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. Accessed 20 November 2018.

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.



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.



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.




Ever since I began mentoring, I have tried to engage in the reflections as much as possible, often informally considering my sessions even if I haven’t written up about them.  However, it can be tricky at times to reflect: digging deep, being so open and honest with myself and with others, and being brave enough to criticise myself while also trying to encourage myself to improve next time.

But recently, I felt that all this hard work had been put into practice with an amazing and enjoyable session in which I simply asked a multitude of questions, such as ‘How else could you do this?’  ‘How would that idea make it better?’  ‘Why is it important to you to change x?’  ‘What else do you need to do and know before you can hand this in?’ ‘Why is x a concern?…What makes you think that?…How could you change this?’

I realised, as the session was progressing, it was the first time I hadn’t actually said anything at all.  I hadn’t pointed out issues I personally thought were important to focus on, or decided on a topic for the session.  I hadn’t said anything was a good or a bad idea.  I hadn’t even come up with suggestions the writer could use.  It was as if I had become the writer’s inner voice, or Jiminy Cricket, present only to listen and to challenge, but not to judge or impose.  The only comment I made was to reassure the writer at the end that they had obviously put in a lot of thought into their work, had clearly exhausted alternatives, and this boosted their confidence in their efforts and they felt ready to submit.  In short, I felt like I had actually earned my star, and I just hope to be able to replicate this in future, after a few inevitable wobbles of course.


Being a Mentor


I’ve been watching a Canadian show from 2009, Being Erica, which is about a thirty-something female in Toronto, whose life’s plans – love, career etc. – have become derailed.  Under unusual circumstances, she meets an even more unusual Therapist (Counsellor in British English) who helps her to time travel in order to answer all the ‘if only’ and ‘what if’ queries we all have of our pasts.  Throughout the show, Erica learns to appreciate the present more, takes greater control over her life, and eventually becomes a Therapist herself.

Whilst the premise may sound a bit wacky, it’s been a very popular show, highly entertaining as well as thought-provoking.  It’s Sex and the City, meets Frasier, meets Back to the Future.  And I, personally, believe it could be useful for Mentor training too!


Granted, the topic in the show is therapy: more life plans than essay plans.  But elements in it ring true of the sessions I’ve had over the past year.  Therefore, I will attempt an overview of lessons I feel are applicable to our own work, substituting in practice, of course, the word ‘writer’ for ‘patient’.

  • ‘You are not your patient’. This lesson is about differentiating ourselves from the other person, not judging with same rulebook, allowing for the fact that others have different backgrounds and experiences that inform their outlooks, opinions, and choices.  This necessitates empathy in Mentoring, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, even if at the end you can’t wait for your own footwear again.
  • Linked to this, is the lesson from Dr Tom’s behaviour, that we can’t let our feelings enter into sessions. Mentors are human beings, of course, and sometimes a little of our own personal experience can provide useful examples or helpful advice gleaned from the woes of trial and error.  However, if we are having a bad day, it is not the fault – nor the problem – of our writers.  So this lesson is just to reinforce the professionalism we must bring to the Mentor room, as well as the fact that if we focus too much on ourselves and our own experiences, we are not only detracting from our Writers but also possibly alienating them if they have a different world view.
  • Having said that, ‘You are your patient’ is another valuable lesson from this show, emphasising that we have to see the similarities between ourselves and others. We are not so dissimilar in needs, fears, and desires, and it is best to keep in mind, especially in tricky sessions, that there are common denominators to explain that an aloof person may actually be acting out of pure panic, for instance.  It is important for Mentors to have patience, relate to the Writer where appropriate, and persevere with advice and examples.
  • But we need to be careful with the advice we dispense, for example where Brent – a colleague of Erica’s – is concerned in later seasons. Flippant advice, like ‘Just be yourself’ can be meaningless and not applicable to the real context it is needed for, while overly detailed advice might be too limiting for the other person.  Being a ‘shoulder to cry on’ as it were, someone who will listen and question and find out what the other person really wants and needs, allows Writers to find their own way, which will help them much more in the long-term.  It also occurs to me, as I write this, that there is a huge difference between someone coming to talk about a problem and someone actually asking for advice.  Only in the latter case, and possibly not even then, should we be considering dispensing serious advice and information.  But if we can find a way for the Writer to find out the information or come up with solutions themselves, so much the better.  An exception to this may be emerging needs as noted by a Mentor, such as realising that a Writer’s structure isn’t as logical as it could be.  But once this has been raised, it is perhaps then for the Writer to, again, come up with a solution, even through trial and error.
  • In fact, as with the character, Jenny, one of Erica’s best friends, we sometimes have to let people make mistakes so that they learn from them. We can’t wrap people in cotton wool, which is definitely one of the lessons I need to work on the most.  Just as with Erica’s friend and one-time boyfriend, Ethan, people have to, and often want to, find their own way, believing that one’s past – good or bad – is what makes you who you are.
  • And we make mistakes too, hence the importance of reflections and ongoing training. Like Erica’s ‘day without consequences that won’t stick’, a reckless approach to life, even in this fantastic one-off opportunity, can actually make you think harder about what to do in the first place once things start going horribly wrong.  Plus, the whole premise of the show is about confronting our mistakes, and our past, and to stop ‘if only-ing’ or ‘what if-ing’, remembering that today is tomorrow’s yesterday.  It’s all gone in the blink of an eye, and certainly that’s how most of my sessions feel.  So I’d like to get as many of them right as possible, and as soon as possible.
  • But just how to get it right can be tricky at times. There is no perfect prescriptive way for each and every session to go.  So, just as with Erica’s task to find her way off a deserted island, we often need to make our own path, particularly in difficult sessions.  Sometimes, there is just no simple right or wrong way to do something, or answer a question.  But if the Writer can leave with a clearer understanding of their work, and an action plan to tackle their (sometimes emergent) problems, hopefully feeling a bit happier too, then our work is done.  It comes back, then, to reflection, and exploring if there are lessons to be learned for future sessions.
  • This is a good place to end with the show’s final episode, about standing on your own two feet, as Erica becomes a Doctor in her own right, and not a patient anymore. The importance here, I think, is for the Mentee.  Mentors won’t always be around, so we need to build Writer’s skills and confidence to go on themselves.  And it’s often not us who will know when the time is right for a Writer to spread their wings.  But the Writer will, and it’s my favourite moment, though fairly rare and a little bit nostalgic, when I see the true light of inspiration and productivity in a Writer’s eyes, that they are now ready for their assignment; in fact, for their degree.

