Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Assisting the postgraduate research and writing process: Learning in context across disciplines

Colin J Beasley
Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
I am indebted to my colleagues Sally Knowles and David Lake for their invaluable ideas and involvement in the development of these units.
Postgraduate study involves many challenges in terms of intellectual, technical and organisational skills, as well as confidence. This paper outlines a new initiative at the author's university and represents work in progress in assisting postgraduate students with the research and writing process. The first of two credit bearing units co-ordinated by the Teaching and Learning Centre will be available to postgraduate research students in 1999. The first unit is designed for students in the beginning stages of candidature. It aims to develop greater understanding of the nature of the postgraduate study process, to prepare students better for their research proposals and seminar presentations, and to provide useful strategies for the development of their theses. Importantly, it provides skills building in key areas and competencies within the context of students' areas of specialisation. The second unit (available in 2000) is designed for students in the middle of their candidature and aims to develop thesis and research paper writing skills. The form, content and conventions of the various sections of the thesis and research paper will be explored in depth. Both units entail close liaison with supervisors and represent an attempt to assist postgraduate research and writing both across disciplines and in the context of students' disciplinary areas.

Introduction

There has been increasing recognition in recent years of the considerable difficulties and challenges of postgraduate study, especially for international students for whom English is a second language (ESL), and the need for better induction and support programmes for all postgraduate students. The range and adequacy of induction and support strategies currently adopted at tertiary institutions in Australia and elsewhere are exceedingly varied. Some approaches include discipline - based but voluntary workshop programmes for all students (Beasley and Knowles, 1994; Knowles and Lake, 1996; Cerone and Caruso, 1997), a compulsory discipline - based "structured program" for Ph.D. students (Austin and Kiley, 1996), integrated bridging courses and programmes for international students (Felix, 1993; Felix and Lawson, 1994; Cargill, 1996; Cargill and McGowan, 1996), a structured course-work based "qualifying year" (Keepes, 1989), formal (6 month) induction programmes (Phillips, 1989), and more informal and ad hoc seminar series, workshops, forums, induction and language and learning support programmes (Taylor, O'Connell and Radloff, 1996; Sandeman-Gay, 1996; McLaine, 1998; Allison, Cooley, Lewkowski and Nunan, 1998).

This paper outlines work in progress to assist research students at the author's university with the research and writing process through two one semester long credit - bearing units. These units are an extension of the successful four week intensive Introductory Academic Program (IAP) that had been developed at our university over several years to prepare AusAID sponsored and other international and local students from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) for their postgraduate studies. This latest initiative has been driven by economic and educational considerations: both to ensure funding for postgraduate support in the light of uncertainty over the numbers of AusAID sponsored students and a desire to provide better support for a wider number of students (both ESB and NESB), especially students in smaller research programmes with poorly developed induction and support procedures.

Particular features of both units include a collaborative approach between language and learning staff and subject specialists (Beasley and Knowles, 1994; Knowles and Lake, 1996), a systematic attention to improving reading and writing through a genre based approach (Bazerman, 1988; Clerehan and Moodie, 1997; Hopkins and Dudley-Evans, 1988; Swales, 1984, 1987, 1990; Weissberg and Buker, 1990), the development of relevant academic skills and strategies in the context of students' own research areas (Beasley, 1990; Benesch, 1988; Snow and Brinton, 1988), and the utilising of the experiences of other postgraduate students. This unit entails close liaison with supervisors and with divisional co-ordinators of postgraduate studies to advise on the expectations, standards, and conventions of their disciplinary areas as well as to recommend relevant theses and research papers for study and analysis. Students will be encouraged to make writing an ongoing process so as not to adopt a "writing up" approach (ie. writing up the research after the research has been done and at the final stages of candidature). Students at different stages of candidature will be invited to participate in class discussions and close liaison will be maintained with the postgraduate students association (MUPSA), in particular, to fulfil this aim.

The first unit, Postgraduate Research and Writing Process I, is designed to help with the induction of research students into their postgraduate studies and concentrates on preparing students through focussing on their thesis proposals (see also Paltridge, 1997) and seminar presentations. It will be offered in first semester 1999 on a pilot basis. The next section provides the description of the unit as it will appear in the university handbook, a rationale for the unit, and the expected outcomes. This is followed by an outline of the topics and assessment tasks for the unit at the time of writing. The second unit, Postgraduate Research and Writing Process II, is designed for the middle of a student's candidature and aims to develop thesis writing skills, but will not, however, be available till second semester 2000, due to staffing constraints. The handbook unit description, rationale and expected outcomes are also provided below for the second unit.

