Still Privileged: A Story about Penguins and being a First Generation University Grad

This is me, circa 1980, grade 3. Bad perm. Buck teeth — about 8 years later my parents would renege and finally get me braces — and boys would eventually think I was cute — and then ultimately decide I was too smart for them (but that’s another story).

I’m sitting beside my school science fair project. I sorta remember putting this together. I remember better that a girl named Karen,  who was in grade 4, wanted to be my partner for the science fair. She wanted us to do a project on batteries.  I didn’t know why Karen wanted to be my partner. I don’t remember being friends with her. Besides, I wanted nothing to do with a project on batteries. I wanted to do a project on penguins. And I didn’t want to work with Karen — on some level I knew, even though I was a year younger, I was a lot smarter than Karen.

But I guess I got books from the library and my dad probably let me cut up a national geographic or maybe it was an OWL Magazine or Chickadee. I tore up construction paper to make a penguin nest and I made a penguin out of styrofoam balls and fabric. In large awkward grade-3 printing, in pencil (we weren’t allowed to use pen till grade 4… that I remember), I wrote out some information on penguins and glued it to the old cardboard box I used as a backdrop. I probably plagiarized what I wrote from the books. I was in grade 3.

I brought my project to the school gym the day of the fair. I was proud of what I had done. Then I walked around and looked at my classmates projects. My friend Lisa — her parents were both teachers (her Dad was a Chemistry teacher) — did a project on acid rain. Acid rain was a hot topic when I was in elementary school. No one talks much about acid rain anymore.  Lisa’s project was on a nice cardboard backdrop, covered in coloured paper one of her parents likely scarfed from the school they worked at. Her notes were typed on white paper. Her headings were stencilled on coloured construction paper and neatly cut out. And I remember feeling deflated because her project was much nicer than mine. (And remembering Lisa, she likely went out of her way to make sure she told me how much nicer her project was than mine).

No one helped me with my science project. My mom probably helped me make the little black jacket on my crafty penguin. She probably found me the box that became my back drop. But no one helped me with the writing. Maybe a librarian helped me find the books in the library but I did the reading and I picked what to write out. I’m not 100% sure this is how I put my project together but given I can’t remember anyone in my house helping me with homework at any point in my school years, this is probably how the project happened.

I am a first generation university grad. Third generation Canadian. My parents are baby boomers. They may actually be pre-baby boomer because my dad was born in 1936 and my mom in 1944. My mom never went to school past grade 11. She did vocational training as a secretary and bookkeeper in high school and then went out in the workforce to find a husband. My Dad went to a private school until about grade 10 and then 2 years at a “college” for business training. I don’t really understand how school worked back then but to me that’s not a university degree. He ended up a salesman. He worked for Olevetti-Underwood for a part of his early career. That’s where he met my mom.  When they got married, my mom had to quit work. In 1966 spouses were not allowed to work at the same place. My mom’s parting gift was the typewriter at the top of my blog page and twitter page.

My Dad travelled a lot when I was a kid and he was a traditional 70s Dad. He didn’t do much in the way of parenting except glare at me with wide eyes if I misbehaved. My Mom told me many times that she was not smart. That she’d almost failed history in school — but she could do math in her head faster than anyone I ever knew. And these two people created me. Overachiever. Perpetual book worm. Writer wanna-be. Secretly hypochondriac. A+ student. I probably had an anxiety disorder even then. I was smart in school too but I wasn’t really noticed — not the way the Lisa’s and their typed assignments and stencilled letters got noticed. They did “gifted” testing of select students when I was in about grade 5 and I didn’t get picked to be tested. I was so upset I came home crying and my Mom did something rare (and it was the only time I ever remember her questioning a school action, EVER) — she marched to the school and asked why? They tested me the next week but I don’t know what happened with it. I didn’t get selected for the “gifted” class.

Lisa got selected though. I’m not sure how that happened either. Fast forward a few years in the future (high school) and Lisa is still a pretty good student but I’m kicking her ass in pretty much everything academically. I’m kicking almost everyone’s ass. I still didn’t think I was smart. I assumed it was just that I knew how to work the system.  I continued to think this way through 2 undergraduate degrees, a university gold medal, and a masters through which I published 6 peer reviewed articles. It wasn’t until I started teaching college students and grading their assignments that I realized… whoa…. not every student is like me.

I’m a first generation university grad but  but I have one cousin on my Mom’s side who got an Engineering degree. He worked every summer and paid for it himself. He inspired me. I wanted to do the same. My brother also got an Engineering degree.

I, the middle of the two, got an Arts degree in English Literature and history. I wanted to be a writer. I started writing a journal at 13 and I maintained it pretty steadily till I was in my early 20s. I kept it a secret. My mother would poke her head in my bedroom and make comments like, “What are you doing? Writing your memoirs?” I don’t know what it was but there was a tone when she said it. That tone made me feel strange and misunderstood. It made my stomach twist and it made me not want to talk about my writing. Not to her. Not to anyone.

Then came a nursing degree. Then the masters. Now a PhD. I don’t talk about it much in my family. They don’t really understand. They are proud. If I got an A as a kid they wanted to know why it wasn’t an A+. I was lucky to have non academic parents but live in a house where education was considered important and worthy of working hard at.  I’m first generation but I’m am still privileged. We were not a low income family. Solid middle class. My ex-husband would tell you I was spoiled. I thought it was normal. I grew up in a 1000 square foot house that my parents still live in. We had piles of presents at Christmas. We had a cottage a 2 hour drive away — my Dad bought a lot for $400 in 1965 and they built a tiny rickety cottage on it. That purchase probably delayed my parents getting married. It probably delayed me being born. Maybe it wouldn’t have been me born if they hadn’t bought that cottage lot.

I am a first generation university grad but I have made choices educationally that are below my abilities. I turned down admission to Ryerson College (not yet a University at the time) for journalism. Why? Scared, mostly; scared of leaving home.  I joked I should have applied to Harvard. I had the grades. I didn’t apply. Thought about applying to physiotherapy out of high school but didn’t because it was extremely competitive. Didn’t think I’d make the cut. I should have gone into medicine. Chose nursing instead. I no longer think of this as the lesser choice but at the time I did. I didn’t even know what nurses did. I’ve had many opportunities since to realize I probably should have been a lawyer — didn’t think I was capable of that in the decision making phase. I don’t know if I made these choices because I was first generation or if it was because I was female and there were subconscious societal factors at work. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

I’ve done most, if not all of my studying in isolation. It wasn’t just the penguin project. I still prefer to work alone. Take another look at that picture. I’m wearing a yellow button and a red ribbon.  I won first place at that science fair. Grade 3. Buck teeth. Bad perm. My teacher at the time, I remember, made some remark about me winning.  Something like, the judges must have thought you were cute. (If I had known what being a total ass meant when I was in grade 3… that’s what I would have called him). It made me feel bad. My first experience with imposter syndrome. I didn’t understand why I had won over typed pages and coloured stencils. My project clearly wasn’t better than the other kids.

Fast forward about 36 years and I get it. I was probably the only kid in that entire gym who delivered a project that no parent had laid a hand on. It was a terrible project compared to typed pages and coloured stencils and choosing acid rain as a topic. But the judges knew it was all me and that made it an amazing project.

Still working toward greatness.

This Writer’s Identity

I started writing this post earlier this week but got that sinking feeling in my stomach of boring myself, so I abandoned. It was that same feeling you get when someone not academic, like an old aunt or some random dude on a bus, asks you what you are studying in school and it requires too much thinking to make it digestible to outsiders so you make it really brief and boring so that they won’t ask any more questions. I didn’t start this blog to regurgitate my research topic and all the extensions of it … I started it to tell the stories about my research and writing that can’t go into academic papers.

