It’s that time of year again and many of us will be taking on new trainees, getting to know new students or supervising new PhDs. I thought it was time therefore to share something that I’ve found increasingly useful and have now set out to cover in initial meetings with learners, and that is the development of learning agreements.
What is a learning agreement and why is taking this time worth while? Surely everyone knows what they’ve signed up for when they take a training place? The truth of the matter is that students often know the logistics of what they’ve signed up for, but any learning placement is a whole lot more than just the nuts of bolts of the curriculum. There’s a lot of expectation setting/management required for one thing. We’ll cover what learning agreements look like in a bit, but in short they are agreements based on conversations between the learner and their supervisor where they actively set out the expectations and boundaries of their relationship.
At STP/HSST and PhD level it can be the learners first experience of formal education routes within a professional setting. As supervisors we often expect learners to be able to undertake independent study at this point, identifying their own learning objectives and being responsible for any escalations. If this is the students first experience however, they may believe it will follow the pattern of the prior learning they have experienced, which may have placed a lot more focus on structure and consistency.
What is a learning agreement?
In light of these complexities what is a learning agreement and how can it help? Well they take quite a few different forms depending on what it is that you want them to fulfil. In short they are a working (and therefore dynamic) agreement between you as the supervisor/education officer and your new student/trainee. I tend to refer to them as learning agreements rather than contracts as the term contract to me implies penalties and learning contracts are what I escalate to if challenges occur during the time someone is with me.
They can include all kinds of things:
- What topics are in or out of the learning objectives
- How deadlines will be set and a broad plan of work
- Expectation setting around students identifying additional learning objectives
- Ideas for how the learner will benchmark their progress and/or learning
- How the educator will assess progress/learning
Although the above is often the framework the most valuable parts of a learning agreement for me are less structural. It is my time to ask:
- What kind of learner are you?
- What kind of support do you prefer (close vs supportive supervision)
- What are your main objectives that may or may not be topic based?
- What are you hoping this will lead to?
- How do you prefer to communicate, face to face, email etc?
- Why this course? Why this training? What attracted you? In order to understand their drivers
Making the implicit explicit
In general I think most of us are good about talking about the nuts and bolts of what a course/placement entails. We are good at giving the ‘this is the bathroom’ tour and ‘this is where your desk is’ plus ‘our supervisor meetings are on Tuesday’ type of information. What I have discovered over the last few years however, is that imparting curriculum or logistic based information just isn’t enough to support a good supervisor-learner relationship, where both get what they want out of it.
I think as supervisors we have quite a lot of expectations that we don’t necessarily voice, after all for many of us this is something we do a lot of. It can therefore be easy to make assumptions about the level of awareness of these expectations from someone coming into that supervisor-learner relationship with us. The thing is, you may have been doing this a loooooong time, but your learner almost definitely hasn’t. They won’t have that implicit and often organisational linked cultural knowledge that you have been embedded in for so long. Worse than that even, they are likely to have a whole lot of different assumptions based on their last educational experience that they are bringing with them. Unless we all work therefore to make things that we implicitly understand explicit, you won’t know where those differences in practices and expectations lie. It is when this happens that problems often occur that could easily have been addressed early on, but have significant impacts on learner experience and supervisor stress levels.
Supports orientation to a new field/culture
As I’ve said a few times culture matters, as culture and cultural norms are intrinsically linked with the expectations we all have. Having these conversations is about more than expectation management however. Learners are coming into an environment that may be pretty alien to them. This can make students feel like they are floundering, right from the start, meaning that they don’t feel like they fit. A small percentage of students are likely to walk away because of this, not really understanding the cause. This is often combined and amplified by the fact that they may have moved or lost their support networks in the transition.
Talking about your role (and similar roles) with learners helps, not only to build your relationship and set expectations, but also to support them in making the transition into being a scientist in practice, not just in name. It took me years to feel like a scientist, to feel comfortable calling myself that, to feel like I belonged. Having conversations where students understand what it takes to succeed as a scientist, not just in a placement, can be invaluable to learners re-establishing support networks. Also, supporting learners to find other trainee groups, to join twitter, or of timings for lunch clubs, can help them settle into their new role and their future profession.
