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The enabled researcher

The enabled researcher

The enabled researcher is a blog about higher education and all things postgraduate and researcher focussed. Specialising in training development, student progression monitoring and behavioural frameworks

The most successful leaders do two things….

Training & Development Posted on Jul 30, 2015 12:20

Successful leaders do two important things. These are often overlooked in favour for more dynamic and exciting attributes but the two things are simply ’empathy’ and ‘decisiveness’.

Effective leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and are acutely aware of their own position in the world and that of others. Empathy is one example and behaviour of those with high Emotional Intelligence (EI). It is the ability to understand others and really see views, challenges and approaches from another’s perspective. This understanding is not just ‘lip service’ but is an understanding on an emotional level as well as a cognitive level. Walking in another’s shoes, actively trying to work, live and interact as they do is a sign of a good leader. Furthermore, truly great leaders lead by example and innately understand the world of those they lead and represent. They empathise with others, try to seek out opportunities to challenge their own perspective to inform and influence their approach.

Decisiveness is another essential trait. Successful leaders do not ‘sit on the fence’, they quickly make decisions and take action. What we can learn from this is that decision making doesn’t need to be difficult or complicated. Decisions are often feared in-case of making the wrong choice but good leaders make wrong or bad decisions all the time. The difference is they recognise and correct mistakes quickly and are not afraid of making these mistakes in the first place. Many leaders can assess information quickly to enable an informed choice but this ability comes from regularly deciding, choosing and having experience in making decisions. Effective leaders seek out opportunities to be decisive and as with many things, there more you do something, the better and more proficient you become.

Opportunity is key and seeking out opportunities to be empathetic and decisive can help improve leadership behaviour. Trying to encourage leadership behaviour in a learning and development environment can be challenging. Often it’s difficult to recreate real life scenarios and experiences. Examples, case studies and group work can add to the dynamic but is not a substitute to real life. So how can we encourage the leadership behaviours of empathy and decisiveness? There are three things we can do:

1. Change perspectives

Facilitating opportunities for learners to change their perspective can help. This could mean, speaking to others, exchanging experiences or simply encouraging questioning and curiosity. Changing perspective helps with empathy, it allows learners to physically practice seeing things from another’s perspective. It is important that this activity is driven by the learner so that they can experience this directly and have an opportunity to reflect on their own behaviour and position. Physically changing perspective can help learners to consider thinking and feeling differently as well.

2. Speed date

We can learn leadership from the speed dating technique. In a speed dating situation, there is limited time and opportunity to ask questions and make a decision. Introducing a similar environment in a learning and development context means learners can practice their decision making. In a relatively short space of time real decision can be made, repeated and reflected on. Rather than selecting a love match, learners could select business partners, group members or select from multiple projects. The speed dating approach also enhances other skills such as communication, presentation and networking skills.

3. Enlist competitiveness

Competing naturally brings out many leadership qualities but specifically decision making and empathy. In trying to gain the competitive advantage we all naturally try to discover our competitors ‘angle’ and compare this to our own. This is a good way to encourage empathetic thinking, trying to understand the motivations and thoughts of others. The competition simply gives learners a reason to explore this. The act of competing also flexes our decision making skills. A competition may provide a deadline, limitations or constraints all of which provide decisiveness opportunities such as making choices quickly or deciding and sticking to a particular approach.

Leadership can often seem mysterious and complex but in reality it’s simple, empathise with others and be decisive. These two behaviours provide a good place to start and actively seeking opportunities to put empathy and decision making into practice can enhance leadership skills.

The capsule wardrobe! Are learning styles obsolete?

