Hi team!

I hope you are well.

I wanted to offer a reflection of a session I had this morning in which a Childhood Studies student came to me with a task I had never encountered before.

I am particularly interested in what you would have done in the same situation, so please do feel welcome to leave your thoughts and comments below.

The task was to create a 1000 word ‘vignette’ and then a 2000 word annotation of the ‘vignette’. 

The material I (or rather we!) had to work with consisted of two case studies outlining two childrens’ childhoods. There was no accompanying task sheet, just the above statement in her notebook.

I asked the student if there was a task sheet or PowerPoint slide available that we could refer to, but she said there wasn’t.

Not knowing what a vignette was (and Google not offering much help either) I was truly stumped, and found myself almost guessing what she had to do. I guessed that she needed to write an assumption of how the children in the case studies’ future would turn out, and then the annotation would consist of research to back this up.

However, terrified of setting her off on the wrong foot, I advised that she went and saw her tutor to clarify what she needed to do.

My heart really went out to the student and I felt like I hadn’t helped at all in –  what turned out to be – a very short session.

Can anybody offer some enlightenment on writing a vignette in an academic context?




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!


Grammar point: Participles

Hi everyone,

I thought I would share something else I have been working on from the Palgrave Study Skills: Improve your grammar. (This book is quickly becoming my baby I recommend it to you all!)

This time I have been looking at participles to enhance students’ writing. I find this a particularly useful grammar point to focus on when the student already writes well and coherently, but it’s lacking flare. In other words, the classic stuck in a B graders!

So, what is a participle?

In Maisie speak, it’s being playful with the sentence. Twisting the order and varying this from sentence to sentence. Basically it’s a step further than just adding your usual connectives (and, because, or).

However, I feel the book writes this slightly more eloquently, describing a participle as:

  • A present participle is a form of a verb ending in – ing (eg. facing)
  • A past participle is often a form of a verb ending with -ed (eg. worked, although could include done, driven, known etc).
  • A past participle can also be used after ‘having’ (eg. having worked)

“But stop!” I hear you cry. How an earth do we put this grammatical jargon (as it may seem to the student) into practice?

First, I would get the student to try and use participles to enhance the following sentences. Note that the original sentences are grammatically correct, they’re just missing that oomph, if you will.

Example 1

The country’s car industry was obliged to restructure in the 1990s because it faced the effects of a recession.

This could be improved with the help of a participle, changing it to:

Facing the effects of a recession in the early 1990s, the country’s car industry was obliged to restructure.

Example 2 

Exports grew over the next few years. They were driven by an international marketing campaign.

This could be improved with the help of a participle, changing it to: 

Exports, driven by an international marketing campaign, grew over the next few years.


The book gives a few more examples, however I feel it would be more beneficial (given we only have 50 minutes) to try and enhance some of the sentences in the students’ own work.

I’m sure for many of you this is something you do quite naturally without thinking about it – I know I do! For this reason I have found this resource so helpful because it’s a concrete way to make writing ‘better’, something which can seem a terribly daunting task when faced with a student who is already using a good variety of simple, complex and compound sentences.


Processing, interpreting, quoting and referencing source material

Just a quick reflection on a recent session.

Jenny (not her real name) is an overseas mature student in the School of Social Sciences, having started her degree course only a few weeks ago. She approached the Study Skills Centre for a mentoring appointment because she lacks confidence with the “technicalities” (her word) of academic writing.

The introduction to the session went well. We had time to briefly discuss the services of the Centre and Jenny’s background, country of origin and experience at Bangor so far. She seems to be a very diligent student, having comprehensive, beautifully hand-written lecture notes for all her modules, and is generally confident when talking about her subject. She very quickly presented her main concern to me: avoiding plagiarism, knowing when and when not to reference, and the Harvard system of referencing in particular.

The source of this concern seems to be a lack of instruction during her ‘access to university’ course on how to process information and incorporate it into her own writing, where (it seems) students were permitted to quote large sections of source texts as long as they referenced the author. She instinctively feels that this is wrong but doesn’t know why or what to do about it.

