Student writing retreats: spaces to actively enable the production of academic work
Dr Chris Little
What is the idea?
Structured writing retreats have become a staple of academic development provision across UK higher education, offering academics and research students a space to work productively, consolidate their identities as writers and build collaborative networks amongst peers (Casey et al., 2013; Moore, 2003; Murray & Newton, 2009; Papen & Theriault, 2018; Swaggerty et al., 2011). However, as yet, they are rarely, if ever, offered to undergraduate and postgraduate-taught students.
This idea will explore provision I worked on from 2016-2021, while working at Keele University. Within the learning development team I worked in, I piloted writing retreats for undergraduate and postgraduate-taught students. We found them to provide an active and safe space for students to construct knowledge and make academic progress.
Why this idea?
The learning development team had attempted to provide a range of provision to support undergraduate (UG) and postgraduate-taught (PGT) students with their dissertations. These students tended to be frequent users of the university’s individual academic practice tuition service and the team wanted to find a way of connecting them and supporting them in a different way. Despite our best efforts, the various workshops and café drop ins we provided had virtually no engagement.
Structured writing retreats are often provided by central academic development units across the UK HE sector. They provide spaces for staff and research students to make progress towards substantive writing projects, whilst providing a space to network too. Writing retreats range in their format from single day on-campus retreats, to multi-day residential provision. The retreats break down a day of writing into a small number of writing blocks, with discussion amongst peers before and after these blocks where colleagues share goals for the session and review progress. Research around writing retreats has found many benefits to attending them, from improved productivity, efficiency and motivation, through to more complex consolidation of colleagues self-identification as ‘writers’ (Casey et al., 2013; Moore, 2003; Murray & Newton, 2009; Papen & Theriault, 2018; Swaggerty et al., 2011). Despite writing retreats offering so much to staff and researchers, they are rarely, if ever, offered to UG and PGT students.
Fortuitously, I happened to attend a structured writing retreat provided for staff by the university’s academic development team and found the experience to be eye opening and rewarding. In one day of structured writing time I was able to achieve my writing goals and network with colleagues from across the university, many of whom have remained friends to this day. Then I decided that students deserved to have these opportunities too and began providing them for undergraduate and PGT students.
In direct contrast to our previous variety of workshops and tuition, the writing retreats proved to be incredibly popular with students for a range of reasons. Students reported that they were able to produce far more written work than they normally would do, due to the environment of the retreat itself and the time constraints of the writing slots. Students also share their goals for each writing session with a peer in the room, not always someone they know, and discuss their progress against these goals after each writing slot. This positive accountability proves to be a great motivator for students, focussing their work. Finally, the writing retreats were found to be beneficial for students with additional learning needs. Retreats provide a calm, private and friendly environment to complete work, compared to the usual activity and noise levels of shared computer rooms that most universities have.
How could others implement this idea?
Delivering a writing retreat is easy, whether that is within a formal curriculum (i.e. using a lecturer slot to provide a space for writing) or offering optional retreats for students on a sign-up basis. Once you have your audience it is all about facilitating discussion of goals amongst participants and silent writing time, followed by a recap.
- Stage 1 – Goal-setting (10-20 mins): Instruct participants to decide on some SMART goals for the first writing block and to share them with a peer. Encourage them to offer constructive feedback on whether the goals are achievable or measurable. Student participants often commented anecdotally that they found it helpful when I shared what I intended to achieve in the upcoming writing block and reported back on my own progress. Use this time for your own writing too.
- Stage 2 – Silent writing (60-90 mins): Inform participants of the duration of the writing block and enforce silent working with no food being consumed during the writing time. Give participants a warning when the session is 5 minutes from ending. Ensure that participants actually stop when the writing block is over.
- Stage 3 – Debrief (10-20 mins): Facilitate a discussion in pairs again of their progress against those targets before bringing together for a group plenary on how they found the process.
Transferability to different contexts
This could be transferred to virtually any discipline which requires substantive written projects. Indeed, at Keele University, the success of student writing retreats led to them becoming timetabled and embedded parts of curriculum in Midwifery, Social Work, Physiotherapy and others.
Links to tools and resources
Examples of the schedules of structured writing retreats can be found in several key writing retreat papers, but notably in the works of Murray (2008), Petrova and Coughlin (2012) and Tremblay-Wragg et al. (2021). I would wholeheartedly recommend attending one, especially as many sector-wide bodies, such as AdvanceHE, now offer them for schemes like AdvanceHE Fellowships too.
Casey, B., Barron, C., & Gordon, E. (2013). Reflections on an in-house academic writing retreat. All Ireland Journal of Higher Education, 5(1).
Moore, S. (2003). Writers’ retreats for academics: Exploring and increasing the motivation to write. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 27(3), 333-342. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877032000098734
Murray, R. (2008). Writer’s retreat: reshaping academic writing practices. Educational Developments, 9(2), 14-15.
Murray, R., & Newton, M. (2009). Writing retreat as structured intervention: margin or mainstream? Higher Education Research & Development, 28(5), 541-553. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360903154126
Papen, U., & Thériault, V. (2018). Writing retreats as a milestone in the development of PhD students’ sense of self as academic writers. Studies in Continuing Education, 40(2), 166-180. https://doi.org/10.1080/0158037X.2017.1396973
Petrova, P., & Coughlin, A. (2012). Using structured writing retreats to support novice researchers. International Journal for Researcher Development, 3(1), 79-88. https://doi.org/10.1108/17597511211278661
Swaggerty, E., Atkinson, T., Faulconer, J. & Griffith, R. (2011). Academic writing retreat: A time for rejuvenated and focused writing. The Journal of Faculty Development, 25(1), 5-11.
Tremblay-Wragg, É., Mathieu Chartier, S., Labonté-Lemoyne, É., Déri, C., & Gadbois, M. E. (2021). Writing more, better, together: How writing retreats support graduate students through their journey. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 45(1), 95-106. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2020.1736272
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