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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning


Photo of Alberto Garcia

Author: Alberto Garcia is the Academic Skills Librarian at Wolfson College. He has an MA in Easter Classics from St John's College, an MA in English from Texas A&M University-Kingsville and is finishing up an MA in Library and Information Services Management from the University of Sheffield. He has worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for the Revelle College Humanities Writing Program, University of California, and taught courses on Academic Writing and Literature for Texas A&M University-Kingsville.



How do you facilitate peer learning in the newly developed Wolfson College Writing Centre?

Through the Writing Centre, we have employed six PhD students to serve as Writing Consultants and provide peer-to-peer academic writing support. During Term time, undergraduates and MPhil students can book a 45-minute session with a Writing Consultant where they can receive support at various of the writing process. Consultants can help with unpacking questions, brainstorming ideas, questions related to organisation and structure, and the flow and clarity of the writing; Writing Consultants strictly focus on the mechanics of writing and do not provide support on subject knowledge.

Before starting, the Writing Consultants receive training in offering peer-to-peer writing support. At the end of Term, we have a group meeting to discuss any issues that may have arisen, and the Writing Consultants provide written reflections on their experience supporting students and how those experiences have influenced their own writing practice.

The Writing Consultants are paid for time undertaking training, delivering consultations and completing end-of-term reflections. Additionally, they are paid for their participation in events promoting the Writing Centre, such as facilitating the Wolfson Writes all-day write-a-thon and delivering writing-related workshops during Academic Writing Month.


What inspired you to develop this initiative?

When I was pursuing a postgraduate degree in the United States, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work in a writing programme and to teach academic writing in higher education. My training and teaching emphasised a process approach to writing and the use of peer-to-peer support as a valuable tool for helping develop as writers.

When I became the Academic Skills Librarian for Wolfson College, I was particularly interested in how I might be able to add the academic writing support students receive. In my first year, I offered workshops on Academic Writing and 1-2-1 academic skills sessions. I noticed that 53% of my 1-2-1 skills sessions focused on some aspect of academic writing: from unpacking a supervision question, reviewing brainstorming strategies, to thinking about thesis statements and the organisation of a writing project. Although this was incredibly rewarding, there were two things I wanted to improve on:

  1. The Cambridge experience is incredibly unique and, like many of the students I was supporting, I found myself having to learn quickly about the variety of supervision essay styles.
  2. Although I am not necessarily embedded in the academic hierarchy of Advisors, Directors of Studies and Supervisors, and this can certainly help students feel comfortable to approach me when they are struggling with an academic skill, there is still an asymmetrical power relationship between the student and myself when they come seeking advice.

I was left with the question: How could I get closer to that student experience so that the academic writing support we offered could be effective and still allow for students to express their questions and struggles in a safe and intellectually stimulating learning environment? The answer was to draw on the more experienced students we have at Wolfson.


What are some of the benefits students have experienced from peer learning?

After each consultation, we send out a feedback form to the student who attended regarding the consultation in general, the consultant and their writing progress after the consultation. In general, students have a very high appreciation for the service and for the Writing Consultants they work with.

"I really enjoyed meeting a Wolfson writing consultant for the first time, as I felt quite alone in having to figure out how one WRITES, PLANS and PREPARES for essays. I will make sure to come back to writing consultants, terribly helpful library staff and your almost annoyingly effective advice!"

"Not sure I would have been able to get this research proposal completed ahead of the deadline without the two consultations I have had!"

"Using the strategies the writing consultant and I discussed, I received the best feedback so far for my essays!"

In addition to asking for feedback from students who use the service, we also ask our Writing Consultants to submit end-of-term reflections on their experiences working as a Writing Consultant throughout the Term. We want the experience of working as a Writing Consultant itself to be beneficial as well.

"I think being a Writing Consultant makes me see writing as a more collaborative process than I did before taking up this role. Writing and communication more broadly always seem to benefit from more than one brain being involved. I think providing an external perspective to others on their writing makes me more open and eager to share my own writing with others as well, and to see the value from that sharing."

"Working as a Writing Consultant has affected my own practice as a writer. I have found that some students have come to me with writing-related issues that I also struggle with. Being able to explain why these issues weaken their writing and how to make it stronger forces me to develop a better understanding of how to work through these issues in my own writing."

"I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to correctly diagnose what the student was struggling with and what kind of tools or perspectival shift might help the student overcome these blocks. It was a lesson that fed right back into my own writing, especially since I was drafting a chapter myself around the time."


What advice would you give to colleagues who are interested in facilitating peer learning?

The literature on peer-to-peer support warns that administering a peer-to-peer service can be time-intensive, and when you are starting a programme from scratch this is very true. Think about the scale of service you would like to provide; what is the service's mission statement; how does this statement align with the needs of your community; how can you create a smooth workflow that enables you to use your time more effectively while providing a better learning experience for the student.

One example from our service is our use of Microsoft Bookings so that students can book a consultation for themselves and manage the consultation if they need to cancel to rearrange. This allows us to save time liaising between the student and the Writing Consultant and also allows the student seeking support a sense of autonomy over their learning experience.

Last, it is important to emphasise the confidentiality of the service. Struggling with an academic skill can lead some students to experience a sense of imposter syndrome and question whether they really belong at Cambridge. By ensuring the confidentiality of the service, you can build a safe space for students to openly express their struggles. This, I believe, creates a space where students are more receptive to taking on advice that might help them or experiment with new methods without the fear of being judged if they don't succeed at first.