Like the fact that this week I was doing statistical things. I’ve been learning SPSS, mostly on my own but also with the help of this book. I really need to take another proper stats class because the last time I took stats was in 2001. I kind of had to run my results in a hurry because I was writing an abstract for a conference. My results for my long term follow-up of writing self-efficacy across the nursing curriculum are really cool, if perhaps not really surprising. For example, just less than half of my sample fell out of synch from their entrance cohort and the comparison between the students who fell behind and the students who stayed on pace is validating for our recent decision-making about entrance requirements and ideas I’ve had for writing interventions with our students. The out of synch students have lower grades in general (writing, GPA, and clinical), higher anxiety and lower writing self-efficacy. It’s also suggesting that my second year paper I have the students write does a kick-ass job of being predictive of student performance and clinical ability — or at the very least, I make a very valid rubric.  I still have to figure out the “so what” of these findings.

The other thing going on in my school life parallel to that is that I am taking a philosophy of nursing science course. The topic of the week was theoretical integration or bridging the gap between the “received view” and and more modern philosophical thinking — maybe post positivism and mixed methods or qualitative and its various identities. I’ve been teaching research methods to undergrads for over 10 years and the textbook I use simplifies the post positivist paradigm so much that I always thought post positivism WAS mixed methods. Which it is totally not — or at least not entirely.

So a lot of what I had to read this week was about positivism and where it came from and the arguments against it, which are loud and strong but somehow it still survives as the dominant “received” view. I haven’t liked everything we have discussed in philosophy of nursing science. I hated our readings on defining health from different paradigms, for example. I said in class this week, after others said that they found the readings really challenging (I didn’t find them hard at all. I found them the easiest yet), “that all the cells in my brain breathe a collective sigh of relief when the readings are describing things in positivist, terms.” It such a comfort zone for me.  So comfortable in fact, I took a creative writing course one year and when forced to write some poetry, I managed to slip in the phrase, “skewed to the left.” I had to. I’m not a poet. But I do remember the class commenting on the oddness, but yet effectiveness, of the phrase — when they were told what it meant.

And this is where I finally get to my point about identity. Because positivism while comfortable, isn’t what I believe in, in terms of science. I’m not in the least suggesting that all that statistic-ing I’ve been doing this week is positivist. There is too much self-report in my work to be making that claim. I can feel comfortable with statistical thinking and still recognize its tremendous limitations. I’ve come to understand that social construction is my dominant view — especially feminism. Writing, gender, identity, pedagogy, and academia are all socially constructed. I want to sit down with each of these students and ask them why?  What makes writing assignments make you feel like it is an attack on your being? An attack on your sense of self and self-worth?

Of course IRL, I have these conversations every day with students. For the most part, they validate that what I am trying to do with my writing assignment, works. They walk away from my course knowing more, and learning more, about research than they do from reading the textbook. But the ones that really despise writing, of course, likely lie to me and avoid me. But I am convinced, that writing is the best way of knowing out there for student learning and theoretical integration with practice. (And that is the topic of my next paper).

The paper I wrote for my philosophy of nursing science course was on academic voice. And knowing my comfort zone is positivist, logical, and mathematical it may or may not surprise you that my argument about academic voice, which is not unlike the argument that every academic who takes the time to write about academic voice makes*, is that it needs to be better infused with the writer’s identity. I did something in this paper that I have never done in my entire academic life — I got autobiographical. It was a risk because the professor of this course is my advisor. I’ve already learned that she does not appreciate some of my little flair-ups of less-than-academic words (whatever that means) in some of the papers I’ve written — e.g.  the idea that we need to better “sell” the importance of writing to our students; that writers “juggle” many processes when they write; that some students fall out of “synch” from their cohort. She has considered all these phrases slang or colloquialisms.  I acquiesced and edited “sell” and “synch”, the latter of which I still think is now an accepted variant; note that I rebelliously used it in paragraph two, above. Synchrony is such a pretentious word. “Juggle” I would not cave on — there is nothing colloquial about this phrase; it is vivid and pulls a picture into the mind of the mental exercises writers experience when they write.

*(Because, lets face it, if you hold the received view on writing, you probably aren’t writing articles to try and sell the need to continue on with the objective, boring, colourless, turgid, disembodied voice that is positivist academic writing. There is no need to defend the dominant perspective. I can’t take credit for this statement. I read it somewhere. Or many somewheres.)

But my autobiographical use was for argument building. I was trying to illustrate that identity in writing is sometimes critical for understanding the meaning behind the text. Words may not be innocent but they are, for certain, often inadequate especially when it comes to making meaning. I had been using examples of how infusion of identity works when used strategically — see for example Potgieter and Smit (2009), or Fleischman (1999) and (1998). I have recently read two amazing papers where academic writers have struggled with voice and identity based on the nature of the epistemology of their work (see Leggatt-Cook, 2010; and Ward et al., 2015). There are times I am reading an academic’s work and my mind and being are begging to know who they are and what drives them (again, see the two Fleischman articles linked above). So at what I felt was a strategic and appropriate juncture in the paper, I shared that I was a woman and I had written a novel and that I believed all writing was creative writing.  And… that sometimes I don’t feel I have an identity unless I am writing. We’ll see if she “buys” that this paragraph enhances the paper. It is quiet possible we may not agree — but that’s OK. She told us she didn’t have to agree with us. We just had to have a sound argument.

So while my brain cells are in their comfort zone when I can use logic and statistics, my writing self is not in her comfort zone unless I can show myself in what I write. And so I embrace my Cartesian duality. I hope to spend the next five years honing it and flaunting it.

And just to really humiliate (and maybe humanize) myself, here is the poem I wrote in 2006 (at a really f&%ked up time in my life), where I used the phrase “skewed to the left.” (Looking at it now, almost exactly 10 years later — it is dated October 20 — for the first time … it is actually not terrible)

Two Dimensional

I wish the camera had caught the moment when

I glanced up and saw you watching

with your eyes flashing in a lens flare and

your smile back-lit with infatuation

That it could have captioned my heart

faltering and my voice cropping

a syllable in a lilt only I was aware of


But two dimensions flatten

events, unfocused and tinted

perspective appears as lint on a lens

mood a sepia shadow over my face

Memory imprints faulty connections

retelling the story not from the centre

but rather skewed to the left


Will it matter in five years

will I remember your presence

both awkward and comforting

or will dullness and discolouration transform it

me on display at that moment when

I was someone else

before I looked up and found you

How Twitter Changed My Life

I have a confession to make.  I hated twitter. I joined for the first time in 2010 (although I thought it was earlier than that) and for a while, I gave it the good old college (pun intended) try to interact  and make connections. I was also working on self-publishing this little teen novel I wrote but I couldn’t stomach the, “look at me! look at me!” required for self-promotion. The vast majority of people I followed (and who follow me) on the account that bears my real name, were people I was already friends with on Facebook, primarily my cycling peeps, or I followed professional cyclists none of whom followed me back and most of whom didn’t say anything very interesting.  We should not hold it against me that the first person I followed on Twitter was Lance Armstrong — who, by the way, people still voraciously bully or defend with verisimilitude.

My problem with Twitter was its narcissistic and attention seeking ways.  I preferred the safety of Facebook where at least I had a good idea of who my audience was.  I often said, “I don’t get Twitter,” because I didn’t see the point of interacting with strangers.  Being often verbose and in love with my own words, I also didn’t see the point of limiting myself to 140 characters either.

My introduction to Academic Twitter came innocuously one day winter of 2016 when a Facebook friend shared a post by a page called, Shit Academics Say. I scrolled through posts and it was like looking at my own life.  It warmed my geeky soul. SAS introduced me to other academic tweeters through posts of media articles about them. SAS’s curator, I discovered when he posted his CV one day, turned out to be someone from my hometown, who like me, carries three degrees from the same local institution but ultimately hit it big at one of the top universities in Canada, tenured and everything. I confess. I am a bit of a fan-girl.

