Thriving at work – #DOPconf 2019 review

Shortly after I’d been discharged from hospital last September, I made a decision to attend the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychologists annual conference (DOPconf to its friends) in Chester. It was held last week, 9th to 11th January 2019, so it was a good recovery milestone to aim for. Fortunately I just about made my target – physically and mentally – even though I didn’t manage to attend all of the sessions I’d optimistically put into my diary at the start of the week.

It was particularly good to meet a number of Leicester and OU psychology alumni again. One of the media sensations of the week was the study published about the benefits of singing at work, carried out by Joanna Foster for her Leicester MSc. However, I get the feeling that if I joined a workplace choir other people may not find my dulcet tones beneficial …

The sessions I did attend at the conference were excellent. These were a few of my personal highlights.

Evidence-based (change) management

The first keynote of the conference was given by Professor Denise Rousseau of Carnegie Mellon University. EBMgt is defined as being the practice of making organisational decisions, in relation to a claim or hypothesis, based on the combination of :

  • Scientific principles and knowledge
  • Valid / relevant organisational and business facts
  • Professional expertise and critical thinking
  • Stakeholder concerns, implications and ethics

Denise argues that few organisations pay attention to the quality of the data on which they base their decisions. Fewer still assess the impact of the decisions they take. Denise suggests that the 6A decision-making process seen in medicine (ask, acquire, appraise, aggregate, apply, assess) should be used – on both the problem and solutions – to improve outcomes.

BPS DOPconf - Denise Rousseau explains why developing any management expertise is so difficult
Professor Denise Rousseau explains why developing any management expertise is so difficult. Unlike surgeons, change managers operate in unpredictable environments. They are project-centred, so have little opportunity to develop their skills with the same group of people for long periods. Because of the lack of assessed outcomes, they rarely receive feedback useful for their development.

Solving the right problem(s) and considering multiple solutions (rather than asking the question “should we do x or nothing”) is more likely to result in effective change. Furthermore, systematic reviews demonstrate that a bundle of interventions rather than implementing a single “silver bullet” is best.

The Center for Evidence-Based Management has a wealth of resources available to support organisations in adopting this approach.

Work engagement in cancer survivors

A paper presented by Andrew Parsons from the University of Hertfordshire. It was of personal interest to me as I’m in the process of returning to work after treatment. Self-report questionnaires to measure work engagement, quality of working life and psychological capital, plus semi-structured interviews analysed using interpretative phenomenological analysis were used in the study. It was unsurprising, if comforting, that measures of psychological capital were strongly correlated with quality of working life scores.

Of most interest to me were the reports of interview participants talked about the importance of developing a “new model of me” and the resources that either helped or hindered their response to events as they returned to work. The “new normal or new me” theme is one I’ve heard many MCL survivors talk about. However, I’m not convinced that the experience of treatment has changed me all that much – at least, not yet.

The influence of work on personality development and change through life

This keynote was presented by Professor Stephen Woods of the University of Surrey. I became familiar with some of his work while studying for my masters and it was good to put a face to the name. He presented evidence which questions the long-held view of many psychologists that personality traits remain fixed and stable during adulthood. Instead, he suggested that they were dynamic and contingent on the work context. The social constructionist and critical psychologist in me grinned broadly as he concluded his talk.

The evidence base is growing - personality changes as we learn and develop over our lives
The evidence base is growing – personality changes as we learn and develop over our lives.
Cynicism in organisations – the antithesis of thriving?

Having confessed that I’m not convinced by personality psychometrics, I also admit that I’m not convinced by so-called authentic leadership. I once wrote that adopting authentic leadership would lead to a highly dysfunctional organisation and burned-out individuals. I still stand by every word of my argument.

It was therefore fascinating to hear Zoe Sanderson from Bristol University compare the traditional view of organisational cynicism with that from critical management theory. Traditional organisational psychology usually constructs cynicism at work as being wholly negative and coming from the individual. “Cynicism can take down an entire organisation”.

Critical management studies takes a different perspective and argues that cynicism is a predictable outcome of many working environments. Furthermore, cynicism can be seen as employees protecting their identity. This helps to reduce any cognitive dissonance stemming from organisational propaganda, enabling them to remain engaged and productive. Zoe’s work on cynicism is at an exploratory stage and I look forward to seeing it progressing.

