Impact Blog

How to teach PhD candidates to write proficiently in three minutes and other impossible tasks

July 2020
Simon Moss, Dean of Graduate Studies, Charles Darwin University

Writing is one of the most important skills for a graduate researcher yet writing skills are often taken for
granted or worse, expected to be learnt by impersonation. Associate Professor Simon Moss takes us through some techniques to improve the writing proficiency of PhD candidates.

Imagine an idyllic future, in which poverty has ended, wars have abated, unicorns abound, and every PhD candidate writes flawlessly.  Of course, this future is unrealistic: At least some PhD candidates will always write incoherently, imprecisely, verbosely, or incorrectly.

Universities continue to experiment with tools and approaches to improve the writing skills of PhD candidates.  Supervisors instruct their candidates to write topic sentences, to eschew ambiguous pronouns, and to avoid tautologies.  A plethora of apps, such as Grammarly and Pro Writing Aid, impart essential wisdom, such as the difference between which and that.   Countless books on thesis writing deter candidates from polysemous verbs, such as get and make.  Yet, many PhD candidates, although inundated with feedback, apps, and books, continue to write inadequately.

This problem, however, should not be ascribed to the incompetence or indolence of PhD candidates. Instead, universities seldom utilise the techniques that have been shown to enhance the writing skills of university students.  Universities—the very institutions that bemoan the contempt towards science and evidence in modern society—do not often apply science and evidence to enhance the writing skills of PhD candidates.

To illustrate, although universities tend to offer some workshops on writing, these institutions depend heavily on the feedback and advice of supervisors.  Supervisors encourage PhD candidates to submit drafts and then, frequently, inundate these candidates with countless snippets of disorganised feedback.  This feedback often demolishes the confidence, and ultimately the ability, of these candidates.

In contrast, originating from the approach called errorless training, many studies demonstrate the benefits of more specific guidance—guidance that diminishes the likelihood of errors—at least in the preliminary phases of skills development.  For example, to help PhD candidates construct effective paragraphs, these individuals could first receive information about the 10 or so main kinds of paragraphs in scholarly writing.  Next, they could then be asked to classify the paragraphs they read into these 10 kinds.  Subsequently, these individuals could receive an exemplar of each kind of paragraph and receive the instructions to change only the main words, such as the nouns and verbs, so these paragraphs are relevant to their research.  Finally, they could write more paragraphs, with increasingly fewer clues over time.

Furthermore, academics often believe, or at least hope, that candidates will somehow remember the array of feedback and advice they receive on writing.  They do not apply the strategies that have been shown to entrench this advice into the natural habits of PhD candidates.  Instead, research supervisors should recommend that candidates apply a strategy called implementation intentions—in which they imagine the conditions in which they will implement this advice as vividly as possible.

To illustrate, consider a research supervisor who advises a PhD candidate to avoid the word it—a word that is often ambiguous, passive in voice, or embedded in a redundant phrase, like it is noteworthy thatAs research has revealed, if research supervisors merely instruct PhD candidates to avoid the word it, this word becomes even more likely to infuse their awareness.  Instead, researcher supervisors should ask candidates to repeat, about five times, the phrase Whenever I write the word it, I will then consider how I can replace this word with a specific noun or omit part or all of the phrase in which this word is embedded.  They should then imagine the circumstances in which they might implement this intention as vividly as possible, such as the time, location, and ambience of the surroundings.  As research has confirmed, this sequence of activities increases the likelihood that individuals will apply this intention and avoid the word it seamlessly and effortlessly in the future.

Nevertheless, in their busy schedules, research supervisors cannot be apprised of all techniques that improve the writing proficiency of PhD candidates.  Consequently, some academics at CDU are constructing an online program that utilises validated strategies to improve the writing proficiency of PhD candidates.  Although many programs have been developed to improve basic writing skills—such as writing skills of individuals with limited proficiency in English—fewer programs impart the advanced skills that PhD candidates need to acquire.  We have developed some of the tools already, and these tools can be disseminated upon request.  However, the project may not be completed until mid 2021.

The source of this delay revolves around two essential features of this online program.  First, PhD candidates are unlikely to value or to utilise this program, unless the information is customised to their idiosyncratic needs.  Indeed, as research has confirmed, when information is customised to the needs of one person, this individual is more inclined to value the information if also informed that other people do not value this information.  Therefore, which information participants receive should depend on their characteristics, such as their field of research, their proficiency in writing, their personal preferences, and other attributes.

Second, online programs are more likely to be effective if the activities entail some level of social interaction—especially interactions with individuals they trust.  For instance, during this program, individuals could receive a series of tautologies or phrases that could be condensed, such as a new innovation, as well as some excerpts that peers had written.  Their role could be to identify and modify the tautologies in these excerpts.  As research confirms, individuals are more likely to remember the material they imparted to someone else: Teaching enhances memory.

In short, academics cannot afford the time they need to enhance the writing proficiency of every candidate they supervise.  Yet, generic workshops, apps, books, and tools do not always resolve the problem.  Hopefully, an online program that customises advice to the needs of individuals and entails some level of social interaction can mitigate these concerns.  And, once this problem is resolved, we can finally shift our attention to poverty, world peace, and unicorns.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash


Susan Gasson says:

Great advice, thanks. Peer to peer writing groups are a lovely, socially inclusive, complement to online writing offerings. All the best to the unicorns.

Fiona Zammit says:

The online program sounds great – I hope you will consider making it available beyond CDU once its up and running.

Susan Kinnear says:

Thanks Simon. I certainly agree that writing is a learnt skill and that if we are going to assess writing ability, then we need to explicitly teach it – even in graduate research. I’d also add that writing problems are often thinking problems; that is, you can’t write clearly if you do not first think clearly – so teaching critical thinking and logical progression of an argument is vital too.

Natasha Kitano says:

Thanks Simon for your insight. I agree with you that writing is one of the most important skills needed for a graduate researcher. Many people assume that researchers are able to write well, but the truth is many PhD candidates need that explicit instruction on what constitutes academic writing. I find that using both strong and weak exemplars highlights the deficiencies students make in their own writing. Exemplars are also useful to illustrate what constitutes quality, and then the students can use their ‘evaluative judgement’ to improve their writing.

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