(There you go. He is academic twitter famous enough. Now many of you can figure out where I live, where I go to school, and then likely, given I don’t work at the institution where I go to school, where I work can be teased out as well).

I had already applied to the PhD program (will be the 4th degree from same university for me) and had been having some interesting scenarios emerge at work related to student writing, grading, and academic assignment creation. I had a few things I needed to say, and wanted to share with like-minded folk, in perhaps a less politically correct way than my employer (and perhaps my institution of study, and my advisor who I respect beyond measure) would prefer. I have a rather bitter, sarcastic sense of humour. But I love to write.  So I started this blog in the middle of the summer. But the blog needed a place to be shared and it wasn’t going to be on my Facebook page or on the Twitter account that had my real name attached to it.

So I created the @AcademicsWrite account — not my first choice of name but it was what was available. I followed the academics I had started following on my personal account and then just watched the feed for other ideas and did some searches of hashtags and other key words, nothing different than others do. And between those tricks and being brave enough to occasionally interact, I managed to get a few followers. Now, as of today I have 140 followers (in 2 months on twitter, while using zero of my in person contacts to get started), only 2 of which are people I know IRL: my significant other, and one colleague — who I am not sure if she realizes it is me or not — but I think, at the very least, she suspects it is me. She was one of my first five followers, and I assume that happened through some logarithmic glitch that connected my two accounts, she found out about it by email, the same way my significant other got alerted I had created this account. Weird.

I had to post stuff too — beyond these occasional blog posts. I am better with comebacks than I am with being spontaneously funny. I am rather abstractly observant about absurdity. I like smart people. Especially smart funny people. I’m trying to be a-political but I enjoy watching the political discussion going on right now. I love media articles and how they influence the world.  I should have been a psychologist or a sociologist, but nursing is actually a pretty good back door into both worlds. I wanted this twitter account to be about more than just academic writing. Academic writing just happens to be what I teach and what I research, but it isn’t who I am. There was no way I would be able to connect to this community without injecting a little bit of my real self into the mix. I am female, but that isn’t why I am anonymous (although it may be helpful to be female and anonymous on Twitter).

I won’t be anonymous forever.  It may be a while before I display my name (although I have already said, once or twice, if you ask under appropriate circumstances and we’ve been communicating a bit, I’ll tell you who I am) but I have this publication coming out in spring 2017 and that will likely be my coming out party. I’m no one famous. It will probably, for the most part, be a “who cares” moment. There will be no, gasps of disbelief. I’m just your regular run-of-the-mill college instructor who is a very small fish in this pool of academics.

The hashtag #howtwitterchangedmylife prompted me to write this shortish blog. If you asked me 6 months ago if Twitter would ever have a place in my life, I would have made some snide remark. What I tweeted about Twitter changing my life was:


And it is true. I have doctoral seminars to attend once a month and the topics are things intended to introduce us to the grand world of The Academy: Recruitment and retention of faculty, jobs outside academia, publication issues, mental health of academics — things I see discussed every single day on Twitter.

My goal was to write a blog a week. I’m going to continue to attempt to do that but I’m finding myself very busy with PhD coursework. I’m just as obsessive about writing a post like this as I am about writing an academic paper so these blogs take time and my time is limited right now.  I feel like I am reading 300 pages a week. Today I am going to sit down and begin to plan out the writing of my first PhD assignment, which excites and terrifies me, it is only 12 pages. I can write 1100 words about nothing (as this particular blog post demonstrates) so 3000 words about something is not long enough.

Idea Generation: A Philosophical Conundrum

I’m watching my students wrestle with their ideas for their academic paper right now. It is always a fascinating process. I once did an informal survey about how often their topics changed before they actually wrote and submitted their assignments.  Very few people wrote on the first topic they picked. A larger number (maybe a quarter of the class) wrote on their second topic choice and an even larger proportion hit the jackpot on their third topic. A handful of students had filtered through 4 or more topic possibilities before finally settling on one they could work with.  Sometimes topics were abandoned because an appropriate media source couldn’t be located. This outcome happened for students who were doing exactly what I suggested they don’t do — self-identifying a topic and then retrospectively searching for a media source that stated their thinking. The assignment always works better if you let the media feed you the topic and you come across it organically, through a social media feed, or flipping through the newspaper Saturday morning. (Does anyone read paper news anymore?) More often, it was in the literature search phase where topics were discarded. Search terms weren’t working to find studies, or there weren’t enough appropriate studies to find 5 primary sources on their topic.

I find that period of time where you need to settle on an idea and focus to write about to be the most anxiety provoking phase of academic writing.  What if I never get a handle on how to write this paper? I have at least one student a term who emails me shortly before, or just after the due date, when it is waaaay too late, relating this nightmare to me. It is my personal nightmare. It keeps me awake at night when I am playing the student role.

I’m struggling with the same process right now. I have a philosophy of nursing science paper to write in the next couple of weeks. There are two of them due for the term and I instantly had a better idea as to how to handle the second paper, than the first.  My students have three pages worth of assignment guidelines to help them structure and get a handle on what they need to write about. My assignment guidelines are one sentence: Identify a concept in your research area and then critically discuss that concept from two theoretical perspectives.

My research area is writing self-efficacy. The concepts inherent within are numerous.  My gut told me to look at writing voice. My advisor (who is also the course instructor) thought that was interesting. Other possibles that came up included pinning down writing self-efficacy itself, but I wrote another paper which helped with that process already. Authorial identity (which is linked to voice) also came up as a possibility. Self-regulation in writing also seemed workable because while most scholars think self-regulation is a part of self-efficacy (as does the chief self-efficacy scholar, Bandura), there are some who believe it is a separate concept.

The bigger problem turned out to be the theoretical perspectives. I finished my Masters in 2002, and it was two years before that since I last took a theories course. I thought about looking at self-efficacy or self-regulation from the perspectives of Bandura, and the oft-cited theory of writing by Flower and Hayes. But I had my doubts that they were different theoretical perspectives.  A quick flip through my article stacks told me my assumptions were correct. They are both social cognitive theories and thereby constructivist in thinking — where the learner constructs an understanding of knowledge through experience and reflection. Even if Hayes himself has written that he’s “a psychologist and not a sociologist or cultural historian,” the social aspect is present in both the original model and the revised version.  Scratch that idea.

Other theories interested me including Vygotsky (nope, social cognitive), and situated learning. Nope, in situated learning, learning takes place through social relationships situated within a specific environmental context…. sounds pretty social cognitive/constructivist to me.

I then stumbled upon behaviourism. While constructivists believe that internal thinking is important to understanding the world, behaviourists believe in stimulus-response and that external encounters influence behaviour (e.g. If your phone beeps, you’re going to pick it up and look even if you are writing).  Self-regulation can be assessed through behaviour as much as through internal reflection.  It could work!

But I hated it.  It wasn’t exciting. And the topic wasn’t clicking for me. And as a true attest to the power of Bandura (and others) and his work, virtually no one discusses self-regulation from a behaviourist perspective.  My gut told me that my head was never going to be able to grasp this paper or this concept from that perspective.  I went home and put my feet up but still had that feeling of having an empty hole in my gut. That feeling always tells me I’m not done searching.

But something told me to return to this Ryan et al. paper (mentioned in this blog) on voice in academic writing. Academic writing and its objectified voice was developed out of the positivist tradition. But movements abound everywhere to eliminate obtuse writing. Suddenly the hole in my gut was gone. And I was excited.

