The Consistency Conundrum Part II: How to build Flexibility into Writing Instruction

We learned in Part I of this blog how attempting to fix apparent lack of consistency in writing instruction and grading through rigid practices of standardization, actually had the opposite effect and seemed to increased perceptions of inconsistency. Standardization also caused students to disengage with writing and created inequitable circumstances for minority and other disadvantaged student populations. So how can we build flexibility into writing instructional practices and reduce perceptions of inconsistency?

What does flexibility benefit? 

Flexibility allows for adjustments in requirements and even expectations from student to student depending on topic choice needs or support needs. The student with a difficult to research topic who has exhausted all avenues to find that 5th required source, but is so passionate about the topic they don’t want to abandon it, will be provided with an alternative. The student who did not have a clinical experience that is a good match for the assignment will be allowed to draw an experience from another domain.  

Flexibility also takes student focus off the question of, What does my teacher want me to say exactly so I can get an A, and redirects focus to the writing act itself. 

Some contexts require more structure than others.  You still have to create an assignment that helps the students learn something critical to their discipline or the substantive area of your course, whether that be how to argue, define a threshold concepts, or how to compare and contrast theories. If one of the objectives in your course is teaching students how to be concise, then stricter rules on word count and other format issues might be necessary. Students new to university might need more structure than students who are closer to graduation.  Loosening the reins does not mean no structure at all, in most cases. But, the caveat is, if you choose structure in some part of your assignment it needs to serve student learning or be an element of scaffolding.

Disclaimer: Writing is disciplinary. My experience is nursing education so my examples necessarily fit what I’ve witnessed in nursing education. You may have to make some metacognitive leaps for how things work in your own context.

The five assignment components that are the most frequent victims of standardization

I see five main parts to assignment structure and from within those 5 key areas you pick and choose, like an à la carte menu, where the structure will be most helpful to guide students through the assignment. 

  1. The framework for the writing, thesis, or guidelines
  2. The content topic of writing.
  3. The process and/or research requirements
  4. The rubric
  5. The mechanical format

Wherever possible, choose a flexible option. Ask yourself, How much scaffolding does your particular class need? Fexibility-Inflexibility is also not an absolute dichotomy.  Often the line between flexible and inflexible is also about faculty mindset. You can ask for structure but hold a flexible mindset in how that structure is applied. You can demand the student use 5 primary studies to explore research results on a topic (this is almost always possible to achieve in any topic) but be open-minded because for certain topics, the perfect studies may not exist. Negotiate with the student who’s topics do not neatly fit your prescribed structure. 

Be honest with yourself about your ability to hold a flexible mindset. Give your class the benefits of the doubt in terms of what their capabilities are. Always, always assume they are capable of more than you think they are. Be prepared to do the work to get them to that level of capability. Be mindful. Choosing more structure over less, often benefits the teacher and their control needs more than it benefits the students. 

So, let’s talk about what might be flexible vs. inflexible options among these 5 key areas.

The framework for the writing, thesis, or guidelines

Inflexible: Providing students with the exact headings they need to use and the detail of exactly what should go under each heading. Or providing a theoretical framework that students should follow to structure their writing. There are varying degrees of structure here as well, from providing headings that are more akin to pointing out genre form (such as IMRAD — introduction, method, results, and discussion) that they may not be able to recognize on their own. IMRAD or traditional review of the literature ordering (e.g. background, source inclusion, themes from the literature) is a structure, but one with much room for creativity. But if you are pointing out specific detailed content expectations or specific questions that need to be answered, you may be giving too much structure. Most of the time, what goes under the headings will be specific to the student’s chosen topic. 

Flexible: Providing a general prompt that allows for student development of their own organizational structure for the writing that tells the story of their topic in a way that makes sense to them. Let them find their own applicable frameworks to guide their writing based on their own explorations of a topic.

The content topic of writing

Inflexible: Assigning every student the exact same content topic or providing a short list of limited topic choices. This might also include providing the same case study for every student to examine within the thesis of the paper or a limited set of case studies. It is a common practice in literature courses to give the same content topic to every student (the theme of eating in Great Expectations), but usually the flexibility comes in under variations for process approach or research requirements. 

