May 19 2016

Embedding skills development in departments

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Esther SaxeyLSE academic developer Dr Esther Saxey reports on the ways in which LSE departments are encouraging the development of students’ academic skills, with a particular focus on International History’s new Thinking Like a Historian course

Several LSE departments have created specific projects to develop first year students’ academic skills. During this vital transitional year, academic skills are key to students’ ability to re-orient, and study in higher education. Vivid accounts of this appear in a study by Christie et al (2016); at a research-intensive university, students describe how the academic writing and critical skills developed during their challenging first year enabled them to become ‘100% dedicated’ to completing their degrees.

The format and delivery of LSE skills courses varies between departments, reflecting the variety of this kind of support across the sector. Philosophy & Argumentative Writing (PAW) is a five week seminar course, and students complete assignments, including writing abstracts for their own essays. Legal Academic Writing Skills (LAWS) delivers content through lectures, but both LAWS and Social Policy Academic Writing (SPAW) offer one-to-one-clinics, where students can discuss their feedback or essays they’re currently writing. PAW is compulsory for Philosophy undergraduates, while SPAW and LAWS are opt-in.

Thinking in a discipline

Many academic skills questions are also questions of disciplinary content and orientation. Questions that may appear generic (What’s an argument? How do I provide evidence?) can open up the foundational questions of the discipline (see Lea and Street’s example of ‘structure and argument’).  One of the first questions used in PAW’s opening seminar sits squarely on this overlap: What are the conventions of philosophy as a discipline? This is partly a pragmatic concern for a first-year student – how should I act in a seminar, what tone is appropriate when writing an essay? But the pragmatic question shades into a disciplinary issue, one which is also asked explicitly during the PAW’s first seminar: What do philosophers do?

One LSE scheme that thoroughly integrates disciplinary questions with academic skills is the International History course Thinking Like a Historian, first delivered in 2015/16.

For it, a significant redesign of the department’s skills provision was undertaken, by Head of Department Janet Hartley and others, including a focus group to gather student input. Thinking Like a Historian was then launched by organisers Dr Aurélie Basha i Novosejt and Dr Jeppe Mulich (pictured below), offering more contact hours, more structure, and highly interactive workshop sessions. The course is optional for IH students, but tied as often as possible to core courses; for instance, sample essay questions from a core course are used for one Thinking workshop exercise.

Thinking Historian pic

As the title suggests, Thinking Like a Historian orients students within a particular disciplinary approach, while also developing students’ skills. The course is built around a set of key questions: Why did I choose to study history? Why do historians argue? What use is history? Aurélie described how the course interrogates historical concepts and terminology (objectivity, historiography) while also engaging students in fundamental academic skills (how to read an article for argument, how to approach essay questions).

Departmental community

One of the other key aims of the course is to develop a sense of community among first year IH students. Often, their core courses are shared with interested students from other programmes and departments, which can make it hard for them to connect to fellow Historians during their crucial first year of study. So Thinking was keen to give them a sense of the specificity of their discipline, and a chance to meet their peers. One way to achieve this was holding sessions in the Parish Hall, with students sitting at café-style tables and working on group activities.

In addition, many academics from IH present their research on the course, which familiarises students with departmental faces and the exciting research work taking place. They get a taste of several specialisms, allowing them to make more informed choices for their second year courses.

The academics discuss research processes, as well as outcomes; as Aurélie suggests, they show ‘how the sausage gets made’! When students are debating the use of primary sources, two academics show very disparate examples from their own work, to broaden the students’ sense of what is possible.

Future developments

The organisers are keen to evaluate the first year of the course, and to consider changes. Some successes are evident: attendance and participation has been very strong (particularly considering the current timeslots, from 5.00 to 6.30pm on Thursdays and Fridays).

The impact of the course on student development is harder to judge, particularly as some central concerns of the course may impact on students more fully in later years of their degree. Aurélie has spoken to third years who ‘wish they’d had this kind of course’, but she is less sure that first years grasp its full value.

