Notes on ‘How we answer the questions’

Event overview

I attended an event called ‘How we answer the questions’ on the ALDinHE mailing list and though that it would be a good event to attend in order to get insight into how staff at other programmes address the issues related to questions that students bring to tutorials and also for me to better understand what kind of materials and provision exist for students elsewhere. The one-day event was hosted by the welcoming staff of The University of Manchester’s Library and those who work on the skills programme My Learning Essentials

So, I went up to Manchester the evening before and stayed overnight and the next morning I walked from where I was staying along Canal Street through Manchester Met University to reach the University of Manchester. They both appear to sit right next to each other, and have very large campuses.

The agenda for the day had a focus set out by the convenors but would also be participant driven as the convenors invited people to share why they had come. The attendees gave the following reasons…

  • To bring in new ideas and experience
  • To establish the scope of support
  • To find out how others do it
  • To gain confidence in their own programmes and provisions
  • To identifying hidden needs that students may have
  • To find out how to measure/explain impact of de
  • And many others…


NB: All images here apart from the one of Bloom’s Taxonomy were taken by myself with an Olympus Pen E-PL7.

The setting & direction

The team at the impressive Alan Gilbert Learning Commons has on staff around 20 students that work 8 hours weekly and are involved in many projects that help support staff work but they also work directly with students. The staff receive a lot of questions about issues that are related to pastoral care; the students reach out, and the staff within the center direct the students to resources and people who can provide assistance and support. I quite like the idea of having student employees working with development support staff but also directly with students as this can help legitimize a service the wider student body.

The Albert Gilbert Learning Commons of The University of Manchester.

One common theme that the convenors noted that is an issue of the times – there are continually shrinking resources, but a constant growing demand for support. Students often ask questions that can be challenging, or as one presenter put it ‘how to catch a goat’!

Students also ask ‘typical’ questions related to referencing – how to do it, how to approach it and so on, even though the Library has a lot of resources related to referencing (e.g. guides, tools and so on). Some questions are easily answered, but others can present a challenge. So, it’s up to tutors to find out what the question really is, how best to answer the question, what to use to answer the question (e.g. what resource or resources, which platform) and how to make the answer/resource available to all. So to this end, in the session we did a lot of idea exchange.

Sharing ideas (and solutions) through questions

The first activity attendees did was to come up with questions that academic development/library support staff are often asked by students. To do this, we used different colored stickies…

Coming up with ideas!

Yellow stickie notes – We noted down what questions students ask us but also questions that we can ask ourselves such as…

  • In terms of academic referencing…
    • Students often ask ‘How many references do I need?’
      • This led us to ask…
        • Is a definitive answer needed?
        • How many are really needed?
        • How long is a piece of string?!
      • Some attendees also asked…
        • Can we advisors provide a definitive answer to the question of how many references are needed or are sufficient?
        • Does the effectiveness of the answer to an essay question outweigh how many references are needed or used?
        • Should we learn how to use reference management systems such as Zotero, EndNote, etc?
        • Is it okay to just use Google Scholar for researching?
  • In terms of dissertation writing…
    • Students ask…
      • What they should do their dissertation on…
      • What they should focus on…

Orange stickie notes – here we talked about potential tools that staff have at their disposal to answer students’ questions and queries. In terms of some of the answers…

  • Advisors can get students to think about most issues by asking open-ended questions that allow the student to critically consider their response as opposed to yes/no questioning. 
  • Staff can also make sure there are enough resources to support the student’s investigation and research into a particular topic area. This, of course, might require developing resources (e.g. online resources that could sit within a space like Moodle or YouTube-based mini-guides or tutorials that address some of the most common questions students ask) 
  • Advisors can also point out perhaps if the area the student has appears too narrow.
  • Students sometimes bring their assignment briefs, which spell out to varying degrees the aims of the assignment and what, if any, references are required, and academic development support advisors should exploit these to a great extent.
    • Academic writing tutors are very likely to get students to dissect an essay question in order to understand what the question is looking for in terms of scope, relevance and specific aim. However, some staff who do not teach English for academic purposes or who are not subject-specialists might feel uncomfortable exploiting such resources. That said, this presents a space for collaboration between lecturers and library support staff and/or between academic development/learning advisors and lecturers.
    • One attendee noted that we can refer students back to lecturers if we don’t feel comfortable with answering a particular question (e.g. precisely how many references are needed, or which specific texts/key sources to refer to…)
    • Another member of staff that it is important to make students aware of tools/workshops that are available and/or online resource can sometimes answer students questions, but that staff should be mindful of precisely what the student seeks or is asking. 