This is a problem I have encountered with other early university learners. They are conscious that they need to engage with the substantive information and discussion of experts in the field but can’t see a way of processing and re-presenting the material other than to quote it in full: “How on earth can I express this any better than the original author did? Particularly as I don’t really understand it anyway!” Rather than compromise on the intellectual tone of the essay and leave out complicated (and perhaps important) details/ideas, they end up quoting large sections of the source text verbatim.

Of course, this isn’t a ‘writing’ problem per se, it’s more of a general study skills issue about how to engage with your reading material, how to understand it and reflect upon it, how to extract the most important details, how to express your understanding of it, how to rephrase it into your own language and present it back to a new audience.

I don’t have the answer to this problem! But I would like to reflect on the approach I’ve taken with Jenny and others before.

Essentially, I separate out the two tasks: i) summarising the ideas/theories of another writer, and ii) deciding what needs to be quoted or referenced, and how. First I ask the writer to put all their notes and quotes aside and just freely (and orally) summarise what the author is saying in the given text. They usually do an excellent and eloquent job of this, often to their great surprise. I then ask them to write down what they have just said. This passage/paragraph is normally suitable for inclusion in their essay somehow, depending on how they tie it in with the rest of the discussion. I then turn to Colin Neville’s guidelines in his book The Complete Guide to Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism (copy available in the Peer Mentors’ room) and assess the passage based on these guidelines. I’m not going to go through them all here, but ideas like controversy, pithiness, exceptionally good phrasing, etc., may incline the writer to quote a particular section of the original text verbatim in their summary. This can normally be done quite easily retrospectively. Further to that, ideas such as differentiating between new/specific/unique vs. ‘common’ knowledge help the writer decide what aspects of his/her summary need to be attributed directly to the original author or left as their own authorial comment. We might also discuss how those references to the original author might be made, whether in the text or in footnotes, etc..


I find separating out these two tasks makes the process a lot easier. The task of mentally ‘processing’ the source text and summarising it into your own words is fundamental and cannot be avoided. Whether you MUST or CHOOSE to then quote or reference the original author and text are secondary and can be assessed in the light of guidance and good practice, and there is plenty of published material out there to help. First ‘own’ and communicate the information, then decide what needs to be attributed to others and how.

That is how I have dealt with this rather common problem anyway. But I’d be grateful for any thoughts…

Phil Davies

Problems with past forms

Hello everyone,

This is a useful activity I use to help students improve their grammatical expression.

It is taken from Palgrave Study Skills, Improve your Grammar by Mark Harrison, Vanessa Jakeman and Ken Paterson (2012)

It takes the form of ‘find the mistakes’ in the following sentences, so very easy to fit into a session and feel like you have done something concrete which they can then go away and apply to their whole essay.

Why not have a go yourselves?

What is wrong with the following sentences?

  1. The organisers should of been able to predict the press reaction to the show.
  2. After extensive negotiations, Select Design could make an exclusive agreement with Topshop.
  3. My Frock Ltd did not need to go bankrupt if they had restricted their business to the UK.
  4. The designer handbags on sale at £25 each must not have been genuine. 


This is a great activity to get students thinking about grammar, especially those guilty of ‘writing as they speak’!

See the answers below:

What’s wrong?

  1. In spoken English have may sound like of, but it is never correct to write of as part of a past modal form.

    e.g The organisers should have been able to predict….

  2. You cannot use could for a specific achievement in the past. Instead, you need to use was/were able to

    e.g Select Design was able to make/managed to make/succeeded in making…

  3. Did not need to + verb is used for things that did not happen (because they were not necessary) and Need not have + past participle is used for things that did happen (but they were not necessary).

    e.g My Frock Ltd need not have gone bankrupt if they had restricted their business to the UK.

  4. To express the opposite of must have been, you need to use cannot or could not have been, not must not have been .

    e.g The designer handbags on sale cannot have been genuine.

If you have time, you can extend this activity by going through the student’s essay and seeing if there are any specific examples of these errors in their work.

