Journal of Nursing Education

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Doctoral Students' Responses to Writing Critique: Messages for Teachers

Sandra J Eyres, PhD, RN; Deborah H Hatch, PhD; Susan B Turner, PhD(c), RNC; Maureen West, MS, RN

Abstract

ABSTRACT

Writing is a major part of learning scholarship in a discipline. Therefore, it is important to understand what promotes and what hinders this learning. In transcribed interviews, 15 doctoral students in nursing at a large university described to us what they saw as helpful or not helpful about responses to their writing. The themes take the form of messages for teachers that, when reported in the context of the composition literature, provide helpful suggestions for teachers.

Abstract

ABSTRACT

Writing is a major part of learning scholarship in a discipline. Therefore, it is important to understand what promotes and what hinders this learning. In transcribed interviews, 15 doctoral students in nursing at a large university described to us what they saw as helpful or not helpful about responses to their writing. The themes take the form of messages for teachers that, when reported in the context of the composition literature, provide helpful suggestions for teachers.

Developing scholars is the major goal of doctoral programs. This process of development involves many writings by students and many responses to students written by teachers. While student-teacher interaction around specific writing tasks can be a rich source for growth, it can also be a source of frustration for both parties. Given the centrality of writing in the academic enterprise, it is important that we understand more about students' responses to our critique and perhaps seek alternatives to the habits of response we have developed.

Here we report findings from interviews with doctoral students in which we asked about their experiences with faculty feedback on their writing. Then we set these findings in the context of composition literature on writing assignment design, the writing process, and interpersonal dimensions of responding to student writing. Finally, from the perspectives offered by composition literature, we propose strategies for faculty as they work with doctoral students on their writing.

CONTEXT AND METHODS

This study was done in the school of nursing in a large research university in the Pacific Northwest. At the time there were 55 doctoral students and large undergraduate and master's student bodies with about 150 faculty members. After human subjects clearance, electronic mail announcements were sent out to doctoral students asking for volunteers.

Fifteen students volunteered, including members of all the past 5 years* classes admitted. There were students who had been in the program 1 1/2 quarters still taking required course work, some who were preparing for or had just taken their general exams, and some who were working on their dissertation research. All the student participants were Caucasian females, but they were far from a homogenous group. One of the relevant sources of variation was the amount of writing experience prior to the program. The range was from those who had earned a living, completely or in part, through writing to those who "need all the help they can get," including basic editing. Some had published in academic journals previously and others had not. These differing backgrounds and personal beliefs about their writing understandably played a part in their priorities for learning and in their perceptions of teachers' responses to their writing.

The interviews took from 30 to 50 minutes. We asked students to recall an occasion when response or critique of their written work was especially helpful and an occasion when response was not helpful. The interview proceeded building on what seemed salient in the students' stories about why or how responses were helpful or not helpful.

The taped interviews were transcribed and interpreted individually by 3 members of the team 2 doctoral students in nursing and 1 professor of nursing). We then met together, read our interpretations, and discussed the similarities and différences in them. From this dialectic between perspectives of the team members came the themes of the students' experience. We shared the results with some of the participants to validate whether their experience was reflected accurately. Subsequently, several cohorts of doctoral students have indicated that there is close congruence between our interpretation and their experience in academic writing. The themes from the analysis are reported here as messages for teachers grouped by the major categories that are meaningful for teacher activities.

DESIGNING ASSIGNMENTS

We will be looking for the rationale behind your writing assignments.

In contrast to teachers, who tend to plan courses and assignments as separate entities, students have a more longitudinal perspective on what is happening to them. They enter with enthusiasm for their anticipated transformation, although with some novice-like feelings of trepidation, and look forward to more of the changes they experienced in other phases of their education.

I came here to build on who I already was and how I did things, and build my skill repertoire, acknowledging the fact that educational experiences have always been very life-changing for me. So, I was ready for a life change. I have always loved school. I have always loved the kind of guided education.

It is from this position of an anticipated longitudinal process of change that students try to figure out what they are supposed to be learning from an assignment, and they look to the teachers' critiques for cumulative growth. Seeing the relevance of an assignment from the perspective of their longitudinal growth as scholars can influence how much they invest in doing it, their interest in it, and what they perceive they learn. Some students valued assignments that were quite pragmatic, such as going through the whole process of preparing a paper for presentation including making slides. Others valued learning to write in the form of an argument; summarizing their understanding from complex readings; or "trying on a variety of theoretical frameworks" for their research topic. These are tasks they recognize as new for them and they can make easy connections with what they don't know.