A third color – we spoke briefly about potential solutions, and the general consensus appeared to be the following

  • It’s a good idea to have and/or develop resources that staff can refer to students so that they can readily access and exploit these resources in order to find the answers for themselves. At the same time..
  • It’s a good idea to fully understand what the student seeks before addressing the issue. For example, a student may have signed up to a 1:1 drop-in to ask questions about an essay and s/he may have identified key areas prior to the session that they wished to be address… However, from the time that they signed up until the time that they have arrived at the tutorial, their needs might have changed, and subsequently, a tutor who had prepared for 1, 2 and 3 might now be faced with addressing topics 4, 5 and 6!
    • One attendee noted that she would likely address 4, 5 and 6 because the student may well have self-addressed the previously identified areas in the meantime. That way students could get the full benefit of having their needs (even ‘lately’ identified) rather than the tutor sticking to the initial request.

This first activity wrapped up with one common thought: it can be tough to answer questions due to time constraints, lack of resources and unclarity of questions being asked, however staff should strive to identify the needs of students and address those and/or refer the student to the appropriate person or resource timely manner. In this way, not only will students leave a developmental support session or drop-in feeling as if their question has been answered but this will also help to further legitimize the need for such programmes/services within a university, again, where resources are shrinking but need continues to grow.

Talk 1: Answering the question (when you don’t know the answer!)

This talk was presented by Michael Stevenson a Teaching and Learning Assistant of the Teaching and Learning Team. In brief, it was a talk in which Michael presented how the team their online referral process in order to reduce duplication of support while helping students to get their queries addressed by the right team. 

To help attendees understand why students might need to be referred, we were given a card that had a scenario. A student had come to a support session and asked how he/she could get a better mark as their friend had gotten a very good mark by using an essay from an essay mill… Given the currency of the topic, attendees came up with the following as possible actions to take:

    • Refer student to academic policies;
    • Tease out what the student thinks about this in a 1:1 consultation to get them to understand the issues behind using such a service;
    • Refer the issue to the academic integrity unit of a university;
    • Explain academically why it’s not a good way to approach assignments;
    • And others!

The reasoning behind this task was to get attendees to think about the following:

Why should or would awe refer students?

A few reasons were put forth:

  • Because we just don’t know the answer but we can find the person who would be able to answer this.
  • We kind of know the answer but we know of experts who can better answer than we can.

However, as the speaker noted, students might want a quick answer and time can be pressing. Perhaps our timetables are full, we have a meeting come up or we’ve created resources online that can help students. The speaker noted that staff don’t want to (and shouldn’t really) duplicate the effort though. To address this, staff can find out from students what’s been done by trying to clarify what they’ve done and how they’ve done it, and then staff can proceed to source relevant advice and information in order to give them tips and advice on how/what to improve.

That said, as earlier noted, students might sign up with specific questions, but then come and ask different questions that they hadn’t identified, which will take further time away from the session and/or put pressure on the advisor to assist in an area that they hadn’t prepared for. In this case, again, it might be a good idea to address their ‘new’ queries rather than solely addressing the original ones.

Michael suggested that learning advisors’ aims might be to fully support student learning and university experience to ensure that they’re getting the most out of their experience while also using the resources available to them in order to provide students with the best support possible that also empowers them to understand how to address their own needs more independently. 

The enquiry system process – a project

Michael went on to present the project process that university went through to develop their online student enquiry system that consisted of a few phases. In brief, they first tested out different systems, assessed existing enquiry systems in place used across the university and profiled the users of the enquiry system and routes that students use.

