Tools to Promote Grad Student Success: Writing Skills

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Well, apparently I took the summer off from blogging. I wasn’t necessarily planning that, but I was really busy with grant submissions, travel, paper revisions, etcetera. I had a great time at the International Association for Relationship Research conference in Australia in July, and I also visited and gave talks at the University of New South Wales’ Social Policy Research Centre and the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. I was also appointed to the National Council on Family Relations’ Future of Family Science Task Force and attended a 3-day meeting in Minneapolis where the task force met. More on that in a future post.  I should also mention I had fun too – lots of baseball and t-ball for my sons, a Nashville bachelorette party for my sister, and trips to Cedar Point and Kelly’s Island with my family. Overall, great summer!

photo credit: Pesky Library via photopin cc

photo credit: Pesky Library via photopin cc

For now, I want to get back to the topic of self-regulated learning and graduate education. My last post posed the question “What information could we provide to promote our graduate students’ learning, intellectual development, and achievement of their post-graduate school goals?” Now I want to move on to “What tools could we provide to promote our graduate students’ learning, intellectual development, and achievement of their post-graduate school goals?”

When I think of the tools of the trade for myself, the most important tools that come to mind are: writing skills, research skills, and presentation skills. Let’s discuss each of these in turn.

The most critical skill we could provide to our graduate students, in my opinion, is exceptional writing ability. Excellent writing skills can improve a students’ likelihood of grant funding, manuscript acceptance, and can ease the milestones of graduate school, such as comprehensive/qualifying/candidacy exams. Each of these can help students achieve their post-graduate school goals. Further, excellent writing skills can lead to further intellectual development as they can help distill ideas and lead to new discoveries. Learning is also improved with good writing – students will be more likely to retain information when they are able to succinctly and logically summarize critical ideas.

Unfortunately, I know of no graduate programs that have courses devoted exclusively to improving writing. Admissions committees might review letters of intent and writing samples, but unless these are pretty bad, they usually do not negatively impact admissions. I think that faculty assume that students’ writing will improve in graduate school through the processes of work

ing with mentors, writing theses, and submitting manuscripts. This is a reasonable assumption, but at least in disciplines where co-authoring is the norm, advisors usually heavily edit student writing. And, now that we can use tracked changes, or comments embedded in a manuscript, the editing process of student work has gotten to the point that sometimes it is just easier to revise it yourself as the faculty mentor than wait for the student to get a sentence where it needs to be. Then, all the student has to do is accept the changes. This likely is not the best way to improve student writing.

It is very possible to have great training as a grad student and still leave a so-so writer. See exhibit A – my dissertation. Urgh. It is so easy to pick out horrible sentences. In fact, last year I gave a presentation on writing, and the audience and I could have spent 30 minutes improving just a couple of sentences from my dissertation. I had a great advisor and went to one of the best graduate programs in my field, but I did not improve my writing until I spent time when I was on the tenure track reading books about writing and working my own writing (see this blog post for more on these efforts to improve my writing).

So, what should graduate programs do? A few ideas. First, teach faculty the best practices of writing. Some faculty may need help with their own writing. Second, help faculty understand the importance of writing skills, and help them strategize on how best to teach their students to write better (I like co-writing – the paper my student and I co-wrote that I discussed in this blog post was just conditionally accepted to the Journal of Marriage and Family). Finally, perhaps programs should require a two-credit hour writing course, where all students focus on is improving their writing skills. I think this would be a great professional development course, and the skills of good academic writing – which do not come naturally – could translate across disciplines, making this course one that could be useful to several departments. It also could make the lives of the faculty in the department easier, as they may be able to spend less time on improving student writing and more time on the research part of the paper-publishing process.

Well, this first “tool” that grad students need took a lot of space. See next week for a discussion of the research skills tool.

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