Flexible: Allowing students to choose their own topic or develop their own case study. 

The process/and or researching requirements 

Inflexible: Providing students with the sources they must write from and limit them to those sources.  

Flexible: Allowing students to find their own sources. This can still mean they can be given guidelines for the numbers and types of sources they use, which is a little less flexible but ensures that they’ll use quality sources. Another flexibility alternative might be allowing students to discover their own process for researching the paper or gathering the information they need to write the paper, which might mean interviewing individuals or creating surveys, conducing environmental scans or field work, depending on the requirements of the assignment. 

The rubric

Inflexible: Constructing a content heavy rubric which lists specific content expectations such as, “must talk about 5 different ethical values in relation to the case study.” Or, your entire department is using the exact same rubric for every “academic writing” essay assignment. 

Flexible: Developing quality indicators of a successful essay to assess how content was addressed, the depth of critical analysis, the quality of the research done and synthesized into the writing. This is hard to describe as every essay will require rethinking how to describe the markers of high-quality writing and content presentation as applicable to that assignment’s needs. 

The mechanical format

Inflexible: Formatting demands in assignment guidelines are really managed through mindset. Requesting a specific number of paragraphs with a specific number of sentences in a particular order will cause students to focus more on structure than flow of writing. Mindset inflexibility includes grading approaches that require black and white correct implementation of a style guide format that allows for no errors to grammar or the style guide implementation; or, grading discourse errors as if they are grammar errors and rewriting student sentences. Heavily penalizing mechanical things defeats the purpose of using writing as a mechanism for learning and identity development and students in dozens of studies have talked about how they resent having their ideas ignored. And for you grammar pundits, I am in no way saying you should not be grading grammar or mechanics at all — just be sure you aren’t ignoring the other stuff.

Flexible: Providing general formatting requirements such as an overall page length or word count. Most of the time it serves no one (but the teacher) to be too demanding about sticking to those page guidelines. I always judged too short or too long papers on how well they addressed the assignment guidelines with depth and completeness or through writing about extraneous things. Page limits were just guidelines – but well-chosen page limits are based on experience and realism. Choose page limits wisely. I’ve seen assignments that requested tight page limits, students were told graders would stop reading at that page limit, and then the feedback pointed out numerous areas were students lacked depth. A student should be able to write an assignment with the appropriate degree of depth that matches your expectations within the given page limit. Style guide flexibility means expecting consistent implementation of a style guide but recognizing it is near impossible to be mistake free. Grammar flexibility means recognizing that grammar is subjective so one should avoid overly penalizing for errors that might be your personal pet peeves. Be aware of of how grammar evolves over time and how previously unacceptable practices can become acceptable (does anyone know what a split infinitive is anymore?). Allow students to have their own voice. Correcting discourse errors but don’t penalize through the grading process. 

Here is an example of a discourse edit where there is nothing grammatically wrong with the first sentence but the way it is said is just “sounds funny” for the nursing discipline:

Student Original: This paper will focus on five qualitative articles that discuss the experiences of adults with epilepsy seizure disease and how they can adjust themselves to have quality of life

Corrected at Grading: This paper will focus on five qualitative articles that discuss the experiences of adults with epileptic seizure disease and how they can achieve a sense of quality of life

It’s very difficult for me to visualize every possible assignment that exists in higher education. Much of what I wrote above is disciplinary and may fit my discipline better than yours. I hope the basics are clear here and you can see how to adjust for your own context.  If you’d like to see a specific example of mixing and matching structure and flexibility, I direct you to this blog that describes one of my own assignments. It is flexible in content topic choice, rubric style, formatting, and research/process direction (with specific direction on resource source types because at the level my students are at, they need guidance with that). It is inflexible in its framework/guidelines but on the level of providing genre-based headings to follow– my students needed lots of direction in defining what some research concepts meant, especially the concept of “practice implications,” so they could correctly address the content needed under that heading.