How do you spot an organisational psychopath … and what do you do next?

Having written earlier that I’m not much of a fan of personality psychometrics, I do love ‘dark triad’ papers. Lorraine Falvey said that the literature suggests there is an increasing level of malevolent behaviour reported at work. Her personal frustration is that most studies into organisational psychopathy either use students as participants, or cover a very narrow workforce, such as police officers. Her study used a qualitative, thematic analysis of interviews with 15 experienced, cross-industry sector participants. It suggests that there is a spectrum of potentially malevolent behaviours – from influencing, through manipulation, to verbal and physical threats. Lorraine argued that organisational leaders need to:

  • Be aware of the shadow you cast as a leader – it is an important factor in what others consider to be acceptable behaviour.
  • Think about the unintended consequences of (poorly designed) rewards.
  • Be clear about individual roles and responsibilities, as clarity seems to mitigate poor behaviour. Matrix organisations are therefore seen as being at particular risk.
Leading with purpose: How to lift people, performance and the planet, profitably

An excellent interactive workshop to end the conference, run by Sarah Rozenthuler and Victoria Hurth. We were given an overview of what purpose in business is, and how purpose is distinct from corporate social responsibility, sustainability, mission and vision. Command and control vs purpose-led leadership paradigms were discussed, and the four capacities necessary for purpose-led leadership defined. From my own business value consulting perspective, the tangible benefits claimed for this approach look extraordinary and are worthy of urgent further investigation.

As I was flagging at this point on the Friday afternoon I’ve been particularly glad of the handouts provided. One of the handouts, “The what, the why and the how of purpose: a guide for leaders“, published by The Chartered Management Institute, has been particularly useful in enabling my reflections.

(Probably) the end

Hello! *Blows away the cobwebs and dusts furiously* I bet you thought that I’d forgotten about you all as I haven’t written anything here since May. Well, after my excellent attempts at procrastination earlier on in the year, I finally decided to buckle down and sort my dissertation out. It’s been quite a journey, which is why I’ve been so uncharacteristically quiet – both here, and on my own blog.

I’m glad to report that after many, many more hours of work than I’d originally estimated, resulting in the production of 22 drafts for the research paper and 7 for the executive summary, I successfully submitted the dissertation last month. I’m now basking in the knowledge that I’ve passed not only the dissertation component of the MSc, but the MSc itself.

Naturally, I have a number of pieces of advice to pass onto future part-time, distance learners undertaking the Occupational Psychology MSc at Leicester in future. The most important of these naturally relate to the dissertation.

Firstly, don’t undertake a piece of qualitative research simply because you’re not keen on statistics. Only do it if you’re really committed to your research question and a qualitative methodology is the only way you’ll be able to answer it. Qualitative research is definitely not an easy option, particularly if you’re looking to demonstrate it’s been performed rigorously and transparently. And you should be, of course.

Secondly, make good use of your dissertation supervisor. Keep them updated with your progress, tell them what you’re thinking about doing … and when they question you, listen to their advice and act on it. They know what they’re talking about! For example, I would have had a much worse question schedule had I not listened carefully to my supervisor’s advice at the start of the process. The quality of the questions that I eventually came up with resulted (I believe) in a far more coherent set of data when it came to analysis than I otherwise would have had. Good data certainly makes analysis more enjoyable, and it made generating evidence-based conclusions easier too.

Thirdly, find ways to enjoy the process. If you’re a distance learner, feelings of isolation and self-doubt seem to haunt most of us at some stage. Talk about your concerns to others – a Facebook group of fellow students in my first year and an email list in my delayed second year certainly helped me when I needed to sound off. The other way I found to enjoy myself was to deliberately argue for controversial positions that I didn’t necessarily hold (backed by evidence, naturally) in the assessments we were set. I seem to remember the ergonomics module being a particularly fruitful one for this approach. In occupational psychology, as in life, there are no completely right or wrong answers – simply positions you can justify based on evidence.

This is probably the end of my academic adventures at Leicester (or anywhere else for that matter). I’m looking forward to presenting my dissertation findings at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology conference as well as my graduation ceremony in January. I certainly hope to stay in touch with many of my fellow students and the academic staff who have encouraged me over the last three years. Your efforts have been hugely appreciated.