Training & Development Posted on Jul 04, 2015 22:36

Learning styles are like cracking a nut with a sledge hammer – it gets the job but is unnecessarily messy! Learning styles have fallen out of vogue in recent years, perhaps they are overkill when really we just need to be aware that everyone learns differently. Furthermore, is it now an outdated idea with advancements in technology and the digital age? Learning is becoming more instant and rather just adopting the role of a learner, learners are now developing their own materials or customising existing resources. The idea of neatly falling into a pigeon hole to benefit from the learning experience seems rather old fashioned and the way we want to learn is constantly changing. Depending on if we experience learning for business or for pleasure, our preferred style may be different. Time, motivation and opportunity also affect the way we learn, yet traditional learning styles don’t allow for this.

Perhaps we need to think differently about learning rather than just consider ‘how we learn?’ Understand why we are doing it in the first place, what is our motivation? This has a significant impact on what the appropriate training approach should be? We can learn a lot from the fashion industry and the way the sector designs and markets clothes – there is no point in advertising duffel coats in the summer; swimwear and shorts are marketed instead. The timing and demand influence the product and the industry listens and responds. Timing and demand are important factors in learning and this is often more relevant than the actual style of learning. In fact, these motivational influences can dictate the approach and make learning more relevant and meaningful as a result.

Like clothes, getting the right size for the right fit is important. Knowing what you need, the purpose it has to fulfil and your own measurements is a good place to start. Understanding the purpose of the training, how much is needed and the existing knowledge of your learners are critical questions to ask during the training design stage. As our learning evolves and we change we need to continue measuring for fit regularly.

‘The only man who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew every time he sees me, while all the rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.’ George Bernard Shaw

This quote sums up the idea of regular review of the learners training needs perfectly. Let’s file away the learning styles and bring out the wardrobe! This is my capsule wardrobe for training design:


The purpose of learning?

Measure what is needed,

Appreciate everyone is different

Revisit and re-measure regularly.

Learning styles may not address the critical questions for designing training but by asking questions and listening to our learners needs, a better and more tailored training provision may emerge.

There are rewards for perseverance!

Training & Development Posted on Jun 27, 2015 11:02

As part of this post, I’m taking time to reflect. Carrying on seems difficult in the face of adversity.
Whether there’s barriers, blockages or challenges, take note – the can all be

Difficulties preset themselves in many forms: as an awkward
or stubborn individual, red tape and bureaucracy, mental blockages or fears and
sometimes pure bad luck! Don’t feel desolate when these things happen – there
IS a way forward!

Firstly, consider how far you have come already. Think of
the obstacles you have already overcome and the work put in so far. Even if you
are just starting out – remember how you got to this point! Recognise your
achievements and know that you are on your way. The fact these issues are
cropping up is a sure sign that you have begun an exciting journey. Spend some
time looking and reflecting back before you take the next step forward.

Secondly, you will find a way! I know this of you, you just
need to see this yourself. Humans are really resilient, innovative and are
natural problem solvers. You will know what you need to do – it may be ask for
help or another’s opinion, work through it logically, take a break from the
problem for a while or do nothing and just let time present a solution to you.
You will find a way – believe it!

Thirdly, don’t stop! Keep going and moving towards your
goal. Even if you move a millimetre a day, you are still moving in the right
direction. If you have to take a scenic route, turn around and go back or
change course – perfect, you are creating a better route to follow. Don’t let others persuade you. You are in
charge, in the driving seat and know instinctively where you are going –
so get on with it!

Finally, enjoy it! Enjoy your journey, your challenges and
the whole experience, when you arrive at your destination, you will look back
at this time fondly. You will also see how far you have travelled and what has
been accomplished. Make an appointment with yourself today and enjoy your
journey and moment of achievement in the not too distant future – you deserve

The gap in the cloud and blue sky thinking! How new technology is creating a skills gap?

Training & Development Posted on Jun 13, 2015 13:10

According to The Training Magazine Network, there is now a ‘digital skills gap’:

‘New technologies have the potential to transform productivity in the workplace. But, this potential will remain unrealized unless we empower the workforce with the digital skills necessary to take advantage. Organizations consistently find that today’s workforce does not have these digital skills. The resulting digital skills gap is damaging business and the economy as a whole.’