Like with the nursing skills example in part I of this blog where I’m sure we all believed we were being consistent, it can be fairly easy to THINK you are being flexible when your students might feel otherwise.  Be self-reflective on that as you apply this framework to evaluating your own assignments. Pay attention to what they ask for when they ask if they can make modifications to your assignment. That might be signal as to them feeling their ideas do not quite fit the mold of your assignment.

How do you mix and match flexibility and structure in your writing assignments?

The Consistency Conundrum Part I: Is Inconsistency in Writing Instruction Really a Problem?

Many many years ago when I was a new nursing instructor and I was getting assigned to the things that nursing instructors get assigned to do, I was, for a few years, plunked in the skills lab for our spring session course.

We got the same instructions every orientation from the instructors assigned to organize the course. “Every person in this room, has to teach the skill in exactly the same way.” 

And we’d all nod our heads and go off and teach it the way we knew how to do the skill. I guarantee we all THOUGHT we were teaching it the same way because, it’s a skill. It’s objective. There is only one way to do it, right? 

My way. The right way. Which is the same as your way. Of course. 

Why were we demanding skills consistency? I don’t remember any reason beyond the fact that it was students’ number one complaint on their course evaluations. What they were taught seemed to them to be very different from teacher to teacher. 

We weren’t consistent

Nearly 15 years later, we haven’t solved that problem. They still complain of inconsistency in skills instruction.

We never really got specific information about what part of the psychomotor activity wasn’t consistent from teacher to teacher, because psychomotor skills in nursing are really a set of safety and infection control principles that need to be adjusted slightly for context, but it seemed their consistency issues were as nuanced as hand position when holding the forceps that were holding the sterile dressing; or — here is a timely one — do you put your mask on before you put on your sterile gown and gloves last, or some other order? And does it actually matter? How drastically different could our demonstrations be from one teacher to another? 

Why do we worry about consistency at all?

I began to question, why then, if it was not possible for instructors to present a guise of consistency with a psychomotor skill, why did we worry about consistency at all? What prompted complaints of inconsistency? And wasn’t consistency just about different teaching styles? The inconsistency problem forced me to sit through countless overly long skills demonstrations by our course leader attempting to get us to all agree on the procedure.

What resulted was 8 instructors interrupting her, Well, at my hospital, we do it this way. 

I hold a pretty constant stance of being norm-critical, even back in those early days of my teaching career. I can remember, in an attempt to put myself out of the constant misery of the consistency meetings, speaking up and saying something like, “Perhaps, we should instead teach students to embrace the ambiguity. They need to learn to be adaptable and recognize when principles are being applied instead of obsessing over minor differences in technical performance.”  

I think in some circumstances, inconsistency can be a real problem – as I complain about it incessantly every time I submit an expense claim at my institution and the rules are different, yet again. I can understand why in a lab experiment, you have to use the exact same number and drops of chemical using the same dropper in each replication. But in the real world we are dealing with independent thinking human beings. For the most part, what we and students call inconsistency is really just a euphemistic way to say, I feel things are unfair. It is probably a genuine lack of fairness — as recent events have taught us, inequities are perpetual in higher education.

That lack of fairness, however, in my opinion, is born out of insistent adherence to rigidity and black and white thinking in a context that is nuanced with situations that are never identical from person to person. And of course, rules always favour the privileged.

And here is a key point: students don’t complain about inconsistency unless they feel it has caused them personally to lose marks or be evaluated differently in some way. 

Transferring consistency practices to writing instruction

Now let’s talk about what I am really here to talk about – consistency in writing instruction and grading. I mean, yeah, writing is not a psychomotor skill.  This set of blog posts is inspired by a Twitter thread I wrote on the topic on the weekend. Then the US election was called and the thread sort of sunk into oblivion, but I feel I had more to say on the subject. It also ties in nicely with my PhD thesis work, so, hence, I blog.  

