Insights: 5 years of the PPLS Skills Centre

In this post, James Donaldson reflects on the PPLS Skills Centre as it enters its fifth year.  The Centre offers support to all members of the School of PPLS who want to improve their research skills; the core offering involves one-to-one writing appointments between students and PhD tutors.


What made you decide to create the PPLS Skills Centre?

Traditionally, students learned to write in British universities through close interaction with faculty in very small groups.  Modern staff-to-student ratios do not allow for this, so now students have to figure out how to write on their own.

That’s where the Skills Centre (previously, the Writing Centre) comes in.  Our centre was started by a group of academics in PPLS headed by Prof Nikolas Gisborne.  They realised that the key thing missing from the modern student experience was the chance to have your work read without receiving a mark at the same time.  Students need more than evaluation; they need coaching as well.


Who is it for and who are the tutors?

It really is for everyone in the School of Philosophy, Psychology & Language Sciences.  It’s a constant struggle to get students to see that writing appointments are not remedial.  Even the very best students can benefit from them.

It’s extraordinarily hard for all of us to put ourselves in our readers’ shoes.  Everyone tries to do it, of course, but it’s easy to fail.  When you’ve been writing an essay for weeks or even months, your brain is so steeped in the material that it knows exactly what you are intending to communicate.  And so when you read through a part of your essay that is riddled with assumptions, your brain fills in the holes.  What seems clear and limpid to the author is anything but to a first-time reader.

The easy fix, of course, is to get someone else to read your paper and tell you which parts feel opaque.  But you can’t get just anyone to look at your writing.  You shouldn’t be working together with classmates on non-collaborative assessments, for instance, and you can’t get your friends to look either after you get to year 2, as the subject matter becomes too specialised.

That’s why we provide tutors who know the subject areas, have read widely in them, and have written assignments, dissertations, and proposals that have gained them access to selective PhD programmes.  Moreover, our tutors also have extensive experience marking undergraduate work.


Why did you decide to offer subject-specific support?

There is a lot of writing advice that holds generally across subject areas: have a central claim, explicitly show how your evidence supports that claim, and so on.  But it’s also important to know what’s expected within a specific field.

For instance, complicated work nearly always involves roadmaps in which the writer sets out how an argument will be developed.  But while Philosophy students tend to provide these roadmaps even in relatively brief papers, Psychology students generally do not.  The only way to know is to work in the field. That’s why we have three separate pools of tutors for our disciplines.

There’s another important reason for subject specificity: writing appointments are a chance for students to have an extended talk with someone who’s a few years ahead of them on the same academic path. That’s a valuable experience that’s otherwise not readily available.


What do students say about it?  What do the tutors say?

Students are very happy.  Our satisfaction ratings have hovered around 4.8/5 for several years now.  I think that the key is that tutors are not trying to shoehorn the student’s essay into a preconceived model, but rather alerting students to areas for improvement.  Often the students just need to be made aware of the possibility for expansion in one area and the need for trimming in another.

I know the tutors are very aware of the excitement that a good session can generate.  It can provide motivation for everyone.


What impact has the centre had on the School as a whole?

Students are writing better.  Teachers often report having an easier time marking the papers of students who have seen us.  And we know that people who book appointments tend to improve on their previous grades in a lasting way.

We’ve developed online resources and group workshops to help students with problems that come up repeatedly in appointments, and there is also a project to tie marking feedback in with our services.  Students might get back an essay with a particular skill flagged as needing improvement.  They can then be directed to one of our workshops so that they can improve that skill in time for their next assessment.


Do you have any reflections on the Skills Centre in the current hybrid teaching environment?

We were already experimenting with online teaching for distance students and so on.  What we noticed was how seamless the transition was — video chat works really well.  So when we needed to make the jump to online-only appointments in March 2020, we did so with confidence that things would work out well.

And they have.  There are new things to take into account, of course, but there are also advantages (no room booking, for one).  The interest in our appointments is as strong this year as ever.

You can read more about The PPLS Skills Centre and it’s resources on the blog.

James Donaldson has recently submitted his dissertation in Linguistics and English Language. James has been studying at the University of Edinburgh since 2012.  Since then, he has developed learning videos, taught at the Centre for Open Learning, and helped parse Early Middle English.  His primary position, however, has been coordinator for the PPLS Skills Centre.