 

This article was originally published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 30th October 2016.

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10,000 steps a day – day 11 – dissertation done!

My dissertation is officially finished. Yay! Well, almost: I will proof read it again tomorrow before submitting all 9,000 lovingly crafted words. But, done. Which brings me to the end of my MSc, too. Here it is in all of its front cover glory.

Dissertation front coverMy advice to future students is simple. No matter how tempting it seems, if you’re going to do a qualitative study purely because you’re scared of statistics, think again. Qualitative research is far more time-consuming and the analysis process far more onerous than anything SPSS can throw at you. Trust me – I’ve done both now. Only do a qualitative piece of research if the question you devise demands it, you have masochistic tendencies and are completely committed to your ontological approach. Otherwise you’ll hate it. And even if you meet all of these criteria, you’ll still hate it at some point during the process. I know I did, but I got through it. There is hope for us all.

I believe that I deserve a beer, before I return my final library book.

BeerNaturally, I walked several thousand steps more than I needed to before I bought the beer. Day 11 and still on track. Only 19 left to go.

 

If you’d like to sponsor me to walk all over cancer during September, my donations page is here. Thank you to all of my sponsors who have helped me to raise £280 so far. Please join them if you can. It will make me feel like my dissertation has some real value (don’t groan).

6 things my pilot research interview taught me

I’ve now completed my pilot research interview, transcribed the resulting audio and conducted a very brief analysis of the data. These are six of the more important things the pilot has taught me.

  • I was accurate at estimating how long the interview would take. I recorded just over 46 minutes of audio, having initially estimated 45-60 minutes. This is good as, if the interview had gone on for longer, it would have become too difficult for me and the interviewee to concentrate.
  • When listening back to the audio, it became apparent that some of the questions I asked were too long, too rambling, and in some cases were confusing, because I was asking for 2 or 3 things at the same time. A bit like that last sentence really. I’ve gone back through my interview schedule and revised the questions into what I hope are shorter, pithier and better phrased questions that will be easier for my participants to answer.
  • I was reasonably accurate at predicting how long an interview takes to transcribe. My original expectation was around an hour’s effort to transcribe between 5 and 7 minutes of speech. That turned out to be about right. Just as importantly, I’ve now discovered that it’s much easier to transcribe an interview if I don’t interrupt too often and try not to speak over my interviewee.
  • I was able to gather data that suggests I’ll be able to answer my research question. Hurrah! However, I’ve also realised that some of the questions I asked can be replaced by ones which more closely align to it. My supervisor agrees, so I’ve submitted a revised interview schedule that I believe will work better.
  • I have no shortage of willing participants. However, scheduling an interview is a little trickier than I first anticipated. Having a ‘plan B’ is useful when real life means that a participant can’t make it at short notice.
  • Qualitative studies produce lots of rich data and there isn’t enough time in the day to be able to analyse it from every possible angle. Having a well-defined set of methodological tools to start the analysis from is definitely useful, but to get the best out of the data you need to go beyond them – or at least, I need to use them in more depth than I did on the pilot interview data.

Oh, and number seven – never do a piece of qualitative research without piloting it! I’m certain that without the pilot session I would have ended up with poorer data to analyse in respect of my research question and the job of transcribing it would have become much harder. My golden rule (and note) from last time therefore still applies:

Ssshhh!If you’ve conducted a research interview, what’s your formula for success?

 

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 6th April 2016.

Caterham highs and lymphoma lows

I’ve had a strange week. Last Friday started well enough. I went over to the Caterham dealer at Donnington Park and test drove a 270 SV. I was grinning like an idiot all the way around the route. It was definitely the most enjoyable road car that I’ve ever driven. I was hooked. I sat down in the showroom. I drank coffee. I ignored the nagging voice in my head that was telling me a car price list with paint, windscreen, doors and assembly on it as optional extras can’t possibly be a good thing. I ordered one. My flexible friend has never had to be quite so flexible.