The value of reflections

Hello everyone,

Further to the discussion we had in today’s team meeting about Jenny’s tricky session I have just finished reading her reflection on the session. After a long summer and only just really getting back into the swing of mentoring I’ve lost touch with the value of writing these reflections, so thought a blog post here (and I really don’t contribute enough as the report highlighted!) would serve to remind us of the power of this tool.

For those of you that are new (welcome to the blog!) there’s a pool of reflections on our drive that you can access – they are not only useful for the mentor who wrote them but are a great way of thinking about our mentoring styles and strengths. Reading Jenny’s latest piece I wonder if I would have been so effective in that difficult situation; would I have instinctively gone back to asking more questions, probing, and really try to get to the root of the situation? Possibly not, but I hope that I would at least achieve some of the positives that clearly came from the session.

Reflecting on the times I have, ahem, reflected – I find that sitting down and writing about experiences really cements good practice, as well as highlighting areas for improvements and things I would do differently next time. So, I will aim to write a reflection about a good/ tricky/ interesting session soon for sure.

Reflecting has also made me feel more positive and optimistic (again a thank you to Jenny here for her wise words after the meeting!) as I can remind myself of the good practice I do follow. I had a brilliant session before today’s meeting, with the writer leaving confident about his essay, but more importantly confident that he can write his assignment, and write it well. The addition of the comfortable seating helped too – thanks Julian! Our sessions aren’t always that straight-forward and effective, so it is good to focus on the positives when they happen.

The session that I have been worrying about is coming up in a few moments. Rather than dreading it, after our discussions I am strangely looking forward to the challenge. I suppose if all our sessions were straight-forward and easy the job wouldn’t be as enjoyable, would it? I’m sure there’s a quote out there about the benefits of facing challenges…. But I haven’t got time to dig, my PhD student is hopefully on his way! I will let you know how it goes….


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)?



Ahead of a session coming up on how to make the most of lectures, an intriguingly new session topic for me, I did some research online and found the following info which might be useful for everyone, Mentor and Student alike.

The most helpful source is:

This website, and pdf version, covers everything from preparatory reading in advance of the lecture, to listening for structure in what is said, to the use of colour and abbreviations in note-taking, as well as the importance of following up on any questions or gaps you might have once the lecture has finished.

In addition, I found some useful practical advice elsewhere; websites are listed at the end.

  • Check you’ve got everything you need: pens, paper, books, laptops and chargers etc for ALL of the lectures and seminars you have that day.
  • It is useful to have a bottle of water and a snack, as well as tissues.
  • Beware: excessive drinking of caffeine or energy drinks usually end in a sugar crash and overwhelming feeling of tiredness.
  • Choose seats nearer to the front of the lecture theatre so that you can hear and see better, and are more likely to stay awake. Studies also show that those who sit in the front and middle during lectures achieve higher grades.
  • Turn off mobiles: it’s more polite and won’t serve as a distraction.
  • Use course handbooks and review the last lecture notes in preparation.
  • Download the lecture slides if made available prior to the lecture.
  • Ask yourself what you need to get out of the lecture: what information do you know already/need to know?
  • Only write down what’s relevant and useful, rather than every word, so you don’t miss anything else important. But don’t write down what’s on screen, as you get a copy later.
  • Underlining helps jog your memory later of something your Lecturer stressed as important.
  • Ask the Lecturer questions where appropriate (even by email or in their office hours), and chat to other students afterwards to enjoy the buzz of learning and help consolidate tricky information.
  • Try to stay engaged, so you don’t have to catch up on missed information later. Find your own way to do this: e.g. water, using colour in your notes, writing down questions you have, taking a walk during the break, drawing spider diagrams of the information, making sure you’re not too hot or cold, avoid distractions, have a copy of your upcoming assignment burning a hole in your desk.
  • Try tape recording lectures: this suits some people’s learning style better, helps prevent the panic in the lecture of keeping up with the pace of information, and you can use it for revision. B. still take notes as a back-up, to aid with the lengthy transcription afterwards, and be sure to get Lecturer approval before recording.

I will also hope to focus on how to turn those lecture notes into useful fuel for essays in the session!