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MSc student writing retreat

In this blog Dr Sarah McLaughlin, MSc Teaching and Learning for Health Professions Co-Lead, shares strategies and successes in hosting a writing retreat for dissertation stage students in response to our conference theme building community and sense of belonging.

The dissertation writing stage – A challenging and isolating time.

Academic writing is difficult. The support of supervisors is significant and can impact student engagement and success. As dissertation supervisors, my colleagues and I strive to foster an enriching and fulfilling experience for our students alongside supporting them to successfully submit their work. In our experience as supervisors, and our own academic journeys, we know the writing process can feel isolating and academically challenging. Research has identified students experiencing the writing stage as a challenging and even a painful experience (Tremblay-Wagg et. al., 2021). Lack of supervisor support, structure and time management relating to balancing work-related responsibilities with academic demands can be stressful and can lead to extension requests or drop out (Nerad and Miller, 1996; Roberts 2010). My colleague Steve Jennings (MSc Lead) and I were keen to develop a strategy to mitigate against these potential problems. We found a potential solution, hosting a writing retreat day for our students.

Writing retreats.

Murray (2015:57) defined writing retreats as ‘an obvious way to make time and space for writing. It provides dedicated writing time’. Writing retreats can support students through their journeys in various ways (Tremblay-Wagg et. al., 2021). They provide supportive environments which have been found to provide post-graduate students with ‘clarity of thinking, energy from others – and are likely to shift their writing forwards’ (Carter, Guerin, and Aitchison 2020, 57). Vinent et. al. (2021) advocated such retreats for their enhancement of students’ writing self-efficacy and self-regulation through goal setting and time management practices. Originating from the ideas of Bandura’s (1997) social learning theory self-efficacy refers to an individual’s belief in their own capabilities to produce given attainment. Self-belief in the ability to produce a dissertation at Masters level is, in our experience, something our students often lack confidence with.

Kornhaber et al.’s (2016) stipulated writing retreats: (1) legitimize the act of writing (without interruption) in a comfortable environment where community support is fostered; (2) value time and space dedicated to writing; (3) develop writing competencies by establishing a structure and setting specific goals; (4) enhance personal motivation and self-confidence; and (5) reduce anxiety associated with academic writing. Our students are busy health professionals who study part time. They are restricted from fully emersing in the student experience as they have busy professional roles and family responsibilities. The benefits of providing dedicated writing time and space were something we were keen to explore. Creating a sense of connection with other students was important, especially following the Covid-19 period where their taught modules may have moved online and in person socialisation restricted. We decided upon a one-day in-person retreat at the end of March when many of our students were at the write up stage of their dissertations.

More than time to write.

We felt that a retreat would offer more than writing time. We wanted our students to come together to foster a sense of belonging on our TLHP programme and Bristol Medical School. We followed an agenda provided by Bristol’s CREATE scheme (see below). We commenced the retreat with a warm up by sharing of research areas and ideas which highlighted common areas of difficulty. This discussion helped normalise the feeling of not being ‘good at’ dissertation writing and for some students it was helpful to hear other students’ strategies and issues. This sharing enabled students to feel at ease with the process being difficult and challenging. It also fostered a sense of solidarity between them.

9:30amWelcome, introductions and plans for the day
9:45am – 10amWriting warm up and setting goals
10am – 11amWriting session 1
11am – 11:20amBreak
11:20am – 12:20pmWriting session 2
12:20pm – 1:20pmLunch
1:20pm – 1:30pmRecap and afternoon planning
1:30pm – 2:30pmWriting session 3
2:30pm – 2:45pmBreak
2:45pm – 3:45pmWriting session 4
3:45pm – 4pmProgress review and next steps / actions

The day consisted of regular writing sessions separated with breaks, and a progress review to close the retreat. The structure of the day helped them use the time effectively and regular breaks enhance productivity. As supervisors we joined the students to work on our own writing projects and were on hand during breaks to answer any questions and provide emotional support. Providing protected writing time away from work and home without distraction was a welcomed opportunity. Feedback told us that the allocated time to sit down, focus and write helped their productivity. They appreciated being in the same room, with like minded people with the same goal. Poignantly, students told us that having ‘protected time’ in their calendar enabled them to say ‘no’ to other work commitments on that day and give themselves permission to indulge in an extended amount of writing time.

We added to our retreat an action plan where student wrote down a personal commitment to the next step in the dissertation to be actioned when they left the retreat. They put a date and time in their calendars to commit to their next step. Numbers were exchanged to create a Whatsapp group for peer support following the retreat. Student feedback highlighted the appreciation of the collaborative experience. They told us this enhanced feelings of supervisor support, comradery with fellow students and motivation to continue.

Upon reflection of the feedback and our own observations, we felt our writing retreat supported our students during a difficult phase of their post graduate studies and plan to make these retreats a regular event.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman

Carter, S. Guerin, C. and Aitchison, C. (2020) Doctoral Writing: Practices Processes and Pleasure (51–91). Singapore: Springer

Nerad, M., and Miller, D.S. (1996) Increasing Student Retention in Graduate and Professional Programs. New Directions for Institutional Research (92): 61–76. doi:10.1002/ir.37019969207

Roberts, C. M. 2010. The Dissertation Journey: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide to Planning, Writing, and Defending Your Dissertation. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Tremblay-Wragg, E., Mathieu Chartier, S., Labonté-Lemoyne, E., Déri, C.  and Gadbois, M.  (2021) Writing more, better, together: how writing retreats support graduate students through their journey. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 45 (1): 95-106, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2020.1736272

Vincent, C., Tremblay-Wragg, E.,  Déri,C., Plante, I. and Mathieu Chartier. S.  (2021): How writing retreats represent an ideal opportunity to enhance PhD candidates’ writing self-efficacy and self-regulation. Teaching in Higher Education. (2021):1.-20. DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2021.1918661

BILT CONFERENCE 2023: Building community and belonging in a challenging and changing world 

The Bristol Institute of Learning and Teaching is hosting a conference on Wednesday 12th July 2023 (all day event), in-person, at the Bill Brown Suite, Queens Building, Woodland Road. 

This blog piece is a response to the calling question – ‘What does belonging at the University of Bristol mean to you?’ You are also welcome to respond. The format of the response is entirely open. It could take the form of a photography, a piece of creative writing, a piece of writing, poetry, an artefact, a poster, or any other medium. We hope to share some of these responses at our conference.  You can send your contributions to:  

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