For the avoidance of doubt, I feel that I ought to add that I’ve bought a full-sized Caterham 7, not the toy version illustrated above. Although it looks very cool too. My car will be a similar colour though, once the optional paint has been applied of course. Fortunately “Brum” (as my newly ordered car has already been named by my beauty blogger daughter) won’t be arriving until I’ve just about finished my MSc, so it won’t be distracting me from the many hours of transcription and analysis I need to do for my dissertation, not to mention writing it all up between now and mid-September. The other good thing that’s happened this week was getting a good mark on my final module assignment, so if I’m not motivated to finish the MSc now I suppose I never will be.

However, the lymphoma beast seems to be rearing its ugly little head. I’ve never felt so physically tired as I have done this past week and the enlarged lymph nodes in my neck are throbbing constantly. Unusually for me I felt so out of sorts this morning that I decided to work from home. It’s probably a good thing that I did as I needed to sleep for a little while this afternoon to get through the day. Blergh.

I make that two highs to one low this week (even if the lymphoma low has hung around since Sunday), so I’m still winning on points.

Six things needed for a research interview

On Monday I will start to feel like a ‘proper’ researcher. That’s because I’ve reached the stage in my dissertation when I can conduct a pilot interview. The aim of piloting the interview is to make sure that the questions I’m asking can be understood by the actual group of participants I’ll be working with in April and that the answers to the questions generate data which can be analysed in such a way that it helps me to address my research question.

Interview KitThe picture shows the things that I’ll be taking along to the pilot interview session I’ve arranged. The items are:

  • A participant consent form. This is vital, as without it being signed by the participant to signal that they’re giving me their informed consent to take part in the research, I’d be breaking the ethical code of conduct of both the university and the British Psychological Society.
  • Briefing notes and my interview question guide. Before I start the interview, I need to let my participants know a little of what I’ll be asking them about. So that the interview doesn’t turn into some kind of unstructured chat, I have the key questions linked to the research models that I’m trying to test, written in a table form for me to refer to throughout the session.
  • A participant information sheet. This is so that my interviewees will be able to understand what will happen next in the research process (transcription, checking and analysis), how they can get in contact with me again if they have concerns, and to remind them of their right to withdraw their data up until the point at which I’ve conducted the analysis.
  • Pens to write some brief notes with during the interview. These notes will help me to quickly find parts of the interview that strike me as being particularly important, as well as being able to record other aspects of what happens during each session that can’t be retrieved from an audio recording alone.
  • My trusty digital voice recorder. This is purpose-built for the job and produces extremely good quality audio – essential for the transcription process. It’s also easy to transfer recordings from it onto my encrypted laptop and then wipe its entire memory – essential for protecting participant privacy. I’ve tested it again this morning, making sure that the batteries are up to scratch and that I also have spares – just in case, you understand.

The hardest part for me during the interviews will be to do more listening than talking. I’m expected to talk a lot (some would say far too much) for my day job, so I’m going to be taking this little note along with me too.

Ssshhh!A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 19th March 2016.

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MSc occupational psychology modules review

Last night I submitted the final module assignment for my MSc occupational psychology qualification at the University of Leicester – hurrah!

It’s now just the small matter of restarting the dissertation process (which I’m ashamed to admit that I almost entirely neglected during February), working out the questions I need to ask my participants when I interview them, having them approved by my supervisor before I start to ask them and then, well, getting on with it I suppose. September 15th seems very close all of a sudden.

But before I finally knuckle down, I thought I’d look back at a blog post that I wrote in August 2013, just before I started the course and see how each of the six modules has lived up (or not!) to my expectations.

Research Methods: This looks like a sensible start to the course and I hope it’s going to be relatively straightforward. I doubt if there are any statistical techniques it will throw at me that I won’t be able to get my head around having wrestled with the “fish” book and SPSS on the OU psychology degree. There’s also coverage of qualitative methods – I wonder if Q will get a mention?

It was a good start to the course. Q doesn’t get a mention, the stats weren’t any more difficult than those I was already used to and there was a qualitative method – interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) that I hadn’t used before. There was also an ‘early assignment’ of 1,000 words that we had to submit within a few (I think it was 4) weeks of starting, which was good for blowing the academic cobwebs away after taking a couple of years out after finishing my BSc.

