Within the first six months of candidature, a research student is usually given a purposeful writing task to advance their research project and to enable their research supervisors to ascertain their writing abilities.
This writing task is often a research proposal, because this particular type of writing most resembles the final dissertation in that it is an argument which argues for:
- A way of understanding a particular topic or question, and given that framework
- A way to investigate that topic.
Sometimes the design of the research proposal is preordained, in that the university stipulates a particular look or structure for the research proposal. This is as much a scaffold for students in the development of their writing skills, as it is to simplify the milestone assessment process by having similarly written documents.
While a research proposal may be evaluated by a panel whose responsibility it is to confirm that the proposed research is doable and able to progress, the prime reader of the proposal is more likely to be the research supervisor, and this readership comes with a range of evaluative tools.
It is fair to say that evaluation of a student’s writing takes place in two forms.
Students may meet with their supervisor while they are writing their research proposal, and thus obtain feedback on their writing in the process of developing the research proposal, and these meetings can also provide input for the research supervisor as to how the student is progressing with this task. Students will most likely demonstrate their writing skills in the finished research proposal and they need to receive feedback on this text for them to progress to a full dissertation.
In the case of the student asking for a meeting in the development of their writing, a key question that a research supervisor could be asking is ‘where does the student believe they are at in the writing of their research proposal?’. This presupposes that there is a process and that students understand this process sufficiently that they can nominate where they are in the process. They may not even understand what it is they have to do. They may understand the requirements but be unable to start reading literature. They may be well advanced and seeking clarification and encouragement along the way. Much of the feedback during the process is very specific to the students nominated issues. The feedback tends to address why they came to see you in the first place.
Once a supervisor has received the final draft of a student’s writing there are a number of questions they can ask themselves in order to ascertain the quality or level of development of the research student’s writing skills.
- Does the student understand the nature of the task of writing a research proposal?
This question has inbuilt into it ‘Does the student understand the nature of a literature review?’ which is an important part of the research proposal.
- Has the student undertaken sufficient reconnaissance of the discourses associated with the topic to begin to structure a framework for understanding their topic?
- Does the writing of this reconnaissance display evidence of critical reading?
- Is the student able to marshal the knowledge they have gleaned from discourses to develop a question or sub topic which will enable their investigation to make a contribution to knowledge?
- Can the student identify what is ’known’ about their topic, sufficiently to be able to identify what might not be known, and thus provide a space for a contribution to knowledge?
- Has the student undertaken sufficient reconnaissance of the discourses related to their topic to be able to propose a way of investigating their particular issue or question?
Each of these questions represents a core level of academic writing for a student to be able to produce a research proposal.
Alongside these questions is a question that applies to their quality of writing which questions whether their knowledge of English grammar and syntax is sufficient for this high level of writing.
There are some additional questions that supervisors might pose of the writing in an effort to suggest how the writing might be developed.
- Has the student developed their own voice as an investigator with regard to this particular topic?
- Is the student writing to the discipline as an audience or writing as if there is an individual reader? Although a dissertation may only be read by a few people it needs to be written for the field within the discipline.
- Richardson (2000) talks about writing as inquiry. Is it evident that the process of writing is enabling a student to delve deeper into an understanding of the particular issue they are investigating?
Each student is different, and each research proposal will respond to these differences, so these questions may have to be massaged so that they address more readily the student’s uniqueness and the specialty of their investigation.
The questions are also useful for providing feedback and direction to a student so that they can benefit from this writing task and move on to undertake their research and write their dissertation.
Richardson, L. (2000). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd ed., pp. 923-948). Sage, Thousand Oaks: CA, U.S.A.