Next, Michael and his colleagues consulted with the university project management team to identify what an enquiry actually is defined as in order to ultimately define the scope of enquiries that the team would be tasked with answering. Through this consultation, strengths, areas for improvement and overlap were identified. Using the ‘Lean principles’ they aimed to limit the ‘waste’ in the enquiry systems, i.e. they aimed to ensure students’ enquiries were answered appropriately in a timely manner that avoided duplication of effort.

In terms of concrete steps taken to improve the enquiry system, self-help resources were enhanced by developing and expanding online resources in order to get students to help themselves by providing them with relevant resources that would foster this process and give them guidance and answers that they could source independently.

From what I can understand, these resources were then branded as My Learning Essentials so that staff/students would both clearly understand what resources were available online and what to call them as this could help all parties talk about and refer to the same set of tools. Essentially, it is a clearly signposted, named or branded one-stop shop that allows students to source information sought whether through bookable workshops, interactive activities online, which cover everything from essay writing to self-awareness and wellbeing (!), or through scheduled drop-ins. From looking through the resources offered, it seems that what Manchester offers to students sets a good standard for other universities to work towards in terms of the type of support, whether developmental academically or personally, can be developed and provided.

Challenges during the project

Like any project, Michael and his colleagues faced a few challenges. Some of these included… identifying what staff wanted everyone else to know what to know. A strength of trying to understand this was that each member of the team had their own strengths that they brought to the table.

Another included understanding enquiry channels used by students. These included and were used to varying degrees:

  • Face to face support
  • Telephone
  • LANDesk – (the online enquiry management system via IT services)
  • Email 
  • Library Chat
    • This is a live chat tool on the Library homepage; it was not really well used; and it presented difficulties in terms of tracking student usage.
  • Social media
    • Michael noted that the team uses Twitter, but that the university marketing department/unit has tight control over how this is used.

Per the social media challenge, in my own professional opinion and as someone who has read into the usage of and has used social media for learning and teaching, it could be that the marketing team might not fully understand nor appreciate that a department such as their own should never be solely in control of social media for a several reasons:

  • They might be tasked with protecting the brand and thus limiting what information is/isn’t disseminated by limiting who can/cannot do this.
  • Using social media for student recruitment and disseminating news about a university is one thing, but using social media to develop students’ self-awareness as learners and to help them self-regulate their learning is something entirely different and, I would argue, outside the remit of marketing departments unless they are open to working directly with academic support and teaching staff to better understand how social media can be used by learning and teaching staff. There are many opportunities for sharing good practices that marketing specialists can give to teaching staff and vice versa.
  • Marketing departments are not always aware of how Twitter or Facebook, for example, can be used for fostering and developing learning and teaching inside and outside of the classroom even though research does clearly indicate that engaging students in the social media that they use can actually lead to an enhanced student experience and ultimately retention.

Other barriers

There were other barriers to referral that were brought up and discussed. These included the issue that staff should think about and consider all the different avenues for support. Staff should seek to understand whether they’ve answered the questions and provided support to students. Related to this, there should be an understanding of whether staff haven’t been able to address a question and/or refer a question onwards, and the reasons for this.

Other barriers were more practical. These included not knowing the expertise of a large team or set of teams who can provide support. Working in a large university can present this issue quite naturally.

Another included staffing hours. For example, students ask questions all the time, and might want/expect support outside of core hours. In order to address this, staff can help students to understand what expectations are reasonable in terms of when support can be provided, and when to expect an answer.

There was also the issue of boundaries. For example, what are we saying when we always say ‘Yes’ to a student’s call for support?  In order to address this, providing a distance learning/online provision for developmental support can allow many of students’ queries to be answered outside of core hours, though this type of provision requires some careful consideration as far as what to include, how to develop such resources and so on. Related to this, students and staff require a knowledge of resources. If students are fully aware of what is available to them in terms of resources offline or online, then their queries might be better addressed and answered in a more timely manner.