Personnel Selection and Assessment: I’ve been involved in this aspect of work, on and off, for about the last 20 years. I’d like to think that I’m a better interviewer and selector than most, but who knows. Psychometrics rears its ugly little head in this module, so I’m looking forward to unleashing some critical arguments from DD307(*)!

All kinds of selection techniques were covered, including some that I hadn’t come across (for example, situational judgement tests). Psychometrics do rear their head and while I’m still far from convinced of their utility, I at least now understand why other people are.

Ergonomics: Looks interesting. I wonder whether the vogue for open plan offices and hot desks is more to do with the desire to exert power over subordinates by senior management than as a way of ensuring a productive workforce or reducing overhead costs?

Though I had no way of knowing it at the time, the words that I wrote in August 2013 were more or less how I concluded the second module assignment (but with a cost-benefit analysis accompanying it to demonstrate my point). The first module assignment was great fun and involved me spending a Sunday morning taking photographs (like the one below) inside my car. This was probably the module that I’ve enjoyed the most.

Ergonomics assignment - inside my car!

The Psychology of Organising: I really hope this isn’t going to be an attempt to fit most of an MBA into 12 weeks – but the description of the module makes it potentially seem like the most interesting of the course. I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into this one.

It wasn’t an MBA in 12 weeks (thank goodness!), but it was interesting. The two module assignments were interesting too – one broadly covering the area of change management & resistance to change (very useful in providing me with material that I now use to support my ‘proper’ job) with the other introducing me to the positive psychology concept of authentic leadership, which I greatly enjoyed critiquing!

Psychology of Occupational Training and Learning: I’m definitely not sure about this module. It sounds a little dull to be honest.

Definitely not my favourite module, but not dull either. It does what it says on the tin!

The Individual at Work: The module description makes it sound all lovely and fluffy (work-life balance, diversity, workplace counselling and the like) – but I have this nagging feeling that it’s aimed squarely at HR professionals who want to know how far they can push people before they start to fight back. I’m hoping that the module hasn’t been written by Catbert – but if it is, at least I should end up with a better understanding of what motivates people to become HR managers.

The module description is correct, rather than my paranoid interpretation of it from August 2013. It’s too close to me having finished it for me to review it entirely dispassionately, but I struggled with the assignment and, all in all, found it to be the least interesting of the six modules. However, I suspect that this might be because I came to view it as an annoyance – something that was standing in the way of me getting on with my dissertation.

Talking of which, I guess I have no more excuses left not to get on with it. Now, where did I put my copy of Seale’s “The Quality of Qualitative Research” again … ?

 

 

(*) DD307 was the Open University’s critical social psychology module (now discontinued), which gave me nightmares at the time, but made far more of a lasting impact on the way I think about psychological issues than any other module I took at undergraduate level.

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 2nd March 2016.

Falling off the ethical happy path

It’s Sunday morning. I’m currently surrounded by books, academic papers, highlighter pens and lots of scrappy notes. I’m ploughing my way through the individual at work module in an attempt to start the last assignment of the course, excluding the dissertation. It’s been hard to concentrate on this module during January, partly because of work commitments, partly because of a stinking cold I’ve had for the last week, but also because of the wrestling match I ended up having with the newly-automated ethical approval process.

Some hints for future students (based on my experience of the process in January 2016):

  • Your dissertation supervisor is actually your co-researcher as far as the ethical approval process is concerned.
  • The departmental ethics officer (DEO) that you’ve been assigned (by dint of the first letter of your surname) is your ‘module leader or authorising supervisor’. Providing the details of the actual module leader or your actual dissertation supervisor is definitely the wrong thing to do.
  • If you get this step wrong, it appears that there’s no way that anyone can re-route your application to the correct place, so you have to start the process again.
  • It’s (at least) a two-step submission process. Once your supervisor (co-researcher) has approved the application it ends up back with you to submit manually to the DEO. Unless you remember to check your emails and hit the submit button again, the DEO won’t see your application. I’m unsure as to why this is the case – all of the routing information has to be provided up-front by the applicant – so it simply seems to introduce an unnecessary time-lag into the process.
  • Once you’ve made a mistake and you (reluctantly) decide that the best course of action is to start again, the system won’t allow you to clone or cut and paste information from a ‘stuck’ application into a new one (well, unless you know how to use the ‘view source’ option in a web browser of course …).

