By Toni Bruce and Susan Carter

This post was sparked when Toni described how she has begun a project with a group of doctoral students learning through doing: they are challenged to convince an audience of peers of something—anything­­—relating to their thesis, in three minutes. Doing this gave them the chance to test-drive theory as part of argumentation.

Toni has written about the way that “theory” isn’t a noun concept but a verb: it’s about doing. Novice researchers need to grow comfortable with the fact that they use theory so that they can stop walking round it in awe. Often when we newly encounter theory, using it seems formidable; how can someone else say, “hop in, give it a whirl, take it for a spin round the block?” In Using Theory (2010), Toni spells out clearly how the right theoretical lens let her scramble out of an impasse where she couldn’t really make much sense of data during her own work. And she decided to find a way to help doctoral students in her faculty find that theory offered a practical usefulness for those sitting on a heap of data.

Toni proposed the Convince Me project for doctoral students in her School within the Education faculty, an idea that was supported by the School’s Postgraduate Research Committee. The first meeting in May 2014 featured six initially nervous volunteers trying to build persuasive argumentation for the value of their project, methods or theoretical approach, or the meaning or implications of their findings. Ten other interested doctoral students listened and asked questions. “You convinced me” was the sentence each presenter wanted to hear.

It sounds to me like Convince Me does more than just make theory seem worth a whirl–it gives a friendly audience for trialling arguing defensively for any part of the thesis design. I’ve invited Toni to describe more precisely the Convince Me set up:

I proposed Convince Me as a way to help our doctoral students refine their ability to make a succinct, clear and well-supported argument, which is a vital element of a successful thesis. This is demonstrated repeatedly in the comments of thesis reviewers and examiners. The activity is intended to be an informal, fun and useful way for students to learn from each other what a convincing argument sounds like. Presenters are provided with the McWilliam (2006) argumentation article. The instructions are simple: “In three minutes and no more than five hundred words, without slides or visual tools, you must try to convince the group of something.  The ‘something’ will depend on where you are in the research process. In all cases, you must provide the argument and the evidence that supports it. You will get immediate feedback from your peers in the form of questions, a format that replicates conference presentations.” After each presentation, the group discusses the individual argument focusing on the strategies and elements that they find convincing (although invariably they also want to know more about the research itself).

The success of the first Convince Me means that it will continue, most likely on a monthly basis. Several presenters are already keen to do it again, saying that preparing for the presentation helped them refine their ideas. Currently I am the only academic who attends, as part of creating a collaborative, safe space in which doctoral students can practice and learn. Ancilliary aims are to enhance the doctoral culture within the School and to build confidence in public speaking so that more of our students will enter University competitions such as the Spark Ideas Challenge, Exposure and Thesis in 3.

And importantly, learning how to make arguments work to meet examiners’ expectations.


Bruce, T. (2010). Using theory to escape the descriptive impasse. Waikato Journal of Education, 15(2), 7-19. Availability” http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=785d8760-e636-4640-9845-31d6ebce80dc%40sessionmgr114&hid=103

McWilliam, E. (2006). Argumentation [online]. In C. Denholm & T. Evans (Eds.), Doctorates Downunder: Keys to Successful Doctoral Study in Australia and New Zealand (pp. 166-174). Camberwell, Vic: ACER Press. Availability: <http://search.informit.com.au.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/documentSummary;dn=628116868327087;res=IELHSS> ISBN: 0864314299. [cited 08 May 14]