Why do research supervisors provide feedback on samples of student’s academic writing?

The general reason for providing feedback to research students on their samples of academic writing is to advance their knowledge and quality in academic writing.  Given that most research is assessed by means of a written research report or dissertation, it is essential for research students to develop the appropriate strategies in academic writing that help them to signify the rigour and quality of their research writing.

Without necessarily being conscious of it, research supervisors have different agendas when they provide feedback. Being aware of these agendas can help a research supervisor enhance each individual agenda and improve the overall quality of feedback they provide for their research students.

1. Correcting errors.

As with any written document, despite the technological advances of spell check, there can still be spelling errors in the text. In the case of academic text, the bar is lifted with the sometimes complex rules for citation. Both create opportunities for errors and inconsistencies. The idea of an inconsistency is that while a word or phrase may be technically spelt correctly, in the context of the broader dissertation, the multiple correct spellings may be inconsistent, either in spelling, font or writing style.

Drawing attention to errors may involve simply highlighting the error, for example a spelling error, or drawing the research student’s attention to the citation rules, or pointing out the instances of inconsistency. With citation, it helps if the supervisor and student are using a common publication manual and then the research supervisor can alert the research student to the appropriate page in the manual which illuminates the particular citation rule.  

2. Alerting students to genre requirements.

The research dissertation, research proposal, literature review and even journal articles are all variations in the genre of academic writing. In any writing genre there are rules of expression. These rules can vary discipline to discipline. When you alert a student to a particular rule, they have the choice to either adhere to the rule, or to mount a challenge against the application of the rule in their writing because of some unique feature of their investigation. Understanding the reason for the rule allows them to argue against it more convincingly.

A good case in point is the use of the third person in research reports to convey a sense of objectivity to the issue under investigation. In recent years, because the notion of objectivity within research has been challenged, this rule is seen as a much more flexible one and for certain research methods, such as action research, there are now also well established arguments for writing in the first person (Somekh, 1995).

 3. Raise critical reflection

The skill of critical reflection is paramount in academic writing. Critical reflection is itself a disputed term and in using this term I understand it to mean reflecting in such a way as to become aware of your own beliefs.

Providing feedback to stimulate critical reflection requires drawing attention to the nuances of the writing such as definitions and consistency of terms throughout the broader dissertation.

In this type of feedback you are not so much indicating a problem but stimulating the research student to deeper consideration of what they have written in the hope of developing a more rigorous discussion.

4. Draw attention to the broader issues across the full dissertation document

The dissertation is an extended argument. It argues for

  1. How a given issue or topic can be understood
  2. How, given that understanding, the given issue or topic can be investigated.
  3. How to make sense of the data collected in the pursuit of the investigation
  4. What the data contributes to an understanding of the original issue or topic

As such, the supervisor can provide feedback related to how well the argument has been articulated and whether as a result of the extended argument there appears to be inconsistencies within the argument. These inconsistencies are more that inconsistencies in spelling or expression but in the content of the argument itself.

This may involve the research supervisor noting the page of the inconsistency and where, earlier in the text there appears to be a contradiction.

The best example I can think of this is one I have occasionally identified in theses I examine – a lack of alignment between what has been written in the abstract about what a reader can expect in the dissertation and what the reader actually encounters in the dissertation.

Another example, also from my examining experience, is where the description of the methodology does not match what actually took place in gathering the data. This in itself is not a problem as investigations may often fall out differently from what was intended, and what was described. What is problematic is when a student fails to acknowledge this discrepancy. Some research students even use this common discrepancy between what was planned and what happened to demonstrate their problem solving in the research process.

5. Help the research student think about how an examiner might read their work.

Although universities send dissertation examiners a list of the criteria by which they want the dissertation evaluated, these are often general. Many examiners have their own ideas about what constitutes a good dissertation and these tend to rule them more than the criteria provided by the university. This is a dilemma that I and my colleagues commented on when we wrote about dissertation examiners needing training (Sankaran, Swepson and Hill, 2005).

Mindful of this dilemma, research supervisors can provide feedback to their research students for ways to write their dissertation that scaffold the content for the reader/examiner and hence improves the readability of the dissertation.

A good example of scaffolded writing often appears in the introductory chapter of the dissertation when the research student outlines the subsequent chapters of their dissertation and explains how the chapters fit together to produce the dissertation argument.

Another scaffolded writing choice can appear at the beginning of each chapter, explaining how the chapter fits into the sequence with the previous chapter. Similarly, at the end of a chapter, the content can be summarised and the subsequent chapter foreshadowed to show how it will progress the argument.

Sankaran, S., Swepson, P. and Author. (2005) Do Research Thesis Examiners Need Training? Practitioner stories. The Qualitative Report 10(4): 817-835.

Somekh, B. (1995). The Contribution of Research to Development of Social Endeavours: A position paper on action research methodology. British Education Research Journal 21(3): 339-355.

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About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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