Does it happen for you as it happens for me, that it seems that every paper I publish is better than the last? I had two come back from journals in the past couple of weeks both requiring very different kinds of revision. Complex revision, as it turns out. By complex revision I mean the kind of revision where the questions reviewers ask you, or the revisions they request, require thoughtful pondering in order to implement. It often means doing additional research, re-writing big chunks of text, or reorganizing the pathway of an argument.
Simultaneously, on Twitter, a conversation was taking place:
What do you prefer? To write first drafts or to revise an existing draft?
Someone referred to those people who like revisions as legendary or mythical. I, being solidly in camp revision, was curious to know if I truly was mythical as a writer for preferring to revise. So, I ran a poll and the responses were predictable. Half the sample preferred to revise and half preferred to write first drafts.
I would love to dig into what forms such preferences a little deeper, but that probably requires a research study. If I had to guess, I suspect that the preference is epistemological. I can only speak to why I prefer to revise. Having text there makes the next piece of text to be written more obvious to me. It gives me something to reflect on. I like filling in holes and crevices in my explanation of concepts. I like being clear. I also never think my writing is done so I can spend hours tinkering with phrasing, adding – or more often removing – adjectives, rearranging words and sentences. I feel the rhythm and cadence of my writing is important. I like to play, and this is fun for me. I find first drafts frustrating because I feel horrified by how little the idea I picture in my head resembles the words that come out on paper to represent those ideas. (Editor’s note: that last sentence was hell to get right, by the way. Its first iteration was twisted and a mess). First drafting feels like hell. Revising feels like passion.
First drafters may like outlining and filling in the blanks (a very structured, perhaps objectivist, epistemology). Maybe first drafters fear the blank page less because the blank page is a free-for-all canvass? With first drafts, you have control of the structure, with revisions, especially if they are coming from peer reviewers, you may not. Or maybe its people who revise as they write, making sure every paragraph, every sentence, every word is right before moving on to the next, who prefer first drafts. They’ve invested so much time up front with perfection, refusing to move on until the last sentence is what it is, they resist anyone who tries to make them go back and write it again.
Maybe people who hate revising are literalists. Maybe, because they can already see the richness that lies between the lines, they have a difficult time understanding how others can’t see it too, so they resist demands to explicate.
Or, maybe there is no relationship or meaning at all to preferences of revising versus first drafting. But I can tell you this, I’ve never done major revisions on a paper and walked away thinking the original version was better. Never.
Revision is hard. It is one of the last skills we learn to do well as writers. Perhaps passion for revision is a marker of writing expertise? Most undergraduate students don’t revise well. They are novices. The primary complaint I hear from educators is that our students don’t revise or they revise superficially and ignore requests to develop ideas. Feedback and revision go together and should not be separated. This is how the peer review system works, but how willing are you to tackle complex revisions when they are suggested to you?
I’ve had several, complex revisions I’ve undertaken in the last couple of years. I’ve also reviewed enough papers and then re-reviewed them after revisions to have observed how authors handle suggestions for complex, deep, revisions and most of the time they don’t handle it well, refuse to do them by citing some excuse, or they turn it into something superficial instead. I also find, when I have the opportunity to see the reviews that others submitted for the same paper, that many reviewers can’t see complex ideas within papers either.
Here are my thoughts on what I call complex revision:
- Reacquaint yourself with your paper and the previous passion you felt for the project. Here’s the problem with complex revision – the further away you are from the period of time when you were originally connected with the work, the harder it is to revise. For this reason, when I get a paper back with requested revisions, I tend to try and get them done as quickly as possible. I always print a copy of the paper and handwrite the review comments in the margin at the spots they are referring to. (Most of the review comments I get come in a numbered list of some sort, separate from the paper). I then always try and conquer the simple revisions first because the simple revisions feel like progress and they reacquaint you with the writing.
- However, the on the flip side, the distance might also help you see where your own writing is not clear. Two examples: I got asked some questions about something I said about one of my research constructs in a recent review, but when I read the sentences I had written many months before, I honestly didn’t know what I meant or where I was going with the point. The solution wasn’t to revise, it was to cut the sentences. In another revision, a reviewer suggested I cut a paragraph as it seemed to disrupt the flow of ideas. Being 8 or 9 months since I had originally submitted the paper, I could see what the reviewer meant, so I cut the paragraph.
- Don’t always respond to reviewers literally. Is there something the reviewer is not getting about your paper that prompted the comment they wrote but will be better fixed by editing something else the reviewer didn’t comment on? On a recent paper, a reviewer commented that I didn’t consider the importance of peer reviewing or talk about the value in seeing a rubric prior to handing in an assignment. No, I didn’t, but the literature on both those things weren’t critical to may study. Yet, the reviewer comment still didn’t make it appropriate for me to write new sections on peer reviewing or how rubrics improve (or maybe don’t improve) writing in my review of the literature. It did make me recognize that the reviewer was begging for more information on the context that my student participants were writing in so they could see why I wasn’t writing about those two topics. So, I wrote a section describing the writing environment in the program of study – where peer review was not standard in the courses being offered and thus was a self-selected choice of students, and the students always got to view the rubric prior to submitting an assignment.