The training magazine network (June 2015)

Postgraduate researchers are a diverse workforce and the skills gap issue affects them and universities in two main ways:

IT Matters to employers!

Information Technology Skills are increasingly important to employers and they expect to recruit employees who are proficient rather than have to invest a large amount of time training them up. Many PhD researchers develop these skills themselves rather than for the research project. The issue researchers face is that often employers see the skills they have developed as project focussed rather than people focussed. The IT skills developed may be too specific such as use of software or programming and difficult to utilise more generally. Employers don’t have the time or want to spend time investigating if these specific skills are transferable or not? This means researchers have to work harder to sell themselves in this area. A generic skill which features in most roles is ‘providing good customer service’, this is a matter of knowing who your customer is as well as evidencing it? For PhD students this may be tricky to identify: is it the public or government who may fund the research, or someone else? The use of social media means that information is much more accessible to the world and public but the PhD project doesn’t always prescribe this type of use of technology and public engagement communication. In fact often the interests of the research project are in conflict with the idea of open communication and doing this through social media. There may be sensitive issues, pressure to publish first or IP issues to consider. Whereas these concerns may be accepted in a university or research environment, those wishing to peruse careers outside of this may find it challenging to evidence the skills needed and identify gaps in their training.

The BYOD Void!

The use of technology is becoming essential in building a learning culture and can help breakdown barriers to promote a diverse learning environment. However, increasingly this approach identifies ‘skills gaps’ in the learning community. As the technical agenda moves at lightening speed, universities are finding it difficult to keep up and ensure that our researchers are employment ready.

There is no longer a need to provide technology as a facility, increasingly BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is leading the way.

Did you know that the average smartphone today is more powerful than the PCs that took two astronauts to the moon in 1969?!

Origin Learning (June 2015)

PC clusters and PC labs may become a thing of the past instead we may meet for teaching or training in the Cloud or virtual learning environment. Emphasis will be online social rather than face-to-face social. The way learning happens is changing and instead of learning styles, there may be learning ingredients. Rather than focus on the way we people learn, it could be a matter of individuals ‘cherry picking’ an approach to suit them. The learning may no longer happen on campus but elsewhere. There may be further challenges for institutions in managing the student experience, in-particular ensuring that it is equatable.

Quality control may be an issue. Managing different platforms where content will be accessed and stored. Curating the content may be more difficult as it could become self selecting rather than institutional selecting.

Despite these challenges, technology offers the opportunity to connect to others and means global is local. We can experiment and be creative with it whilst learning which is exciting.

‘The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.’

Steve Ballmer

Peace talks and the undercover war! How to manage problems between the student and supervisor?

Training & Development Posted on Jun 02, 2015 09:49

Any working relationship can hit problems and this is also true for the researcher relationship with the supervisor and supervisory team. So when things do go wrong, where can we start to support both the researcher and supervisor positively? We can STELPH! The name is quite ‘apt’ given the approach and issues it covers but helps us as training providers consider the support individual researchers may need to manage their supervisor or supervisory team relationships. So what does STELPH stand for:





Project not personal



Maintaining good communication between the student and supervisor is important. The majority of researchers realise this themselves but other things can get in the way. Sometimes where there is a lack of communication, assumptions are made such as the supervisor may feel ill informed, not know where the student is up to but fear they are not making progress. The student may feel the supervisor is not approachable or doesn’t want to bother them. Regular communication, even if it’s to say that there is nothing to report can be productive, everyone feels informed, involved and it avoids incorrect assumptions being made.


It is essential for researchers to appreciate that they are part of a team – this means that everyone is working together for a common goal. Even if the project feels isolated or the researcher is placed off campus, a team environment is important. If students need help there will be others they can turn to in the workplace, in the supervisory team and within the university. The team dynamic also offers other opinions and perspectives. If the student doesn’t agree with their supervisor, having others in the supervisor team allows them to canvass different opinions and ideas. At the very least, knowing you are part of a team can help and make the student feel less isolated. This can help progress the research and generate a sense of belonging and is particularly useful if ‘things go wrong’. The support network of a supervisory team, research team or other group can help support the student work through any barriers or issues.


