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.

Digital storytelling at CPUT

Here is a presentation by Daniela Gachago (@dgachago17) and Veronica Barnes as part of a series on innovative teaching and learning practices at South African higher education institutions. in addition, here are some other Digital Storytelling presentations by Daniela.

If basic research were conducted under the conditions of educational research

Council of the rats, from Wikimedia Commons
Council of the rats, from Wikimedia Commons.

This post was originally published at /usr/space.

Basic, bench research study – you are testing the mechanism of an airborne viral infection on lung function:

  • You have a line of carefully bred rats, all genetically identical.
  • You keep them under controlled conditions of temperature, food, exposure to the environment and isolation from other rats.
  • You expose them to the virus under conditions to ensure they get identical levels of exposure to the pathogen – viral concentrations and durations of exposure.
  • If desired, you expose them to the virus multiple times at specified intervals.
  • After an appropriate interval, you sacrifice the rats to examine the lung tissue for evidence of the effect of the virus.

If you take the same kind of study and try to implement it under the conditions of most educational research, you have something like the following:

  • Your rats come from everywhere: white rats, sewer rats, pet rats, roof rats, Norwegian rats, and even a few mice. In fact, the rats are INTENTIONALLY selected to be diverse, rather than uniform.
  • You have no control over where the rats live, what they eat, what they do, what other rats they consort with, or what activities they pursue.
  • You expose them to the airborne virus in a large room when all the rats are gathered together by releasing the aerosol at the front of the room and letting if diffuse through the rest of the room. During this exposure interval, some rats come in late, some leave early, some are sleeping and thereby breathe in less of the virus, while others are active and breathe in more. Of course, some of the rats aren’t even there.
  • If you want to have multiple exposures, some of the rats from the first exposure will now be absent, whereas other rats will be there for the first time.
  • After exposure, many rats intentionally try to share the virus with their fellow rats.
  • At the same time, dozens of other researchers are using the same rats for their own studies, exposing them to various agents, running them through various mazes, observing their behaviours and feeding them all manner of diets.
  • Instead of holding them in controlled conditions while the virus establishes itself, you have to release them back into the wild, where they roam freely, engaging in all sorts of unexpected activities and exposing themselves to all sorts of other viruses.
  • When it comes time to perform the autopsies to examine the effects of the virus, you first have to catch as many of the rats as possible. Some evade capture and other that you trap don’t look familiar to you and you question whether they are really part of the study.
  • Then, you find that the ethics board denies you the opportunity to sacrifice the rats. Instead, you must develop tests to infer the effects of the virus or questionnaires to ask the rats “how they feel”.

Larry D. Gruppen (PhD), University of Michigan Medical School

Developing a professional online identity

This post was originally written at /usr/space for the participants of the #pht402 Professional Ethics course. For many of the participants working online was a new and interesting experience but for most it probably wouldn’t progress much further than that. This post was intended to highlight how the blogs that had been created as part of the course might form the foundation of an online professional identity that could be carried forward as evidence of learning in a variety of contexts. Note that while the context of this post was for health care professionals, the principles are more broadly applicable to other fields.

digital_identityIn an increasingly connected and digital world, it often seems that too much is happening, too quickly. Every week another online service, app or device is competing for your time and it can be overwhelming to decide where to focus your attention. Even in our professional lives as clinicians or academics, there’s an increasing sense that “being” online is important, even if we don’t know exactly “how” to be, or “where” to be. There is a move towards the sharing of clinical experiences and resources that can add value to your professional life, if the available services and tools are used effectively. The clinical context is so dynamic, complex and challenging that we owe it to ourselves, our colleagues and our professions to share what we know.

The Internet offers a perfect platform for this professional interaction, particularly through the use of social media. “Social media” is an umbrella term for a range of online services that facilitate the creation, curation and sharing of user-generated content. It is increasingly being tied in to mobile devices (i.e. smartphones and tablets) that make it easy to share many aspects of our personal and professional lives. Some examples of the types of technologies that come under this term are: blogs (like we’re seeing in this course), microblogs (e.g. Twitter), wikis (e.g. Wikipedia, Physiopedia), podcasts, discussion forums, virtual social worlds (e.g. Second Life), gaming worlds (e.g. World of Warcraft) and social networks (e.g. Google+ and Facebook). As you can see, the term “social media” covers a lot of ground, which is why it’s sometimes difficult to figure out what exactly someone means when they talk mention it.