- “You said you were going to talk about X but you didn’t actually do that.” I got a comment of a similar nature for a paper and my instant response was, but I did talk about X and it is RIGHT HERE. But upon reflection, that comment made me understand that what I was describing as X and what I actually did, was not what the reviewer had expected as X. That comment didn’t mean I had to re-write the paper to fit the reviewer expectation. I did have to go and re-write my description of X so it was a better match for what I actually did. No matter what, it is still your paper.
- Requests to redo analysis. Do it, if you can. I got a review comment suggesting a different statistical test than the one I had done. I had to go back to the statistician, reacquaint myself with a data set I hadn’t looked at in a year and a half, and I had to re-run my analysis. This was a frustrating review comment for sure. I was so tired of this study that I wanted it done. The last thing I wanted to do was go run more analysis. But it was worth it. The findings came out almost the same, but the testing method was more robust and it will add greater credibility to my paper in the long run.
- When reviewers criticize your method, they aren’t asking you to redo your whole study before resubmitting for publication, but they are asking you to explicate your study limitations a bit better.
- Read that whole new body of literature. Just a few articles. Reviewers suggesting a long list of literature for you to read probably doesn’t mean they want you to write the paper they would have written instead. But something you wrote triggered a connection with a peripheral body of work. I’ve had specific articles suggested to me. I’ve had author names dropped into reviews like bread crumb trails marking the pathway to some in-group. I take a moment to explore them all. In one case, it meant writing an additional 2000 words into my paper (I had the wordcount room via journal limits). That paper was ten times better than it was when I first submitted it. Sometimes you are writing about ideas, or writing on the periphery of ideas, that you know less about than your reviewer. I’ve seen authors respond to review comments advising they look at a peripheral area of work by writing new paragraphs about that peripheral body of work with absolutely no citations. This is BAD. Don’t do that.
- Take note of when a reviewer appears to be wanting to have a conversation with you rather than provide you structured concrete points for revision. How would you respond to that conversation and is the response you would give back something that should go into the paper? It can be daunting as an author when this happens because conversational reviews can be lengthy – I got one once that was 2000 words long. But a reviewer who was willing to write all that about your paper was really engaged with your work. You want to honour that engagement, not refuse to acknowledge it. Editors are smart. There is a reason that person was picked to review your paper. If you met that person at a conference you’d want to sit down over beer and talk to the wee hours of the morning. Answer them.
How do you handle complex revision? Share your thoughts and examples.
When I tweeted yesterday that I was creating a peer review process for my students to assess each other’s writing and provided a sample of what I was up to, I had many requests to share the whole process.
I am happy to do that and will do so here in this post with two caveats:
- This process is untested. This means, I can’t even give you anecdotal feedback as to if it works. So for now I will share the materials but it is probably wise to warn you it may backfire. Conversely, it may also be brilliant. I have never tried peer review before but I’ve spent about a year dreaming up this process. I really wanted to do double peer review, meaning I really wanted students to peer review two of their classmate’s papers but as I tried to schedule it, I recognized in our compressed term, there just isn’t enough time to do that and still allow for the time to do research, the synthesis exercise, and the peer review process. I’ll write a follow up blog after I have trialed the process.
- Remember that all writing is contextual. I’ve created this process specific to the needs of my assignment, my course content, and my teaching style. If you want to model what you do after my process, you won’t be able to simply lift my points and my language choices and have a neat fit. Make it your own.
Here is the document describing the process:
In the document you will find:
- My detailed assignment guidelines for the qualitative synthesis paper.
- A description of the peer review process.
- My content rubric for the paper (out of 33)
- The peer reviewed checklist for the students to help them assess their classmate’s work.
As this is an assignment structured using scaffolding theory, these are the basic activities to scaffold the process:
- As the course I teach is a research course, I start the term introducing them to the principles of qualitative research. As I teach them about qualitative methods, I am simultaneously connecting the theory content to what they need to write about. They also get a class on searching the literature and what needs to be included in the background to a research study.
- I have the students find 5 primary qualitative studies on a topic of their choice. They have to show me these 5 primary studies. There are numerous benefits to this requirement, most of them, selfishly benefit me: a) I ensure that they write this paper using the literature I asked for and not just any old literature. It saves me so much grading time to check this in advance; b) I get to look each one of them in the eyes at least once during this process. For some students, the article checks are the only conversation I’ll have with them all term; c) the students can write their paper knowing they won’t lose marks for incorrectly identifying qualitative studies.