Using personal experience and the experience of others can help if relationships are breaking down. Students may find support and tips from other researchers in the workplace, perhaps final year PhD students or post-docs who have spent more time with the supervisor. If nothing else they can provide a different perspective. Researchers may be able to draw strength from thinking about their own experiences or if similar things have happened in the past. Using your own experience and the support of others in their team can build confidence, experience and develop positive dialogue.


It’s the researchers PhD not the supervisors and as such it is important that the student takes the lead. This way they can drive the regular communication and set a schedule for meetings. Taking the lead can enhance project management, organisation skills and demonstrate initiative as well as having a sense of control over the project to help keep the focus on the research.

Project not personal

A useful saying to consider is that it is all about the project and not personal. There may of course be differences in personality but usually stresses and strains in the relationship come about because of the pressures of the project rather than as a personal attack. Everyone may be experiencing the same stress but deal with it differently. If problems arise, it’s often helpful to suggest that the researcher sees how their actions affect the project rather then anyone personally. There may be personal issues or indeed unprofessional/unacceptable behaviour but the process of looking at this objectively may provide fresh insight and enable researchers to seek further support if needed.


Where there are personal issues, clashes in personality or simply problems which cannot be resolved, it is important to seek help. The sooner the better! Graduate offices, administrators, student reps, and tutors can all provide advice on the best way to do this. Making the right information and contacts accessible is important to enabling this.

STELPH in practice

So how can we make this accessible to the student? Encouraging a positive exchange between the student and supervisor is important and also knowing where to get help. Opportunities such as induction and personal development workshops are good platforms to generate awareness of the processes in place. Having online resources that can be anonymously accessed will also help. Consider the networks available to disseminate the message, such as student reps, postgrad societies or mentors. The supervisory relationship should be positive, productive and supportive in identifying training needs. Hopefully STELPH is not needed but having the information to sign post students in-case of any issues is worth building into the training provision in some way.

Extract from: Page 23-26, Chapter 1 – Triage: Identifying Training Needs from E.R. Stories – Enabling Researchers Stories by Davina Whitnall (ISBN 978-0-9932312-0-9). Further titles by the same author available at:

May Day, May Day – don’t ignore the learners call for help

Training & Development Posted on May 23, 2015 11:05

As we start the end of May bank holiday, spring is on its way. This is a good time for reflection and particularly in the training or teaching calendar. The academic calendar is coming to a close and exams are looming which prompts many students to reflect as part of the learning and revision process. For others, spring heralds a time when we can reflect on our aims we set at the beginning of the year and how we are measuring up? Often we find that we haven’t made the progress we had planned and this can lead to panic and a cry for help. The May Day call is actually ‘m’aider’, French for ‘help me’ rather than refer to a particular time of year. In the cult TV show Red Drawf, there is an amusing sketch about why the distress call is May Day and not any other notable day. Humour aside this is the time of year when concern sets in and there may be crys for help. What’s interesting is that many learners do not come forward and ask for this directly but there are clear warning signs that support is required.

So what are warning signs we shouldn’t ignore?

*Repeating training over and over again

*Procrastination and avoidance


Repeat, repeat, repeat!

Taking training sessions repeatedly is an indication of other issues. There may be a lack of confidence not competence and redoing training can provide reassurance. The act of redoing something as part of reflection should be encouraged, however often repeating the training can lead to disappointment as it may not fulfil the confidence need. Many training sessions focus on the learning transfer rather than building confidence. Furthermore ‘confidence’ can be tricky to identify as often we do not recognise that we lack confidence until we try it! Experimental learning integrated within the training can assist the confidence need. Having deadlines to review aims, goals are progress is also important and facilitating opportunities to ‘take stock’ can provide essential support.


