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.

Do Academics Devalue Writing?

I meant to write this blog months ago. It is inspired by observations made while at a conference in the spring with other writing scholars. The devaluing of writing is an issue I think about often as I inch ahead in my own PhD studies and consider, while applying for grants for example, how others will perceive my work. How my discipline perceives my work is especially crucial given that I am in a practice-based discipline not a humanities discipline where, you would think but it is apparently not so, that the value of writing would be more self-evident.

My research area is writing in nursing education.  I have conducted research on writing self-efficacy in first-year nursing students in several projects I started before I became a PhD student. When tackling psycho-educational topics in a discipline that privileges the biomedical perspective, there are those that will brush you off, tell you your topic doesn’t interest them, or look at you strangely and tell you they didn’t realize nurses needed to write. In that environment, it is hard to go up against, for grants or even to get certain journals to take you seriously, scholars who are trying to cure cancer, as the epitomes example.

But someone has to teach the future cancer curers of this academic world how to write and think.

In nursing the problem has looked like such:

  1. Most nursing programs in Canada do not teach writing at all to their students. Or if they do believe their students require writing skills, they require an English Literature course as a prerequisite (as if interpreting literature and writing about it will help them write better research synthesis papers). Or they require students take a basic generic writing course which drills grammar and a style guide. Discipline-specific writing instruction is rare in nursing programs (6% in Canada).  I am grateful to Jo-anne Andre and Roger Graves for the study that has fed me that stat.
  2. Writing ability is not an entry level practice competency for nurses at the national or provincial level in Canada.  I have been through the competency documents for every province (except Quebec) and none of them include writing as a competency. One of them (my own province, gratefully) includes the following statement under the heading of assumptions: “Entry-level registered nurses demonstrate English or French language proficiency (reading, writing, listening and speaking).”
  3. The Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing (CASN) the organization that “establishes and promotes national standards of excellence for nursing education”  has written a National Nursing Education Framework. Writing does not appear in the framework as a priority of nursing education until the Masters level of education. Writing is not mentioned in undergraduate education at all so I’ve been wondering where nursing Masters students are learning to develop such skills as as,
    “The ability to articulate verbally, and in writing, to a wide range of audiences the evidence for nursing decisions, including the credibility and relevance of sources of information,”

    if those skills are not honed in undergraduate education as a component of excellence in nursing education. The hardest writing requirement imbedded in that statement above as an educational priority for Masters education is the writing for a wide range of audiences. Understanding the needs of an audience is the most challenging writing skill of all. You come to understand the needs of an audience, through lots and lots and lots of writing and that writing exposure better come well before the Masters level.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be on faculty in a nursing program that includes in its curriculum one of the rare 6% of discipline-specific writing courses. In fact, I developed that course. Our former chair, now retired, valued writing, but it is likely she included the course because she had a ready-made registered nurse faculty member (meaning me) to step in and develop the course. Our course, in its inception, was truly discipline-specific because it was taught and developed by a registered nurse. But she only made it one credit hour in value which does not represent the workload or the stress levels incurred by some students.

Nevertheless, I’ve still encountered problems from our faculty over the value of writing. For example, we have a parallel policy that students must pass every course in each term before moving on in the program. We weren’t far into our new curriculum (2 terms) when the writing course became a quick exception to that rule and students were were allowed to move to the next term without successfully completing the writing course.

As another example, at some point in our program we had to stop allowing faculty to be too autonomous in their assignment choices and the location of writing assignments needed to be pre-selected and permanent because writing assignments were being dropped from courses without any consultation. Instructors would trial an assignment, quickly realize how much work they were, and the next year it would be gone from their course. They did this stealthily, without telling anyone, and no one found out until it was too late.

I have also discovered how quick instructors are to place blame on the introductory writing course as the cause of students’ perceived lack of writing skills. I can’t even count the number of emails, hallway conversations, and pointed questions at faculty meetings, where I was required to address the generic finger point, “Didn’t they learn this stuff in your course?” As if I was the magic bullet. As if my course was the end of the line for undergraduate students learning how to write.