Students were critical of assignments made without clear purpose, "just so we write papers to get a grade." When purposes were obscure or there was lack of credibility, they spoke of "cranking out papers." They resented spending time on quantity instead of quality. They wanted the opportunity to go into greater depth on fewer required activities.

We can learn more in the time we have with some modeling and laying out of expectations.

Students described some instances where the teachers assumed that more growth would occur if students figured out the approach for their writing assignments on their own.

I think a lot of faculty believe, and there is some merit to it, that you shouldn't feed students information. They need to kind of try to figure it out on their own. But, I think there needs to be some point to start from. You need to kind of lay out some expectations, or an introduction.

Assignments in such instances were usually more structured in the nature, required topic, or substance of the assignment, and less structured (read vague) in how the work was to be done, the format, and the criteria for evaluation. In contrast, some teachers were more explicit and structured about the format, expectations, and criteria, and more flexible in what the writing should be about. The flexibility-structure combination of the latter type seemed more compatible with students' stated needs and desires.

The most helpful writing experience has been with the instructor who made it very clear that she considered writing a process, and she would view multiple drafts. This was a very structured writing experience- She gave us the framework that she wanted us to attach our research question on, and how we would go about making it coherent. ... I don't know, some instructors may say that was too structured, but to someone who is learning, it was helpful to have that kind of a framework. I know the process now.

RESPONDING TO WRITING

Editing is often beside the point, if the paper is a first draft.

When reading students' papers, teachers' first inclination is often to start penciling in changes in punctuation, grammar, and syntax. This can be seen as helpful by a few students who believe they "need all the help they can get" with their writing, but, more often it is viewed as irrelevant or an outright affront.

I got a lot of feedback, mostly editorial, but it wasnt very constructive, and if I were to have made all the changes suggested by the comments, I would have felt like I was writing her paper. That doesn't help me a lot, to know that I can write the way somebody else wants me to write, but what helps more, is the interaction, and the thinking through the structuring of this muddle, getting the layout.

We need support and encouragement about our writing.

Support and encouragement were important elements of feedback for most of our participants, but especially so for those new to the language encountered in the doctoral program and to the necessary logic and argumentation of technical writing.

I find it very helpful to have my ideas encouraged, because for me, that is how they get dearer. It is very important that I feel support in the process [of exchange around writing], because I don't feel extremely confident as a scholarly writer, at the moment, at this level, and I think I could probably get Hiere. I can withstand very strong critique, if I know there is support in it.

It is important that comments not be limited to pointing out what is not clear. Encouraging greater clarity is done most powerfully by combining a comment about what the reader understands with what is not yet clear. Students call these "balanced comments" meaning there is positive reinforcement coupled with pointing out a need for improvement.

Unexplained complimentary comments are not useful.

While students need and appreciate encouragement, they are not helped (or appeased) by what they call "empty good comments."

A paper that I spent a long time on. . .had comments next to paragraph like "nice point," but that doesn't really help me very much.

Unless a complimentary comment is linked with a clue as to what was good or why it was good, it does not have instructive value to the student. And too much encouragement without explanation tests the credibility of the teacher and negates the value of the reinforcement.

You can overdo. I had one teacher that everything was "Oh, you are so wonderful." "This is all so good." "This is just great." It is pointless. You are dealing with somebody who you know says that to everyone. There is no critique at all.

No matter what you do or do not comment, we know there is room for improvement.

Students want critique. Irrespective of what might be in the teacher's head, limited teacher comments are not interpreted as: "the paper is good and little work is needed on it." When there is minimal feedback on written assignments, students interpret this in a variety of ways, the most generous of which is teachers' lack of time given their other commitments. More frequently they told us it made them wonder if the papers were even read. This assumption seems to be linked with students' belief that there is always room for improvement, so lack of substantive comments doesn't make sense to them.

I know it isn't a perfect paper, so how can I make it better? That time [to critique] isn't taken, I cant learn and it doesn't do me any good. It looks like they don't care.

Given the importance of the critique to their learning, this last statement reveals the conclusion they draw about teachers' motivations: critique = care, and conversely, lack of critique = the teacher doesn't care. One student put it quite bluntly:

If I spend eight weeks writing a paper, I expect that whoever reads it takes an hour or whatever, to put some effort into reading and critiquing it. A lot of us bust our butts trying to write good papers and trying to learn and trying to be the best we can.