You see, I believe the problem with psychomotor skill inconsistency wasn’t really with inability to tolerate minor differences in skill performance between instructors, it was more to do with inability to tolerate perceived differences in how they were evaluated on those skills. It was about grading. It was about feeling criticized when a teacher made a suggestion to change a hand position or do something in a different order which was not EXACTLY how they’d been taught. Those suggestions might have been about efficiency rather than evaluation, but – and this is a huge problem in clinical education – it’s really hard for a student to tell the difference between evaluation and just a suggestion when they always feel like they are being evaluated.  

They have the same complaints about writing. They could tell me about all the things in their writing lives they felt were unfair.

“I had to use her words, her way, her everything,” one student told me during the interview phase of my research. “Otherwise I got a bad grade.”  

Another student told me about getting a bad grade because they didn’t have a clinical experience that particular term that fit neatly into the assignment guideline instructions. This student asked the teacher if they could use an alternative — an experience from a previous term. The teacher refused to allow adjustments. The student, then, could only artificially address some of the required aspects of the writing assignment. No surprise, assignment comes back with a reduced grade.

These examples are of teacher behaviours that overgeneralize perceived rules that don’t take context into consideration. The first student felt like her writing voice was not valued. The second student didn’t understand why an alternative experience that was a better fit for the assignment, couldn’t be used. What did it matter what clinical rotation the experience was drawn from?

And both students could tell me stories of the opposite happening to them or other students with the same or different teachers — flexible teachers — which is what makes observing differences in instructor responses feel all the more unjust when you are the student forced to artificially fit your work into some tight boundary. There was no consistency.

What happens when we attempt to fix inconsistency with standardization?

So, what tends to happen when we attempt to respond to student complains of inconsistency in our programs?  We standardize things. We standardize things because we think its like having to use the same dropper in all replications of a chemical experiment — it is more rigourous. Sometimes we implement standardization practices on our own and sometimes it is handed down to us from administration – “everyone will use this standardized rubric for academic papers.” We give more instructions instead of less. We remove choice. We prescribe the exact details of what we expect students to say in their papers to the point that the guidelines are longer than what students are expected to hand in.  

In my doctoral research, students described a really rigid writing environment. They told me that writing in nursing was actually “pretty basic,” “fill-in-the-blank,” everything was right there in the rubric – put this, this, and this, for 5 points, no wiggle room for creativity. I’m loosely typing their exact words. All 20 students in my study described some kind of rigid context for writing in at least one nursing classroom which suggested to me that a push toward standardization is the norm rather than the exception.

And, guess what — this won’t be a shock — they still complained of inconsistency. You can read more about what my students said about the writing context specific to nursing education in my previous blog: It depends on the professor

Faculty in the two nursing programs I sampled from in my study, turned to what they thought to be an objectivist solution – standardization, very specific rubrics, identical fill-in-the blank type writing assignments – and it did not solve the problem of inconsistency.  Consistency is really another word for reliability. The lack of reliability in grading was both inter- and intra-rater. The perception of inconsistency existed from student to student whether those two students were being graded by the same teacher or different teachers. 

Herein lies the paradox: In addition to still complaining about inconsistency, some students also resented being hemmed in. They resented that they couldn’t write about the things they were interested in. It made them put less effort into writing and researching – “it will be the first sources I find…. BOOM…. That’s what I’ll use to write my paper.”  (Again, loosely quoted, except for the BOOM).

So standardization kills exploration, curiosity, creativity, innovation, independent thinking. It also trains students to expect you to deliver assignments that provide them with 100% certainty and eliminates all the ambiguity from the learning environment. Is that a worthy trade off? Especially when that standardization has essentially no effect on the problem it was designed to solve in the first place… inconsistency.  

Like using the same dropper in a chemistry experiment, standardization attempts to set up equal conditions for all students. It professes to increase fairness. But we know students aren’t all standing on equal ground. My data showed that privileged students – students with previous educational experience or who had family members who understood higher education – had no problems adjusting from teacher to teacher and their different rules, pet peeves, and biases. They had the skills and knowledge of academic life, to do that and accepted it as normative. But international students, Indigenous students, and students from first-gen and disadvantaged backgrounds felt they could never figure it out their teacher expectations. To them, the so called rigid rules were a bunch of senseless arbitrariness. 