Sometimes we procrastinate and not realise we are doing this. It is easy to become very busy doing the things we like rather than the things we have to do. Sometimes we do the things we don’t like but not what needs to done urgently. It’s rarely that we don’t know what needs to be done or the urgency of an activity but that we are simply not motivated to do it. Procrastination can be positive as it eventually will lead to action, if the process needs speeding up creative activities provide a good starting point. Creative thinking enables us to think and feel differently and taps into our natural problem solving skills. This can bring valuable insight into a task as well as generate more motivation to complete it.

Driven to distraction

Taking time out is important not just to ensure a good work/life balance but to keep on track in achieving your goals. Being easily distracted often occurs as a consequence of not having dedicated enough time for a break or time away from a situation. When we are overloaded or overwhelmed we become distracted to try and manufacture this time away. Making a good to do list can help to regain focus. Another technique is to actively decide not to do a task and regain the power of choice in the activities you needs to complete.

The best advice is to keep a look out for the signs and calls for help, if ignored now they may manifest as bigger issues later. Generally speaking, this time of year is an excellent time for casual drop in sessions and reflective support. Recognising the signs, identifying issues and providing support subtlety can make May Days happy days!

Polling stations – the role of ‘voting’ in active learning environments

Training & Development Posted on May 09, 2015 13:47

From parliament to X Factor – voting and choice play an important part in everyday life. Voting also has a place in the learning environment and can help increase engagement with a particular topic or theme. Allowing learners to vote or poll on a topic of training improves their overall satisfaction of the training. By giving learners a choice, they are more likely to engage and be satisfied with the learning that follows. The theory behind this research focuses on an early learning environment, looking at the way children learn. ‘When children perceive that they have control over their actions, as compared with being controlled by others or the environment, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated (Grolnick, Gur-land, Jacob, & Decourcey, 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2000a; Skinner, Zimmer-Gembeck, & Connell, 1998; Turner,1995).’ I found this to be true with adult learners as well. When postgraduate researchers were given a choice of breakout training sessions to attend, their feedback from the training was more positive than on the occasions where no choice was offered.

Using voting can be a very effective and quick technique to gauge feedback and insight into the training experience. The voting can be a show of hands in relation to questions, a ‘clapometer’ where participants give a round of applause for each question (the loudest or longest applause is the preferred response). Both methods work well when the questions are short, simple and directly follow the activity. Taking a picture or recording the audio means that an accurate record can be captured. However, as this method is quite informal – it is generally best used to ‘test the temperature’ rather than to reach a precise decision.

A more accurate way to vote is using technology – either through the use of voting pads such as ‘Turning Point’ or iPad voting applications such as ‘Nearpod’. These technologies record the number of voters and allow data to be captured and extracted. It does require planning ahead and some logistical arrangements but is an instant and effective way to gain feedback.

With voting the results are instant as learners can exercise choice. In doing this they are developing and considering the learning content in detail. A choice makes us think and mentally explore options which effectively encourages learning rather than simply accepting the information presented. The process is active not passive and learners feel involved so instantly engage in the development experience.

The voting can be conducted in private or openly. When the polling is open it’s possible for the audience to see what the breakdown of the poll is. This mechanism is useful as individuals can see how others are voting and there is an acceptance of the outcome. The polling mechanism is fair and transparent and this is important for trying to reach a conscientious. Even students who wanted to cover a topic that wasn’t the most popular vote seem happy to go along with the outcome.

Voting also works well were there are variations in ability and preparation. Again the ‘fairness’ and ‘openness’ of the voting generates an acceptance that everyone is different – at different stages or has different views and opinions.

“Every election is determined by the people who show up.”

― Larry J. Sabato, Pendulum Swing

Polling provides us with unique results that are completely dependent on those involved. The benefit of polling in a learning environment is that it can be shaped and moulded by those in it. The learners become the developers and design the direction of their own learning experience. The learner is in charge and this produces engagement and better understanding of the subject as a result!

