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by Cally Guerin

I’ve been thinking lately about the challenges of providing feedback on writing for remote doctoral students (that is, students who do not work on the same campus as their supervisors). While I’m a fervent believer in the importance of face-to-face discussion about writing, there are lots of situations where this is simply not possible, because the student is away from the university gathering data during a field trip, the supervisor is travelling for conferences or study leave, or the candidate is enrolled as a remote student and always needs to receive feedback online. In these situations, how do we optimize the feedback that students receive?

These thoughts have been sparked by an interest in coming to grips with what is lost in the disembodiment that comes with much online technology. I became acutely aware of this recently when writing blind peer review for journal articles, a situation in which communication about the document is only in writing, with no follow-up verbal discussion.

Obviously the relationship between an author and reviewer is somewhat different from that between students and their supervisors – unlike blind review, students have an existing relationship with supervisors that has been built up over time, and ideally all parties have worked together on the research from its inception, so that the feedback is contextualised. But there are also important parallels between peer review and supervisors’ written feedback, as Aitchison points out (forthcoming, 2014). Indeed, with the increasing focus on theses by publication, it may well be a doctoral student receiving that peer review on a journal article.

Any comments on writing must always be framed respectfully in both blind review and in supervision relationships – that goes without saying – and constructive critique needs to be delivered in encouraging, positive and helpful terms. But perhaps the main difference is that supervisors have a greater responsibility to nurture and pass on knowledge about writing to their students, to develop writing skills as part of the doctoral education. Students can reasonably expect to be given advice on their writing that is new to early career researchers; the same advice in peer review might be perceived as inappropriately patronizing to a colleague who has many years experience in the field.

However, just like peer review, supervisor feedback on writing has the potential to be misunderstood. If students receive only written feedback on their drafts, some of the information that is communicated might not easily include the nuances that come along with an enthusiastic nod, or a slight tilt of the head to indicate uncertainty. Face-to-face discussion also allows the supervisor to respond immediately to the student’s body language as they receive the feedback, providing opportunities to ascertain whether the student has understood the explanation, perhaps even whether they are hurt or confused by critical comments. I’m not suggesting here that words are inadequate – far from it – but that feedback is such a tricky and subtle part of the doctoral process that can easily be disrupted. Great care is required if the primary form of feedback is to be in writing.

Video feedback on writing and follow-up conversations on Skype or Facetime can go a long way to mitigating any possible miscommunications. Our embodied selves communicate so much through tone of voice and body language. The two-way discussion of writing allows space to ask questions for clarification, to argue the case for not following supervisory advice, and to clarify the rationale for writing choices. The to and fro of discussing the initial written feedback as part of the ‘learning conversations’ (Wisker et al. 2003East, Bitchener & Basturkmen 2012) seems to be an essential part of developing the thinking expressed in the writing.

Have you managed to provide effective feedback for remote doctoral students that overcomes the challenges of not being there in person? If you are a doctoral student mostly reliant on written feedback, do you have any suggestions about how to make this as effective as possible? What strategies have you discovered that work well?

 

References

Aitchison, C. (forthcoming, 2014). Learning from multiple voices: Feedback and authority in doctoral writing groups. In C. Aitchison & C. Guerin (eds), Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in Practice and Theory, Abingdon: Routledge.

East, M., Bitchener, J., & Basturkmen, H. (2012). What constitutes effective feedback to postgraduate research students? The students’ perspective, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 9(2).

Wisker, G., Robinson, G., Trafford, V., Warnes, M. & Creighton, E. (2003).  From Supervisory Dialogues to Successful PhDs: Strategies supporting and enabling the learning conversations of staff and students at postgraduate level, Teaching in Higher Education 8(3): 383-397.

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