Questions from the audience

Throughout the talk, students were referred to as customers which is something that is happening increasingly within discourses in higher education. Some attendees asked whether we should view students as customers because this might change how staff provide their services to students and interact with students. Some other questions related to this then came up:

  • Do students view developmental support services as a service, such as those provided in a bank or cafe? In short, are staff supposed to just provide an answer or set of answers, or are staff in place to provide support to students that allow them to develop into autonomous learners who are empowered with the knowledge, skills and tools in order to formulate their path to success?
  • Or do students come to these services subconsciously aware of the power dynamics at play – they are asking for assistance or help of others who they may view or hope are experts who can provide developmental support.
  • Are the same students asking the same questions multiple times throughout the year? This would be useful to know to help identify a gap in the provision or service.

Talk 2: What if students don’t have a question, but still feel that they need help?

The next talk was presented by Claire Stewart, Library & Academic Adviser, and Sandie Donnelly, a Learning Enhancement Manager, from the University of Cumbria. It generated quite a bit of discussion as it touched upon an issue that, I feel, all academic learning advisors and learning developers face on a regular basis. 

Some common examples that Claire presented included the following questions about academic writing/writing assignments that students typically raise: 

  • Can you help me with my essay?
  • My tutor told me to come and see you about ….
  • [in an e-mail] Please give me feedback on the attached document…

Claire noted that students often don’t feel confident in their work and so their first reaction is to ask for support. She put the question to the audience: How do we as advisers negotiated this type of issue?

A hierarchy of academic writing needs

One solution that Claire developed was a hierarchy of academic writing needs from bottom to top, which reminded me a lot of how Bloom’s Taxonomy is structured; I’ve included an image of this from another WordPress blog below.

Claire outlines the hierarchy that learning developers could use as follows (from the basis/bottom to the top):

  • Comprehension
    • Identifying student comprehension of the essay question or task at hand
  • Readability
    • Looking at sentences, how grammar and language are used and how ideas are expressed (clarity)
    • Highlighting issues with these
  • Structure
    • Looking at paragraphing, overall structure, planning.
    • Is there a sensible chain of paragraphs and ideas/logic?
    • Is there an intro/conclusion to the essay?
  • Use of evidence
    • Are students using relevant sources?
    • What is the quality of these?
    • Do they understand referencing conventions and how to reference?
  • Critical analysis
    • Is there evidence showing a development of an argument?
    • Are they challenging the sources they’re using or merely describing/retelling what sources say?
    • Is there a synthesis of sources?



Using the hierarchy

Claire suggested that the hierarchy could be used as a personal strategy to identify problems and prioritize objectives. It also can allow staff to direct students to work directly on the assignment while signposting students to self-help resources based upon the areas for improvement that the learning developer has identified. 

Another potential benefit of such a tool is that staff can use it to scaffold the development of academic skills over a longer period of time, especially if a student regularly seeks advice. 

What does critical analysis mean?

Sandie was the next to present on the issue of criticality in students’ writing, which is often a common issue that students from across the disciplines struggle with when completing their assignments. Sandie discussed how…

  • Students often say that they put a lot of sources in their essay, but upon submission of a paper they might receive feedback from their lecturer noting that the essay is not critical or critical enough. This can frustrate students who feel that they have done a lot of hard work to include a lot of references within a paper.
  • Students ask why lecturers say that they shouldn’t go in depth in describing case studies.
  • Students report that they can do a placement and enjoy it but don’t get the critical analysis part of writing it up or considering it.

How can non-subject specialists support students’ development in critical analysis and reflective practice?

To answer this in brief, Sandie highlighted that in fact the student is the subject expert. Learning developers can ask them how about their knowledge by getting them to talk about and articulate what they know and understand. Such interactions can help students demonstrate their knowledge and applied experiences (where available). So staff have to identify what works for students in terms of development. 

In terms of critical analysis Sandie told of her approaches to addressing this. 

Mannequins & metaphors

Sandie notes how she was supporting one student and used the idea of a mannequin as a metaphor. The mannequin is seen as a kind of basic structure from which to work (the essay question or assignment task). The student is the expert to design and dress the mannequin and the tools are their resources that they have available to them (e.g. library, books, journal articles and so on).