Certain aspects, however, have been immediately useful. Participants have reported understanding their feedback comments more fully, because they have been introduced to disciplinary terminology. The organisers haven’t ruled out the possibility of returning to some of the key issues – particularly around the processes of historical research – and delivering them as dissertation support sessions.

For the School as a whole, the opening of LSE LIFE (featured in last week’s LSE LIFE: the offer takes shape post) will expand possibilities for similar projects. Amongst other things, LIFE’s large teaching spaces will support sessions of small group work around café-style tables, as used by Thinking Like a Historian. LSE LIFE will also support collaborations between academics, library experts, and LSE LIFE’s own team of learning developers, to develop students’ academic skills and induct them into disciplinary thinking.


Christie, H., Tett, L., Cree, V. E. and McCune, V. (2016), ‘It all just clicked’: a longitudinal perspective on transitions within university, Studies in Higher Education, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 478-490.

Lea, M. and Street, B. (1998), Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approachStudies in Higher Education, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 157-172.

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May 16 2016

Resource of the week

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Many academic skills (such as reading, finding resources and writing with clarity) are valued across the disciplines. At the same time, developing these skills often requires students to engage with the intellectual foundations of their specific discipline. Structuring an essay, for instance, requires a student to understand what their discipline values, and what it views as evidence.

Thinking Like a Historian: College Students’ Reading of Multiple Historical Documents (PDF), by Cynthia Hynd, Jodi Patrick Holschuh and Betty P. Hubbard, describes a skills development activity – how to read an academic article – which also developed students as readers within a specific discipline. Students were encouraged to shift from finding facts to identifying the argument of the article. (The chart on page 149 sums up their change in perspective.)

This kind of re-orientation activity can be particularly useful in the first year of study when students are transitioning from other educational environments into study at LSE, which emphasises complexity, argument and intellectual autonomy.


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May 13 2016

LSE LIFE: the offer takes shape

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LSE LIFE is the new centre for undergraduate and taught master’s students that will offer an innovative programme of academic, personal and professional development events in one central location – on the ground floor of the Library. “The Library is a focal point for students at the School and so provides a natural, welcoming home for LSE LIFE,” says Nicola Wright, director of LSE’s Library Services. “This development supports the Library’s strategy to create new learning and study spaces for LSE students to enhance their experience of using the Library, and it extends students’ educational opportunities more generally.”

Working together with Claudine Provencher, Head of LSE LIFE, Gemma Stansfield, Daniel Linehan and Helen Green are currently developing the LSE LIFE offer. While they are new to LSE LIFE, they are certainly not new to LSE. (In fact, all told, they have more than 30 years’ experience at the school between them!) Here they talk with blog editor Jane Hindle about how they see ways to combine study support, personal development and professional skills, and new opportunities to do this within the framework of a particular course or programme, or even at the departmental level.

How can LSE LIFE work with academic departments to enhance students’ educational experiences?

“Students want more opportunities to meet and interact with each other and with academic staff in their departments outside of the formal setting of lectures, seminars, and office hours,” says Daniel Linehan, who will take up the post of LSE LIFE Centre Manager next month.

“LSE staff and students are very busy and the School is at the centre of a busy world capital. It can be quite a challenge for students to settle in, feel at home, and understand what is on offer here, and hit the ground running.  I know from my work over the last 15 years as Departmental Manager of Social Psychology, academic departments work incredibly hard to provide useful and timely information – through social media targeted to offer holders before arrival at LSE, handbooks, webpages, and on arrival via welcome sessions and a whole host of media.

“However, I also believe that nothing can replace a friendly face and a receptive ear – a place where students can come with their questions and ideas. Our vision is that LSE LIFE will be a space where students can drop in at any time with their questions about studies or about where they can learn more about something that interests them, or discover something new. There will be study advisers, careers advisers, librarians, writing specialists, maths tutors and others running drop in sessions throughout the week.