What is the opposing view? The movement to make academic writing more accessible must come from some philosophical standpoint. Maybe it is interpretivism? Maybe it is constructivist? Post-positivist? Or maybe it is pragmatic — the value in it is found in the success of its implementation. I haven’t completely got a handle on that yet and I have a lot to learn about these epistemological standpoints but if you have any thoughts on the matter or any sources that might help me better grasp the philosophical underpinnings of this topic, let me know.


On Using the Media to Teach Research Writing and Critical Analysis

When I first started teaching research methods, I would have told you that having an academic writing assignment in my course was a bad fit. The only writing assignments that I had ever heard of being done were an article critique or a research proposal.  A research proposal was above an undergraduate level and an article critique got them to think about the strengths and weaknesses of research but only apply that knowledge to one isolated study.

However when our program was redesigned, my research methods course was updated to  include teaching the concept of scholarship in nursing. While I wasn’t looking to steer undergraduates toward publication by asking them to write, I did want to get them deeper into the scholarship of research. I had been having them analyze portions of research articles since I began teaching the course, but wanted to push it a step further and have them begin to critically analyze a small body of research on the same topic.  Imagine that! I wanted them to actually read research in a research course.

The First Assignment Plan

My first academic writing assignment plan asked them to find 5 primary studies on a researchable topic of their choice. I told them it was preferable if they chose 5 qualitative or 5 quantitative studies and not try and mix and match the paradigms, although I would make exceptions depending on topic. Hint: it really only works if their quantitative studies are purely descriptive. Undergraduates trying to compare the results of 4 randomized trials and a qualitative study is disastrous… one of these thing is not like the other.  They had to provide a background, nursing significance and explain the gap in knowledge on their topic as indicated by their 5 studies (and other sources as required). A compare and contrast of the findings of the 5 studies and a discussion of study limitations as indicated by the authors of those studies, was the bulk of the 5-7 page limit requirement. Their conclusion to their paper was the purpose statement for a future “hypothetical” study.

What followed, and ultimately what got me to modify the assignment, were 4 appendixes describing portions of a possible future study. Replicating a study in their pile was allowed but “difficulty points” (ultimately meaning I was more forgiving if they made mistakes) were awarded to students who developed the next steps in the body of the work, corrected the flaws in the studies in their pile, or developed a new intervention. I told them they had unlimited funds which resulted in more than a few brand new exercise facilities built.  The appendixes were to describe their study method (A), their sample (B), procedures for ethical protection of their participants (C), and to find and discuss the characteristics of one questionnaire  to measure a one variable, if their study was quantitative, or develop 4 open ended research questions if qualitative (D).

What happened was amazing. The students developed a great understanding of the methodologies they were writing about and using for their hypothetical study design. But the flaws were also huge. The ethics section became repetitive from student to student and the only students who did well on the questionnaire section were the ones who came to see me about their paper and we sat together to identify its characteristics and find reliability and validity information.

And there was one other, not insignificant problem — the assignment was labour intensive to grade. Each paper was 10-15 pages long including the appendixes.

Modifying the Plan: Research Versus the Internet

The decision to modify the paper was as a result of reading this Deitering and Gronemyer (2011) article describing the importance of getting students involved in the public discussion about research. Their arguments about why students should be examining more than scholarly work were compelling and I made them discipline specific by recognizing the following: Students have a need to understand the literature that influences public debate and the opinions of their patients. They are also in need of understanding the difference between a published study and a blog post/newspaper article related to the published study and be able to explain why the former is a more reliable source of evidence.

Let me state the obvious — obvious to us academic-types anyhow — the media gets health information wrong much of the time.  Media articles are rarely written by knowledgeable health care professionals or researchers and are instead written by journalists with no medical training who may never read the full research study but produces an article for their publication based off a press release which may give an incomplete picture. For example, this popular media story on wine drinking and its equivalence to an hour worth of exercise was conducted on rats who drank the human equivalence of 100 bottles of wine to show the effects the media article claimed.  The media report was so much fun it was emailed among my colleagues and we giggled about it wishing it were true (and later that term, a student tackled this topic for my scholarly paper assignment). Sigh… back to the treadmill.

I didn’t want to lose what I had observed to be the best part of the assignment — sending students off to search for 5 primary studies on the same research topic. While settling on 5 as the appropriate number of studies to locate was somewhat of a guess, it proved to be exactly the right number to be challenging for undergraduates, yet possible for most every topic. Some students were able to find more than 5 and have the flexibility to exclude an article that didn’t fit well with the others. Other students struggled to find that 5th article and developed some clever research skills as a result.  The requirement that they show me their 5 primary studies to ensure they were using the correct sources got me face to face with every student. I heard their stories of why the topic interested them. We had conversations on making the articles fit together for easier critical analysis. To this day it surprises me when grading the papers, how much I’ve learned about each student simply from these 5 minute conversations.

While the option to choose their topic based on the inspiration from a media, blog or other internet source remains the most popular option, two other routes to inspiration have also been observed as successful adaptations. Students can also describe a clinical experience they had where the practice they observed differed in some way from the practice they were taught — for example, alcohol swab versus no alcohol swab prior to glucose monitoring.  Personal experiences with the health care system have also been addressed such as a student who gave birth to a premature baby who felt her husband was ignored during kangaroo care. The point is to describe a practice, or relate what the media is saying to influence their readership, and see if the research literature matches the message. It works well with qualitative article sets as well, for example the media article of inspiration can be any first person narrative of their experience with a disease or other condition related to health.

The Assignment Guidelines

In brief, each student paper must contain a discussion of the following:

  1. Background to their research problem.
  2. Significance to nursing. Students are more than welcome to use research from other disciplines to support their research question but they have to explain (and cite) why nurses should care about that problem.
  3. A summary of their media article, clinical scenario or personal experience.
  4. Compare and contrast their 5 primary studies in terms of their research findings.
  5. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the research studies reviewed.
  6. Discuss how the research findings compare with the media description (I’ve had students integrate this requirement throughout their compare and contrast and that works also).
  7. Practice implications. In what way, if any, should practice change given what the research says?
  8. A table summarizing their research studies with author, title, independent variable, dependent variable, population, sample size  for quantitive studies, and phenomenon of interest replacing the IV and DV in qualitative sets.

Students are able to construct their paper in the order of their choosing and in whatever way feels logical for their topic.


This assignment has been successful beyond my wildest dreams. Student engagement has increased. I get the chance to speak to every student about their topic which meets my requirement of looking them all in the eyes during the writing process. I strongly believe that having every student connect with you during the writing of their paper reduces the likelihood that they will plagiarize. By having a quick review of their primary studies, I also save myself a tremendous amount of time while grading because I know I am reading a paper amalgamated from the correct type of literature.

In the second year of implementation, due to feeling I was doing a little too much handholding in helping them identify qualitative versus quantitative research, I created a document which outlined the characteristics of various published articles (primary quantitative, primary qualitative, research protocols, review articles, discussion articles, and other). The students are now required to review this document and fill in a log sheet which attempts the article identification prior to approaching me to approve their articles. I no longer identify what their articles are for them which allows me to spend more time exploring how well their articles fit together as a package.

Implementing this paper is time consuming. The mini meetings I have with them about their topic take up all my mid class break time and I usually require another 20-30 minutes immediately preceding or following class to attend to every student who wants my attention on a given day.  I have to teach them how to synthesize their results and thematically analyze the themes from qualitative studies. But the upfront time I put in prior to the paper due date, is time I don’t have to spend frustrated with poorly conceived assignments while grading.

If you are interested in modifying the assignment for use in your own courses, you have my permission. I believe this assignment can work in multidisciplinary contexts. Just send me a tweet to let me know @academicswrite and I’ll be happy to answer questions.

Let’s Chill Out About Plagiarism: Yes, I Just Said That.