While the main theme of this post is to highlight the benefits of creating and maintaining an online professional presence, bear in mind that it’s not enough to simply “be” online. The main advantage of having an online professional identity is that it allows you to interact and engage with others in your field. Twenty years ago, academics and clinicians could only rely on the (very slow) process of publication and citation to learn about changes in the field. Now, with the affordances that the web provides, crafting a professional online identity can happen very quickly. However, it’s the interaction and engagement through conversation and discussion that builds reputation and a sense of presence, rather than simply “being there”.

You might be feeling that this is all a bit overwhelming and that you don’t have possibly have the time to get involved with all of these services. And you’d be right. Try to think of this as a developmental process, one that is going to take time to evolve. You didn’t emerge from university as a fully-formed, well-rounded clinical practitioner or researcher. It took time for you to develop the confidence to engage with colleagues, to share your ideas and to contribute to professional dialogue. Establishing an online identity is no different.

Whether you decide to continue updating your blog, or to start tweeting, the point is that you start somewhere, and start small. As your confidence grows, you’ll want to begin experimenting with other services, integrating them with each other and building them into your workflow. This is the most crucial part because if you think of this as just another thing you have to do, or another place you have to go, you’ll find yourself resenting it. Build a foundation in one space at a time, and only use services and applications that you feel provide you with value.

In the beginning, you may feel more comfortable “lurking” on social media sites, listening to the conversation without really contributing. This is OK and is likened to a form of Wenger’s concept of legitimate peripheral participation. Over time, as you gain confidence you may begin to feel that you have something to say. This may be as simple as posting your own content (e.g. a tweet, a blog post, a status update), sharing the content of others, or agreeing / disagreeing with something that someone else has said. Whatever it is, don’t feel pressured to say something profound or clever. Just give your sincere input to the conversation.

In case you’re wondering if there are any rules or regulations in terms of using social media as a health care professional, that’s hard to say. Many organisations and institutions do have a set of policies that can inform practice when it comes to employees using social media, although it’s hard to say if these are rules or guidelines. One of the biggest difficulties is that as a health care professional, the public often perceives you as always being “on duty”. A physio is always a physio, whether you’re working or not, which makes it difficult to determine what is appropriate to share, and when. The following list of health-related social media policies may help you to tread the fine line between your personal and professional online identities.

Developing an online professional identity and presence is an essential aspect of modern scholarship and increasingly, clinical practice. Not only does it allow you to connect and engage with researchers, academics and other clinicians in your field of interest, but it helps to develop your professional reputation by giving you an international platform to share your work and your ideas.

There are many services and platforms already available, with more becoming available all the time. While it’s not necessary to have a presence and to participate in all possible online spaces, it helps to be aware of what is available and how the different services can be used in the development of your own professional identity. Finally, while developing a professional presence is advisable, be aware that what you share and how you share will have as much of an impact on whether your share or not. There are some guidelines that are particularly relevant for health care professionals and researchers, but even then, the area is under such rapid development that it’s difficult for institutional social media policies to keep up. If in doubt, always check with your employer and colleagues.

Writing a research proposal for T&L

Here are my notes from a presentation by Prof. Denise Wood on developing a research proposal for projects looking at T&L.

Image from Tony Duckle's Flickr photostreamUnderstanding the funding body is important when it comes to applying for funding. Disciplinary specific proposals may not be successful when it comes to T&L projects.

Local evidence of successful projects is important before applying for larger grants. Collaborative teamwork is a great way to build ideas and test concepts. Local resources help you get started and build a track record. Generating pilot data helps to begin publishing. When panels review research proposals, your previous experience in obtaining funding and successful proposals is highly emphasised.

Why are you undertaking the study? Knowing your goals will justify your design decisions. What are your goals:

  • Personal
  • Practical
  • Intellectual / theoretical

Writing proposals is closely tied to career trajectory

How are you using research and research projects to improve your teaching practice?

What conceptual framework are you using:

  • Research paradigm
  • Experiential knowledge
  • Existing theory and research
  • Pilot and exploratory studies

Interested in addressing a gap, bringing in personal reflections that guide and influence the research. If you only think of your conceptual framework as a literature review, then you limit the scope of your research to what others have done.

Research questions:

  • What is the relationship between the goals and the conceptual framework?
  • Help to guide the actual research design / methods
  • Used to connect the problem and practical concerns
  • Should be specific and focused on the study
  • Need to allow flexibility to reveal unanticipated phenomena (if the questions are too focused you may miss emergent ideas)
  • Need to avoid inherent assumptions as they bias the study

Find a balance in the number of questions (3-4 is usually adequate)

Begin with divergent thinking to allow yourself space to explore many possibilities. Mind mapping is useful to identify high-level ideas. Begin reading broadly and then begin narrowing the focus. You can’t answer all possible questions in one study.

