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.