I’m about to start work on a small-scale qualitative study to explore the motivational and learning benefits of (near) peer mentoring for a team of PhD student mentors. In my role as Head of Learning and Teaching Development in a UK university, I oversee a scheme in which PhD students are recruited and trained to act as essay, dissertation writing and language advising one-to-one mentoring tutors to undergraduate and Masters students. The scheme is underpinned by a Vygotskian perspective whereby it is assumed that learners advance their thinking and understanding through interaction with a more competent peer (see for example, Mynard & Almarzouqi, 2006). Our evaluation processes indicate that the scheme is highly valued by UG and PGT students. However, we know little about any benefits for the PhD students who act as mentors and so I’m hoping to be able to shed a little more light on these.
Mynard, J. & Almarzouqi, I. (2006) Investigating peer tutoring. ELT Journal 60 (1), 13-22.
Employability for Languages: A Handbook which I co-edited with two of my University of Southampton colleagues, Erika Corradini and Kate Borthwick was published in the summer by Research-Publishing.net.
The book showcases a collection of case studies and projects which teachers have embedded into the languages curriculum to enable students in both higher education and schools to develop transferable skills and competences. The collection focuses on some highly innovative practice and also provides information on how projects have been set up and organised so that they can be replicated. I really enjoyed being on the editorial team.
All chapters are fully downloadable at the above link.
I recently presented at the London Language Show on behalf of Routes into Languages with Irena Holdsworth from Routes South West and Sarah Schechter from Routes East. Our presentation: What Routes into Languages can do for you and your school focused on exciting projects that help to take languages out of the classroom and is now online.
I’m very excited to be working on a new initiative with two of my University of Southampton colleagues, Erika Corradini and Kate Borthwick. As part of an employability project that we are conducting for Routes into Languages, we are editing an Employability for Languages handbook. We’ve invited contributions and will be showcasing inspiring case studies in the area of employability for languages graduates. The result will be an open access e-book which will be freely available for download. We’re very much looking forward to receiving expressions of interest and I’ll update on our progress later on.
Academic writing with all its trials and tribulations, can sometimes be easier and more enjoyable in the company of other people. So providing students with opportunities either to write together or to talk about writing together seems to me to be an important way of overcoming some of the difficulties experienced in the writing process. There are various ways of going about establishing joint spaces for writing but I am interested in exploring options for doing a bit more than this and trying to create some kind of academic writing community.
I sometimes run writing retreats for Masters students and I’ve written about this before. Retreats are also widely used by the Higher Education Academy to support and mentor academic staff who are writing their fellowship applications. Some useful ideas for organising writing retreats for students can be found on the QMUL Thinking Writing website. Writing retreats have some similarities with Shut up and Write groups. The Thesis Whisperer offers suggestions on setting up these.
There is also lots of good advice available on the Inside Higher Ed website. Various options are described here including traditional writing groups, writing accountability groups (where you have to answer to people regularly about your writing), online writing groups, writing coaches etc. An important point made here is that we all need to work out what our actual needs are in relation to writing first.
Write Inquiry offers a toolbox of ideas to help writing and useful links and is intended for staff and students in HE who want to set up collaborative writing communities.
You could try an academic writing meet up – or set one up
The Writing Cafe at Plymouth University sounds great. It offers students the chance to come and talk to learning developers and writing mentors about their writing. It also puts on writing events.
So there are quite a few examples out there. I’m looking into organising something around writing communities with students and will update this blog with my progress during the next academic year.
I was recently asked to speak at a widening participation workshop organised by Routes into Languages East Midlands about why we need to widen participation in language learning, which is one of the key objectives of the Routes into Languages programme. In preparing my presentation for the event, I started out by simply googling ‘languages an elitist subject.’ What came up was a wide variety of media headlines from the last decade – a few of these are listed below:
These headlines do seem to indicate that there really is a media discourse about languages as socially elitist in the UK which will be challenging for those of us in the languages community to break down.
When it comes to the evidence about what is actually going on in this area, the most recent Language Trends survey (Board & Tinsley, 2014) paid some attention to this and reported that among its respondents, fee-paying independent schools were more likely than maintained state schools to offer continuity of language in the transition from Key Stage 2 to 3 and more likely to offer more than one language in KS3. Additionally, as has been much publicised, exam entries in languages at both GCSE and A level include disproportionately high numbers of entries from the independent sector. Most recent GCSE figures show a 15% gap in favour of independent schools, for example. Post-16, the situation is even more pronounced with 32% of all A-level entries in 2013 coming from the independent sector according to Language Trends.
And what of universities? Well, languages tend to be located in the more traditional universities in the UK, i.e. the Russell Group. The UCAS 2013 Application Cycle: End of Cycle Report in December 2013 made for depressing reading and reported that students from independent schools made up 9.58% of applicants across all subjects compared with 28.34% for European Languages. A few years ago, my former University of Southampton colleague, John Canning published statistics on the social and background of language applicants in UK HE and these highlight the problems in a bit more detail and can be seen on his website.
So in answer to the question, ‘are languages elitist subjects?‘ Yes it would seem so. It is important to emphasise, however, that to some extent they always have been. Languages were traditionally taught in grammar schools and not to the whole cohort. And in the languages community we are still grappling with this aura of elitism that surrounds our subject.
Recently I led a workshop on motivation for PhD students at the University of Southampton as part of the Faculty of Humanities doctoral research training programme. While developing the workshop content and deciding what to include, I found it interesting and also useful reflecting back on my own motivation when I was a part-time PhD student. I remember it as very challenging – somewhat ironic really given that my thesis focused on motivation in language learning. Of course, the motivation for starting a PhD is not the same as the motivation required to get to the end – it’s important to make this distinction. The effort and persistence needed to keep going when the going gets tough can result in students losing sight of the reasons for embarking on the PhD in the first place. I know it was like that for me.
In the end, my workshop covered the reasons for doing a PhD and the benefits associated with it and we then looked at some of the principles that might be involved in keeping motivated to the end:
- Managing your time
- Looking after yourself
- Knowing when and where you work best
- Planning and managing tasks (including setting goals)
- Collaborating with others
- Engaging with the concept of flow
- Developing strategies to help you through the tough times
- Reminding yourself of why you are doing a PhD in the first place
My PowerPoint presentation from the workshop is available on Humbox