- I provide them with an article identification guide to help them distinguish qualitative, quantitative, and discussion papers. Article Type Identification Guide
- I have them read their articles next and then we come together and do a synthesis exercise over one class. I wrote a tweet thread about that exercise a while back (see below).
- The students will go off and write and before the planned peer reviewed process they would hand it in to me and I would grade it. The next steps are steps that are untrialed.
- Now students will hand in a preliminary paper and share that preliminary paper with a pre-selected classmate.
- Each will use the peer review checklist to independently comment on the other’s paper. They will also be welcome to correct grammar and APA.
- I will hold a peer review class where they can ask me questions but the goal is also for them to sit down with the rubric for the paper and jointly come up with a score for the content portion of each of their papers. Two chances to practice with the rubric.
- Notice that the rubric and the peer review checklist are colour coded. That’s because the colours that match on both documents are the items on the peer review checklist that they will be considering when scoring that section on the rubric. The rubric is broad areas of writing (content, synthesis, research, mechanics) the checklist is ordered by the required heading sections of the paper. Hopefully this will help them realize what expectations affect what sections of the rubric.
- After the peer review process, the students will go off and revise their papers based on their discussions. They will hand in a final draft of their paper to me along with a self-scored rubric for their own content. Their grade will be the score they give themselves — unless they score themselves too low then they will get my score. If they score themselves too high? Well that’s a bridge I’ll cross when and if it happens.
- I am not having the students grade each other or assess themselves on APA. They’ll obsess over it and it will take away from what I want them to focus on, which is their content. I’m going to grade their APA.
- 50% of their entire course grade goes to the little pieces that make up this assignment. The breakdown of the assignment in terms of value is:
- Content of paper 33/
- APA 3/
- Participating in synthesis class and making progress 3/
- Article checks 1/
- Peer review 10/
How I will score their peer review exactly is still a work in progress and I’m still reflecting on it as I don’t have to “grade it” for a couple months yet. It will be a combination of participating in the peer review, collegiality with peer and being a good citizen and getting documents in on time, a thorough effort at feedback to their peer, the degree to which they pay attention to the feedback they were given in their next draft, a one paragraph response to that feedback, and realistic self-assessments on the rubric.
I’m blessed this term with an abnormally small class which will be extremely useful for me to trial this process and discover the weak spots in my pedagogy. I hope, those of you who were interested also find this useful. Please feel free to comment below with questions or tweet at me to discuss, or share your own peer review processes.
I woke up yesterday morning to an email from an unfamiliar name in my inbox titled, “article you just published.” It was a nurse scholar from Georgetown requesting a copy of a publication I knew was coming soon, but I didn’t know had hit the presses yet. Hot off the press at the Journal of Nursing Education.
constructing-writing-practices-in-nursing (ooh I hope this PDF works — it may be linked here, and it probably isn’t copyright appropriate but we’ll see how long it lasts)
This is the first time I’ve been emailed directly for an article of mine. But it is also the first time my current work has been published in a journal with a > 2.0 impact factor (high for nursing education journals). And then the ivy league comes calling. Also a first.
I tell the story of the birth of this paper in the article itself and my engagement with the literature to produce it. Believe it or not, this section was requested by reviewers. I think they expected a couple of sentences and I gave them about two pages instead — oh well — be careful what you ask for.
The paper started as a philosophy of nursing science assignment where I was asked to address a controversy in my research area. What immediately came to mind was the deep sense of devaluing of writing in nursing and nursing’s anti academic discourse — both of which contribute to the much talked about theory-practice gap that pervades practice disciplines such as nursing (and most health professions, but also other practice disciplines like education and business).
In combination with the anti academic discourse, I had just spent the fall revising a paper exploring all the writing self-efficacy measurements developed for post-secondary populations through a template analysis of the items on these questionnaires. I was looking to find out the constructs psychometricians were identifying as having influence on writing self-efficacy of students. The largest category of items in the template focused on surface writing elements like punctuation, and putting together a paragraph, or writing sentences with subjects, verbs, and nouns, or can you write clearly, with focus. Those were not the elements of writing that I saw my students agonize over when writing for me. They agonized over topic choices and ideas and understanding what they were reading and how frustrating writing could be. The model that developed from this template analysis was a combination of Bandura’s self-efficacy theory and Flower and Hayes’s cognitive processing model of writing and a reviewer asked me if this was it…. was this template enough to describe writing — and more specifically, writing in nursing? I wanted to address this question. I had also been simultaneously immersed in the literature talking about writing as a socially constructed process so I also knew the model I would eventually develop would be situated in a socially constructed epistemology.
The components of the model can be defined liked this:
Identity: Incorporates writing voice, the self as it appears within a written text, past experiences with writing and their influence on present writing, and levels of writing self-efficacy. Reflexivity facilitates the metacognition and intertwining required to activate the other components of the model as they relate to writing and nursing identity.
