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Our guest blogger today is Pia Lappalainen. She has a PhD in Science (Technology) and an M.A in English and French Philology, Communications and Pedagogics. Currently a lecturer at Aalto University in Finland, she pursues new pedagogy promoting doctoral-level curriculum design.

By Pia Lappalainen

If doctoral candidates are pained by various aspects of their research process, so are their supervising faculty! While pressure is accumulating for expediting thesis completion and for increasing high impact factor publications, universities everywhere are feeling the strain of fewer resources to support those outcomes. Higher engineering institutions in Finland, too, are struggling with fiercer competition for state- and private-sector funding and the subsequently tighter finances. To survive, Aalto University has taken some drastic decisions, cutting down on post-graduate course supply and contact hours in those courses that survived a recent downsizing. This forces pedagogues to re-think their pedagogical approaches to the already dwarfed course foci and contents. I’d like to share here how we harnessed peer critique as an instrument ensuring sufficient feedback while shrinking teacher contact hours. 

The aggressive rivalry in the academic world for funding has placed post-graduate programs in a challenging situation: they are to bolster doctoral candidates’ publication productivity, speed up degree attainment, and leverage publication quality with fewer resources. One consequence of the cutbacks is the deflated teacher hours for feedback. Doctoral candidates naturally receive feedback on content from their supervisors; yet owing to deep expertise in the field, the professors often read between the lines whatever elements are missing in the written products, overlooking problems with delivery and expression. The wider readership or journal reviewers might not have this knowledge, which then shows as negative submission outcomes.

Feedback on writing quality constitutes a key takeaway in doctoral writing courses. Post-graduate students need critique from others to know how to revise their writing, to prevent the same errors in the future, and to be able to assess the worth and quality of the work (Guible, 1997). This is also a fundamental component of process writing: 1) you learn to write by writing; and 2) quality comes from revision (Murray, 2006).

In engineering, doctoral students eagerly busy themselves in the lab, inspired by their empirical work. Many are equally reluctant about the writing process, often discouraged by beliefs that writing is an innate talent. However, scholarly writing can also be viewed as a skill that can be learnt, developed and taught. Unfortunately, academic writing is sometimes treated as a competence that can be taught separately from content and context, which underestimates the complexity of doctoral writing (Paltridge et al., 2012). The field-related conventions, unique discourses and field-specific research traditions dictate and characterize the writing style and structure, which is why personalized face-to-face feedback and iterative or ongoing critique prove beneficial when given by someone knowledgeable in both scholarly writing and field-related conventions (Lappalainen, 2016).

Receiving feedback can be highly emotional and even frustrating; therefore, students need help in understanding the benefits and purposes of critiquing and also in learning how to give and receive useful feedback. Giving and receiving feedback across disciplines is also advantageous (McLeod et al., 2012): it may even be easier for an outsider to assess how well the author manages to sustain arguments over longer passages of writing (Allison et al., 1998) when they have less background knowledge. Feedback from a peer outside the field can be especially useful for improving structure and readability, but to promote feedback quality and impact, pedagogical guidance is needed to allow students to apply the most effective strategies of provision and reception. Finally, getting a peek into a peer’s paper offers a mimicry strategy that intensifies participation in the research community of practice (Caffarella & Barnett, 2000).

In the course “Writing Doctoral Research” on offer at Aalto University, the 22 student hours are organized into 5 lectures (4-hours each) and 2 feedback sessions (1 hour each per student).

All of the 4-hour lectures end in a 30-minute peer critique session, where students swap their writing samples (2 pages) with a new partner each time. They critique their peer’s text against a checklist based on the themes and topics covered in the lecture. Additionally, they receive teacher feedback twice in separate feedback sessions. Altogether participants get feedback 7 times during the course. This pushes them to engage in both new writing and revising. Even though the course is extremely intensive, spanning only four weeks, some researchers manage to write a whole article from scratch. They have credited this to the inspiration boost and atmosphere of drive and productivity that is injected via the lectures. Even though they acquire feedback from the teacher only twice, they report the peer critique sessions to be important checkpoints that both drive them towards higher achievement or productivity levels and allow a close examination of the quality of their accomplishments.

Below you can find the checklists used for the first four peer critique sessions.

Naturally the knowledge accumulated from previous sessions makes their critique more elaborate each time and turns surface-level commentary based on newly gained information into deeper analysis through iterative reflection of the key topics covered in the course.

It would be interesting to hear if any of you have designed checklists, possibly more comprehensive, to support peer critique? I would also love to read about any investigations monitoring the impact of peer feedback; we need research to substantiate any new pedagogy!