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By Cally Guerin

In planning upcoming workshops, I remembered a student who had responded to a long and detailed session by feeling rather discouraged. He had been making good progress with his writing, but the information in the workshop (focused on structure and argumentation) had unsettled him – it suddenly seemed that the ideas being presented undermined his own approach and made him feel that he had failed to pay attention to all sorts of elements that might be important to examiners later on.

For me, this was a valuable reminder not only of how fragile the confidence of doctoral students can be in the face of examination, but also that well-intentioned attempts to provide helpful information can sometimes be destructive. This may happen when, for example, the information comes at just the wrong time (which is sometimes very difficult to judge in a room full of students at various stages of candidature), or is too detailed and arrives as an overwhelming bombardment. In such instances, information can become burdensome rather than a beneficial.

So, what to do about this? I’ve been thinking about how to set up writing workshops that draw on where students are up to in their own thinking – just like yoga, you can tell someone the same thing many times, but it is not until they are ready to learn that detail that they can actually hear it and make any sense of it. ‘Rest lightly in your hips’ or ‘draw the outside of your upper leg down’ meant nothing to me for years until one day I suddenly twigged what the yoga teacher was advising. I think that similar ‘threshold concepts’ occur when learning about writing.

Take, for example, the provision of feedback on writing. There is some existing research into how students react to the feedback they receive, and resulting advice on how supervisors can provide useful feedback. Susan Carter and Deborah Laurs are currently preparing a book for Routledge on the topic of feedback that will be out soon – keep an eye on your information networks for when this appears. The complexities of research writing feedback are gaining interest from academics, and some of the publications I’ve found particularly useful in the past include:

Anthony Paré (2011) ‘Speaking of writing: supervisory feedback and the dissertation’ in Doctoral Education: Research-based strategies for doctoral students, supervisors and administrators.

Gina Wisker (2012) The good supervisor: Supervising postgraduate and undergraduate research for doctoral theses and dissertations. Palgrave Macmillan.

Vijay Kumar and Elke Stracke (2007) An analysis of written feedback on a PhD thesis. Teaching in Higher Education, 12(4): 461–470.

Martin East, John Bitchener & Helen Basturkmen (2012). What Constitutes Effective Feedback to Postgraduate Research Students? The Students’ Perspective. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 9(2), 7.

Helen Basturkmen, Martin East  & John Bitchener (2014). Supervisors’ on-script feedback comments on drafts of dissertations: socialising students into the academic discourse community. Teaching in Higher Education, 19(4), 432-445.

Gulfidan Can and Andrew Walker (2011) A model for doctoral students’ perceptions and attitudes toward written feedback for academic writing. Research in Higher Education, 52(5), 508-536.

In trying to avoid the situation where too much information is dumped upon individual students, I’ve found it useful to break up the feedback into a number of categories and focus on only one or two of them at a time. Students can ask for advice on the content of sections (enough detail, correct facts, irrelevant material), on the general structure of the document, on aspects of style and voice, on the mechanical aspects of grammar and the formatting and layout of the document. Instead of being confronted with a huge range of types of feedback and a document almost obscured with track changes and comments, a more focused and less overwhelming amount of information is provided, which in turn can be more manageable for the author. I learnt this approach from two wonderful colleagues, Kate Cadman and Margaret Cargill, and they have written about it in more detail in their chapter of Supervising Doctorates Downunder (2007).

The challenge is to transfer this kind of thinking to a workshop situation. Much of what I do in workshops is based on what I wish someone had told me when I was a PhD student struggling to make sense of the opaque world of doctoral education where everyone else appeared to magically understand what was expected of them. In demystifying the process, and particularly the writing aspects of that process, my aim is to provide information in a timely manner. Yet, when it comes to writing, this timing can be tricky to assess. As a general principle I think that opportunities to learn about writing need to be delivered across candidature – certainly not all at the end with the idea of ‘writing up’ being the final stage of doctoral studies. For most people there is far too much to learn and a gradual, incremental approach helps the ideas stick, become integrated into the author’s own writing processes and transferred to new writing situations.

In Australia we have a system where doctoral programs usually have very little formal coursework or structure imposed on them (this is starting to change), and workshops are often voluntary. Sometimes it seems necessary to pass on as much information as possible to make sure participants feel it is worth their while giving up precious writing time to attend; and they might attend only one workshop on this topic. But clearly, packing too much into the short space can have the opposite effect of what is intended. How do you handle this in the workshops you run? As a participant, what works best for you? I’d love to get some advice on how best to approach this.