So it shocked me to be at a writing scholars’ conference (CASDW) and find out that the nursing experience wasn’t unique at all. That even in the writing studies discipline faculty were plagued with pointed fingers and statements of devaluing. Faculty calling writing a “soft skill.” The blaming of some unknown entity before these students arrived at their doorstep for their poor writing as if each individual course assignment didn’t require new learning, new writing supports, no matter the level these students were at. We seem to want students to be sitting in our classrooms fully formed when it comes to writing. And the industries we feed want students coming out with better writing (and communication) skills but they don’t want to lengthen programs to help students develop these skills.

When I wrote the tweet I posted above, many of those who contributed to the conversation thought I meant students were the ones devaluing writing but I was talking about faculty primarily. Many defined students’ devaluing of writing by them not caring about the grammar in their assignments. But grammar is not the only thing that makes bad writing. And what makes for bad grammar can be highly subjective and disciplinary too. What bothers me as a grader will be different from what bothers you. I, for example, could not care less about detecting split infinitives or sentences ending in prepositions, but I’m going to be all over bad uses of semi-colons. I’m much more interested in ideas, clarity, creativity, cohesiveness.

Reading qualitative studies asking students about what they think of the feedback they get on their writing enlightened me to student frustrations. The thing students hate the most is when their graders fail to see what they are trying to say in order to simply nit-pick at sentence by sentence grammatical structure. You want students to pay attention to grammar, tell them to read their papers out loud to themselves. Give them time in class to do it. More writing will improve students grammar but students quickly become disengaged in their writing if they feel their ideas are being ignored.

If students devalue writing it is because we model that to devalue it is acceptable. We model it by doing some of the things I’ve described above.  Allowing them to progress in a program without passing a required writing credit is like saying, well, you can get by without it. I’ve heard faculty talking to students about how much they hate writing too and avoid it. I’ve heard them validating student beliefs that nurses don’t need to know how to write to look after a patient. Faculty make these comments without any consideration for the nature of thinking that goes into writing that will benefit student thinking at the bedside.

In my experience, the faculty complaining loudest about the dire condition of student writing are the ones that seem to devalue writing the most. Many of these faculty have no intention of being a part of the solution. Many don’t recognize that in order for good writing to be handed in, supports must be in place and the educator assigning the writing must be a part of that support system. Bad writing in your course is not someone else’s problem. It is your problem. Writing experts have known for years that drilling grammar does not fix that problem, so demanding that writing scholars come in and fix the issue by offering a 2 hour workshop on the basics of grammar, will not fix the bad writing your assignment produces. You’ll be lucky if any of the students show up. Deficit pedagogy, where we tell students what NOT to do over and over again, does nothing to teach them what they should do.

In  my mind, getting good writing out of our students requires three simple things:

  1. Writing a meaningful assignment and allowing student choice.
  2. Providing in-classroom supports for our own assignments.
  3. Allowing students to say something that is their own and represents their identity in the work.

Developing writing identity may be the key to helping students value writing. Students resent writing that demands they leave themselves out of the analysis. I don’t blame them. I resent writing like that as well. But so many disciplines continue to devalue writing, even at the professional academic level, that shows any shred of humanity.  They label that kind of writing as biased writing, lacking objectivity. I conducted a poll shortly after tweeting the devaluing thread, asking academics and researchers if they would call themselves “a writer”

If you remove the folks that were just spying, 56% said yes, 30% said no, and 14% said not sure. So just under half of the academics/researchers and Phd students who responded would not identify as a writer. In the comments below, some said they they felt writing was a necessary evil of the job. It was a task, not an identity.  Some felt it was not their primary identity (teaching was). But yet writing is what we do. Writing is what makes our research travel. Writing is what gets us degrees, promotions, grants, recognition, publications, and advances our careers. How can we not identify as writers?