How do you decide what is a serious enough offence to call plagiarism? Where do you draw that line?

The day Melania Trump plagiarized Michelle Obama’s speech at the Republican National Convention was one of the best days of the summer, and I say that, as a Canadian, watching the whole American election circus from afar.  It was a good day because the world was talking about plagiarism and where you draw the line — something I have to think about nearly every day as an academic. They were talking about what defines plagiarism, in particular, but more importantly they were talking about how plagiarism is about the context in which it is committed.  I spent my time on social media that day rubbing my hands together with glee.

My title to this blog is not in any way to suggest that plagiarism is not to be taken seriously. I have seen plagiarism in action. I’ve had students hand in annotated bibliographies that are word for word from the abstracts of the published articles.  I’ve seen students submit identical or nearly identical assignments. I’ve known of a student who stole another student’s work, unbeknownst to the student victim, by copying their paper from a computer when s/he left the lab to use the bathroom. I’ve marked countless papers with vast amounts of uncited information. I had two sisters hand in a paper on the same topic with the same reference list with identical errors, identical headings with different writing under each paragraph, but the citations in basically the same order. The latter was likely a case of inappropriate collaboration — or one sister wrote both papers — I will likely never know what went down there but it wasn’t honest writing.

This recent Chronicle of Higher Education article also concerns me. While I have no doubt that there are people making big money off student cheating, I refuse to believe that every student is doing it (otherwise these businesses could never submit an assignment on time, they’d be so busy). Maybe I’m naive. But for students who are hiring others to create custom assignments for them based on a course’s assignment guidelines, it would be nearly impossible, short of a confession, to catch it. I’m not going to waste time hunting these students down.  In a practice based profession, I’m hoping they’ll manage to fail themselves out in other ways.  A now retired colleague mentor of mine used to always say: Do we want spend our time educating, or policing?

Over 10 years ago when I was a junior faculty member, a couple of more senior instructors decided to become marking zealots. They began pulling students’ sources as they graded and searching for every point the student made in citation and low and behold they found many situations where students had copied word for word from sources.  Should I be marking this way too? I wondered at the time.  I could never bring myself to do it. It felt wrong, to me, to grade papers with this kind of mindset.  It felt like viewing students as guilty until proven innocent. It felt like a witch hunt.

My preference for identifying plagiarism was, and still is, to rely on the subtle signs: poor awkward writing and grammar in this paragraph, high level language in the next always sets my alarm bells off. But there are others too: font type or font size changes, hovering a cursor over the text and seeing web links, misuse of pronouns, change in verb tense, change in person voice from third to second, and the more obvious, finding another student’s name mistakenly left unedited somewhere in the document. I frequently, when grading, pull sentences out of papers and drop them into Google just to be sure. I’ve never used Turn It In. I believe there is a fee to a program to access it and in these times of fiscal restraint, my department has just said no.

Uncited material that should have been cited is the most common type of “plagiarism” I see. About 10 years ago, we, meaning a sub committee in my department, set rules about when we would call it plagiarism — 4 or more incidences of a missing citation would be considered plagiarism.  We would make the student take their paper back and add the citations. They would get a form filled out and placed in their file.

I’ve since had instructors, who weren’t around at the time we made the decision, say to me. Students will purposely leave three uncited sections in their paper because they know they can get away with it.  What!? Wouldn’t it be easier to put the citation? It is way too much work to be that deliberate in your purposeful non-citing.  Students who haven’t cited, really, haven’t thought much about it at all.

I would sit with these students, often facing their tears and soggy Kleenexes, in my office and point out the error of their ways and they would stare at me blankly not really sure what I was asking them to do when I asked them to fix their citation. I don’t think I took that from anyone, some of them would say in many varied ways, I just wrote that because I know it.  I heard it in class. 

And my thinking started to change. Most, if not all uncited work I saw in undergraduate student papers had nothing to do with intentionally or maliciously trying to steal the work of someone else to, I dunno, try and look smart? Most of it was as a result of poor research or not understanding the value in finding a source to support their rationale or argument they were presenting. I stopped asking them to go back and fill in their missing citations because most of them didn’t have a citation to fill in.

And besides, what is an “uncited section?” A sentence? A paragraph? What if they just put the citation at the end of the paragraph? Does that mean that everything earlier in the paragraph is uncited? Or did the one citation intend to cover the whole paragraph (insufficiently)? Now I just tell them it isn’t sufficiently cited and I move on.

And I started teaching my graders in first year to notice the signs of writing that was just a student rambling off the top of their head as if they were expert enough to make the point. Often those paragraphs were full of simplistic thinking, grand sweeping claims, and non specific statements:

Alcohol is a big part of our society. For young adults alcohol can be a big struggle when it is being introduced into their lives. It is very common for people to turn to heavy drinking, also known as binge drinking when trying to destress and have fun [sic].

This paragraph was the first 3 sentences of an introductory paragraph written by a first year student. There is so much wrong with it. It’s vague — how many people in society? What people? Who says there is a connection between binge drinking and de-stressing? And where are the citations to support the accuracy of these claims? The comment in the image to this blog, is what I had typed on this student’s paper.

Is this plagiarism? No. This is a student writing what she knows about binge drinking off the top of her head, maybe as a summary of what she read or from her own personal experiences with it.  Her following paragraph(s), detailed and cited many of the points made here. So my feedback to her was to delete the whole first paragraph. It wasn’t plagiarism. It was poorly written and redundant. A waste of words in a 3-page paper.

I once dealt with a suspected case of plagiarism where the student had copied one paragraph of her paper from a website. Her paper was about urinary incontinence and the one paragraph, maybe in the 50 to 100-word range, turned out to be a paragraph from a website about fecal incontinence. She didn’t copy the paragraph word for word. She did make some inconsequential changes so there is no doubt that what she left unchanged was somewhat deliberate, or at the very least, lazy.  On top of it all, she put an incorrect citation. The citation she put was not the website she copied from. She also had a couple other spots in her paper where she had used or poorly paraphrased 5 or 6 words in a row from one of her sources. Her grader had even highlighted spots where she had used two words in a row from a source.  The vast majority of her paper, however, was paraphrased. The intent to paraphrase was clear in every spot but this one place. From reading her work, my sense was simply that she didn’t give a damn about the assignment or the quality of what she was handing in. Maybe she spent a couple hours writing the paper and submitted it as it was. Maybe she wrote it at at 4 a.m.

Not academic misconduct, I told my team leader and the instructor.  Arguments ensued.  The one paragraph, the one from the fecal incontinence website: Bad. Stupid. Dumbass even.  The student deserved to be hauled in and given a good slap on the wrist. Certainly a reduced grade was in order.  She didn’t deserve to have academic misconduct stamped for life on her transcript.

To be honest, if I hadn’t been cued to check. I doubt I would have caught that case of plagiarism to give her that slap on the wrist. I’m not sure, and I’ve wondered since, if that matters. The paper was very poorly written and not cohesive. It was a difficult read. A poor grade would have been the outcome anyway. I’m not sure that the instructors, in this case, would have found that paragraph either except that conditions made them check. The instructors had found one incidence of plagiarism in one student and decided to go back and check the entire class, as if one case meant a giant conspiracy to pull the wool over their eyes, to take them as fools, was underway.

Here is the crux: if you go looking for something. You will find it. You may even begin to redefine it, to prove yourself right. To solidify your case. In order to indict someone, no stumble, no matter how minor, can be left unmentioned. Finding one sentence that is 90% copied from a source suddenly then means that every time the student uses the same terminology as an original source, even medical terminology which shouldn’t be changed, you will mark it as plagiarism. Suddenly, one word, two words, three words in a row, can count as plagiarism — if you have declared it should be so and if it justifies your anger over that one sentence. You may even feel a little giddy while doing this because you’ve caught them. Now you can solidify your case that plagiarism is rampant among students and the student with the one sentence or the one paragraph is now a villain. Call yourself a hero now, maybe.