Take part in my mini online poll about learning experiences. There are 6 short questions to gauge feedback on the learning experience and the information will used to help identify ways of enhancing the learning experience, click here to take part:

This theme has been taken from: E.R. Stories – Enabling Researchers Stories. By Davina Whitnall

Available from:

The first rule of fight club – what boxing tells us about the way we learn and approach to mental health?

Training & Development Posted on May 02, 2015 12:48

On the eve of the Mayweather
v Pacquiao fight
which has been billed as the ‘most lucrative fight in history
in Las Vegas’
I think it’s a good time to consider what boxing has to offer training and
. The strategies which are core to the sport are transferrable to
the learning experience, some of these include:

  • * Understanding yourself, your strengths,
    weaknesses and how these could be developed or exposed.
  • *Having a ‘game plan’ and a ‘fall-back’ position
    to enable you to get through the fight in the same way we can understand
    the training needed and the importance of a plan to work to.
  • * Managing yourself and your energy to avoid burn
    out. This is important in high stress situations but is a common issue for
    researchers, knowing how much energy or push to give without exhausting

Burn out is a particular
and the structure of ‘boxing rounds’ provides a useful approach in
breaking things down into smaller or ‘bite-sized’ chunks.

According to SHIFT’s
eLearning Blog ‘bite-sized has always been the right size’ (
With many elearning providers and higher education institutions now choosing to
promote training and development in this way, what are the benefits? SHIFTs
approach states that bite-sized learning improves psychological engagement:

‘It takes away boredom
itself. Instead of spending 90 or more minutes, learners will be motivated to
consume short, snappy yet meaningful content.

This approach can help
prevent mental burnout. Moreover, it encourages students to carefully process
information—not hastily and thoughtlessly consume an overwhelming amount of

My personal thought on this
is that we like to measure our own improvement and development. By having a
series of bite-sized modules, this helps us visualise and track progress as
well as preventing content overload

The first rule of fight club
is that you don’t talk about fight club!
The second rule of fight club is that
you don’t talk about fight club! The third rule… well you know how this goes!
This familiar phrase from the 1999 film ‘Fight Club’
is apt to discuss important mental health issues which are not currently being
addressed. In the film and novel we see the main character fight with others
and himself as he struggles to deals with his own stresses and emotions with
dramatic consequences. The real life struggles that exist for those with mental
health issues are serious and should be considered.
Whilst we may not see them
manifest as a film or as violence we do need be aware of them and make
adjustments in a learning and development context.

As the first rule of fight
club states, we don’t talk about it!
This is true to all mental health issues
and whilst stress is now being more actively discussed, most people are still
reluctant to talk about mental health more generally. An open approach is
required and there is a training need to understand more about it so that we
can identify issues, know how to approach and provide support where it is

What we think and feel
affects every part of our lives and so will impact the way we learn, can
receive information and the ability to take it on-board. There needs to be
wider recognition of mental health but not as a disability which it is often
seen as but as a different learning style.
There is some evidence to suggest
that coaching techniques such as ‘mindfulness’ may benefit adults with mental
health issues and these techniques may also prove beneficial to the wider
learning community to help focus on the training activity. It’s important to
consider from a development perspective that those with mental health issues
may need different learning support. This could be providing additional time,
packaging training in a different way or simply being more aware about these
issues. Many learners ‘fight’ on a daily basis to simply get through the day if
they are under stress. Finding the time to learn and the ‘mental space’ to
retain information can be challenging.
Stress is considered to be on the lower
end of the spectrum of mental health issues so you can imagine the difficulties
which may be encountered by those with more serious health issues. However, if
we can understand these challenges better and see it from the learners
perspective perhaps we can develop a way to cater for all learners training

It’s round one – the need to
support mental health issues in a learning environment is only just starting to
be recognised. We now need to consider, what we can do to facilitate learning
and support this moving forward and get ready for the next round! Seconds out…..