If such a large proportion of those teaching and assigning writing to students cannot identify as writers then we have an identity crisis in academia. The problem of devaluing writing may stem from this identity crisis. I learned this week that writing studies scholars have challenges even being recognized as a relevant discipline. If we don’t write as academics, if we don’t value writing ourselves, if we don’t want to teach writing or help our students value writing, what is it that we do again?

Part II: The Study is Done. What’s Next?

If you are coming to this blog first, this is part II of a three part series describing the story behind my research for this study:

Exploring Self-Efficacy and Anxiety in First-Year Nursing Students Enrolled in a Discipline-Specific Scholarly Writing Course

Part I is here.

Part III is here.

Dissemination and All that FUN Stuff 

Tom did the stats and, dammit, we ended up with a p = .051 significance for change in self-efficacy from pre to post course. Every researcher’s worst nightmare. You’ll note I do what most researchers do with p = .051, I call it non significant in the abstract but proceed to talk about it like it is significant. Take that as you wish.

I went to a conference in February 2013 and presented just a basic version of my findings. I focused the presentation on the course design because I knew that was what my audience would be most interested in. I was swamped after the presentation ended. Writing is a huge problem in nursing programs. Everyone is frustrated. After that conference, we almost “sold” (I wouldn’t have made a cent) the scholarly writing course to be used by another institution but they deemed it then too expensive for the size of their student group. It had taken me 7 years to perfect the design of that course which began when I taught it not-for-credit prior to implementing it as a credit course. A detailed description of the course can be found in the appendix of the publication I am discussing and is linked above. The party that had looked into buying it thought why re-invent the wheel? However, the decision makers at their institution said no.

Related, but incidental, the process the finance people use to calculate how much a course design is worth unto itself is pretty fascinating. They need to pay me more. My intellectual property is worth a lot of money to them.

I finished data collection in February 2012, but it took me till fall of 2012 before I did anything with the data. I presented at that February 2013 conference in Edmonton and then in the spring of 2013 for our faculty, and then I sat on it. I started another study in the fall of 2013 to replicate and improve upon what I had done in this study. So I started to read what had been published about undergrad writing in nursing because it was really time I did a more thorough job of reading. It was a sad state of affairs the writing research in nursing, and very limited or anecdotal. For the most part, what I was reading taught me that I had an instinctive knack for figuring out what kinds of questions researchers and educators had about student writing. Next thing I knew it was 2014 and I needed to do more than present, I needed to write the study up and see if someone would publish it.

And I was terrified. Yes me. Terrified of writing. The last thing I had published was the main study for my Master’s thesis. That one seemed to take a long time to go from thesis to draft. It went through (as I recall) 3 peer reviewed processes at the first journal of submission — 2 revise and resubmit requests and then a final smaller revision. This was in what I now call the “olden days” of publishing when you had to mail hard copies of your blinded paper to be reviewed and they snail mailed your reviews back to you. I had graduated with my Masters in 2002. I sent the paper out for publication in 2003. I had a kid in there somewhere because I remember being on mat leave, coming in for my baby shower, and picking up an envelope with my reviews in it. I don’t know when I finally dealt with them. I think it took me a long time because the paper didn’t reach publication until January/February of 2006. In fairness, it went to a good journal so I was pleased. But that was my last academic publication before the one I write about now. By the time I got that article published, I had written a novel. My marriage was on its way to falling apart. My marriage did fall apart. I wrote a second (shitty) novel. I was about to have a midlife crisis and spend about six years just riding my bike ridiculous distances. I didn’t want to write academically. The next thing I knew I woke up and it was 2011. I had done a stint on anti-anxiety meds, calmed the F down, and realized life didn’t need to be lived with so much agitation and competition and I should be enjoying its beauty not tackling it with a vengence. Ironically enough, I came back to my academic sensibilities through that epiphany. Yes, going back to academia actually mellowed me.  I had changed my name back to my maiden name. I decided to conduct a research study and it took me 3 years to get my ass in gear and write it up.