But I call it witch hunting. Policing. Confirmation bias.

I found this sentence in one of my student’s papers last year: how powerful losing weight can be. Six words in a row from the original. Common words, common idea. I highlighted it in the student’s paper and left it. The rest of her paragraph was well paraphrased. Put that phrase into google with quotes around it and the student’s source pops up as the first item along with 2 other media sources that picked up the article. Not plagiarism.

This scenario, which came under discussion on Twitter the other day, however, is very much plagiarism.

Melania Trump likely used less words of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech than my fecal incontinence student used in that one paragraph. Did Melania Trump plagiarize? The bulk of her speech was “her own” or written by hired speech writers, so at the very least original in wording, if not original thinking. You bet your buckets she plagiarized.  Melania’s words were being delivered to millions with the intention of influencing them. She stole the words (and one can argue, the values) of another woman making a speech in the same context 8 years earlier and those words had helped Michelle Obama’s husband get elected as President of the United States, something Melania, perhaps, also desires for her husband.

My student wrote her paper for an audience of one in a learning environment. Her teacher. Context is everything.

There are so many reasons why a student may paraphrase poorly or not cite.  Is it really helping the student with this occasional mishap or bouts of lazy writing to crucify them with the label of academic misconduct?  Or would talking to them and understanding why it happened help you understand their writing fears and their feelings of low self-efficacy and the fact that they are just trying to survive a gruelling nursing program? Maybe what you have instead is a teachable moment? I’m a great believer that finding ways to look students in the eye while they’re in their paper preparation phase is the best plagiarism prevention of all. Some “plagiarism” is just bad writing that needs to be corrected. We need to be sure we know the difference.




The Evolution of My Writing

I used to write my papers on an old Hewlett-Packard word processor.  It had a little tiny memory disk that was about half the size of a hard “floppy” disk, although I don’t think those existed at the time. It was a Christmas gift or a birthday gift from my parents during my last year of high school. I used it through my first 5 years of university, so about 1989-1994.  It had a little tiny computer screen which allowed me to see about 6 lines at a time.  It could be used like an electric typewriter as well. But I liked that I was able to save my writing to these little disks and when I wanted to print something, it auto typed it out like a regular typewriter would at about 80 to 100 words per minute.

Back then I always hand-wrote the first drafts of my papers.  I liked to be able to see a page worth of work at a time and manually flip back and forth between those pages. One hand written page, roughly, worked out to be just short of one double spaced, 12pt font, typed page of writing.  After I finished the first handwritten draft (where I edited little), I used to type the paper into the word processor and then do all my editing there.  The act of typing out what I had written allowed me time to reflect upon some of that first draft uglies and where I needed to make global changes.  Thus, I’ve always believed that the real writing happens in editing.

I wrote my papers using this process through two university degrees and continued to handwrite rough drafts even when I retired the HP and began using Microsoft Word on a PC. Then sometime during the first year of my master’s degree I started writing papers directly into the computer. Papers got harder to write, at that level, and I found I couldn’t write anything in any planned order any more. Also, with 40 references to incorporate, I could no longer write an entire paper in a single day. It was easier to put a heading into a computer file and leave a blank than it was to guess how much of a blank to leave on looseleaf to accommodate what needed to be said.

I presented at a conference this year and while it really had nothing to do with my presentation, someone asked me if writing processes had changed in the era of computers.  I had been talking about a well-known writing process theory that was developed in the 70s that still seems very relevant today, even though fewer people likely handwrite their drafts than would have been common back then.

Now that I write solely on a computer, I still write a pretty rough first draft  but I edit as I write more than I used to.  Autocorrect helps with my clunky spelling skills. But it is still always my goal to get a sketch of what I want to say down in writing and then work my magic while editing. I consider my first drafts so rough, that I would never show a first draft to anyone…. not even co-authors. I always like to let a manuscript germinate for a while. A week is awesome, if I have it, but 2 days is often enough before I tackle the next draft.  I spend the time between reflecting on what I wrote and things I forgot to say.  I look for ways to solidify my argument or make connections between points I may not have seen the first time around.

I’ve heard of these strange creatures who obsess over every word in a sentence and write a clean rough draft that needs nothing more than a polish.  I am not one of them.  And to be honest, I don’t envy them. It would be painful writing that would make me feel like the end was so far away. I believe the key to being prolific is to spew it all out in one shot as quickly and as horribly (or not so horribly) as possible. If you aren’t solid on your thinking in some areas, what you write later may be a clue to how to fix it. I’ve written articulate phrases like ….. and blah blah blah prediction …. into my papers just to remind me what I need to learn more about when I come back and edit that section. Sometimes you have to stop and read more to figure out what comes next.

And that is one thing that has never changed about my writing process. I love revisions. I have always worked better building off an existing idea than staring at a blank page hoping  that words will come. A done first draft feels like a finished paper to me because I know how it begins, I know how it ends, and now I can fill in the holes with what I believe to be the best part of writing: rewriting.

Having said that, you need to write the way you write.  It isn’t wrong to be a multi draft writer. It also isn’t wrong to write each sentence as if you’ll never have to change it.  Just write.

*Image: some really bad fiction writing I did when I was about 20. I remember going back and doing the highlighting. It was the only parts I liked.  (My attempts at fiction, back then, never made it to the word processor phase of writing).


The Writing Empathy Exercise

It was a bit of a rough year to say the least in my department when it came to issues of student academic writing.  There were whole classes that revolted about assignments and many grade appeals. I, the so-called writing expert (are any of us really “expert” at this?) felt I was being called in to put out fires about every two weeks. Problem solving these issues consumed my entire third term and sometimes my restful sleep.

The situations that arose created a lot of negativity from instructors and students alike. And the truth was that all these issues could have been prevented with the right discussions occurring at the right times.  So in order to build some capacity in instructors both seasoned and novice, and to encourage some degree of consistency in our department, I was asked to create a workshop about writing assignments across the curriculum.  One thing I sensed in the many meetings I attended was there was a degree of amnesia about what it was like to learn to write as a student.  I saw the workshop I was asked to do as an opportunity to take my colleagues back in time to when they were new nursing students and having to write for the first time in our discipline.

I also had a myth busting agenda.  In the midst of trouble shooting student revolts and appeals, I’d had far too many conversations with both students and my colleagues this term that indicated a very narrow view of citation and paraphrasing was floating around and it was affecting how students were being graded and the advice they were getting from other instructors.  I sensed there was a pervasive belief that every sentence a student wrote needed to be cited, and that if a citation was present, the teacher should be able to go back into the original article and find the exact point or fact associated with that citation.

The problem was that we as academic writers cite the work we borrow for many more reasons than straight-up paraphrasing. More problematic was that expecting every sentence in a student’s paper to be a paraphrased version of words written by someone else limited the students’ ability to argue, be creative, or have any semblance of coherent thought they could claim as their own.

Thus I created the empathy exercise. This exercise was not unlike the exercises I often gave my first year students in their introductory writing course: I chose three passages from three different sources and told my colleagues to write a short paragraph using the three sources and to be sure to cite those sources using correct APA format.

I needed to pull them out of their comfort zone but not too far out of their comfort zone. The three passages were not about nursing, they were about being a woman and riding a bike. I confirmed that all of them had at one time in their lives ridden a bike. I wanted there to be some personal experience they could draw from when they wrote their own paragraph. I made sure that the sources contained some unfamiliar “cultural” terminology about bike riding, and that at least one of the sources described riding in a peloton (like the Tour de France riders) — something I was sure that none of my colleagues had experienced. (Note: the linked passages are to the three sources I gave the group.)