“On a broader scale, LSE LIFE can also support departments’ work to help inform and orient students specifically about their programme and their discipline. For example, we can provide a place for departments to hold their welcome sessions or mid-term reviews with advice on how to study in the discipline. Or departments could use the space to host student conferences or poster exhibitions, debates or group projects. These events could take place in the evening, over the weekend, during or outside term time, similar to Cumberland Lodge retreats but with space for over 300 students.”

Are there any particular areas you will focus on to begin with?

Gemma Stansfield“Essay writing will be one of our main areas,” explains Gemma Stansfield, one of LSE LIFE’s learning developers. “LSE students do a lot of writing so we will run a series of workshops to help students unpack essay writing and understand LSE expectations. We are also keen to work with departments and run writing sessions that are tailored to particular disciplines – so that students gain an understanding of the practices, traditions and language associated with their discipline.

“Of course, essays are not the only writing genre we will focus on,” Gemma continues. “Dissertation and exam writing will also be part of our core provision at certain times of the year. We are also looking into running workshops on other writing genres such as reflective and creative writing, report writing or book reviews, which may be of interest to specific cohorts and relevant to particular LSE programmes.

“As well as running large-scale events and workshops, LSE LIFE is also a place where students can come and ask questions. During my eight years at LSE, I have been asked all sorts of things about writing such as ‘How can I build an argument?’ ‘How should I structure my essay?’ ‘How can I get started?’ ‘What does “critically analyse” mean?’ ‘Is it OK to use ‘I’ in my essay?’ Students will be able to drop in and ask us these types of questions.”

Helen Green for blogAnother learning developer at LSE LIFE, Helen Amelia Green, adds: “It might seem improbable, but reading is one of the skills that students ask for help with most frequently.  Both undergraduates and postgraduate students are often surprised at the challenges they face in making sense of academic texts, and at the sheer number of texts they are presented with in their courses.

“As a Teaching and Learning Centre study adviser, I’ve held dozens of sessions on academic reading—sometimes for 300 students at a time, but also in small group workshops, not to mention one-to-one sessions,” says Helen. “I think these sessions could be even more useful to students if they were designed in conjunction with specific disciplines or courses in mind. This would allow students to develop reading and note-making skills using core texts from their own courses. With input from course convenors, lecturers and GTAs, advice and discussion could go beyond how to scan articles and synthesise main ideas to address specific disciplinary practices that emerge in theoretical and empirical texts.

“Engaging with texts critically and actively is one of the fundamental skills required of all LSE students, and they want more guidance and practice – workshops and drop in sessions, for example. LSE LIFE presents us with an exciting chance to work together with departments to design and deliver learning activities around reading that are tailored to fit seamlessly into their taught provision. We very much look forward to working with colleagues across academic departments to create these and other opportunities for learning outside the classroom.”

LSE LIFE will be open from September 2016 and there’ll be more news about it, here and elsewhere, over coming months. Meantime, if you’d like to contact the team to find out more, please email



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May 9 2016

Resource of the week

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Students’ desire for a sense of community has become a regular feature of the feedback gathered through various surveys, be it the National Student Survey or the Times Higher Education’s Student Experience Survey.

Launching in September 2016, LSE LIFE, the new centre for undergraduate and MSc students which will be located on the ground floor of the Library, is part of LSE’s response to this desire. The idea has already been adopted by other universities in the UK, such as the University of Manchester’s Learning Commons and the Centre for Learning and Study Support at De Montfort University, and this week’s resource looks at some aspects of student reaction to the De Montfort example. Mary Pillai’s Locating Learning Development in a University Library: Promoting Effective Academic Help Seeking (New Review of Academic Librarianship, vol. 16, no. 2, 2010) explores in particular a number of factors that may help to explain the significant increase in the take-up of study support tutorials and the conditions that encourage students to engage with learning development opportunities.

Our post on Thursday will discuss how some of these ideas are being developed for the launch of LSE LIFE at the beginning of next academic year.