Standardization, privileges the already privileged.  

Why do we keep thinking standardization works? 

I sense we are uncomfortable with our students’ discomfort so we are driven to eliminate it, even though learning is not supposed to be all comfort and roses. I also think standardization is implemented to serve more than just the reliability problem. It also is implemented to quell the anxieties among faculty who are not comfortable assigning and grading writing.  Maybe they feel assigning the same fill-in-the-blank style “essay” (I use that word very lightly here) on the same topic to every student will help them better compare one student to another and more fairly assign grades? I’ve also heard the argument from some faculty that they have to control the topics students choose because they don’t want students choosing a topic they don’t know much about themselves because they won’t know if the student addressed the topic correctly. 

But all of this is anecdotal. There is not much research exploring what drives faculty decisions in creating writing assignments in nursing…. Or in other disciplines for that matter. 

Needing to control the content is a sign of anxiety as well. It’s like faculty doubt their own skills to be discerning readers who are capable of recognizing clarity in text and engaging writing. Faculty, as consumers of academic material, have the ability to know when they are learning something, when ideas are presented effectively, and when something seems off or improbable in the information given. 

Anxieties like this are not uncommon among faculty in nursing programs. Most nursing instructors are not PhD prepared. Nursing has not yet reached that state of PhD prepared surpluses present in most other disciplines. Most individuals teaching undergraduate courses in nursing are Master’s prepared. They also tend to be more comfortable in the nursing practice area rather than the academic arena. We need to better understand their learning needs for writing instruction. 

Flexibility breeds perceptions of consistency 

I think we’ve been thinking about the inconsistency issue all wrong. Structuring and standardization makes complaints of inconsistency increase through providing a false sense of objectivism. Standardization isn’t really standardization at all when everyone reads the so-called standard and develops a different interpretation for defining what is a correct representation of that standard. 

Standardization then removes validity from the assignment; thus the assignment no longer elicits the learning it was designed to assess. Students are so focused on rules and APA and grades that they no longer think about content or engaging a reader. The reader is the teacher. We instead assess ability to follow rules and deliver what a teacher wants. Students in their course evaluations then question fairness and question the point of writing. The students in my research who could not figure out how to read teachers, resented being hemmed in, and they disengaged with writing.

I’ve often said, we are key contributors to student bad writing by making them write things they don’t care about. How then can flexibility help?

Next: Part II. Looking at using flexible practices to reduce inconsistency.

Also: Watch the video that outlines some of my study findings.

Navigating Undergraduate Academic Writing: Guess What? It Depends on the Professor

It happened in one of my early student interviews. The student read the item on my developing questionnaire that asked them to self-assess their ability to adapt their writing to meet the needs of the assignment. The question was supposed to be getting at switching from genre to genre. If they were writing a reflection, did they sound reflective? If they wrote an academic assignment, did they get their point across in the form of an argument and address a specific question? But her response was, “I’m meeting the needs of the professor, not necessarily meeting the needs of the assignment.”

And it kept happening over and over – sometimes with the same question sometimes with other questions – the students in my sample talked about needing to figure out the teacher. It wasn’t just a handful of the students in the sample. It was 100% of the students in my sample. They pondered issues such as: What were her preferences? What biases does she have? Is she an easy or hard grader? How approachable is she? How open is she to re-interpreting assignment guidelines with uncertain students? How well does this teacher actually understand academic writing themselves?

There is a novice to expert continuum with guiding writing as there is a novice to expert continuum with becoming a writer. Students can tell when faculty are not confident in their own skills to assign and evaluate writing – and this state is not uncommon in undergraduate nursing which can be taught by faculty who aren’t required to write and publish themselves. Novice instructors are far more likely to hold tight reigns on their assignments and rubrics and be overly focused on surface textual features.

Navigating the writing context is like a journey down the yellow brick road in search of the great and powerful Oz (the teacher) who can solve all their academic writing needs. When they get to know Oz, they sometimes find Oz is not the all-powerful being that they’ve hoped to find. Oz is flawed and fallible, but Oz does have the power to help students recognize that the true power of being a good writer was within them all along.