Try to avoid getting too caught up in the details of the research methods. Only use methods that you understand.

Note that you will be informed by your own epistemological understanding of what knowledge is and how we come to know. Your methods (quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods)  will most likely mirror your understanding of how we come to know. This will in turn guide how you sample, gather and analyse data.

For local studies, it’s OK to use a pilot within a classroom. Use this to identify a single context. Larger proposals would be better to expand the scope of the study and test the outcome of the pilot. On the basis of the smaller studies, you can make an argument for the larger study. Think laterally about how you can collect data.

  • Validity: How might you be wrong?
  • Bias (what assumptions do you bring with you? Results and interpretation distorted by your own values and preconceptions)
  • Reactivity (quantitative researcher may try to control for the effect of the researcher influence; qualitative researcher looks at how they actually influence the outcomes)

How do you reduce bias and reactivity?

  • Studies should be intensive and long-term (not the same as longitudinal study)
  • Gather rich, thick data (less likely to get from surveys / questionnaires; rather use interviews or focus groups)
  • Respondent validation of outcomes (is what you heard the same as what they meant?)
  • Identifying discrepant cases or evidence (you should take outliers into account, but identify and reflect on them, not necessarily include in the main data and suggest reasons for the discrepancy)
  • Triangulation
  • Comparative data (look at different contexts and populations)

Proposal checklist:

  • Identify a funding body
  • Objectives of the funding body
  • Use the guidelines that the funding body provides
  • Previous funded research and see what has been accepted and / or rejected
  • Links with existing research that the body is involved with
  • Evidence of value, need and benefits (institutional, local, national, international)
  • Background / conceptual framework
  • Methodology
  • Evaluation strategies are valued in educational research
  • Engaged dissemination whereby you share your results as you go, using a variety of methods, including publications, conference presentations, social media and workshops
  • Budget: must meet funding body requirements, realistic, value for money, justify costs
  • Milestones: linked to objectives and outcomes
  • Researcher capabilities: ensure you can deliver what you say you can, track record, previous collaboration, strategic, roles and responsibilities, realistic within workload

Try to model your proposal on successful projects. Learn from the mistakes of others. Sit down with a colleague and ask for constructive feedback.

Explicitly make reference to important and contextually relevant policy documents.

Identify how your research is going to create systemic change.

How are you going to evaluate your process and outcomes?

  • Formative: should be ongoing and used to modify project
  • Summative: can be broad and can go beyond the stated outcomes

Design-based research: can use milestones that are linked to formative evaluation. Identify problems early on and adapt quickly.

How are you going to convince the funding body that the people you’re collaborating with are adding value to the project? You must justify the presence of every team member and highlight how they will contribute.

How are you plugging the holes that funding assessors are going to be looking for?

Differentiate between deliverables (the tangible products that will come from the project) and outcomes (the achievement of stated aims and objectives).

This was originally posted at /usr/space.

Privacy and public discussion when blogging

This post was originally written for the participants of the #pht402 Professional Ethics course and was published at /usr/space, but it is relevant for anyone who would like to develop their blogging skills. Many academics have little or no blogging experience, so this post is aims to suggest some resources that might be useful in terms of developing skills in online professional communication. It is part of a short series of articles on blogging that I will be posting here. You may also want to find additional resources on our Blogging page.

7557181168_91f4af2d99_zOne of the things I always notice in other people’s blogs is the use of images that show other people. We need to use caution when uploading pictures into online spaces, since they become circulated far more widely than was the original intention. Even if you did obtain the person’s permission to take the photo, did you get permission to share it with others? With the world? We often use pictures like that because it really does show people a part of ourselves that we want to share but we need to be mindful of the other people in the picture. When it comes to our own professional practice, there are different sets of rules that apply. Information shared with us during interactions with others (and photos are just visual information) are often assumed to be private and confidential and there is an expectation that it will not be shared beyond the scope of the original interaction.

What about discussing colleagues or anyone else who you interact with in the course of your employment? What is the difference between having those conversations with peers and students in the classroom, and having the same conversation online? Well, for one thing, online almost always equals in public. The rule of thumb I always use is to ask myself how (or if) I would say what I want to say if the person I was talking about was going to read my work? What if the person you’re talking about comes across your post one day when you apply for a job at their institution? Even if you’re not talking about them, will they want to hire someone who speaks poorly of a colleague in public?