Postgraduate Research and Writing Process I

Enrolment Options: first semester (internal)  3 points

This unit introduces students to the demands of the postgraduate research and writing process at Murdoch and builds confidence in dealing with these demands. It aims firstly, to familiarise students with the academic, linguistic and cultural conventions of postgraduate study in their disciplinary areas, and to introduce students to the learning resources of Murdoch University. Secondly, it aims to prepare students for the writing of their research proposal and the seminar presentation, and to provide strategies for the development of their thesis. In addition, it provides skills building in key areas and competencies such as time management and planning; carrying out independent research and structuring a thesis; and working with a supervisor. Language skills will be developed within the context of students' areas of specialisation, and strategies will be provided for international students to facilitate cultural and academic adjustment.

Seminars / Workshops: 3 hrs per week

Prerequisites: None, however this unit is designed for students in the beginning stages of candidature, ideally prior to submission of a research proposal.

Rationale

The transition from undergraduate studies to postgraduate studies involves many changes in terms of status, standards and styles of written work, and challenges in terms of intellectual, technical and organisational skills, as well as confidence. Particular difficulties for some students beginning research include moving from the highly directed and structured undergraduate curriculum to the very open and negotiable work of a research degree. The formulation of a manageable research proposal at the start of a student's candidature is problematic because it is a process requiring a series of critical and analytical steps including focusing on a feasible research topic, formulating relevant research questions, reviewing pertinent literature, and justifying the significance of the proposed research. Students are often inadequately prepared for the challenges of postgraduate study. Unfortunately, it is wrongly assumed that a distinctive academic performance at undergraduate level is an adequate preparation for postgraduate study and that students have all the requisite skills on entry to a research degree programme. Consequently, there is a need to provide a more structured induction period to ease this transition. Because of the scope and dimensions of the writing task, there is a strong need for early guidance in the structuring and development of a thesis, and for the ongoing development of research writing skills in order to obviate substantial and often highly stressful academic and editorial assistance in the final stages of the degree.

Expected outcomes

Upon successful completion of this unit, it is expected that students will have gained a clearer understanding of the nature, expectations and demands of postgraduate research and writing in general and at Murdoch in particular; familiarity with their own discipline of study and its research and writing requirements; improved language and learning skills and strategies appropriate to postgraduate research and writing in their discipline of study; an understanding of different thesis genres, and their language and information conventions; improved skills and understanding in planning and writing their literature review, research proposal and thesis; improved skills in seminar preparation and presentation; and useful experience in producing limited scope documents according to their school of study's requirements.

Unit outline

WeekTopicPreparation
required
Assessment tasks due
1Introduction: Unit Aims and Overview
Assessment Tasks
Read Study
Guide pp.
Start research log (40%)
(Due Weeks 2 - 9)
2Student - Supervisor Relations & Expectations
The Uni Research Culture
Read Study
Guide pp.
Submit research log entries on personal aims
3Independent Study
Time Management
Read Study
Guide pp.
Submit research log entries on student - supervisor relations and uni research culture
4Library Research Skills
Using databases, Internet, email, Endnote
Read Study
Guide pp.
Submit research log entries on time and anxiety management
5Critical Research Reading
Analysing research paper and thesis structure
Read Study
Guide pp.
Submit research log entries on library research skills
Non-teaching week
6Formulating Research Questions
Planning a thesis
Read Study
Guide pp.
Submit research log entries on research paper and thesis structure
7Critical Research Writing
Building academic skills
Read Study
Guide pp.
Submit log entries on research questions and thesis plan
8Critical Research Writing
Literature Reviews
Read Study
Guide pp.
Submit log entries on critical summary of a research paper
9Writing a Research ProposalRead Study
Guide pp.
Submit log entries on numeracy and an annotated bibliography
Non-teaching week
10Presenting Seminars
Developing Skills
Read Study
Guide pp.
Submit draft research proposal for feedback
11Presenting Seminars
Developing Skills
Read Study
Guide pp.
Seminar presentations (20%) (including giving and receiving feedback)
12Presenting Seminars
Developing Skills
Read Study
Guide pp.
Seminar presentations (continued)
13Developing expertise
Refining Research Proposals and Strategies
Read Study
Guide pp.
Submit final research proposal (30%)
Study weekAssign participation mark (10%)