Getting my Undergraduate Students Involved

What’s the quickest way to get a lit review done? Assign your undergraduates to do it for you for credit. This is where authors three and four, Torrie and Holly got involved. I had this idea. My students wrote this paper in my research course where they had to find 5 primary studies on a topic. Not the same paper I use now but its predecessor. I knew enough at this point to know that there were barely 5 articles on my topic but there were some. I threw out an offer to the class in the fall of 2014. If anyone would explore writing research and writing self-efficacy, I would use their work to structure my review of the literature and I would give them authorship on the published work. Three students stepped forward with interest. One eventually dropped out. I helped them hone their topic. Torrie looked at the studies which had developed interventions to improve writing. Holly wrote about self-efficacy and anxiety. The additional articles that Torrie and Holly found began pushing my reading into the social science literature which is where my ideas on writing instruction and research really began to develop.

Fast forward into the future and when I was finally prepping the first version of the manuscript for publication in spring of 2015, the journal we first sent to required more than just manuscript involvement for publication credit so Torrie and Holly, the troupers that they are, agreed to explore the qualitative data I had for this study. I asked them to read through that data with a lens toward statements made that supported the quantitative findings. They did a wonderful job and identified some similar points to each other and learned the value of parallel data assessment and trustworthiness of qualitative analysis and I could now tick off “contributed to analysis” beside their names for project involvement. The findings of their analysis are mentioned briefly in the paper in the discussion section at the bottom of the first paragraph on p. 12.

I think of everything I did within this project, getting Torrie and Holly involved in this work is the part I am most proud of. These were two bright students (now nurses) who sacrificed researching something more glamorous and clinically based (the stuff students value) to gain a really important academic credential that they can talk about and use on their CVs for years. I was happy to give them this opportunity.

The final stage of this process was the publication experience which can be found in Part III

The Story Behind the Research #1: On Naivety and Perseverance

One of the things we don’t do so well in academia is to talk about the stories behind the the structured, impersonal research articles we write. So think of this post as the commentary on the DVD for a movie you watched, or in this case the academic article you just read, or should read, or will eventually read at some point in the very distant future.

Exploring Self-Efficacy and Anxiety in First-Year Nursing Students Enrolled in a Discipline-Specific Scholarly Writing Course

The first draft of this blog was really long so I’ve broken it into three parts. The first part talks about how I naively plunged into designing this study with little mentorship or guidance. Part II talks about how long it took me to do much of anything with the data and how I got my undergraduate students involved. Part III is the perseverance part because getting this study published was an adventure.

The Naivety: Planning and Conducing the Study

It was about October 2011.  It was the second year of our “new” Baccalaureate Program and I was in the second year of teaching my newly minted “for credit” Scholarly Writing course offered to our first-year students. The idea had been festering in the back of my mind for a year to study my Scholarly Writing course and its effectiveness. My credentials at that point in time: I had been teaching research to undergraduates for about 4 years at this point; I had done a research based thesis for my Master’s; I sat about 5 feet away from one of our psych instructors who was also teaching stats for the program (my second author Dr. Tom Harrigan, who would never let me call him Doctor anything in real life); and, perhaps the most critical factor, there was no one around who would tell me not to do it.

So what the hell, lets do a research study.

I had read very little writing research literature. Actually it would be more honest to say   I had read nothing about writing research. I knew nothing about Self-Efficacy Theory other than that it existed. I had one meeting with our Research and Planning Director who was also the chair of the research ethics board at the College. I knew him from cycling before I knew him as the research guy. He gave me a few study design tips and tips on how to ensure ethical approval and off I was writing an ethics proposal.