The other thing that you need to think about is how you feel about sharing your own life online. Even though sharing your thoughts and feelings may be beneficial in terms of presenting an authentic personal point of view, you should never feel pressured or obligated to put online something that you’d prefer to keep private. You can be as public or private as you like. I personally share very little of my personal life online but write often about my feelings around my professional life. My emotional response to the professional context is something I’m very comfortable sharing. However, my emotional response to things that happen in my personal life is not for the public view. That’s just how I prefer to establish the boundaries of my online presence – you can choose what works for you.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we should always be mindful about what and how we share online. When something is discussed in an elevator, it’s ephemeral. When the same thing is discussed online, it will exist forever.

Strategic approaches to blogging

This post was originally written for the participants of the #pht402 Professional Ethics course and was first published at /usr/spacebut it is relevant for anyone who would like to take a more strategic approach to their blogging. By using a few strategies suggested here, you may find that it’s easier to make the best use of your time when preparing your posts. I will be posting a short series of articles on developing your skills as a blogger. You may also want to find additional resources on our Blogging page.

One of the difficulties you may come across when blogging regularly is finding the time to regularly reflect and write for this course. Since this module is allocated a slot on your timetables, I suggest that you use that time to work on the course. Even if you don’t have regular internet access, you could use the time to read content that you’ve downloaded, make notes, draft reflections, and discuss the topics with your peers on campus. The point is to put aside time in the week to focus on the module and then use that time effectively, even if you’re not actively blogging.

However, when you do sit down in front of the computer, you want to make sure that you spend your time writing, rather than trying to figure out how to use the platform. Remember that even though the course is designed so that you can progress through the topics at your own pace, there is still an endpoint and it doesn’t make sense for you to spend time on the technical aspects of blogging. There is no one keeping track of what you’ve done and when you did it so you will need to create your own schedule for working and then take responsibility for keeping to that schedule. The more familiar you are with using WordPress, the more likely it is that you can use your time effectively. Here is a screenshot of the Posts page, highlighting the common elements that you can use to manage your posts.

Posts ‹ -usr-space — WordPress - Mozilla Firefox_005

I strongly suggest that you begin drafting your reflective posts as soon as you can. Create draft posts for each topic (see image below) immediately and then work on those drafts over time. Every time you visit your blog, open your drafts and add new ideas, links to resources, links to other participants’ blog posts, images, etc. When you read something in the WordPress Reader and you want to incorporate it into your next post, copy the link to the post you want to reference and paste it into your draft. This way you can build up your reflective posts over time, rather than feel like you have to write it all overnight. You’ll also find that your thinking may change as you engage with others, and that something you wrote a weeks previously doesn’t feel quite right anymore. The Save Draft button is in the top right corner of the post.


Use the Quick Edit feature of WordPress to make simple edits to the elements of your post without having to load the whole page (see image below). This feature becomes visible when you move your cursor over the post title in the index of posts. You don’t have to click anything to make it appear, just hover your mouse over the text to bring up the menu, and then click on Quick Edit.

Screenshot showing the different post elements that can be edited using the Quick Edit feature.
Screenshot showing the different post elements that can be edited using the Quick Edit feature.

I often find that when I’m in a writing frame of mind I can get through two or three posts in one sitting. Or, I write the posts on the weekend or late at night, which is when most of the subscribers to my blog are probably away from their computers. Since I want to make sure that as many people as possible read my posts it doesn’t make sense to publish them at those irregular times. In cases like that, you may want to schedule your posts so that they’re published at certain times or on certain days.

Considering that you want as many people as possible to read your posts, you should consider linking a Twitter account to your blog. This would allow WordPress to automatically push your blog posts to your Twitter feed, which would increase the chances of the post being seen and read by your followers. It also means that your Twitter followers could Retweet the original tweet, thereby increasing exposure to your post.

Another aspect of the course that you may find is taking up a lot of time is interacting with other participants. When I comment on someone’s blog posts, I always tick the “Notify me of follow up comments” box. This means that when someone responds to something I’ve said, I get an email that lets me know. However, there’s another way to do it. There’s a notification icon in the top right hand area of your blog, which is coloured orange when you have notifications. See the screenshot below for an idea about how to quickly respond to comments.


That’s it. Just a few suggestions that may help you to be more productive with your blogging and to make effective use of your limited time.