Students had various strategies for success in this mission of “figuring out” the teacher such as: paying attention to a teacher’s overt opinions on a subject and matching them; noticing what words teachers like to use and slipping them into their own writing;  talking to their classmates on how they saw the assignment; talking to classmates who had already been through the class to see how they perceived the assignment and the teacher; testing out ideas about topics with instructors and peers; judging their relationship with the teacher to see if she can “take it.”

Other students seemed to never be able to figure out teachers no matter what they did. Or they felt they could learn to read the teacher if they ever got the opportunity to write for them more than once in a term — which rarely happened.  Their biggest faux pas in this area seemed to be that many of these students would never actually approach a teacher to ask questions, or they felt that when they did, their questions were misunderstood or brushed aside. Often these students were the ones that you would most want to come and speak to you – immigrant students, students where they learned English at an older age such as when a teen or an adult, and, in nursing, it was also often male students.  These are our students who perhaps struggle to feel like they belong because they don’t fit the stereotype of who a nurse is – passive, polite, white females. And for those who may be thinking, It isn’t like that anymore — implicitly these traits in nursing are still the most highly rewarded and have an easier journey navigating the nursing world.

The opinionated students don’t fit in well either as they often insist on maintaining their own opinion and making things their own. They are the ones that twist assignment criteria to ensure they can say what they want to say. Sometimes these behaviours are highly rewarded, but other times it means they fail the assignment.

It depends on the professor.

What concerns me most is what this means for writing as a pedagogy. If the strongest students are graded highly because they are able to spit back to the teacher exactly what they want to hear, if the writing that is most highly rewarded is the writing that fits into a nice little box where the number of checkmarks on a rubric is the only indicator of learning and quality, we have a problem. It means higher education is not about independent thinking. It’s not about recognizing where boundaries can be stretched and alternative perspectives are valued.

The undergraduate students in my sample spoke about a very problematic culture of writing in higher education. I will speak broadly to this because while I think nursing has some work to do, I don’t think some of the problems I see in the reports I heard from nursing students specifically are exclusive to nursing contexts. Students spoke about “bullet-point” assignments, “fill-in-the-blank” style assignment guidelines. A few students – and this especially came from students who had experience as students in other disciplines such as psychology, English, or gender studies – recognized that the writing was different in nursing.  It was more “simple.”  It was certainly often inflexible. You must “stay within script”. You can be creative but only “within the dimensions they want us to be.” There are boundaries. Being creative, depending on the professor, could mean losing 10% of your grade. There are far too many assignments where there isn’t enough choice and students are forced to write about topics they do not care about. For those students, in those moments, writing becomes a functional and robotic task.

Why do we not have enough faith in our undergraduates to be able to give them free reign to go where their ideas and passions take them?

Are we afraid that we can’t fairly grade if our 60 students aren’t handing in 60 cookie cutter assignments all answering the exact same question using the exact same literature? Who wants to grade those? We lament grading because of the things we do to ourselves in assignment guidelines. I’m asleep already just thinking about it.

Are we afraid if we don’t know the topic to the same degree an expert would know the topic that we aren’t capable of accurately assessing writing?  I don’t know about that – I know when someone has written something in a way that is accessible to me and when they’ve caught my attention and I learned something. Without knowing much about the topic, I am also capable of being sceptical when the accuracy seems “off” or there seems there is another side of the story that isn’t being presented. I am an astute reader. I assume all faculty are astute readers too.

Do we tighten our rubrics into minute details because then we are able to be more reliable in our grading across students or between raters?  But what are we sacrificing in terms of assignment validity in the process? Are we still able to capture the objectives we are hoping our students leave our classroom with at the end of the term? Seriously, just feed them a multiple-choice test if you want strict criteria and one correct answer.

