guidance on a skill, ask them what they have tried, and also if there is anything they’d like to try but haven’t yet.  If they ask you what you think about an assignment question or draft, ask them how would they answer that question.  Given that the writers are genuinely the experts in the room, not just in the discipline, or just topic if we share the same subject, but also in how that particular person thinks, it is critical to ask them what they think about their own work.
  • Further to this point, it can be helpful to reinforce the writer’s expertise, as a confidence boost, by asking simple questions about the surrounding topic literature, to encourage the writer to start talking about the topic and develop their own ideas in relation to it.
  • Focus on active learning with activities that can be tried in the session or by handing over the computer to the writer. Concentrate on relevance to the writer’s subject, needs, and real-world analogies to make information more accessible and memorable.  Constructively challenge their ideas by asking questions about how and why they do or think certain things to stimulate more active and independent thought.  Also specify, alongside the writer, their developmental goals, as per the space at the bottom of our record forms (characteristic concepts taken from research by Bovill, Bulley, and Morss, 2011).
  • Concentrate on the four key dimensions of empowerment:
    • Impact –The more impact you believe you will have, the more motivation you feel to work hard. You are empowered if you believe you’re doing work that makes a difference—work that matters and is important.
    • Competence –Here’s the confidence piece. Empowerment derives from feeling qualified and capable of performing the work. You can handle what you’re being asked to do.
    • Meaningfulness –This describes the value of the task in relation to individual beliefs, ideals, and standards. If the work you need to do doesn’t have much or any meaning to you, doesn’t seem to hold much or any importance, then there isn’t much or any motivation to work hard and produce quality work.
    • Choice –This dimension relates to whether you get to determine the task goals and how you will accomplish them. The more choice you have, the more empowered you feel.

(Weimer’s helpful summary, 2014, of work produced by Thomas and Velthouse, 1990)

Now I’d like to hear your thoughts!


Bovill, C., Bulley, C.J., and Morss, K. (2011). Engaging and empowering first-year students through curriculum design: perspectives from the literature. Teaching in Higher Education 16:2, 197-209. DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2010.515024

North, S. (1984). The Idea of a Writing Center. College English 46 (5), 433-446.

Race, P. (2015). The Lecturer’s Toolkit: a practical guide to assessment, learning and teaching. 4th edn. Abingdon: Routledge.

Schwartz, M.A. (2008). The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science 121: 1771. DOI: 10.1242/jcs.033340

Thomas, K., and Velthouse, B. (1990). Cognitive elements of empowerment: An “interpretive” mode of intrinsic task motivation. Academy of Management Review 15, 666-681.

Weimer, M. (2014). What’s an Empowered Student? Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/whats-empowered-student/ Accessed 20 November 2018.

How to Write Faster…

On my travels, I came across the following post which I found to be somewhat startling, and amusing, yet full of great ideas you might be interested in:

‘How to Write Faster: 12 Unusual Productivity Hacks’

  • Write while sleepy, edit while wide awake.  This is to be more creative and less critical while getting things down on paper.
  • Set a timer, and deadlines, to prevent procrastination.  Something on the page, after all, is better than nothing.
  • Saying ‘I want to write’ vs ‘I have to write’ helps motivation.
  • Have mini goals for every day, so as not to get overwhelmed, or feel low after postponing work.
  • Think too.  Writing is not just about shoving words onto paper, but expressing and organising ideas.
  • Mood and environment, as well as avoiding distractions, are key to getting the writing written.
  • Prepare tomorrow’s job list while it’s fresh in your head, so you’ll be able to just get started again without wasting time.
  • Try to rescue good work from what you have produced before.
  • Practice makes perfect!

For more on this, and a lovely simplified cartoon version, please see:


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.