Can writing retreats develop students’ writing practices?

Published by Newman University on

Table at Newman University with booklets
Last week, I introduced the idea of writing retreats for students studying on the BA (Hons) Working with Children, Young People and Families programme. Writing retreats are a popular tool used by academics to escape to a quiet place with like-minded colleagues and concentrate on producing a piece of writing with peer support, and without the usual interruptions. The space to be able to write something which they may have been putting off, or just haven’t had the “headspace” for in the usual run of the mill, day to day activity. I wondered therefore if our students, (who are mostly juggling working-parenting-studying commitments) might benefit from the same “space”.

The writing retreats were organised in the students’ usual timetabled slot but with added time. So a usual two-hour on campus teaching slot became a 4 or 5 hour writing space, specific to the particular module. Students were then invited to bring along laptops, books, research papers and any other materials they needed to work on the assessment for that module (and coffee, of course!). For the first year writing retreat, I also brought along some of my own resources, and journals, to actively encourage students to access journal articles (books still seem to be the source of choice for many students. Personally I prefer journal articles).

Students did not have to attend the full session but it was available if they wanted. I was available in the room for the duration (except to pop out to get more coffee!!). There was only one rule for the writing retreat and that was “to work quietly and independently. Study related quiet discussion is allowed but no general chit chat”.

Before the students began I asked them to write down a goal or target for the session. Writing it down makes them commit to it. The goal could be to find relevant materials to help decide on a topic for the assessment, or to research and write the assignment plan, or to write 500 words. It was personal to the student. Once written I collected the goals with the purpose of returning them as students were finishing. The purpose was so they could see whether or not they have achieved what they intended to, with the intention of enabling a sense of personal achievement and fulfilment.

As the students were finishing, they were given another piece of paper with a small table on it. Before they left they needed to write down (and commit to) their next steps. What did they need to do next? What resources did they need? (e.g. library? Student support?) and by when did they want to complete this step? The purpose was to keep the momentum and benefit of the writing retreat going once they left the room.

In terms of the time, I’d say it took about an hour for students to settle into the “headspace” of a Writing Retreat and “get into the zone” of purposeful writing. On average three to four hours seemed to be enough time for the students, most began to wind down after this time.

Most students valued the day with the most significant factor being that the lecturer was on hand to ask any questions, and get an immediate response (formative feedback). Students did not need to wait for email replies, or worry needlessly if a particular aspect was on the right track or not. Therefore, they were able to keep up their purposeful writing stride and get a greater sense of fulfilment.

In the longer term, implementing this from level 4, I hope that setting the pre- and post- writing retreat tasks gives students skills for independent working. I hope that the students can build skills to create their own writing spaces, get “into the zone” more quickly, and develop their confidence and skills to write purposefully. I also wonder whether such writing space might help some students to reach deadlines and reduce the need for extensions and mitigating circumstances, but only time will tell on that one.

“So, will writing retreats become a pedagogic tool on the BA (Hons) Working with Children, Young People and Families programme? With a few tweaks following student feedback, yes, I think so, very much so.

– Dr. Claire Monk, Senior Lecturer in Working with Children, Young People and Families. –


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