This project was motivated by the observation that dialogues between students and academics can sometimes be difficult, frustrating or at cross-purposes. Our aim was to explore the dialogues that take place in a range of learning settings, in order to understand what goes wrong, and ultimately to suggest strategies that can support both staff and students to have more productive conversations.

Data collection took the form of semi-structured interviews with teaching staff and students in three schools: Education, Informatics and Vet School. We talked to participants with a range of backgrounds including PhD student demonstrators, teaching assistants, lecturers, an online tutor, first year undergraduate and masters students.

Participants were asked to recall examples of dialogues that had been difficult and ones that had been successful. Student and teacher interviews were initially analysed independently using thematic analysis (see the mind-maps below).

Overall there was a great deal of satisfaction with the way that questions were asked and answered, but the interviews also revealed a range of challenges for both students and teachers. Key themes included: the reluctance of students to ask questions; worries about taking up or wasting time with questions; difficulties of negotiating the student/teacher relationship, particularly for first year students transitioning from school to higher education and communication challenges – which were common for both home and non-UK students.

Strategies to support more productive dialogues included: being proactive in approaching students; asking open ended questions to explore students’ understanding; being clear about expectations around questions, particularly when, where and how you prefer to be approached.

Students   Teachers
Student map Teacher map



Anna Wood (Education)
Christine Sinclair (Education)
Hamish MacLeod (Education)
Jessie Paterson (Vets)
Paul Anderson (Informatics)

A University of Edinburgh PTAS project