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E Marcia Johnson, our guest blogger, has been the Director of the Centre for Tertiary Teaching & Learning (CeTTL) since 2012. Coming from a background in eLearning and Applied Linguistics, she has taught and researched in Canada, Japan, and New Zealand. Marcia and her team have introduced a number of cross-disciplinary, cohort-based initiatives to improve the student experience of learning, particularly doctoral writing and academic integrity. In particular, their weekly Doctoral Writing Conversation has facilitated the development of a range of strategies to help PhD students become successful thesis writers.

By E Marcia Johnson

Given the increasingly large, diverse cohort of doctoral students in many New Zealand and Australian universities (and elsewhere), additional pressure is being placed on academic staff to supervise more and more students. However, the rhetorical demands of thesis writing are quite specific, with Carter (2011) proposing that doctoral writing is its own literary genre. A strong case can thus be made for generic thesis writing programmes to be offered by specialists with expertise in writing; such programmes could not only aid students’ emerging thesis writing competence, they would provide welcome support for supervisors. What I’ll describe in this post is an example of what can be done as part of a generic thesis writing programme (the Doctoral Writing Conversation (DWC)), but – importantly – the underlying reasons for doing it.

Numerous publications have described various types of thesis writing supports, but what is seldom included in academic literature is discussion of how to structure, organise, and develop generic writing programmes as learning environments. In addition, it’s critical to understand that thesis writing is much more than an ordered presentation of an argument; it includes emotional, cultural, cognitive, or even physical barriers to understanding, which can have a negative impact on a student’s writing progress. I would argue that this is particularly the case with the doctorate, characterised as it is by a non-linear (and lengthy) process of research activities, drafting text, negotiation of meaning with others, and then the seemingly endless process of rewriting. Along the way to thesis writing mastery and degree completion, students can become “stuck” (Johnson, 2018b).

How then can one structure a generic thesis writing programme such that it not only teaches the expected writing conventions of the doctorate, but it also does so as part of a socially supportive learning environment? I would argue that one key element is interdisciplinary conversation, for epistemology and ontology are most visible at cultural (disciplinary) boundaries (Carter, 2011). Also, and importantly, encouraging multidisciplinary groups to approach writing and meaning-making as social activity is a powerful way to utilise the diversity of doctoral cohorts that the massification of higher education has created. Multidisciplinary groups can help to broaden students’ intellectual and writing development to complement, rather than compromise, disciplinary education.

Another key aspect in the creation of a socially supportive generic writing environment is the use of tools to mediate understanding. Such mediating tools can be physical (shared space, paper, computers), cognitive (presentation of ideas), or linguistic (discussion); ideally a well-running generic doctoral writing programme will include all of them. Whatever is used, the structure of the learning activities is key, as we shall see from a DWC example presented here.

The activity is called the 4×4 (four by four), which stimulates conversation through a “talking to think; thinking to write” series of steps. Consistent with Wisker’s (2016) finding, we have found that when students experience writing blocks, they often cannot determine the root cause. It could be related to academic processes (enrolment or locating materials in the Library), supervisory issues, a lack of methodological understanding – or it could actually be concerned with how to structure a written argument. Whatever the reason, though, the roadblock manifests as an inability to accomplish much writing. The 4×4 provides an effective means for making the implicit (writing blocks) explicit through shared social conversational activity.

The 4×4 is a timed exercise, moving from individual reflection, to small group discussion, to a conversation with the entire group, and then finally back to the individual. At the outset the facilitator explains how the session will be managed and states that the goal is for everyone to have a plan of action by the end of the session.

First students work independently to identify any thesis-related issues with which they are struggling and write them on a list (physical and conceptual tools). They are given about 10 minutes to do this. Then individuals join with two or three others to form working groups (and we instruct them to select people outside of their own discipline). Students are given about 30 minutes to share the items on their lists, discuss them with their peers, and identify possible courses of action to resolve them (conceptual and linguistic tools). For the next 30 minutes the facilitator asks the small groups in turn to share both the problems they have discussed and their suggested solutions with the entire group (conceptual and linguistic tools). Common themes emerge across the groups, and members of the whole group contribute their ideas and suggestions for addressing them. Finally, students work collaboratively with each other and the facilitator to develop their own action plan and write it down (physical, conceptual, and linguistic tools).

Talking through obstacles to writing allows students to raise their awareness of doctoral processes and helps them extend their thinking. Equally important, the 4×4 activity helps students recognise which issues are specifically writing-related and which are more extensive, possibly needing the involvement of others to address. Conversation with peers also reinforces that it is entirely normal during the thesis to encounter times of slow (or no) progress. Sometimes perseverance is required; sometimes knowledgeable others need to join the conversation and provide ideas; or even sometimes a short vacation from writing is needed to help students mentally relax and return to writing in a refreshed state of mind.

Although “talking to think” is an essential component of the 4×4, it is the “thinking to write” planning part of this exercise that we emphasise; talking is relatively easy, but developing a plan of action and then using it overcome writing roadblocks are the necessary next steps. Through the 4×4 activity, conceptual flux (“stuckness”) has been deconstructed, examined, and normalised as part of shared dialogue. Of course, this activity in itself does not necessarily lead to the crossing of intellectual thresholds, but students always report that the session is extremely helpful, contributing as it does to the identification and clarification of possible reasons and solutions for writing blocks.



Carter, S. (2011). Doctorate as genre: Supporting thesis writing across campus. Higher Education Research & Development, 30(6), 725-736. DOI:10.1080/07294360.2011.554388

Johnson, E. M. (2018a). The doctoral writing conversation: Establishing a generic doctoral writing programme. Open Review of Educational Research, 5(1), 1-12. DOI:10.1080/23265507.2017.1419439

Johnson, E. M. (2018b). Towards an enhanced view of doctoral writing environments: Learning alliances to reconceptualise practice. Policy Futures in Education, DOI:10.1177/1478210318774441

Wisker, G. (2016). Beyond blockages to ownership, agency and articulation: Liminal spaces and conceptual threshold crossing in doctoral learning (pp. 165-176). In R. Land, J. H. F. Meyer, & M. T. Flanagan (Eds). Threshold concepts in practice. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.