Creativity:Novelty and originality as defined by a discipline inform creativity. Idea generation, synthesis, and interpretive abilities all require creativity. Creativity fuels passions and develops identity.
Emotions:Writing emotions can be positive or negative, are subject to roller-coaster extremes, and will drive or inhibit the writing act. Emotions are present at all phases of writing from planning to feedback.
Relational Aspects: Writers form relationships with the sources they incorporate through citation, inspiration, or interpretation. Writers write for an imagined audience and that audience connects with their writing when a writer reveals themselves in their work. Students also form relationships with their teachers during pedagogical processes and feedback interactions.
Context:The writing context includes perceived difficulty of the writing task and writing evaluators, the stakes involved in producing a well-received product, and the values and demands inherent in a disciplinary discourse.
The paper emerged in four phases:
- A two page proposal which focused on the theory practice gap and anti academic discourse. I didn’t know at this phase I would be building a model.
- A seminar on my topic where I presented the first drawing of the model based on the layers of a globe. I even had a visual image of that globe which when I shared it with my classmates and asked them to reflect on it and discuss it, really fell flat. They didn’t get it — although I have to say that one of my classmates recently, after writing her candidacy papers said to me, “I totally get this now.” It just takes the right kind of writing experience. I don’t remember combining creative and emotional knowing at this stage. I wonder when that changed? Probably where everything changes: in the act of writing.
- The final draft of the paper where I removed the visual drawing from the paper because it hadn’t worked when I presented it to a test audience. The paper just described the model as an intertwined process, with identity at the core, where each one of the any the five factors could be the focus at any point of the writing process or they may be simultaneously influencing one another and merged through reflection.
- The post submission review process the article changed again mostly in my discussion of nursing’s relationship to writing. Virtually nothing of the text of the model changed other than the reviewers asked me to attempt to draw the model again. So I did… I drew some rough sketches of the model on my own and then I called in an artist pro (my 17 year old daughter Emma) and asked her to draw me a better version. She was a real pro. She drew me four versions on her digital drawing tablet using my version as inspiration and we ended up combining two together. I liked the angular look she had given one version — the twisted strands of the model that you see with the labels on them. They reminded me of how you wrap a tensor bandage. But I liked the the round twist she put on her rounder version of the model so we combined the two into what you see as the header to this blog. My very rough trial drawing of my vision for my model. I saw the intertwining as a braid. As you can see, Emma’s final version at the top of the blog is just so much more effective.
The model is black and white in the article but for poster presentations I had upcoming I asked for a coloured version. I let her pick the colours. Then with the help of some text templates from @academicbatgirl I decided to make a mug of it.
NSFW — but it will comfort me at home.
I wrote the paper for nursing, prepared the poster for a nursing education conference, but I decided with a bit of an elbowing from my advisor to enter the poster in the faculty of health sciences poster competition. I had no chance of winning in this biomedical positivist world where most of the work is physiological or microbial or population health so I was curious how the judging sessions went. I ended up with two judges one from microbiology and the other from molecular genetics (hilarious — I don’t even know what this is) and I spend my 10 minutes just talking about academic writing and its genres and I managed to get one of them to say, hey … this isn’t just for nursing, this could work for all disciplines. Getting that statement out of a judges who were very unlikely to share my worldview, was winning enough for me.
This model is what I will use to develop the items to assess writing self-efficacy on a new questionnaire designed from a constructivist perspective of writing. I’ve already developed the items but you know how the PhD process goes — several hurdles to jump over before I can get started on testing the questionnaire.
The paper appears here:
Mitchell, K. M. (2018). Constructing writing practices in nursing. Journal of Nursing Education, 27(7), 399-407. doi:10.3928/01484834-20180618-04
If your library doesn’t subscribe to it and you would like a copy of the article please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me on twitter @academicswrite
Nursing students in high proportions choose the profession because of healthcare experiences they’ve had with family members or in their own lives. These experiences are profound, identity changing, and career directing for many of them. This blog is ultimately about what happened when I gave them the opportunity to write about it. It is also a wakeup call for the many personal crises our students experience while they study.
I’ve been using an academic paper to teach synthesis thinking in the undergraduate course I teach, Research and Scholarship in Nursing, for about six years. I get bored easily so I am continuously on the hunt for new ways to implement this assignment. One consistent feature of that assignment is the requirement to find five primary studies on a particular research focus. The first version of the paper was very method focused and the second looked to see how well the media was doing with presenting research to the public. I’ve written about the first two incarnations of the paper here.
Because I wanted to increase the qualitative research content of my course, this year I developed a third version of the paper and required all students choose five qualitative studies to address their topic. The main requirement is to synthesize the themes identified in those studies. Any topic is fair game as long as it can be connected to nursing and or health. I am a strong believer that writing about a topic you are passionate about makes for more engaged writing. So I asked students to choose their topic based on a personal experience, a clinical experience, or they could springboard off a documentary or a media article as well. They are required to write about a page long narrative that describes their inspiration.
