#Take5 #58 From ‘Text’ to ‘Teapot’ to ‘Tinkerbell’ – Supporting Students in their Subjects




Study Skills

This #Take5 post is brought to you from Kendall Richards and Nick Pilcher of Edinburgh Napier University – who presented on this topic at the fabulous ScotHELD Winter 2021 Conference.

Who we are – and why we wrote this blog

We are Kendall Richards and Nick Pilcher. We are lecturers at Edinburgh Napier University. Kendall is in the School of Computing and Nick is in the Business School. Kendall has worked in Australia and the UK in Academic Advice roles, Nick has worked in Scotland in EAP and support roles. We have a recent paper entitled ‘Study Skills: neoliberalism’s perfect Tinkerbell’ which we spoke about at a recent Scottish Higher Education Learning Developers event, and wanted to write a bit more about it here.

In this blog we critique ‘one size fits all’ models of ‘study skills’ support which are ‘embedded’ into the curriculum – you know the sort of thing: “Can you come and run a session on the essay?”. We argue that not only is this a reductive and overly ‘universaling’ approach, it serves to reinforce unhelpful neoliberal models of HE, of widening participation and of widening participation students.

As we wrestled with this model of ‘skills’ work in our own practice, we decided to work with discipline staff to uncover what ‘language work’ they felt was necessary in their subjects – and with their students. The answers that we got were surprising – and served to transform our approach to supporting students in the subject – and to the type of curriculum-based support that we offered. Below we describe how we got to where we are now in our approach to Learning Development – and suggest ways that others can do the same. But first – why ‘Tinkerbell’?


Study Skills as neoliberalism’s Tinkerbell

For us, ‘Study Skills’ is a Tinkerbell, a nostrum that people believe in as providing a magic cure for all ‘student ills’ (sic) but which only exists if people believe in it. Why do we argue this?

Firstly, we find a range of definitions of what this nebulous field of ‘study skills’ or Learning Development is: Academic Skills, Academic Advice, Study Support etc. The very range and subliminal quality making it universal: fit for everyone but specific to no one.

Secondly, we posit that each subject requires unique skills – they don’t transfer (see the excellent Hyland and Johnson noted below). In other words, the skills you need as a Nurse might not save you if you have to choose which wire to cut on a fuse box. What do you really need? You need subject knowledge.

Thirdly, ‘Study Skills’ can’t be embedded, whether it’s ‘generic’ or ‘specific’ it is still a magical Tinkerbell we argue. Why? Because where we read papers that say ‘embedded’ skills support works, it only does so with subject lecturers on hand to help – and the students say what they find the least helpful aspects of such support are the ‘Study Skills’ aspects. What they find the most helpful is – you can guess what we’ll write by now we think – subject content.

Fourthly, it’s not ‘Study Skills’ that enables you to present or write well – it’s subject knowledge. Essays are different for different subjects and lecturers – and so are reports (of which there are a vast range of types). If Nick talks about the Battle of Smolensk in the Second World War you may think to yourself – ‘Wow, he has great presentation skills!’, but if Nick talks about Game Theory’s application to HE decision-making you may think, ‘Oh my, he needs work on his presentation skills!’ And yet, the key factor in both cases is subject knowledge, not any ‘Study Skills’.

How on earth did we get here?

So who, or what, do we argue, does Study Skills serve? We argue it serves perfectly the goals of neoliberal ideology and political economy – it is universal, can be delivered by anyone, can be virtualised, represents a light touch ‘state’ delivered from a central source, and students are ‘responsibilised’ to go and find it for themselves.

It supports reductive arguments for massification: the help is there – so if you (lecturers and students) don’t go for it – then it is only your own fault – it’s not a problem of massification or large numbers you have to deal with – the help is there.

How did this system come about? We argue through a combination of what Giddens calls structuration (whereby structures exist already and are then reinforced by people following them) and what Lukes calls the third dimension of power: the power to get people to act (or to remain passive and not rebel) against their own best interests.

So that’s us describing our current thinking – we now want to describe how we arrived here, and suggest how others can adapt our strategies to their own contexts.

Text and Textual Analysis

As noted above – our backgrounds are from EAP and Academic Support. We’ve both taught English and then moved into Academic Advice and support. We were thus schooled in, and for many years operated in, a world of pure ‘Text’: Textual analytical techniques (genre analysis; corpus linguistics) will tell us what we need to know to help students.

And yet … on the back of seeing that different subjects seemed to focus on different criteria when they used the term ‘discuss’, Kendall had an idea for a project: of asking lecturers and students what they understood key assessment words to mean. This led us to question the solidity of any dictionary definitions.

We next went further to ask lecturers in a range of subjects the very base question of: ‘What ‘English’ do students need to succeed?’

They said some don’t need English; they said some needed Visual abilities; some needed Emotional abilities; some could express themselves using Mathematics.

We were confused – how do we help these students with ‘Text’ and with ‘Text-based’ techniques? The answer arrived at was simple: ‘we don’t’ and ‘we can’t’.

