Student supervision and feedback

Why strong labs sometimes submit weak papers (Josh Schimel)

I’m sure almost all of us have had to deal with manuscripts where we knew it would be much easier to take the data and just write the paper ourselves, rather than try to coax a student’s work into a polished form. But doing that would undermine them; they need to learn how to write good papers, how to manage the process, and how to gauge when a paper is ready to submit.

In Writing Science, I pointed out that “doing science is inherently an act of both confidence and humility” and that getting the balance between them “is one of the greatest challenges all developing scientists face.” Learning that balance involves both over-shoots and under-shoots. For a student to become a fully fledged professional and peer (as they should), they need to establish ability and confidence, and to develop an independent identity. They need room to grow and to become a peer.

I’ve sometimes found myself in the situation described above, where the student work I’vwe been going through has seemed to have so many issues that it would be easier for me to simply rewrite the work than to try and guide the student towards deeper understanding. I have to fight the urge to correct what I see as problems, and give feedback that aims to help the student see the problems themselves. Until they learn how to recognise the issues and make appropriate changes, we’re not helping them to develop as academics and colleagues.

As a supervisor, one of the ways that I’ve found to avoid this has been to switch off the “Track changes” feature. While it gives me a sense of satisfaction to see how much I’ve “helped”, I know that the student will probably just “Accept all changes”. This means that my attempt to show them a “better” way has missed the point because they won’t be paying attention to it anyway. I was alerted to this fact when the due date for a Masters proposal was rapidly approaching and the student was beginning to stress about their impending submission. They were concerned when I suggested that they begin final preparations, and responded that it wasn’t ready yet, because I, the supervisor, had not yet corrected all of the grammar and spelling. That’s when I knew that I was the problem.

Now when I give feedback I try to ensure that my comments are in the form of questions that highlight what I think are gaps in the students thinking or writing processes. I try to give suggestions for actions that the student can take in order to addresse these gaps, and sometimes offer links to resources that they can use. The point is that it is the responsibility of the student to take action, based on the feedback, in order to improve the work.

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Michael Rowe

I'm a physiotherapy lecturer at the University of the Western Cape and have an interest in technology-mediated teaching and learning.

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