I think maybe it worked in my favour to walk into planning and implementing a study on my own. I didn’t have anyone around me asking questions I’m glad I didn’t think of myself like, “shouldn’t you have a PhD to conduct a research study?” Knowing myself as I do, it is highly likely someone did question my credentials and experience in some way and I just didn’t hear it or process it. Being the girl who went out and rode a 300km bike ride last spring on almost no training, it is safe to say that when I get an idea in my head I’m pretty hard to stop no matter how foolhardy that idea might be. I suppose, I had Tom, but Tom’s main involvement didn’t come until I had the data and the stats needed to be run.

The course started at the end of November 2011 and I am pretty sure that I didn’t get ethical approval until just before Christmas. My manuscript says I collected data for the pre-test 4-classes into the term which would be about three weeks into the term because the class was held for 2 hours once a week.

I used Google to find a questionnaire. That’s how I found the General Self-Efficacy Questionnaire. I didn’t know Writing Self-Efficacy (or that other people had made questionnaires for it) existed. I developed the writing self-efficacy questionnaire following the pattern of that General Self-Efficacy Questionnaire. I consider myself lucky (now three studies deep and some reliability and validity data in my pocket) that the questionnaire works. It is probably best that I don’t go into too many details about how very naive I was to go out and just MAKE my own questionnaire. It didn’t occur to me not to. I had developed a questionnaire for my Master’s thesis too. I have a publication describing it. (Yes, I’ve changed my name. We’ll get to that). So of course I was going to develop a questionnaire. I was an experienced writer, writing teacher, and I knew the things that students sat down and talked to me about while clearly overwrought and distressed in the midst of the writing process.

So I plunged forward and ran the study and made oodles and oodles of mistakes. For example:

  1. I wasn’t really pretesting these students I was early testing them. They were 3 weeks into the course before they got their pretest.
  2. I had them develop a personal identification code so I could keep the students anonymous. That code asked them to use their Mother’s initials and date of birth.  Well… some have more than one mother, and their mother has had more than 2 names in her life, and sometimes the birth date was used and sometimes the birth month. And some of them still forgot their code. Lesson learned, nothing is fool proof.
  3. I did the post-test measure into the following term in someone else’s class. The person who was teaching was not willing to give me much of her class time for the students to complete the questionnaire. Some of them took the questionnaire home and I never saw it again. When I got beautiful written reflections about their writing experience in the early part of the course, in post test, the qualitative questions were left blank or were one or two sentences long.
  4. I didn’t think about program attrition. I’m not really sure we realized the degree of our own program attrition at that time but there were many students due to multiple course failures, that didn’t even make it to that third term. I lost all my low grade students from the sample and they are an important voice in writing self-efficacy.
  5. Anxiety — I asked them to rate their anxiety based on their “next” scholarly paper which worked well for the first data collection period because they were about to write the paper assigned in my course. But I made a stupid and naive decision for the post-test. These students didn’t have a known scholarly paper coming up at the end of the course. What exactly were they rating or imagining when I asked them to rate their anxiety for their next scholarly paper?

Nevertheless, when I went forth and analyzed the data some interesting things emerged. And I realized that since I’d last written a research study paper, that all the rules had changed. Two things I will discuss in future parts.

Part II

Part III

 

 

Publication Peer Mentorship: Starting Your Own Support Group for Writing

 

I have posted on Twitter several times about the publication peer mentorship group I started in my department. Those posts have received a good response and several  inquiries of curiosity which makes writing a blog post about why I started the group and what we do in the group important.

The Background to the Group

First, I should tell you a little bit about our faculty. I work at a non-tenured college in Canada. The college used to be a “community college” once upon a time (people often still call it that, even though the community part got removed from its name before I started working here and that was 15 years ago). About 8 years ago, the provincial government granted the college degree granting status primarily so our department (Nursing) could begin offering Baccalaureate degrees. Prior to that we had a joint program with the University and a 23 month diploma option (which, nursing peeps, if you are cringing at the mention of diploma education, is a really long and sad story). There is one other degree program at the college — Construction Management — and many more diploma and certificate programs. One of the tag lines of my college’s name is “Applied Eduction.” This means we value and focus on practical learning.  We do not have any graduate programs at the college and it is unlikely that we ever will. Being a college that operates in a polytechnique model, my instructor job description does not require a program of research. It doesn’t even require I have a Master’s degree let alone a PhD. Although in my department, a Masters degree is required to be a course leader.