Another example that Sandie gets students to consider are the UK TV shows Crimewatch and Sherlock Holmes. In this case one is highly descriptive of a series of events (Crimewatch), whereas the other one provides a highly critical and analytical set of events. In other words, the latter example is investigatory in nature as it takes a critical eye to detail while drawing or identifying links between evidence that is uncovered and discovered, and attempts to uncover further evidence that may not immediately be seen.In terms of academic writing, this can translate well for those who have seen the shows.

Sandie also used the idea of getting a student to describe and evaluate an object in order to demonstrate to students that they actually do know how to analyze and evaluate. Sandie discussed how she showed students various objects of a similar nature (e.g. a chair) and had them describe/analyze which was best and why in order to instill the sense that students do know how to critically evaluate and provide such analysis. Sandie noted that students who lack confidence need to be aware that they can do this, and so using simple, real-world examples can help to illustrate this ability to students.

Further thoughts on criticality and reflective practices

Both Claire and Sandie noted that using metaphors and narrative can provide a path to criticality. These can get students talking and articulate their expertise in practice. Student talk can reveal reflective practice and decision making that they’ve undertaken. In other words, their narrative can translate into what they already know. This narrative process can also help students connect reflective professional practice with academic practice and academic assignments and vice versa (e.g. how to write reflectively vs how to write an academic essay, both of which are very different in terms of what and how discussion proceeds). 

Opportunities & suggestions from the audience

Claire and Sandie noted that peer support can be one way of addressing students’ needs in a personal way that can help alleviate pressure on resources. They noted that students are generally really good at critiquing others’ work and providing advice, so it is worthwhile using students’ own knowledge and experiences as a resource as it personalizes the interaction and also allows for feedback support in a different way.

It can also help students to relax in the sense that they’ll soon understand that the questions, and that they have are shared questions. In short, others have had the same issues, others are experiencing the same or similar difficulties and it’s not ‘hard’ for that one student but actually for a wider range of people than they expect or know, which again can be refreshing in the sense that they might then be much more willing to collaborate with peers.

Comments & suggestions from the audience

One audience member asked whether this hierarchy of academic writing needs could be formalized, which garnered wide support among those present.

I mentioned CeDAS’s use of use of Connect2 as a means to address student 1:1 sign ups in such a way that it could get students to choose 3 areas of focus that they need help with in their essays. As one attendee noted, however, this presumes that the students actually know what they need or want help with, and so this would be something for me to consider during my own 1:1 sessions with students.

Another attendee mentioned how workshops can be used as mini-focus groups in order to better understand what is needed by the students. 

The idea of reverse outlining was also mentioned. This is a method of outlining that has students first write up their essay and then read it to write an outline after the fact. This can help students who struggle to produce an outline, which might seem constraining given that it demands only main ideas, while allowing them to write freely initially and produce a sample of writing. Again, this approach can help students to achieve focus in a different way where writing an outline first might not work for them. A student prolific with ideas might find this approach particularly useful as it will allow them to write all of their ideas down, from which they can then trim and remove any unrelated ideas or ideas that don’t fit neatly into their assignment.

Another colleague noted how technology has allowed direct drafting which allows students (and staff!) to easily manipulate text and move around their ideas. This approach, however, has pitfalls. Students might copy/paste a piece of text and place it into a section where it will break the logical flow or perhaps won’t ‘fit’ due to the topic(s) being discussed within that section.

Talk 3: Are staff ready to answer the questions?

For me it was interesting to find out where staff were coming from as far as their backgrounds and roles, so I had asked one of the organizers if attendees could share this somehow. The results were interesting as they showed just how widely student support is cast and set within various universities:

Where colleagues who provide learning development are situated in terms of job roles

The last talk was delivered by academic librarian Emma Thompson, Learning and Teaching Lead, from the University of Liverpool. Emma told of how Liverpool has no central learning development department but it does have excellent support in some subjects but with lots of gaps in others.