Seemed simple enough. Seemed non-threatening. The second version of this paper also suggested that students choose their topic based on an idea that they were personally connected to as well.
What I was not prepared for were some of the deep and personal reflections that reading qualitative research stimulated in some students. Some of them wrote things that broke my heart. It also has become evidence for the complicated lives our students live while they attempt to complete a very grueling accelerated nursing program.
I tweet periodically and selectively about my own emotional experience (and grading biases) while grading these papers:
Now not all students are going to get personal with a teacher, nor do they feel safe doing so. This is a reality I accept. About 26% of the 162 papers I graded this year chose topics based on the more benign routes to inspiration: a clinical patient they’d had, a topic that was just “of interest,” or was inspired by a documentary, blog, or media article. But for the other 74% this is what I heard about:
They wrote about the health issues of their first degree relatives, mothers, fathers, siblings, spouses or children (23.5%).
They wrote about the deaths of their parents from cancer, their loved ones with autism, food allergies, ADHD, anorexia, obesity, and mental illness.
In their immediate families they’ve been caregivers (both directly and vicariously) for cancer, colitis, heart conditions, diabetes, postpartum depression, alcoholism, MS, chronic pain, arthritis, and infertility.
A student had a child who died at 2 years from a brain tumor.
They wrote about second degree relatives and friends – grandparents, aunts, and uncles (24.7%).
Cancer was still common as were heart conditions, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental illness including postpartum depression.
They had friends who’ve committed suicide.
They were present at the hospital when a family member went into cardiac arrest.
They investigated the experience of living with a host of other medical conditions and procedures: cystic fibrosis, acute brain injury, bariatric surgery, abortion, premature births, caring for special needs adults, chronic pain, Parkinson’s, and stroke.
Their family members died surrounding conditions of poor person-centered hospital care.
A student had a family member request an assisted death before it was legal and watched his frustration and suffering.
Most poignant was when they wrote about their own health challenges (16%) – the present, the past and the anticipated.
They’ve manage their studies while also managing type I diabetes.
More than one have had pernicious acne they’ve lived with since adolescence and have faced body image and self-esteem challenges as a result.
One is undergoing the diagnostic procedures to rule out a significant neurological disorder.
Two struggle with irritable bowel syndrome and wrote about the constant struggle to have to keep tabs on bathroom locations, the social isolation that often occurs, and wearing diapers, in some circumstances — Just in case.
An astounding number of them are depressed or experienced postpartum depression — some of them were still in the stage of thinking they might be depressed but were not quite sure, or were not quite ready to admit it to themselves.
Two students wrote about the decision making they’d had to do to have an abortion and their awareness of the stigma surrounding that decision. Both students had had these abortions within the current academic year.
Many of these students are parents and several talked of past health issues that were childbirth related – Four wrote about complications they’d had in pregnancy, one of which was a student who almost died in childbirth. I learned a new term … “perinatal near miss.”
One student was a teen mother.
One student had experienced and survived a hemorrhagic stroke and her difficult cognitive recovery.
Two talked about being sexually abused as children or sexually harassed by authority figures in their lives. Two out of 162 is far under the average abuse rate for women. Many, I am sure, would never have dared write about it – not to a teacher.
Genetic conditions were the trend for anticipated health problems.
They live with worry about their ability to have children in the future due to these genetic health threats. Many of our students come from communities with very fundamentalist Christian values and these possible genetic issues that they may pass onto their children have them worried they may one day have to consider an abortion.
They have a genetic inabilities to develop immunities to infectious diseases often prevented by vaccination.
A student had made the decision after her grandmother, mother, cousins, aunts all developed breast cancer to have prophylactic bilateral mastectomies. She was positive for the BRCA1 gene so she made what to her was a no brainer decision. When you live with this knowledge, you become easily detached from your breasts anyway.
But most appalling to me was those that wrote about the nursing profession (10.5%) — the bullying and “eating their young” attitudes they experienced and witnessed on the units they were assigned to for clinical practice. Some of this bullying came from teachers.
Only 4.3% were willing to come out and say they’d been bullied, but another group addressed this issue through the backdoor by talking about academic anxiety, or the high rates of stress and burnout in the nursing profession which affected the behavior of nurses. They wanted to look at burnout because they needed a rationale for why sometimes the nurses they encountered were just plain mean.
And these are just the students willing to disclose these issues and struggles. I read their stories and I respond. I thank them for sharing their story, sometimes I ask them questions (for which no one has ever emailed to answer after feedback). Sometimes they don’t tell me how the story ends… But it doesn’t matter. This story ends by acknowledging that it brought to light for me, evidence that we have a problem that we are not doing enough to correct. Our students have lived traumas, they are vulnerable, some of them are being treated very poorly as students, and they are survivors.