However, being a baccalaureate degree program, our department chair desires that one day we will obtain accreditation from the Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing (CASN). Part of the Accreditation process requires that faculty has a track record of scholarship. Scholarship does not need to be in the form of traditional research but can be any peer reviewed process, so publications, presentations at conferences, and the like.

Of a faculty of about 140, our classroom course faculty is primarily Masters prepared. Course leaders must be Masters prepared but other course instructors do not. There are, however, large number of faculty currently in Masters education. Our clinical instructional faculty are primarily Baccalaureate prepared. We have four faculty members with PhDs (and two of them are our psychology instructors). We have two individuals who have doctoral degrees near completion (one is a doctorate in nursing practice). And then there is me, who is just getting started on the PhD process. I could have floated along until retirement doing what I’m doing and nobody would have cared about the initials behind my name but, for me, a PhD was the next step, and even at 45, I am too young to not do a PhD.

We are a teaching institution and my colleagues focus on and prioritize their teaching above all else. Many of them have no interest in writing, but we are on a push to increase faculty scholarship activities. With a large number of our faculty currently in Masters programs, many of them have papers completed for coursework and papers to write based off of completed Masters theses.  Many of my colleagues also have tremendous expertise in an area of nursing education, clinical education, or nursing practice and they have something to contribute.  My conversations with my colleagues tell me, loud and clear, they feel unsupported and lost as to how to write for publication.

Part of my role in our faculty is to act as writing mentor. I coordinate the assignments across the curriculum in our program. I also offer faculty support with issues related to student writing: plagiarism, grading, rubric creation, and all things APA. I also support faculty with their own writing and, beyond a few Masters assignments, there hasn’t been a big demand for my assistance in this kind of role (which is my way of saying, I should be busier). And even as a Masters prepared faculty member, when it comes to writing and publication and even research, I am one of the most experienced we have.

The Publication Peer Mentorship Group

I was sitting in our Research Coordinator’s office talking about how to motivate scholarship and build faculty capacity to create scholarship, when the idea popped into my head to form a writing support group. I wrote and sent an email to faculty about it within an hour.  Now we are three months in to the group.

Here is what I did:

  1. I sent out an email to all our faculty announcing my idea and seeing if there was any interest. I got probably 4 replies and over the next several weeks, I had 3 more faculty approach me in person.
  2. I started an email list with the interested faculty.
  3. I set a date just before Christmas at a time when most would still be around but wouldn’t be very busy with academic stuff.
  4. We met and we talked.

I’ll be honest. I had no idea what we would even talk about. Someone who had wanted to attend but was unable to asked me to give her a copy of the presentation after. Presentation? That certainly wasn’t what I had in mind. I had started the group but I wasn’t intending to lecture. And I’ll tell you that it is intimidating having everyone look at you for guidance when you feel you are merely baby steps ahead of where they are. The only difference between me and them was that it has never occurred to me to NOT publish what I wrote. Publication to me seemed like the obvious extension to what we do.

There were four of us at the first meeting and everyone had something to actively work on. One person had revisions of her Masters research project to return to a journal. Another had a manuscript she had written for a class ready to submit. Another faculty member wanted to revisit the work she completed as a Masters student. And then myself who was in the position of just having two papers accepted for publication and was awaiting reviewer responses to another two. And I published everything out of my Masters — but that was over 10 years ago and the publication world has changed quite a bit since then. A few others have joined us since then mostly working on new things that will all require literature searches or discussions about approach. Others are in the process of writing up their research thesis and just want to talk about the writing.