We want you to challenge our thinking and help us expand it.

In many ways, they told us one of their major criteria for judging the quality of feedback was whether it encouraged their thinking. They appreciated thought-provoking questions, pushing the boundaries of their thinking, taking their thinking further, re-directing it, helping them sharpen their argumentation, helping them recognize assumptions, pointing out linkages with other ideas and potentially fruitful avenues of thought, seeing a bigger picture.

The student who related the following called it a "powerful example," one that was so important to her that she had volunteered to be a participant mainly to be able to tell others how a teacher had helped her. The course was early hi the program and the assignment consisted of a series of drafts toward completion of a paper. After reading the feedback on her first draft she didn't understand something so she made an appointment with the teacher. She reported to us with much feeling:

That was the most helpful experience for me, because, she sat and talked with me. She helped me figure out what the intent of this paper was. I didn't know what I was really trying to do with this paper, other than the goal was to write it for this class. I just didnt know how to bring my points together, how to lay it out in terms of a scientific argument. That wasn't even in my repertoire. She asked me questions about my thinking, the state of the art, what I was trying to get across to the reader, why I thought this needed to be investigated. By the time I left her office and thought about it, I was able to figure out what I was doing with that paper. In our conversation, she was able to help me with the global perspective. I have particular trouble with the forest. If I can figure out what the big picture is, I can then do better with the trees. . .1 feel more confident about being able to [write]. I think part of it is based on what I learned from this professor. That's why I think it was so important to me, because it built my confidence that Tee, I can do this."

During the interview, pushing to go more deeply into why this exchange was so helpful: "She assumed I knew the answers to her questions and that I needed help bringing it to my own awareness first, then with being able to put it on a piece of paper. . . ." Through dialogue and listening, this professor and student together were able to bring out and organize the student's thinking.

RESPONDING TO WRITERS

We will be trying to figure out the motivation behind your commente.

In the conversations with students, it became very clear that they do not take comments on their papers at face value. They interpret them as meaning for them as people and as scholars-in-process. The essence of this process is figuring out or making assumptions about the motivation of the teacher, the "why" behind the comments. In addition to seeing if support is present and intended, they value feedback that indicates the teacher believes in their ability, that it matters to the teacher whether they learn to write and think more clearly, and that they are valued enough for the investment of time and energy involved in a thoughtful, thorough critique.

The importance of the perception of the teacher's motivation is illustrated in an example from one student who received a paper back with many comments indicating need for improvement and not many positive ones.

Some students found her extremely critical, and I found her critical as well; but when I went to talk to her, I realized that her critique was to help make it better. Once I understood that I could appreciate her comments. [What had to come together for you to make what you think is a more accurate interpretation of what she wrote to you?] I think it mattered to her, that I, as a researcher and a person, was going to get better, it was the mattering to her. She was interested in my improving, because she thought I had potential to do it. It was surprising to me when ehe told me she thought I wrote well.

The communication in this meeting helped the student attach an enabling meaning to the critical written comments.

We want to know if our writing is clear.

At the most basic level students want to know what message is getting through in their writing, whether what they wrote was clear, whether the reader understood what they meant to convey. This is a vulnerable time in the lives of these women, more so for some than for others. Some are writing about abstractions with this intensity for the first time. It is natural to wonder whether what they have tried to say is coming across as something coherent, reflecting an ability for thinking and expression.

"Am I being clear?" Paraphrasing, or at least specifying what aspects the reader understands from the writing is important to them. This allows them to see whether their thoughts translate into language understandable to others. "Learning the language" was mentioned as a major task. Responses about clarity validate for students whether they are learning to speak the language.

When I got my paper back, I got "this is really interesting, this is a wonderful paper, you really need to send this in for publication, these are new and wonderful ideas" But there was nothing about whether my language was really communicating those ideas to her, and how they did or didn't work, that use of language. I guess in a general sense, it must have, if she understood it when ehe read it. But I would like more evaluative comments.

It is extremely important to us to be seen for our individuality.

Students gave many examples of ways in which teachers could honor them as individuals. Some were very appreciative of being given options for writing topics so they could pursue their own research interests through the assignments. The strength of the desire for these options varied across students from not wanting to stray from their own topic at all to appreciating the opportunity for engaging with topics the teacher specified.