Having these conversations can feel uncomfortable and challenging, mostly because of the fear of the unknown. They may also take time we may not have. All of these are reasons to make sure they are done correctly and given the time required. If you are nervous having them with your learner then imagine how nervous they may be to have them with you. You are asking for a lot of honesty and self reflection from someone who doesn’t know you well, in a relationship where trust may not yet have been built. Furthermore, you are asking for all of this in a relationship where you probably have all the power and where your learner is likely to be highly keen to please, rather than representing their true self..
So how do we hold these conversations and support them getting the best outcomes? I think there a couple of things we can be mindful of. The first is not dropping them on the learner. If we want the conversation to deliver we both need to do the work. I need to be honest with myself about time and also what kind of supervisor I am. The student needs to be given the questions or a framework beforehand and supported to have time to reflect on themselves to be able to answer the questions asked. They may need to be encouraged to speak to friends or family to support them in this reflection if they’ve never done it before. They can then start the process of reflection by thinking in the presence of people they trust, if needed.
Think about where you physically want to have the conversation. I tend to take learners out, to a none Trust space where we can have tea and cake (or other suitable consumables). I’ve written before about the power of tea. The main reason that I do this is that it means we are no ones turf, we are in a neutral space, and the provision of food further helps to reduce/remove hierarchy. When thinking about where however, you need to consider privacy. Your learner may need to share things that are private or important to them, and so considering the type of location is also important.
The other important thing about getting the conversation right is setting the conversational scene before you start the conversation itself. You need to be clear about the objectives that you want to achieve, why they are helpful to both parties and set some ground rules. It’s key to say that honesty is the most important part of this process. It’s OK to have styles that don’t match, by knowing this early you can sign post and find additional support to ensure that the learning process itself still works.
What happens when the expectations don’t match
Hopefully by going through the process of creating a learning agreement you will avoid any significant bumps along the way later on. The process needs to be done thoroughly though, so you don’t just hear what you’d like to hear. As stated above it’s ok to have areas of difference, it’s what you can flex in response to that information and how you respond that matters.
For example, I am never going to be a good micro manager, I have neither the time or personal inclination to work this way. I have fallen foul of not having had the learning agreement conversation and subsequently had learners who felt they were inadequately supported. If I find out that I have a learner who feels they need close support I need to therefore make some pragmatic choices. Is it they will need close guidance for the transition period? If so I can likely change my style for a period of a couple of months in order to support that orientation to a new location. Is it that this is their learning style long term? In this case I need to think about pairing them up or seeking support from a colleague who is better able to provide that close support during the periods in between our catch up sessions.
I have also struggled previously with learners who have not met the outputs that I had expected. This may be more of an issue with PhD students, but to be honest if I’m not clear about publication expectations how will they know? Therefore if it becomes apparent that the timeline expectations don’t match it is worth considering drawing up a broad, high level, delivery plan so you are both working towards the same mental models
Finally, it may be that learners make it clear that they have pastoral care expectations that you may or may not be able to support. Prior to going into these sessions it is important to be aware of the different additional support services that learners have available to them. Whether they need them or not in the moment it is crucial that you sign post to these, especially if you are not the kind of supervisor who will take on this kind of support role. Additionally, there are likely to be plenty of networks that offer peer support that you can sign post learners to. There will always be things that they want to talk about that they won’t want to talk to you about. Let’s be honest, no matter how well you get on there will be times they need to moan about you as a minimum. Being open about this being OK and linking them into peer groups can be incredibly valuable
No matter what you hear in this space it’s important to be open and judgement free, in order to support honest sharing. If you hear something you don’t agree with it’s important to take a beat and try to understand the drivers of that view point. By being open to opinion and challenge now you are investing in success later on. I don’t know about anyone else but I studied in a different time, my undergraduate degree finished 20 years ago. My expectations of learners and learner experience therefore is, to be frank, well old. I’ve also worked in one place for 18 years. It is naïve therefore to believe my experience and expectations are going to perfectly match the learners who are coming through now.
There is a big difference between being someone’s educational supervisor and someone’s manager. In some cases we are both, but we need to understand that they are different roles with different requirements on both sides, and be aware of what hat we are wearing when. Techniques such as learning agreements can help make sure that we do the ‘education’ part better by having the kinds of conversations you would not have with someone you just had a managerial relationship with. It encourages self reflection, expectation management and consensus forming. All of which are skills that we should be modelling for those learners we are supporting. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know. So let’s start this new academic year by having conversations better and talking about how we can all be the best we can be.
All opinions on this blog are my own