So the group wrote their paragraphs and we put them aside until later.  I had a whole morning’s worth of writing instruction lessons to give before I made them scrutinize their own work, hoping that the information I was about to provide them would make them better equipped to examine their own writing with an open mind. I was looking for a paradigm shift in writing that day — one where there was more of a focus on critical thinking than on grammar, and a bit more flexibility with students being allowed to have a voice and be an expert about what they had researched.

When we were done for the day I posted the following slide and asked them to mentally check off how many of these situations were present in their own paragraphs.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 10.23.09 PM

I didn’t make any one stand up and read what they wrote nor did I make anyone declare their short comings.  I saw the exercise as a time for reflection on their own paraphrasing methods. If they were allowed to extemporize, build paragraphs inspired by the original text but not exactly paraphrased from the original text, or occasionally use the exact words in the form of terminology or other critical or unmodifiable  information, then students should be allowed to write that way as well.

I saw a few lights turn on in the room that day. I recognize that it is a difficult learning curve to be grading and also be able to diagnose the intention of a student’s citation without the student present to explain.  I told my colleagues my motives were to enhance their empathy in the student experience. I wanted to remind them of what it was like to be learning the language of a profession, so I had given them a topic to which they had some vague lay person knowledge and then immersed them in the lingo of those who live and breath the experience of cycling on a daily basis. There is some discussion in the literature that when we grade student writing in the disciplines, that we are expecting a fluency in the discourse of that discipline before we’ve taught them the discourse of a discipline.

But what I really wanted them to understand was that citation of sources was more than just ensuring that everything written was easily locatable in the source cited. That to paraphrase well, you have to be well read, experienced, and insert a bit of yourself into the mix.

“So, in other words, what you are saying, is you want us to lighten up,” one of my colleagues, clearly on to me, said to the group.

Yes. Yes, I do.


10 Reasons Why Your Students’ Writing is Bad — Part II (6-10)

In Part I of this blog post I discussed the reasons why our students’ writing can be bad that may be under the control of our own teaching methods, attitudes or ways we present our assignments. Part II will discuss 5 more causes of bad student writing that are as a result of perceptions, decisions, or knowledge deficits that the students may bring to the writing project.  The solutions are tricker in these cases but they do exist. As with Part I, inspirational credit must be given to John R. Hayes for some of the general points given here.

6. Luck vs. Skill 

The student believes her writing skills are fixed and that everyone’s writing skills are fixed and other students who get good grades are just lucky.  This point is straight out of Hayes’s article but one cannot mention role of the perception of ability being related to luck vs. skill without giving credit to the Mastery component of Bandura’s self-efficacy theory. Students who believe writing is a skill they can improve upon will seek help. Those who believe that writing ability is innate and something you are born with will plod along in isolation without asking questions and hand in substandard work without attempting to improve and probably never reading the feedback you give. (Although, I must acknowledge that very little is known about what students actually do with our feedback after we return their papers).

The only way to connect with these students is to somehow force interaction prior to the paper being due via a proposal meeting, a discussion about sources, or an outline.  Having pre-assignments to the main assignment does increase your workload in the paper preparation phase, but it will be worth it when you are grading more pleasant reading papers later on.

7. Someone Else Wrote the Paper (maybe)

Every once in a while I will have a student hand in a paper that just isn’t my assignment.  It usually comes from a known weak student and is usually someone who attends classes most of the time but huddles in the back and runs out the door immediately upon dismissal. The first thing I do when I get a paper like this is I start Googling passages, especially passages with jargony terminology or unusual phrases. A student who hasn’t been able to follow instructions isn’t likely to be able to come up with  either the jargon for their topic or complex ideas.  Funny thing is, I’ve never had anything come up in my search of key phrases in these situations so my suspicions then turn to the possibility that the student enlisted someone else to write the paper or they bought it from a paper mill (and not a very good one), or handed in a paper written by another student for a similar course at another institution hoping it would suffice. Because the paper failed to meet numerous content criteria, I can usually grade it appropriately with an F and carry on. That F grade often means a failure in the course as well.

This is a tricky situation to be in. As much as your gut tells you one thing, you have no solid proof and the student really could have been that clueless. If it is a case of plagiarism, it would be impossible to catch without a confession from the student. Do students confess to these transgressions? Not in my experience. You could also quiz them about the content and see how well they know what the paper says. If they wrote it, they should be able to talk about the paper fluently, but even inability to talk about what they wrote is proof of nothing specific. I generally chose not to question the student. The important factor in ensuring that a student who did not write their own paper does not get a good grade is to make your paper unique enough that only someone who attends class is sure to keep the paper solidly within the assignment guidelines. Having those pre-paper submission requirements, mentioned in #6, built into an assignment will also be a check and balance on the student doing their own work.  I’ve also required students to hand in portfolios of their paper preparation (outline, notes, rough draft) as evidence that they did their own work.  These portfolio components aren’t graded but they are there if I choose to look at them as an audit trail of the students’ work.

8.  Lack of Knowledge about How to Fix “Global Problems”

Most students know that they need to edit their drafts of their paper for grammar, spelling, and sentence structure but, for some students, this is as far is their editing goes. I’ve read many grammatically correct readable papers from students that lack cohesion or completeness of thought, or presents information in a random order without logical connections. Global problems is a phrase I borrow from John R. Hayes and refers to other major problems in a writing assignment such as clearer phrasing, more well developed ideas, a better ordering of information, and other higher level writing tasks. A student who revises their paper for grammar can usually successfully create a readable paper. Most first drafts of papers suck. Mine certainly do, and I would never let anyone read a paper I haven’t globally edited, at least once, first.

Having contact with these students by inviting them to share their drafts prior to the due date via a one-on-one appointment or peer review with strong students, may help these students understand the global editing process. Rewriting is the best writing of all.

9.  Issues of Audience and Voice

Early in my teaching career I had a student come into my office to discuss how I had graded her paper.  I explained to her what my comments meant and what was lacking. She disagreed and proceeded to paraphrase for me what she wrote — which wasn’t what she actually wrote but rather what she should have wrote and what would have got her a higher grade. Hayes notes that most undergraduate student think of themselves as their own audience when writing their papers. Problems can emerge from this perspective of audience because if you are writing for yourself, you can leave out points or make leaps of faith in your argument that are perfectly understandable to you, the author, but not clear to others or the person grading the paper. Other fallacies of audience students make include assuming they don’t need to clarify a point or include a definition because their teacher will know it, writing as if their paper is a magazine article or newspaper, and writing in the second person which leaves the impression that the information is intended for an instructional pamphlet.

Advise students to share their paper with someone who will understand the terminology but also be able to tell them if their writing or points are not clear. Grasping what the audience will and and will not understand in your writing is something that even advanced writers struggle with. When I share manuscripts with co-authors, or read reviewer comments, I often pay attention to questions asked that seem to indicate that the person editing the paper missed the point and saw something different than I intended. Rather than get frustrated with the critique, I take this to mean that what I wrote lacked the clarity I intended to some small degree.  All students of writing need to pay attention to those questions that seem to be off the mark as they are a strong clue to where your message may not be as clear as intended.

10. Poor Reading Skills

They may have had to pass an English language test to get into your program (our students do!) but academic articles are in a class of their own. Some students reject high level primary studies or review articles in favour of lower level material like websites simply because of readability and digestible content that is a fast read. Other students can gather appropriate sources but may not know what parts of the articles are appropriate to gather their points to form their argument.  Misinterpretation of article information abounds in student writing which can contribute to a convoluted presentation of information in their papers.