One of the most salient examples given of honoring a student's thinking again involves a person-to-person interaction around specific writing. The teacher listened to this student talk her thoughts and mapped them on paper.

I came with ideas. She didn't ask me to re-think those ideas. Whenever ehe heard me say an idea that was possibly related to the earlier things I had said ehe wrote them down, sort of categorized my jumble for me. And in later sessions together, she continued that way of helping me manage my thoughts so that they didn't seem scattered. My ideas really fit together, even though they came out of my mind in bite and pieces.

Teachers also make assumptions about writing ability and earlier experience preparatory for doctoral study, both over- and under-estimations, that put students at a disadvantage in getting on with learning from where they are at the time.

When I entered this program, I felt like there were a lot of assumptions being made, like I would be able to make the leap from a clinical practicing person to being a researcher and doing concept development [as easily as classmates and without any explanatory orientation to how the leap would be accomplished].

When you respond to our papers, do it in a way that helps us find our voices.

Some told us about their current efforts to figure out how they are or can be incorporated into the writing of the professional community. We hear the search for their voice and authority.

One of my goals is to learn how to incorporate my own self and my own experiences and my own values into my writing. I can write from a scientific sort of approach, in a concise format, and put out other people's ideas in an okay way. But, I feel like what I don't know how to do is to incorporate myself into the writing.

Students believe they can mimic the forms of writing in the professional community but that they are not yet a part of that community.

There is a sense of vulnerability during the struggle to get beyond feeling like an outsider and novice. Because students perceive their writing as part of themselves, they can feel abused during this sensitive transition time if their written ideas are "corrected* or are called "incorrect" without the teacher first exploring with them the budding ideas behind the words on the paper.

As students described such instances, we got the image of the teacher having looked past or through the student, critiquing the writing as though it were unconnected from the experienced, thinking, and feeling self of the student.

Our relationship with you is of central importance to our learning.

The critiques of writing and the responses to the critiques were not separate from the students' relationships with their teachers.

I'm struggling with learning how to take critique and use it, not to take it personally, but to use it because I know I need help, and that ie why I'm here. I need to work on that, because when I do get critique, sometimes it is hard for me to accept it and not to be threatened by it. [Are there some kinds that are harder to accept?] What comee to mind is the relationship that I have with that person, or how they come across interpersonally with me, or in the class. . .where I felt that the person teaching was condescending towards the student group in general. . . . You know, that person was the teacher and we were the students and we were supposed to do things a certain way. That was the way it was and I don't like that. I felt kind of threatened by that.

In the examples of helpful responses and interaction, as opposed to the non-helpful (and sometimes demoralizing) examples, we heard students describing the teacher as: listening; starting where the student is; taking into account the student as an already thinking, experienced individual; assuming they have worthwhile thoughts; not "correcting" as much as giving room for expression and expansion; building on that openness to give the desired rigorous, challenging critique; focusing on the students' priority to grow in ability for logical thought and conceptualization rather than editing early in the process; and laying out clear explanations about why students were asked to do the assigned writing and frameworks or providing models for doing them. In the helpful examples, the descriptions pictured a teacher looking with the student, thinking together, in more egalitarian ways about where the student had come in the writing and where it might be taken next.

How does composition research on writing assignment design, the writing process, and interpersonal dimensions of the writing process help us respond to these messages?

Since the early 1980s, researchers in composition studies have examined the effect of teacher comments on student writers. Most of this work has been done with undergraduate student writers, but the findings and recommendations are applicable to doctoral students. In a review of the research, Sträub (1997) summarizes the last two decades of recommendations to teachers and perceptions from students. Teachers of writing have been encouraged to see their roles not only as evaluators of student writing but, more important, as facilitators of students' development as writers. Recent studies also indicate that high school and undergraduate students value some types of teacher comments more than others, generally valuing facultative over judgmental comments.

This orientation to response developed hand in hand with the shift from viewing writing as a product to viewing writing as a process (Hairston, 1982). If writing is viewed not only as the final written product, but also as the process students engage in over time, then it follows that responses to student writing should vary depending on where students are in the writing process. When instructors began to focus on the writing procese students engaged in, they began to look for ways to intervene at key points. Some common interventions that resulted were short, ungraded writing activities leading up to a draft, required draft/revision sequences, one-to-one writing conferences on drafts (Harris, 1987), peer writing groups (Biehop, 1988), and writing centers (Harris, 1995) where students could work together on their writing. A common purpose of all of these activities was to intervene constructively, to provide responses appropriate to the students' needs at particular stages of the writing process.