Postgraduate Research and Writing Process II

Enrolment Options: second semester (internal)  3 points

This unit is designed to help students meet the demands of postgraduate research writing including theses and research papers. It aims firstly, to familiarise students with the academic, linguistic and cultural conventions of the research and thesis writing process. Secondly, it examines in depth the form, content and conventions of the various sections of the thesis and research paper, both generically and within the context of students' areas of specialisation. Relevant theses and research papers recommended by students' supervisors will be used for analysis of components, and information and language conventions. Thirdly, this unit provides a systematic approach to improving writing with skills building in structuring and writing, revising and editing, and preparing research documents for submission. This unit combines group work with individual and peer writing support and entails close liaison with supervisors and divisional co-ordinators of postgraduate studies.

Seminars / Workshops: 3 hrs per week

Prerequisites: None, although completion of Postgraduate Research and Writing Process I is strongly recommended. Note however that this unit is designed for students in the middle of their candidature.

Rationale

Thesis and research paper writing is often the most difficult and challenging aspect of postgraduate study, and this is especially so for students from language backgrounds other than English. Students may have the intellectual and technical skills necessary for postgraduate research but be quite unskilled in sustained academic writing of the scope and dimensions of a thesis or a research paper. Students need to be encouraged to make writing a systematic and ongoing process of development and not to adopt a "writing up" approach whereby nearly all of the writing up of the research is left until the final stages of candidature after the completion of the research. Many students lack skills in structuring and writing, revising and editing, and preparing research documents for submission, and may be unaware that the revision process is vital to refining and improving content as well as rhetoric. To demonstrate the importance of revision and feedback in building a thesis text, staff will use a set of guidelines on drafting and feedback which raise awareness of different drafting styles and preferences for giving and receiving feedback. In sum, there is a clear need for early development of research writing skills in order to ease the distress of students and the pressure placed on supervisors, students and support staff who are trying to achieve acceptable writing outcomes for under-equipped postgraduate students facing looming deadlines in the final stages of candidature.

Expected outcomes

Upon successful completion of this unit, it is expected that students will have gained a clearer understanding of the nature, expectations and demands of postgraduate research and writing in general and at Murdoch in particular; familiarity with their own discipline of study and its research and writing requirements; improved language and learning skills and strategies appropriate to postgraduate research and writing in their discipline of study; a clearer understanding of different thesis genres, and their language and information conventions; improved skills and understanding in planning and writing a thesis and research paper; and improved skills and understanding in revising, editing and preparing a thesis and research paper for submission.

Conclusion

This paper has reported on work in progress at the author's university to help postgraduate research students with the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study. The two credit bearing units aim to develop students' understanding of the postgraduate research and writing process and useful strategies and skills for all aspects of this process, especially in the key area of taking responsibility for one's own learning (Phillips and Pugh, 1987) and in planning and writing a thesis. Both units entail close liaison with supervisors and represent an attempt to assist postgraduate research and writing both across disciplines and in the context of students' disciplinary areas.

References

Allison, D., Cooley, L., Lewkowski, J. and Nunan, D. (1998). Dissertation writing in action: The development of a dissertation writing support program for ESL graduate research students. English for Specific Purposes, 17, 199-217.

Austin, A. and Kiley, M. (1996) The structured program for Ph.D. students at Adelaide University: The crop protection model. Paper presented at the National conference Quality in postgraduate research - is it happening?, Adelaide, 18-19 April.

Bazerman, C. (1988). Shaping written knowledge: The genre and activity of the experimental article in Science. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

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Cerone, P. and Caruso, G. (1997). Providing scaffolding for theses preparation in Computer and Mathematical Sciences. In Z. Golebiowski and H. Borland (Eds.), Academic Communication across disciplines and cultures, (pp. 48-53). Selected proceedings of the First National Conference on Tertiary Literacy: Research and Practice (Volume 2) Victoria University of Technology, Melb.

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Taylor, C., O'Connell, B. and Radloff, A. (1996). How can we best help research students develop scholarly writing? In S. Leong and D. Kirkpatrick (Eds.), Different approaches: Theory and practice in higher education (Proceedings of the 1996 HERDSA Annual Conference): Research and Development in Higher Education, Vol 19, pp. 856-858.

Weissberg, R. & Buker, S. (1990). Writing up research: Experimental research report writing for students of English. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Regents.

Please cite as: Beasley, C. J. (1999). Assisting the postgraduate research and writing process: Learning in context across disciplines. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 35-41. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/beasley.html


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