We are also not doing enough to listen. The rates of these family and social issues students face in their day lives are astoundingly high. They affect the ability of students to function in the classroom. Chances are, when they beg for an extension, are absent from class or a test, they have a good reason.
The world is in love with a quick fix. Writing is hard. While we easily recognize both statements to be universal truths, we still search for a quick fix to make writing, especially our students’ writing, easier to for them execute and us to read.
Grading can be the bane of our existence. I know. I’m in the middle of grading 51 undergraduate papers right now. But there is simply no quick fix to making our grading consistently pleasant and there is no instructional strategy that will bring every student’s work to proficient. Writing is a flawed and finicky process that requires resilience and adaptability. We struggle with our own writing (editor’s note…. I’m struggling with this paragraph. It has been through numerous nit-picky edits and rewrites). Our students are struggling with what, to us, being years ahead in our writing education, may seem like basic skills. It’s easy to lament about how they can’t write — blame some poor faceless high school or introductory writing teacher for their apparent lack of skills — but what is our responsibility?
How much of our attitude and temptation to lament are rooted in several pervasive myths about learning academic writing? Writing scholars who work daily with these novice writers have been writing and publishing about these myths for decades but this work seems to preach to the choir. When writing is placed in the hands of course leaders who don’t study writing, don’t read about writing, or don’t write themselves, but yet assign and grade undergraduate writing, the myths live on in poor pedagogical choices and harsh grading.
Some of the beliefs that novice graders or those not interested in writing pedagogy hold, e.g., our students are bad at grammar, that writing is transferable to all contexts, and a basic course is all writers need, do not help our students learn to write and become lifelong writers. So here are 6 myths of academic writing that need to disappear from our dialogue.
Drilling grammar will be a cure-all for bad student writing. Drilling grammar might make them better at select points of grammar but it won’t fix the whole. It won’t fix their tendency to be repetitive or to be too casual and it won’t make them ensure they have addressed the assignment guidelines appropriately. Those are problems of discourse and genre, not to mention personal characteristics of the student, not grammar. If you must, give them a review sheet of all the grammar issues that drive you crazy and are sure to decrease their grade, but don’t call in the local writing expert to do a one-hour writing workshop to drill grammar. They will be irritated with you for asking, you’ll be disappointed in the results, and your students may not even show up. If you rant at students about their writing being ubiquitously deficient, they will tune you out and devalue writing.
To write is to write is to write. Think of this myth as the equivalent of a nurse is a nurse is a nurse. Can we plunk a mental health nurse into an ICU?…Would you ask an electrical engineer to build an airplane? I would hope not. We also can’t give a student, who has only written poetry or social media posts, an academic paper with citations and a supporting argument and expect perfectly executed writing. Not without some kind of instruction first. The student who has written academic papers in English literature may not be adequately prepared to write a paper in psychology. And guess what, it gets even closer to home than that… We can’t ask a student to write a paper in gerontology and then, in the next course, expect them to competently, without our guidance, to write a paper about maternity or palliative care — nor a research critique, or an ethics analysis or a letter to the editor. Each of these acts of writing is a new genre and requires a new skill set. Writing gets to the core of thinking unlike any other assignment but writing in all these different genres and voices requires significant instructor support. We can’t take a hands-off approach to our own assignments and think a tutoring service or a writing centre would do a better job of explaining our assignments than we can. Those supports can help to a point, but only you can articulate your expectations and teach your assignment as it should be written.
Requiring an introductory writing course is enough writing instruction. It isn’t. Writing is a lifelong adventure of learning and improvement. Only more writing makes better writers. One course will get them started but every assignment will require new skills, a new discourse, and a new voice.
My students should be able to write using the same language that I would write with. Every discipline and every course within a discipline has its own preferred language and word choices — discourse is the fancy writing scholar term for that experience. Your students have had different educational and life experiences, not to mention lack of exposure to the required language choices of your course material, so they will have a different voice. They will choose different words to explain processes that for you are are second nature. Those different words are going to sound wrong to you but the only way a student can learn the right language is to mimic it or attempt it blindly and in attempting it they may (and will) get it gloriously, heroically, wrong.
Let me introduce my student Melanie to you. Melanie has graciously given me permission to share a piece of her writing. Melanie is a second year nursing student who has been working as a licensed practical nurse for some time now but has come back to school to upgrade to a baccalaureate degree. She knows nursing language but she does not know the language of research methods so she reached out for help with writing a section of her paper where she had to explain how she selected the three themes she decided to write about in her paper.
“Tell me if this is what you are looking for,” she wrote in her email to me with the following cut and past passage inserted within:
This was not a bad start for not knowing this discourse of writing a method section to a research paper. Her APA citing is wrong. Her explanation leaves some holes. She knows I know what she did, but she didn’t explain it well enough for someone not familiar with the assignment or the exercise we did in class to prep them for this paper, to understand her process. There is nothing horribly grammatically incorrect with this passage but, yet, it somehow it doesn’t read quite right. An inexperienced evaluator might read this passage and mistakenly label it as grammatically inept, be tempted to rewrite her sentences for her, and take many marks off her grade.