I hope this summary is of some use to others, while I highly recommend watching the show if you can – for fun as well as for function!


Tutoring Dos and Don’ts.

Cf. ‘Tutoring Dos and Don’ts’, Linda Stedje-Larsen and Roberta T. Schotka, pp272-274

According to this article, the Dos and Don’ts fall into nine categories:

  •  Job readiness
  • Professionalism, courtesy, and ethics
  • Preparing for the session
  • Role modelling
  • Verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Adhering to institutional and tutorial centre policies and procedures
  • Facilitating student-centred active learning
  • Demonstrating empathy rather than sympathy, and
  • Skilful session management

The article does not go into any real detail about these.  Though some of the categories are self-explanatory or not for Mentors themselves to determine (job readiness for e.g.), for me role modelling, communication, facilitating active learning, session management, and demonstrating empathy are the particular categories I will focus on in my reading and in team meetings this term.

However, I did think it useful that the article suggests training activities to develop these aspects: for instance, starting with a cartoon scenario for groups (or I suppose individuals) to think what the dos and don’ts should be, ahead of a real session, and another activity in which one person takes the role of the Mentor and the other the Writer, the latter asking realistic and challenging questions in response to the Mentor’s advice, e.g. ‘But what if…?’ in order to encourage the Mentor to review their approach.

These activities support the importance of Mentor preparation and reflection, as well as practice of our skills, to ensure we offer the best possible service.

Thus, in view of this, I am appraising my own sessions more and more.  Most of my errors/failings/flaws, I am realising, are missed opportunities.  For example, I have not always listened as keenly as I believe I have done, so with much more attention to this fact, today I was able to improve.  One writer had a lot of different concerns and seemingly had no preference about the order in which they were addressed when I asked him.  However, subtly, they reiterated concern for one particular aspect.  As I am now becoming more aware of the subtleties in people’s communication in sessions as opposed to perhaps everyday settings, I was able to pick up on this and focus on that particular issue.  The writer seemed very pleased and is willing to book further sessions for their other concerns that we hadn’t had time for, which may not have been the case if we hadn’t identified his predominant concern at the moment.

However, improving my listening skills is an ongoing process, as is being aware of other missed opportunities.  In another session, referencing was discussed, particularly why the same authors with books published in the same year have letters added to the citation and reference to distinguish the works from one another.  While I explained this using the referencing format handbook, and utilised tangible examples of how difficult it would be without the aid of this lettering system, I could also have asked the writer to offer an example of this principle in practice to confirm that they really had understood the system.

As a result, I have started an informal catalogue of missed opportunities, so that I can attempt to rectify this in future sessions.  Another that springs to mind, though in a much more nebulous fashion at the moment, is how much bias and assumption I bring to every situation in everyday life, including my sessions.  Assuming what a person knows or doesn’t know.  Assuming they approach their studies like me.  Assuming they care as much about their study as me.  Assuming that they are happy with the session.  Assuming they are not happy with the session.  Assuming they follow my examples and reasoning.  Or that they don’t.  And the list goes on.

This will be another ongoing process of being more aware that I carry, like anyone else, inherent biases and attitudes, that must be put to one side in sessions, as well as focusing on questions, on turning the tables when asked for advice, on focusing less on where I’m coming from and more on what the writer’s position and understanding are.  It is hard, but, I believe, very productive and positive work.