To read well you need to read more. Students time is limited so sometimes they attempt to take short cuts. You can’t necessarily make better readers of your students; that is a problem only they can work on. You can however help students read smarter. Require specific source types for all writing assignments and indicate there will be a palpable grade loss if those requirements are not met. If you scrutinize a bad paper, as I had to do in the scenario I describe in Part I, item #3, you’ll find that students writing bad papers are often drawing all their facts from the first 2 pages of their peer reviewed sources (indicating that is probably all they read) and the bulk of their major citations is material paraphrased from (questionable) websites.  So because I am asking students to compare and contrast the results of 5 primary research studies, I tell them that this section can only cite information from the results or discussion sections of those articles. Teaching students to grasp the terminology of the discipline or sub discipline will considerably improve their ability to interpret complex academic sources.

And so wraps up the 10 causes of a bad paper. I’m sure this is not an all-inclusive list. Do you have any others to add?  I would like to note that I’ve left out 2 perhaps mythical causes of bad papers: ESL and writing anxiety.  Thus far, in all my reading of the writing literature, the evidence suggests that ESL and writing apprehensive students tend to have equal writing ability to their non ESL and less apprehensive peers.

If you missed Part I you will find it here.

10 Reasons Why Your Students’ Writing is Bad — Part I (1-5)

I said here that I didn’t feel my student’s writing was really all that bad at all.  OK, I’ll admit, sometimes it’s bad. Really bad. Fortunately, the truly bad ones are few and far between. As multifactorial as writing is, so many problems can contribute to the perception that a paper is “bad” and not all of them are the fault of the student. I’ve read papers with poor grammar that are well researched and cohesive. I’ve read papers that are technically well written, but are poorly organized, not on focus, or skim the surface. Regardless there are always steps we can take to make sure the problems of bad student writing, at least those within our control (as some of them will be), are addressed before we have to grade their submissions. Whenever I am grading a student’s paper or reading portions of a draft with the student in my office, I have to come up with a diagnosis for why the paper isn’t working. Many of those diagnoses are preventable problems. Much of what I am about to write I draw from my own experience.  Some of what I write, if you prefer a theoretical perspective, was inspired from the writing theory of John R. Hayes.  Hayes doesn’t make these exact points in his theory but he certainly alludes to many of them.

In Part I of this blog I will examine the causes of bad student assignments that are under the control of the teacher via assignment creation, attitude, or instructional method.  In Part II, I will cover the causes that require student intervention.

(n.b. the image that tops this blog is a doodle one of my students did during an exam she was writing for me. If I could name her, I would. But I can’t. Just know she is talented and self-aware, if not, grammatically perfect.)

  1. Other Priorities

Your academic assignment is in heavy competition with the assignments in the four other courses that the students may be taking, Netflix, social media, their friends, their family demands, Pokemon Go, their jobs, and any infinite number of competing distractions.  Students simply may not do their best work because they are in survival mode and the work you assigned didn’t make the top of the list.

No matter what we do, or how much we may rant, the student has the right to choose what they put their most and least effort into.  If it happens to not be your assignment, don’t take it personally.  You will simply grade it accordingly. However, a relevant assignment that ignites a student’s passion may give the work you assign an edge.

2. Lack of Relevance

Of course you make awesome assignments and your students will be passionate about completing them. A great teacher likely creates the assignment that, if they had to sit through their own course, they would love to write themselves. A great writing assignment will take into consideration the key learning objectives of an entire course.  But I’ve talked to many students about assignments they bring me from courses I am not teaching and sometimes I find they don’t see the relevance. Sometimes, sadly, I read the assignment guidelines and I don’t see the relevance either. We get so immersed in our own courses we think the relevance of our assignments to the big picture is obvious.  But our students are immersed in many courses simultaneously all containing unfamiliar new knowledge, so relevance is more elusive.

Don’t take for granted that your students can see the relevance of your writing assignment. Tell them the relevance. Tell them often — like a broken record often. And if you can connect the relevance of your assignment within every individual class that you teach, even better. A writing assignment needs to be more than a description in a syllabus or in handouts that are rarely mentioned in class.  You must teach your assignment. The fit of the assignment to the big pictures needs to be obvious and the reason why they need to write to learn, rather than do a presentation or an exam, also needs to be obvious.

3. Topic Boredom 

The worst academic writing assignments I ever wrote as an undergraduate student were the ones where every student was writing a variation of the same thing. They were boring assignments where we had to write what the teacher wanted to hear or risk a bad grade.  Creativity in these assignments was always perceived negatively.  If a student can’t find a way to connect with the material they are writing about using their own voice, style, opinion or creative touches, they will likely write a substandard paper. For good writing to take place, the writer has to care about what s/he is saying.  I once investigated a suspected plagiarism case where the student had written a paper for me the term before and earned an A.  The paper I was investigating was so badly written I had to re-look at my file of her paper from the previous term to be sure I hadn’t been mistaken.  Nope. It was still an A. It was not a perfect effort but it was very well done.  What happened?  The paper the student wrote for me was on a topic she personally connected with. The paper she wrote for my colleague was something she didn’t care about or see the relevance of writing.

(The paper wasn’t academic misconduct, by the way, it was just lazily written using frequent short cuts and bad paraphrasing. It was however, an undoubtably bad paper.)

Although the needs of every academic assignment will differ, giving students complete control over their topic choice is the best option, when possible. If there needs to be a finite choice of topics provided then give the students several to choose from. If possible, allow flexibility in how they manage the information for that topic.  Worse than having no choice at all, is the academic writing assignment with guidelines that are nothing more than a fill in the blank questionnaire with heavily pre-scripted points to be made on a topic.  The students will be bored writing it, and you’ll be more bored reading it.

4. Grading Negativity

I often feel I am the only teacher with a writing assignment in my nursing course where I feel impressed with how well my students tackle the task. I often hear from my colleagues that student writing is globally bad.  They were all terrible. One teacher said to me this past year. And when I asked about the grades, they spanned the spectrum of A+ to F.  They weren’t all terrible. They were, as they should be, “normal.”  The bad papers can stick with you like sap on a windshield while you forget those glimmers of hope and moments of brilliance. (Or if they were really all bad, it was likely due to another problem on this list).

Remember the normal curve? Embrace it.  As much as we would like all students to write papers that were A+ quality, (wouldn’t that be nice!), it just isn’t going to happen. Don’t fixate on the bad ones.  Unless you are failing to explain your assignment in some major way, bad papers are likely not your fault.

5. Problems Understanding the Instructions

Assignment guideline clarity is critical to receiving good papers. Some say too much information is baffling but I find that more is better than less.  In fact, I usually find ways to explain the assignment guidelines multiple times.  But more critical than that, students often show evidence of not understanding what would seem to us like obvious terminology.   Describe vs. Discuss.  Critique vs. Analyze. Reflect vs. Detail. It is not uncommon to receive a paper where you asked the student to critique a source, and receive 30 assignments that use description only.  In one of my assignments, students seem to have trouble with understanding the difference between nursing significance (why should we care about this problem?) and nursing implications (how should practice change based on our knowledge of the evidence?). A good proportion of the class thinks they are the same thing. I’m working hard to reduce that misperception.

Ensure that your students are clear on what they are being asked to do. One of the best ways to guarantee clarity is to provide sample assignments written by other students. If you work with large class sizes (like I do), not every student is going to approach you for help and if they all did, you’d be working 24 hours a day. Listen for misinterpretations of an assignment guideline during the conversations you do have. There may be a better way you can explain it.  Watch when grading for common flaws in execution of a particular content item or focus. In the example I give above, many students would combine the nursing significance and nursing implications content into one heading, often inappropriately. I now make sure I take every opportunity to explain the difference. If a good proportion of the class makes the same error, make a clarification the next time the guidelines are presented to a group.  There are teachable moments everywhere.

Proceed to Part II …..