I resisted editing sentences, and emailed Melanie back with this response. (I’m the one in purple.)
Not perfect feedback. I should have commented on the “this” at the start of the last sentence which is missing a clarifier (you’ll note below she didn’t fix it on her own). And Melanie took this feedback, made it her own, and wrote in her final paper a very strong rendition of the method section.
The highlight on the word knowledge is just my track-changes comment box telling Melanie she made the perfect edits based on the feedback she got. And this is how students learn the discourse of a discipline. They can’t possibly get it right the first time when they have never done it before.
My instructions are really clear. There shouldn’t be any reason for them to screw this up. If you want strong papers from every student, then your instructional process better allow them to write as many drafts as it takes to get there… otherwise, learn to embrace the normal curve. You may think you have written brilliant assignment guidelines. You may think you’ve explained the process of writing your assignment dozens of times but some student will still get it wrong. Some students just need more time and much more feedback to get it to that point. They aren’t all equally skilled and you will never get 50 easy to ready wonderful papers in your mailbox. This is the worst part of our writing pedagogy in the college environment where class sizes are large and the ability to require multiple drafts is labour intensive. I don’t have help with my class of 51 (which is on the small size from typical for my program). I am their only writing support and that in itself is ineffective pedagogy but, I digress. Learning to write takes time and writing and rewriting and rewriting again with strong feedback is the only method to make that happen. If students don’t edit based on feedback it is only because they didn’t understand the feedback they got. The literature is clear about lack of understanding being a huge problem in academic writing feedback.
They don’t do the reading I ask them to do. Chances are they do the reading but they aren’t understanding it. As much as their writing skills are variable, their reading skills are also variable — perhaps even more so. Learning a new disciplinary language is not unlike learning a foreign language. They have to use the language and read the language often to become proficient. Make them read lots and they’ll pick up on the meaning of the discourse, they’ll be able to use it in their writing and their writing will get better — it will sound better to you who are already fluent in your discourse.
Students also have to be able to understand what they are reading to be able to interpret or paraphrase it. So problems with sentences that are intermittently minimally changed from the original in some students’ papers is likely a problem of not having the language to paraphrase. It’s not plagiarism; its poor reading skills (and poor writing skills. They go hand in hand).
What I know to be true is I’d rather put the work in up front before the paper is handed in for grading than leave things to chance and be disappointed by the frustrating results. Your students CAN write and they’ll write better when their instructors don’t instantly assume they are deficient.
If Doctoral programs didn’t change your thinking, they wouldn’t be doing their job would they? Here at the start of a new year, I thought I might reflect upon what has happened to my thinking on my planned thesis project to develop a measurement instrument to assess writing self-efficacy.
I finished all my required course work toward my doctoral degree last month and I’m itching for the next steps. I still have one more course to take and that is an elective I, and my committee, have agreed upon which will fine-tune my skills in measurement of psychological concepts and the statistics of assessing those measurements. I’m really looking forward to the change in pace as I have been immersed in philosophical ramblings for quite some time now and that is hard thinking. Something a little more “rule based” and structured might be nice. I say that now but I’ll be frustrated, no doubt, by the particulars in no time. In some ways, taking the course is a bit for show on my transcript so no one questions where I got my measurement training from when I go to defend. I would rather sit and read a hundred articles on my own and figure it out with textbooks and conversations. The bad thing about courses is that the structure I just admitted to craving, hems you in. I really hope I have some flexibility in terms of what I read about and how I tackle my assignments but that is usually not the case.
Since 2011 I’ve been studying writing self-efficacy. I’d like to say I fell into that area of research inspired by something profound I read or a conversation I had but it was quite happenstance and to some degree arbitrary. I had read nothing. I just knew my students lacked self-efficacy about their abilities to write the paper I assigned them. I’ve since read a lot and my thinking has shaped — it is a little less a big lump of clay… it’s taking form. I have opinions. I am developing expertise.
Before I even entered my PhD program I had conducted three studies and a questionnaire review on the topic. I knew when I was writing my please-admit-me letter that I wanted to develop a measurement instrument to measure writing self-efficacy. Nothing about that has changed. I’m going forth. But my thinking about how to approach the project has changed a lot. One of my classmates just asked me recently how it is I’ve managed to get this far and not change my topic.* (She, incidentally, has changed her study focus three times). My response was, first, that it was a bit of pragmatism…. the most direct route to graduation so I could get on with doing exciting and meaningful stuff.