I’m getting a little ranty. I can feel it.  But this is a hill I am willing to die on.  If you are not giving writing assignments that students can get excited about – and I mean every student – your students are learning you, not the threshold concepts of your subject matter. Students are equating their success at writing with their ability to be successful in navigating the writing context, teacher preference, and their levels of writing self-efficacy are impacted as a result. Papers are not about one correct answer. Writing is not about the text produced, I mean, yeah, you want it to be readable and not “messy” – students get that.  As one of my student participants said, “It almost becomes part of your identity. Like you care more about that subject when you go to other places. And then you’re also looking into the literature, so what do other people know? And you’re sort of building yourself and your knowledge base.”  A student walking away from your course should feel that about every assignment.

This little rant is courtesy of a preliminary analysis emerging from a secondary analysis of Congitive Interviews conducted with the primary objective of editing the developing Situated Academic Writing Self-Efficacy Scale. 

Writing Self-Efficacy Instrument Validation

Update:  March 24 — I think I have enough! Thanks so much everyone for your enthusiastic support.
Hello Twitter Followers and Blog Followers,
I am seeking experts to help me review, revise and validate,  a newly developed writing self-efficacy instrument. My instrument takes a different approach to writing self-efficacy.  Current instruments tend to assess textual surface abilities and writing process abilities. I intent to also consider the role of discipline and writing context on writing self-efficacy.
I am in the process of putting together the final members of a Delphi panel to assess the fit of 41 pre-developed items to the concept of writing self-efficacy and several theoretical socially constructed domains of writing (identity, creativity, relationality, emotions, and context). I hope to be able to send out the survey by the end of next week.
My inclusion criteria for this panel are:
1. Nursing scholars interested in writing in the nursing discipline (as I am studying writing from within the discipline of nursing)
2. Writing scholars (which is broadly defined).
I have several scholars from Canada, the US and Australia who have tentatively agreed to receive my online survey related to validating the newly developed instrument, however I desire a more widely international panel and would love to also include scholars from Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East as is possible.  However, if you are from Canada, US, or Australia and are keen to participate, I will not turn you away. You do not need to be an established scholar as masters and doctoral students studying writing scholarship would also qualify.
If you or anyone you know may be interested in participating on this expert panel, please feel free to reply to this blog, to the corresponding Twitter post, or email me at academicswrite @ gmail .com (close the spaces).
In terms of time commitment, there will be several rounds of surveys which will help with making decisions about retaining, eliminating and editing the items as they are currently written. As items are approved for inclusion, they will be eliminated from future rounds. I expect a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 4 rounds. The first round will take the longest (30-60) minutes. The subsequent rounds should take less time.
Please let me know if you have any questions and feel free to pass on this request to other scholars who might be interested.
Kim M. Mitchell  RN MN
Doctoral Candidate
University of Manitoba

Complex Revision

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:

  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. “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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.

Student Peer Review Process? Here’s My Version

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

Qualitative Paper Assignment

In the document you will find:

  1. My detailed assignment guidelines for the qualitative synthesis paper.
  2. A description of the peer review process.
  3. My content rubric for the paper (out of 33)
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. I provide them with an article identification guide to help them distinguish qualitative, quantitative, and discussion papers. Article Type Identification Guide
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. Now students will hand in a preliminary paper and share that preliminary paper with a pre-selected classmate.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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:
    1. Content of paper 33/
    2. APA 3/
    3. Participating in synthesis class and making progress 3/
    4. Article checks 1/
    5. 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.

Constructing Writing Practices: A writing model for all disciplines

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.

Screen Shot 2018-07-04 at 1.03.51 PMconstructing-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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. Screen Shot 2018-07-04 at 12.49.51 PMI 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. IMG_7725My 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.

fullsizeoutput_1b06NSFW — 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 or contact me on twitter @academicswrite


Inspired by Trauma: The Things our Students Write About . . . if you let them

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.

The present:

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.

The past:

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.

The anticipated:

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.

Six Myths of Academic Writing that must Disappear from our Conversations

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:


Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 7.55.06 PM

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.)

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 7.55.31 PM

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.

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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.


The Value of Valuing Writing Self-Efficacy: Changing thinking

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.