The frozen rock after the language had erupted

What we had found at the time, although we didn’t realise it, was what Wittgenstein notes as being ‘the language itself as the thought’ and ‘the language itself as the activity’ – and we had found it because we had seen it and asked about it in the context of the subject.

And yet – we hadn’t found actual examples of it – we’d only found statements of what Valentin Voloshinov describes as the key underpinning ‘psychological and ideological elements’ of the language beneath the ‘hard crust’ of frozen rock after the language had erupted.

We know we hadn’t realised ‘perfectly’, because we still felt we could ask about the language students needed using spoken ‘Text’ techniques – focus groups in our case.

We ran five very lengthy, very logistically challenging, and very demanding-to-transcribe focus groups with lecturers from different subjects. We had about five to six members in each, biscuits, coffee, tea, we asked them all about:

‘Did they agree there were these underlying elements in their subjects?’

‘Yes’ they all said.

And then we asked them:

‘Could they give us some examples of language students would use?’

‘No’, they said.

Well, we lie slightly, as out of a total of over seven hours of painstakingly transcribed focus group data, we gathered a total of ‘four words’. However, what we did gather was their confusion (‘I don’t know what the question is Nick?’) and the knowledge that if we wanted to access the language students needed in the subject, then this wasn’t the way.

From ‘Text’ to ‘Teapot’

We had reached an impasse. Then, it dawned on Kendall that when he had taken in a brightly coloured teapot to Design students they had very animatedly discussed it, passed it to one another and spoken of it in Design terms, critiquing its Design and describing its Design.

Our Teapot

What would happen, Kendall wondered, if we took this teapot and gave it to lecturers and asked them to describe it and critique it from their own subject perspectives?

What happened was that in very short interviews we gained immediate access to the subject world and learned more about what students needed in those brief moments than we had in countless hours spent trying to see through the use of ‘Text’.

For Nurses the teapot was unhygienic, dangerous. For Designers it was Memphis school. For Engineers it was a porous non-mass producible item.

What we came to realise we had done was – we’d provided a context, we’d given lecturers a direct opportunity to provide what Wittgenstein describes as seeing ‘the language itself’ ‘as the thought’.

So what do we do now? In support classes where we have mixed subject groups we take in a physical object to describe the importance of writing in the subject context and talk about how different subjects would critique the object in their own ways – and in their own words. Nick uses a water bottle or a pen, anything can be used. What we don’t use though, is ‘Study Skills’.

What we suggest

It won’t surprise you to know that what we suggest is that students are supported in the subject. And yet we realise this isn’t easy. The systems as they are today are built to promote generic centralized support – collaboration in the disciplines is hard to do.

What we ultimately suggest is that we/you promote more the value of what Academic Advisors and those working in Study Skills units do. Big it up. Tell people through formal and informal channels what it is that we/you do – and what you can accomplish together. Where possible work with individual lecturers on particular small projects and interventions. If you can and are allowed to. (A big tip would then be to write up with that discipline academic a case study of what you achieved together and get it published.)

Draw on the arguments above (and below) to make the case for support in the subject. Ask the National Students Association (NSA) to make the case that it is this sort of help in the subject that students need. Make arguments with department heads that they need school based Academic Advice for their students, get the NSA to make these arguments.

We know this is easier said than done, and we fear that unless systemic change happens at a governmental level, that our situations and the systems that perpetuate them are unlikely to greatly change. However, we hope that the above and the below can be used to underline the value of what Academic Advisors and those working in Study Skills units do, so it is recognised and valued and accorded academic roles, and fundamentally, that student support is better delivered to, for and with students to give them what they need.

Papers referred or alluded to:

Richards, K., & Pilcher, N. (2020). Study Skills: neoliberalism’s perfect Tinkerbell. Teaching in Higher Education, 1-17.

Hyland, T., & Johnson, S. (1998). Of cabbages and key skills: Exploding the mythology of core transferable skills in post‐school education. Journal of Further and Higher Education22(2), 163-172.

Richards, K., & Pilcher, N. (2014). Contextualising higher education assessment task words with an ‘anti-glossary’approach. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education27(5), 604-625.

Pilcher, N., & Richards, K. (2016). The paradigmatic hearts of subjects which their ‘English’ flows through. Higher Education Research & Development35(5), 997-1010.

Richards, K., & Pilcher, N. (2020). Using physical objects as a portal to reveal academic subject identity and thought. The Qualitative Report25(1), 127-144.

Bios and Blurbs

Kendall Richardsis a lecturer with the role of academic support adviser in the school of Computing supporting the schools of Engineering and the Built Environment and Creative Industries at Edinburgh Napier University (UK). His research interests include pedagogy, academic support, education as social justice and Neoliberalism’s impact on Higher Education. He has contributed to a number of journals including the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Higher Education Research and Development, Teaching in Higher Education, Maritime Business Review and Power and Education.

Nick Pilcher is a lecturer in The Business School at Edinburgh Napier University. He teaches a range of areas including supporting students with their academic work. His research interests centre around education, language and qualitative research methods. He has published and contributed to work published in journals such as Qualitative Research, Psychology of Music, the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education and the International Journal of Shipping and Transport Logistics.


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