My second response was that it had changed, philosophically. I wouldn’t have considered myself a theoretical thinker when I wrote that admission letter — that turns out to be absolutely not true, and slightly lacking in self-awareness. The originall vision was straight up statistical psychometrics. But, partially because I had to for a course, I developed a constructivist model of writing (for nursing) — bracketed for a reason — which I revised and sent back to a journal at their request over the holidays. But the reading for that has lead to other thoughts about writing self-efficacy, my chosen concept. I chose the concept when I had read nothing but now I have read plenty.
- Constructivism is the road to better measurement of writing self-efficacy. Writing has been through three epistemological shifts (product, process, social) that happened in fairly rapid succession and the tools that measure writing self-efficacy reflect that. The earliest tools assessed it by grammar fault and ability to construct sentences and be clear. Later ones took a more cognitive process, motivational, self-regulation, perspective. But none of the tools take a social constructivist perspective. Some of the tools have the occasional item that brushes up against constructivism but they don’t capture all the social aspects of writing bound to affect writing self-efficacy. How do I know this? I did the work and it was published in the Journal of Nursing Measurement along with an accompanying editorial.
- Writing self-efficacy does not have as strong of a relationship to grades as we would like to think. I certainly have not seen any convincing evidence in my own studies or anyone else, that it actually predicts grades…. at least not in a real-world relevant way. (In health research they would call what I am talking about clinical significance.) Part of this prediction failure is related to context. People assess their self-efficacy based on previous performance but in the face of a new teacher, a new subject, a new discipline, new rules, they may assess their own ability poorly. I for example would tell you right now that I believe I have fairly strong skills and knowledge of measurement based on the reading I’ve done and my research experience. I should ace my measurement course without difficulty. But I’m walking into a course on Friday in a new discipline (psychology), with an unknown professor, into a post-positivist world when I have been firmly living in social constructs for the past year, and I may really have no hot clue how well I’ll perform or live up to expectations. Writing self-efficacy may not be able to adequately predict grades. It may however predict the behaviours you require to get a good grade. It may also predict your willingness to keep writing. The only thing that will make your writing grades better is more writing. And are grades really a good reflection of the quality of a writing product anyway? Food for thought.
- I believe that the way in which people cognitively interact with a questionnaire and come to a decision on what score to give themselves is a complex process. And this is one part of my thesis project that has evolved dramatically. I was going to do straight up psychometrics — factor analysis, multivariate statistics — but I want to know more than that. So I will develop the questionnaire based on my constructivist theory and I will do think-aloud interviews with students to assess how they interpret the items and come to a decision on how to score themselves. Cognitive interviewing, the psychologists call it. So the project has become more qualitative. I will also use a delphi panel to help me with final edits. The question is, what comes first, the delphi or the think-aloud interviews…. Hmmm.
- I’m becoming more interdisciplinary in my thinking. Strange since I’ve been immersed in the nursing world for all my courses and my teaching but what I am doing is not just for nursing. I’m discovering quickly that my work will spread further if I quit spinning it for nursing journals. I published the questionnaire paper and it was really good. The theory paper is awesome and I called it a theory for nursing education but…… it is a theory for all disciplines. It’s almost too bad that I sent it to a nursing journal but I also had some bones to pick with nursing and their writing publications so it is OK there. I’ve published a few other studies that have had some interesting findings and I’ve had more than one moment of being ready to lose my shit with some of the overly structured rules attached to some nursing journals. I nearly pulled one submission recently because of that. I had a great journal choice in educational psychology all picked out as my target for resubmitting and then when I went to read the paper for fit, it was all nursing this, nursing that.…… and it was going to be more work to remove the nursing spin than I was willing to do. I just want the damn paper published. I fear that the psychology people doing work in writing self-efficacy won’t find my papers in order to cite them. They will be unlikely to search CINAHL for this topic — for good reason.
- My study needs to be about more than about undergraduate writing. I was going to only interview undergrads but the fact of the matter is that I do want the questionnaire to be applicable to research on grad students as well. I also don’t want the questionnaire to be only applicable to nursing education. It needs to be interdisciplinary.
I need to be thinking about writing my research proposal soon even though I am about a year away from being ready to move to that stage. I’ve written now 4-5 papers that have required me to summarize and present a review of the literature on writing self-efficacy. It is going to be tough to find yet another way to write about the same findings without self-plagairising.
I still have a lot of reading left to do. The pile in the photo is all the articles that I have collected since summer of things I want to read. Some of those articles are about construct validity in writing and assessing writing outcomes so I hope to fit them into my work this term. Hence, since I often focus this blog, and my Twitter on what I am currently focusing on, there may be a little bit of a flavour change in what I write about for the next three months as I explore measurement, and hopefully, measurement as it relates to writing.
*In some ways, I would love to change my topic. I have been introduced to all kinds of shiny things that have grabbed my passions — eg. Narrative Inquiry, for one. But I have a committee now set up to get me through a measurement project so I carry on. And, this IS the next step in my work, this tool development. The big qualitative study will come after.