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by Cally Guerin

We’ve been writing a lot about feedback in recent months, and have tackled this from a number of angles in the previous blogs. One aspect that we haven’t touched upon yet is how, despite the best will in the world, sometimes students simply don’t seem to understand what supervisors are trying to tell them. Recently I’ve observed a supervisor working closely with a student and providing detailed feedback on various levels – sentence structure, overall document structure, and the big ideas aspects of the thesis – and yet the student still doesn’t appear to understand what is being asked of her. The feedback is provided in both written and oral forms, everyone is trying really hard to do the right thing, and yet no progress is being made. This has pushed me to consider what else is needed to get the message across about why the writing is just not working.

Students may not recognize what it is that supervisors, examiners and journal reviewers value in academic writing. For example, what students might regard as weak because it is only ‘subjective opinion’, we might regard as the necessary expression of critical judgement; in some cases, personal reflection has a perfectly legitimate role to play in situating the author in relation to the object of study.

Doctoral writing doesn’t necessarily respond well to the kind of marking rubrics common in undergraduate writing, where very specific criteria can be requested and provided. Here, instead, we are asking for ‘new’ work. It is certainly possible to establish some general criteria to help us assess doctoral writing, and I’ve found Boote & Beile’s (2005) work very helpful in this regard. However, a checklist is a blunt instrument when it comes to the subtle nuances and elements of voice and genre required at doctoral level – and without those elements, the writing simply doesn’t pass muster. Or, in academic terms, it may be signaling its underpinning epistemology quite inaccurately.

Sometimes it is not enough simply to tell a novice writer what to do, nor even to demonstrate the process and ask them to explain the reasons for the revisions, particularly if the issues are broader than expression within a paragraph. Rather than direct instruction, it would seem that some students need to establish for themselves the difference between the current writing and the desired product. I wonder if part of what is going on here relates to a basic principle of adult learning (Lieb, 1991) – being autonomous and self-directed. There are some things that we need to work out for ourselves, that we need to discover rather than be instructed about. I’m not suggesting that we should abandon students who are struggling to understand; rather, it seems that some elements of writing are better learnt through guided self-critique instead of being told ‘the answer’.

One response to this dilemma is for academics to provide models of the kind of writing that is desired, whether that is in the form of a journal article, a dissertation, or some other genre. This is, of course, a fairly standard practice. However, the next step needs to be a comparison between the model and the student’s own writing. And it seems necessary for the student to do this for themselves – it just doesn’t seem to have the same impact if the supervisor or learning advisor simply points out the differences. By actively identifying and explaining the differences between the two pieces for themselves, students can start to notice the ways in which their own writing is not matching the model.

There was a lot of talk of threshold concepts (Meyer & Land 2013) at the QPR conference last week. I’m not sure that the kind of ‘stuckness’ I’m thinking about here would really constitute a threshold concept as such, but it can certainly be troublesome for those struggling to find a way over this bump in the process of learning about doctoral writing.

Have you struck similar situations where the communication about what is needed in the writing breaks down like this? Have you found other solutions that you could share with our readers?

Stephen Lieb (1991) Principles of Adult Learning, VISION, Fall.