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May 5 2016

Doing and learning in Paris and London

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Joseph Downing croppedIn an illustration of how London and other cities can be used to extend students’ learning and social experiences, LSE100 Fellow and guest teacher Joseph Downing, who’ll be taking up a Marie Curie fellowship at the CNRS/Aix-Marseille Université in October, reports on field trips he has run in Paris and London

It is well established that pedagogically the best way to learn is by ‘doing’. During my earlier education and career in the natural sciences this was relatively simple – lab work made up a substantial part of our time. However, reflecting on how to bring this approach to the social sciences often raises issues of time and resources. This is especially acute when confronted with integrating a learning by doing component into a regular, exam and essay based degree unit. LSE has some wonderful examples of practical learning for students in tailor made programmes: LSE GROUPS and the Researching London course (SO221) both demonstrate the power that can be unleashed by giving students ownership of projects and really immersing them in the ‘doing’ of the subject and discipline.

In all honesty, the integration of some of these ideas into my Implementing Social Policy course (SA222) last year actually arose serendipitously. I was approached by a very engaged group of students who had taken my expertise in the urban arena of French politics and policy quite literally, and asked me to lead a ‘field trip’ to the suburbs of Paris to see the situation in a troubled estate and also talk to some of my contacts about how the French government was approaching these issues from a policy perspective. With a grant from LSE’s Annual Fund, the backing of the Social Policy Society and the generous nature of my contacts in France, who gave up a valuable Parisian Saturday in return for a train ride and a crêpe, it happened! On our bus ride from the train station to the Clichy-sous-Bois estate – the flash point of the 2005 riots which remain the largest civil unrest in peacetime Europe – I was filled with a mix of nervous apprenhension and excitement. But we spent a very interesting afternoon discussing the social issues of the estate and also the stumbling blocks that the state is struggling to overcome in redeveloping what is a very isolated place infrastructurally and complicated by being mainly in private ownership, unlike many other troublesome public housing estates. Students fed back really positively on how the experience of a new context had brought the subject to life for them in a way that they really appreciated, and their keenness and ability to connect the issues presented to us on the day with the literature and wider ideas in their courses was genuinely, and very pleasantly, surprising.

On my return, I was keen, given the promising work already underway at LSE and a number of universities to use London as a living, breathing, pedagogical resource, to integrate our ‘home city’ into my teaching landscape. Here, I wanted to turn the idea of using a learning by doing field trip into more than a special event and develop something that could sit alongside, and nourish, a conventional compulsory undergraduate unit. Colleagues of mine on LSE100 inspired me to move forward with the idea, and so this year I trialled it as part of SA222 with two classes of undergraduate students. This time, I organised a 1.5 mile ‘walking tour’ of six key sites in London’s Notting Hill that are vital in the evolution of social policy in the UK. Notting Hill, now known as one of London’s top residential and tourist spots, also spent a considerable part of the 20th century with a reputation as a prime example of urban decay and deprivation, and became one of the first areas for significant state SA222 March 2016 photo for blogintervention into the lives of the poor. Over the two hours we spent there we took in sites such as the infamous Rachman property empire – redeveloped originally as post-war council housing but mainly sold off in the 1980s under the right to buy scheme and then let back to Westminster Council at extortionate rates by buy to let investors – Trellick Tower (left) and the scene of the Notting Hill race riots, so important in the development of the UK’s anti-discimination policies. As we walked I encouraged students to connect what they saw to key aspects of the course and its readings, which they did very well, commenting that the trip had helped them to see social policy as something living and breathing and enabled them to reflect on how the micro and macro workings of complex policy processes affect real life situations.

The time and resource commitment required to plan and carry out these trips was minimal, and for me fully worthwhile in terms of benefits to the students. As such, I’ve discovered that learning by doing is much easier to integrate into our social science teaching than I thought, especially when we have such a valuable resource as London as a canvas.

For those who would like to read more about the benefits of and logistics planning for field trips, these two articles may be of interest: Field Trips as Short-Term Experiential Education, by Rik Scarce (1997, Teaching Sociology, vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 219-226) and Organising Business Field Trips for Students in Higher Education, by Veronica Earle, Amanda Relph and Maria Thomas (2015, Excellent in Teaching and Learning Notes).

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