 

So how do I conduct the meetings? I wing it. And to be honest, I’m anxious and nervous in anticipation of that. My goal is that the group can be self-sustaining and that I will turn out to be one of many leaders. The most difficult aspect of reaching our faculty members is  that in a culture of teaching, we’ve become accustomed to believing that our lectures, students, our grading responsibilities are our only priority and always come first.  Academic writing guru Jo Van Every (@jovanevery) posted on Twitter a phrase I use regularly. I loosely paraphrase here:

Your students are not more important than your writing, and your writing is not more important than your students. They are equally important and they both deserve to be prioritized.

For example, I have 13 papers left to grade to be done but I’m writing this blog instead. I also have a paper to revise and get back to a publisher and that is going to get some of my time this weekend and next week too. Hence why rule number one is to block off writing time and protect it. It may not be a day, but a couple hours here and there. Set it like an appointment in your calendar and don’t let anything interfere with the time. Writing is hard. Thinking about writing is daunting so it is very EASY to say, “I need to be doing something else,” like grading papers. Chances are that “something else” is in your comfort zone. Even good writers can get pushed out of their comfort zone while facing a blank page.

(Incidentally, I need to write more tweets involving J.K. Rowling because that one was pretty popular)

I try to keep the meetings under an hour (half hour preferably) and everyone must walk out of the room with a plan to get something done, no matter how small that something is. Here are some of the topics we have addressed at the meeting. All these topics have been spurred on by the needs of the members present. I start each meeting with everyone reporting on progress of their goal or identifying a goal they have. These goals and progress reports have inspired many discussions. The goals are also intended to help with accountability.

Topics for discussion:

  1. How to pick a journal to submit to.

  2. How to react or respond to reviewer comments.

  3. I’ve talked about my own publication experiences, of which certainly I have not experienced every possible scenario out there but in my 12 publications and submissions, I’ve had a lot of interesting things happen.

  4. Writing topic ideas suitable for publication and where they come from.

  5. Literature searching and libraries (as struggle for us — our library is funded to support diploma education not baccalaureate).

  6. Creating a presentation first and using that as an outline for a paper.

  7. Finding the right voice for your work.

  8. Sometimes we just talk about how hard it is to write.

  9. Sometimes we talk about how hard it is to find time.

Topics specific to the act of writing are the ones I like talking about the most. One of my colleagues is writing her qualitative findings for an amazing project about the cancer care experiences of rural patients. She has been emotionally invested with her subjects and this project is such a passion for her. Her feedback from her advisor was that her writing was stilted and read like a clinical analysis found in a chart. She needed to come and talk and just get permission to put herself in the work. The writing she needed to do felt strange to her. We’ve had objectivity and anonymity beaten into us through most of our academic schooling.

The main thing I have learned (or rather confirmed) is that faculty writing self-efficacy, especially in faculty with teaching focuses, is a significant issue. If imposter syndrome is bad in tenured faculty, believe me, it engulfs faculty who have been cultured to believe they are lesser and that their ideas are less important than those with fancy degrees. It this might be a gender thing as well. Remember, my discipline is nursing. All the members of my mentorship group are women.

I don’t believe you need a lot of writing experience to lead such a group. I have a lifetime of writing experience both creative and academic. I have experience publishing but my experience is by no means extensive. All you need is one person willing to organize the meetings. What happens at those meetings takes care of itself. The goal is to motivate, inspire, and keep interested writers accountable — not unlike the fiction and poetry writer’s groups I have belonged to in the past. The point is to get people together to talk about writing and realize that their struggles are not unique.

I would be interested in hearing your experiences? What would you find helpful if you were a member of such a group? If you have such a group at your institution, what are its objectives and topics of discussion? What have been your successes and pitfalls? We are just getting started in our group and have had 3 meetings in total. I am in search of inspiring ideas. I’ll be honest, my greatest fear is that I will set a meeting and people will stop comings. So far, though, so good.

Addendum:  I found out just now, I broke the first AND second rules of writing club.

 

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 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.