Mini virtual writing retreats to support and connect tutees

A guide to organising mini virtual writing retreats each week to build a supportive scholarly community within a personal tutoring group

Aspasia Eleni Paltoglou 's avatar
Manchester Metropolitan University
28 Nov 2022
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Female student writing in the university library

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Studying at university can be challenging. Personal tutoring is meant to provide students with much-needed academic and pastoral support, through a combination of one-to-one and group meetings. The latter can facilitate a sense of community, which can offer valuable extra support for the students.

However, sometimes personal tutor meetings are not perceived as particularly useful by the students, while staff are not always sure how to make these meetings fruitful for students. This is worrying because personal tutoring is key for student support and retention.

Holding weekly optional mini virtual writing retreats for your personal tutor group can make meetings more meaningful and productive, help students feel less isolated, and enable them to focus more effectively on their studies.

In the universities I work for, you cannot move for writing retreats; these are sessions where staff can focus on their research and writing papers and grants without distractions; mini, maxi, virtual, face-to-face, on campus, away from campus, in libraries (cloistered or otherwise), you name it. These sessions provided inspiration for what follows.

Step-by-step advice on organising the weekly virtual retreats

First, create a tutor group chat, using chat software of your choice. Announce the purpose of the session, the time it will run and emphasise that it is optional. Create a new link for the writing retreat so that you do not call the whole group accidentally, which could worry students about missing a compulsory meeting. Send a reminder to all students about the session each week, eg, a couple of hours before the meeting. This way, more students might join sessions in subsequent weeks.

Here is how to organise the session itself: five minutes chat, 25 minutes writing, five to 10 minutes chat. Repeat if required.

For the first five minutes, participants are asked to state what they will be working on. Be flexible. Do not worry if students are at a point where they cannot have very concrete goals at that point. Some students might put their camera and microphone on, some will not; again, leave it up to them.

Welcome the students and encourage them, especially if they are feeling anxious or pessimistic about their writing. Share any worries or challenges you might have about your own writing, so that students realise that academic work is challenging for all, at any level.

After you have all agreed on what you are working on, state when the writing phrase will finish, and you are ready to start working. Then, for 25 minutes, participants are expected to work on their writing in silence. Keep microphones muted but give students the option to keep their camera on. I tend to keep my camera on as a reminder of the purpose of the session.

When 25 minutes have passed, unmute microphones and discuss how the session went. Typically, there is a very rich exchange of advice and tips for academic writing. Participants tend to share their experiences and feelings during the writing session, and they might even ask questions that were generated while working on their writing, which you can then answer.

Sharing writing time together and reflecting on the experience can bring new ideas and realisations to the fore, which can help with academic progression and pastoral support of the students, in a way that a simple “touch base” meeting could not. Again, share any challenges you face with your writing, or whether the session helped you focus, too.

After the session has finished, summarise the main outcomes and topics discussed in the retreat in the main Teams chat, so that students who could not participate in the retreat can have some insight in the session.

Encourage students to lead the retreats, to take more ownership of the activity.

Cats, babies and partners who support said babies are all welcome. Sometimes online teaching and learning is considered inferior to face-to-face teaching, but my feeling from this activity was that connecting online and bringing something from the home life to the meeting enriched the learning environment and enhanced the sense of community.

Face-to-face support

My advice focuses on how to run an online retreat for a personal tutor group, but some of it would be applicable for face-to-face sessions to support supervisees and students on any course. Hopefully these sessions will allow you to engage with the students as partners in crime, facing academic writing challenges as equals, but enabling you to provide support when needed.

Although the writing sessions are very brief, in my experience they can help to train participants to focus effectively, and the effects seem to carry on long after the retreat has finished. And, of course, these sessions could help you finish that challenging paper you have been avoiding for some time. If you find that you cannot focus on these sessions or if there are work-loading issues, you could run the sessions you are work-loaded for and leave the students to organise the rest among themselves. I will finish by saying how grateful I am to the students for participating in the writing retreats, for helping me focus on my writing and for inspiring me.

Aspasia Eleni Paltoglou is a senior lecturer in psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Special thanks to baby Eva, Chester the cat, and all students from the personal tutor group: Georgie Holden, Gillian Currie, Lyndsey Holden, Lisa Hough, Emma Hulance, Eleanor Kelly, Kelly Seaward-Ding, Tia Boddie, Alina Friedman, Elizabeth Greenwood, Beth Griffiths, Lucy Ingram, Rebecca Jackson-Robbins, Vicky Koolen, Nadine Mason, Kirstie McGill, Kathy Welsh, Giugiu Barsuola, Marianne Dillane, Antina Zhelcheska.

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