In conclusion – don’t fall off the ethical approval process happy path – it’s frustrating if you do. But given how easy it is to make mistakes, my professional persona would love to spend some time with the designer of this system to help them make it just a little more robust. So here’s my offer – if you’d like to get in touch with me, I’ll happily come and spend a couple of hours with you in Leicester, free of charge, to help you improve the experience for future students and researchers. I’ll also bring cake.

Which takes me back to my current module assignment – it focuses on ways of dealing with stress at work. Given the month that I’ve just had (and I don’t mean dealing with the frustrations of the ethical approval process – they were the least of my worries), it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Eating cake while working on improving things would seem to be an excellent way of reducing stress, but sadly, there doesn’t appear to be any research evidence out there to suggest that it would be effective. Unless, of course, you know differently …

 

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 31st January 2016.

Welcome back – the OU re-launches psychology masters degrees for 2016

Update 23/12/2015: The links to all of the MSc courses and the foundation module below now go to an error page. My understanding is that they have been postponed until October 2017.


Last year, the Open University announced that it intended to start offering masters qualifications in psychology again from 2016, after mysteriously withdrawing them a few years ago. More details of the qualifications being offered are now available on their website.

The MSc choices appear to be Psychology (F74) – wisely, they seem to have dropped the idea of calling it Contemporary Psychological Studies – or Forensic Psychological Studies (F73). There’s also a related MA in Crime and Justice (F75).

At present only the 30 credit foundation module, DD820, is described in any detail. It will start for the first time in October 2016, with registration opening next February. Assuming that the OU meet their published timetable, the final module required for the MSc Psychology qualification (the dissertation) will start for the first time in February 2018. I guess this means that the first new postgraduates will be receiving their awards later on that year or in early 2019. However, they do say that you are allowed to take up to 10 years to complete the qualification if you wish to.

Neither MSc appears to be accredited by the British Psychological Society and the fees for the first presentation of DD820 haven’t been published yet. Assuming F73 and F74 are classified as science qualifications, the guidance offered at the moment suggests that the total costs will be somewhere between £5,244 and £8,222 (2015 prices).

Why distance learning is like a spider building a web

I’m currently working through the fifth of my modules on the occupational psychology masters – on training and development. It therefore seems appropriate to write about the way I’m thinking about my own development. If you’re not keen on spiders you may not want to read the final paragraph …

For me one of the most important things I do at the start of a module is work out the time that I have available between it opening and the date for assignment submission, once I’ve accounted for everything else. The course is meant to take around 15 hours study per week, but that’s an average. Some weeks I’m able to do more, other weeks far less. I work backwards from the end of module date to make sure that I’m leaving enough time to complete the module assignment (for example, this one requires a 3,000 word essay split into 4 related parts) and to undertake the research required to answer the question(s). I seem to need around 4 or 5 full weekends (or their equivalent) to write an assignment of this length. The rest of the time is therefore what I have available to read the module material and the associated readings, as well as following the leads to other books and papers that these signpost.

It’s following these leads and searching through the journals available in the online library that I find to be the most absorbing part of the learning process as it’s where the surprises come from. For example, during this module I’ve come across a fascinating paper on the place of storytelling in adult learning (*). I’ve enjoyed reading this paper as my day job involves me helping salespeople communicate the value of our company’s products and services to potential customers. One of the most effective ways of doing this has always seemed to me to be through telling stories about what other organisations have achieved with our help. Often, that’s all some customers want to hear, instead of going through deck after deck of expensively crafted powerpoint slides from the marketing department. It’s always nice to read something from the world of academia that backs up 20+ years of gut feel!

So to help you understand the distance learning process, here’s a story.

Picture yourself as a spider. Working through each module is rather like building a web. The radials and the centre of the web come from reading and working with the module units, associated readings and the recommended course books. This part is spun first. Around the outer reaches of the web is the material found in journals, along with the threads that link the current module to earlier ones, the knowledge gained from earlier study and your experience of life. Completing the module assignment is you, the spider, pulling all of these threads together in a particular direction to enable the question to be answered.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 20th September 2015.

(*) Caminotti, E & Gray, J (2012). The effectiveness of storytelling on adult learning, Journal of Workplace Learning, 24(6), 430-438.