Emma stressed, however, that libraries are places where people ask all sorts of questions that go beyond the books themselves. She went on to discuss briefly how the library went on to developed a new program designed to address the needs of students. The library was receiving a lot of requests that were out of their remit and so they proceeded to investigate how to best deliver support by consulting other units that work with students. This allowed them to understand things from a student perspective, which is important to fully understand what their needs and demands are in terms of finding and getting developmental support and support more generally.

The program is called KnowHow and it consists of workshops blending learning development, digital literacies and information literacy. The stakeholders of this program included a variety of departments on campus, the library and…

  • the Students’ Union
  • Careers
  • Counselling Service
  • Computing Services
  • Educational Development
    • ED helped with setting up writing support though initially the unit was for staff rather than students.

Emma spoke of a common question students often asked:

I keep losing marks for poor referencing – can you help?

In understanding how best to answer this commonly recurring question she first asked the following questions of her own role:

  • Whose remit is it to address this particular issue?
  • Whose territory is it? Does it matter? 

One attendee noted that the policies of their university are very strict and that the definition of plagiarism and potential penalties in place could lead to the student’s removal if he/she makes even small mistakes such as a referencing error. This led to the following questions: 

    • How would you approach addressing this student’s issue?
    • What further questions might you ask?
    • What kind of online resource or workshop might be suitable for this student?

In terms of a solution to the initial issue, following the narrative approach earlier mentioned, it was suggested that getting students to share what they’re trying to do and what they think needs to be done in relation to the feedback that they’ve received from lecturers might be a good way to initially approach the issue. The lecturer may note that referencing is an issue but the issue could be wider or narrower than the feedback suggests.

Communities of practice as a way to prepare staff to better answer queries

Emma discussed her experience of achieving an HEA recognition. She found the process of recognition helpful as it it evidence what she already did though at times she didn’t necessarily have the words to describe these with.

This process also gave her some reassurance of some of her approaches to learning and teaching while allowing her to look critically at other practices (hers/others) and identifying the effectiveness or lack thereof of these. Emma did find it to be a challenging process but it allowed conversations to open up as she was able to learn from other professionals and ultimately build up a community of practice.

Emma found the idea of communities of practice (Lave & Wenger 1991) as a very helpful way of learning and developing. It gives a frame around focusing what needs to be done in terms of a common concern or passion for something – in this case, developing her practice – by meeting, sharing and learning through one another how to do it better through this regular interaction.

Through reflecting upon her experiences, Emma was able to understand that although some old/established UK universities do learning and teaching well and have clear strategies and policies in place, a lot of newer universities often have these strategies and policies in place and even have learning/teaching units/departments whose remit looks at how best to source and disseminate examples of good practices in learning and teaching whereas older universities may not have these in place. 

Indeed, some traditionally research intensive universities do not always hold learning and teaching to the same standard as research, however this will likely change given the introduction of the UK government’s Teaching Excellence Framework which will likely force all universities to re-evaluated learning and teaching in relation to the framework, identify gaps and develop these in order to meet the TEF’s aims.

An attendee asks about potential difficulties with the HEA recognition process in terms of ‘fitting’ evidence within the realm of teaching for staff who may not explicitly teach (e.g. library staff, etc.)

Emma noted that she has found that through joining a community of professionals she has been able to better understand how to approach achieving and evidencing HEA fellowship but also developing her learning and teaching. A community of practice is also about letting go of some stuff and being open-minded to the interactions while looking for common threads and identifying how best to address the learners’ needs in a learner centered way rather than service centered manner while considering on the core values espoused by a university in order to help them thrive.

Wrapping up: a discussion with Jennie Blake & Sam Aston

To wrap up, Jennie, a learning development manager, and Sam, a learning and teaching librarian, asked the audience to think about the talks and how we can apply what we’ve learned to our own contexts. They also left us with some questions to consider:

  • How can this community of academic learning advisors and learning developers create resources that can be made available and useful for the wider group? 
  • What resources are available for supporting students?
    • Where can we source these materials?
    • What do the resources address?
    • How are the resources licensed? (e.g. creative commons licensed materials)

They also left the audience with an invitation to reuse their own materials from My Learning Essentials, which are freely available on Jorum, and are Creative Commons licensed CC BY-NC.

One of the quotes inside the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s