The focus on the writing process and intervention at various stages of the writing process also brought attention to the writer and recognition of the individual and interpersonal aspects of the writing process that aren't visible when the focus is on the final written product. Motivated by this awareness, researchers began examining interactions in one-to-one conferences and tutorials (Bruffee, 1978); they began studying student perceptions of teacher comments on their papers (as reviewed by Sträub, 1997); they looked at attitudes and expectations student writers brought to the writing classroom and the effect of the conventions of academic discourse on different groups of students (Bizzell, 1986). They asked what happened to undergraduate writers when they moved from one academic discipline to another and whether and how to facilitate that transition (MacDonald, 1987, 1989). By looking at students' experience of writing, these researchers were discovering factors that affected students' socialization into academic writing.

An important outcome of this focus on the writing process and the writer is the ongoing Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) movement (Pulwiler, 1984; Maimón, 1980; McLeod, 1987a; Walvoord, 1996). As WAC proponents emphasize, students write not only in writing courses but in all courses in the curriculum. Further, what counts as good writing varies from discipline to discipline. A large part of the task of helping students write is socializing them into the conventions of academic disciplines. While faculty whose primary focus is teaching writing can prepare students to negotiate this socialization process, it is the responsibility of faculty in other disciplines to complete it, to help students see what counts as good argument and evidence in their particular discipline. In the 20 years since WAC entered the undergraduate curriculum, undergraduate faculty from anthropology to zoology have paid more attention to how students learn to think and to write in their disciplines. Through assignments that more explicitly delineate writing tasks and through opportunities for feedback and revision at different stages of the writing process, faculty teaching in all undergraduate courses have done a lot to socialize students into the discourses of their disciplines. A key to their success, and to their willingness to participate in this way, is their recognition that by paying more attention to students' writing, they are actually paying more attention to the kind of thinking they want their students to do and helping them to do it.

Table

TABLEAdvice to Doctoral Faculty Based on Student Messages in this Study and Principles from the Writing Across the Curriculum Movement

TABLE

Advice to Doctoral Faculty Based on Student Messages in this Study and Principles from the Writing Across the Curriculum Movement

This review of the past 20 years of research and developments in the teaching of writing provides a useful context for interpreting the doctoral students' messages to faculty and for suggesting ways that faculty can act on these messages. Doctoral students are asking for the same kind of response to their writing that undergraduate writers have been receiving as a result of the past 20 years of developments in composition instruction. Doctoral students want opportunities to engage in the writing process through multiple drafts and through specific, constructive feedback that acknowledges their individuality and encourages them to grow as writers.

Doctoral students are also implying that their faculty should adopt the perspective of faculty teaching in WAC programs. Doctoral students want faculty to help them to think like nursing scholars in this community of researchers. Purposeful assignments that engage doctoral students in the thinking of the discipline are one way to accomplish this socialization. Another, strategy appears in many of the messages. Again and again, doctoral students are saying, engage us in conversations in which we work together to figure out what to say:

What helps more, is the interaction, and the thinking through the structuring. She assumed I knew the answers to her questions and that I needed help bringing it to my own awareness. She continued that way of helping me manage my thoughts so that they didn't seem scattered.

The message to faculty here is, help us join the conversation. When doctoral students ask for help "learning the language," when they wonder if their "language was really communicating" they aren't asking their faculty to be writing teachers so much as they are asking them to be their guides. They aren't asking for editing; they are asking for socialization into the scholarly community. The Table summarizes doctoral students' messages and offers specific suggestions for doctoral faculty from some of the classic and current literature on composition and writing across the curriculum.

The realization that helping students with their writing means helping them to think, to make arguments, and use evidence in ways typical of a specific discipline, is what drew many undergraduate faculty into the WAC movement. Freed from seeing themselves as writing teachers, a role that often carried some anxiety, they were much more willing to see themselves as experts who could share strategies for formulating questions, developing arguments, and using evidence. For many of their students, it was this sharing that made the difference to their writing. For faculty teaching doctoral students, this advice may be the most useful message from this study. Think of yourselves less as teachers of writing and more as guides to the thinking we need to do to be part of your community.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

We wish to thank our colleague, Robin Andersen, for her interest and generosity in assisting with the transcriptions necessary for this study.

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Advice to Doctoral Faculty Based on Student Messages in this Study and Principles from the Writing Across the Curriculum Movement

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