Writing together, learning together: The value and effectiveness of a research writing group for doctoral students

Year: 2009

Author: Lassig, Carly, Lincoln, Mary, Dillon, Lisette, Diezmann, Carmel, Fox, Jillian, Neofa, Zui

Type of paper: Refereed paper

The high level of scholarly writing required for a doctoral thesis is a challenge for many research students. However, formal academic writing training is not a core component of many doctoral programs. Informal writing groups for doctoral students may be one method of contributing to the improvement of scholarly writing. In this paper, we report on a writing group that was initiated by an experienced writer and higher degree research supervisor to support and improve her doctoral students' writing capabilities. Over time, this group developed a workable model to suit their varying needs and circumstances. The model comprised group sessions, an email group, and individual writing. Here, we use a narrative approach to explore the effectiveness and value of our research writing group model in improving scholarly writing. The data consisted of doctoral students' reflections to stimulus questions about their writing progress and experiences. The stimulus questions sought to probe individual concerns about their own writing, what they had learned in the research writing group, the benefits of the group, and the disadvantages and challenges to participation. These reflections were analysed using thematic analysis. Following this analysis, the supervisor provided her perspective on the key themes that emerged.

Results revealed that, through the writing group, members learned technical elements (e.g., paragraph structure), non-technical elements (e.g., working within limited timeframes), conceptual elements (e.g., constructing a cohesive arguments), collaborative writing processes, and how to edit and respond to feedback. In addition to improved writing quality, other benefits were opportunities for shared writing experiences, peer support, and increased confidence and motivation. The writing group provides a unique social learning environment with opportunities for: professional dialogue about writing, peer learning and review, and developing a supportive peer network. Thus our research writing group has proved an effective avenue for building doctoral students' capability in scholarly writing.

The proposed model for a research writing group could be applicable to any context, regardless of the type and location of the university, university faculty, doctoral program structure, or number of postgraduate students. It could also be used within a group of students with diverse research abilities, needs, topics and methodologies. However, it requires a group facilitator with sufficient expertise in scholarly writing and experience in doctoral supervision who can both engage the group in planned writing activities and also capitalise on fruitful lines of discussion related to students' concerns as they arise. The research writing group is not intended to replace traditional supervision processes nor existing training. However it has clear benefits for improving scholarly writing in doctoral research programs particularly in an era of rapidly increasing student load.

Key Words: scholarly writing, doctoral students, writing group, narrative, expertise