So what are your missed opportunities?


Agee, K and R Hodges (2012). Handbook for Training Peer Tutors and Mentors. Ohio: Cengage Learning.

Questions I wish I would think to ask.

Why is it always AFTER an interview that you think of the great answer that would have landed you the job, or AFTER an exam that you think of the evidence that would have clinched your argument?  Well, this is the start of my ongoing list of – now pre-planned – questions that I wish I would ask DURING my Mentoring sessions.  Some of them I already do, some of them I hope I will!  Please feel free to add to this yourself too.


Opening the conversation:

    • Are you enjoying your studies?
    • What would you like to discuss today?
    • Do you have the work/assignment details with you? When’s the deadline?
    • What have you done so far?
    • Which aspect would you like to focus on first? (This is especially helpful when a Writer comes with lots of issues in mind.)
  • Starting a topic (especially if the Writer’s not sure how to begin):
    • What DON’T you want to talk about in this essay?
    • What do you think is the best way to NOT start this project?
    • Can you mind map or list a few ideas of how a student might go about this project, from being first handed the assignment in the lecture?
    • Is there any small job you can start with that is remotely likeable?
    • Can you imagine how it will feel pulling an all-nighter right before the deadline because you still haven’t started?
  • What’s the question asking?
    • I’m new to this topic, can you explain it to me please?
    • Have you revised your lecture notes to see if those are any help?
    • Can you break it down into smaller parts?
  • Resource problems:
    • Have you had a look in the library?
    • What searches have you done on the library catalogue?
    • Have you tried looking at your textbook’s bibliography?
    • What does Google say?
  • Planning:
    • So you have no idea AT ALL about what to write? (Said right, this always results in a laugh, and the beginnings of a dialogue!)
    • How do you think you will begin? Will you start with a conclusion or a middle, for example?
    • Have you drafted a plan? Would you like to start now?
    • How is your timetable looking?
    • What does writing mean to you? Is it something you do after reading and note-taking, or something you do as you go along to organise your thoughts?
    • Can you use colours, mind maps, or post-it notes round your room to organise your thoughts?


  • Drifting from the question:
    • How does this support your argument?
    • Why are you telling me, the reader, this?
    • If you could only make three points in this essay, what would those be?
    • Have you considered writing in bullet points first, then writing those up?
    • Can you tell me what this is about in just one sentence?
  • Referencing/plagiarism:
    • What is a reference for?
    • Have you ever used references before as a reader? If so, what information would you like to find there?
    • How would you feel if your work was used and not referenced?
    • When you read your textbooks, can you see how the author references literature?
  • Personal issues (e.g. finding time to study, boyfriend trouble):
    • How does that make you feel?
    • How do you think that might impact on your studies?
    • What would you advise a friend to do in a similar situation?
    • Can you come up with three ideas of how to improve the situation so that you can continue studying successfully?
    • Is this something you feel you need to talk to someone about? (So that I can signpost.)
  • Lack of signposts:
    • Could you read this out for me/talk me through this essay please?
    • I’m confused: when are you changing topic? How are you doing that?
    • If the University removed all of its signs, and there was nobody about to ask, how would a new student find their way around? How do you think that might apply for your essay?
    • When you read books and papers, what do you hope for from the writing, especially if it’s a brand new subject for you?
    • Have you ever read a bad piece of writing that has no structure to it, or a great piece that guides you through it?
    • Do the ideas in your introduction match those of your conclusion?
  • No evidence of an opinion/argument:
    • So what do YOU think about this topic? What’s your opinion of all this?
    • Do you agree with this argument?
    • Is it important for a reader like me to know that you (dis)agree?
    • How have you balanced both sides of the argument?
  • When asked for confirmation on a fact or idea:
    • Well what do you think? Do YOU think this is the right idea?
  • Trouble finishing the project:
    • Have you had a break?
    • Have you tried writing in a different location, or time of day?
    • Do you have an understanding friend who will let you chat to them about this topic?
    • Have you tried reading a new book on the topic for more inspiration?
    • Is there a small reward you can promise yourself for finishing?
  • When asked to proofread:
    • What particular parts of language are you concerned about? Can you show me some of your writing?
    • What do you think you should change it to?
    • Can you spot any errors in this sentence? (I can see five.)
    • Now you understand the rule, how will you amend the next sentence?
  • Interpreting feedback:
    • Does it make sense to you?
    • How might you apply this advice?
    • Can you understand how your Tutor, as a reader, feels?
    • Have you spoken to your Tutor about this?
  • Confidence boost:
    • What do YOU think?
    • Have you chatted to a friend about this topic?
    • You’re doing so well with this, what do you need me for? (Must be said with a smile!)
  • Closing the conversation:
    • How do you feel now?
    • What will you do next?
    • Would you like another session, (or offer time to think about the topic more first, if the Writer seems to hesitate)?