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Background

In my academic surrounding, we follow the following approach for supervising the actual writing of a bachelor’s and master’s thesis: Whenever the student has written something more than a page, they can give it to an advisor (PhD student, postdoc, or professor) and they will quickly receive extensive feedback. Later, they hand in entire chapters, and eventually their entire thesis will be criticised – before being submitted.

The idea of this is that the students can refine their writing step by step and learn by actually applying what they learnt from critique. Also, they do not have to revise the entire thesis with respect to basic issues that can be spotted from one page of writing. Finally, this process is less exhausting for the advisors, as they usually never have to read a mess of a thesis.

We make all of this clear to students in the very beginning of their thesis and usually later on. Note that this is not compulsory: If a student does not wish to receive any feedback but just submit a thesis at the end, they are free to do so (though it usually doesn’t turn out well).

The problem

For nine out of ten students, the above works fine¹. The remainder follows the following scheme:

  1. They hand in their writing as we suggest.
  2. They listen to and seem to accept the critique and suggestions. In particular they get to keep their annotated writings and make notes themselves.
  3. They do not amend their existing writing or change the way they write new material. Note that this includes very straightforward changes such as fixing typos.
  4. They continue handing in revisions.
  5. They seem to understand and accept it if we tell them that what they are doing is detrimental to them and annoying for us², but they still do not change anything.
  6. They eventually hand in a mess of a thesis.

There are three striking aspects of this phenomenon:

  • If it happens, it is very consistent in the way it happens. The students in question do not deviate from the above scheme by stopping handing in their work or change their ways in light of criticism. I also have never observed an intermediate case between this and a normal supervision.

  • There is no apparent correlation (or anticorrelation) to the quality of the student’s scientific work, their work morale, language proficiency, or how well they respond to feedback on their scientific work. If it happens, it comes out of the blue. In particular, this also happened to students who were otherwise very motivated and delivered good scientific work.

  • This is independent of who is the student’s primary advisor, i.e., the person who first gets to criticise their writing.

These suggest to me that there is a common underlying cause of this problem that can be addressed.

Question

So far, we addressed the problem with typical procedures for badly performing students – i.e., we tell them that their behaviour is problematic and why, explain our general approach to supervising writing, ask them where the problem lies, etc. –, which has lead nowhere so far. Thus I am looking for alternative approaches. While my ultimate goal is to prevent or mitigate the above problem, the first step to this is understanding it. Thus I am asking:

  • What are possible reasons why students react like this?
  • Is this a known and ideally scientifically described phenomenon?

¹ or in rare cases doesn’t happen at all because of the student having general difficulties with supervision and working on a thesis project.
² in particular, if they make us read the same material with the same problems twice or have two advisors read the same material and tell them about the same problems, which they then ignore.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Mar 19 '18 at 14:03
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I recognize the problem from supervision (also at graduate level), and remember it from when I was a student myself - saw several fellow students who acted like this. I have no golden solution, but here is what I often find efficient.

Some people are poor at receiving criticism. There can be many reasons for that. One that is quite common is that the person receiving the criticism misunderstands criticism of their work as criticism of their person.

At some point we all needed to learn how to write a paper. Some people have a hard time understanding that they can't write a thesis, simply because they have not learned to yet, and that this is completely ok. This does not necessarily correlate with academic performance. You can have good students, who have simply not learned to write an understandable scientific text. And since they are used to acing everything, the fact that they get a lot of criticism, puts them in a place they are not used to. I must say, though, that I find this problem much more prevalent with students who are otherwise also not stellar. It is not surprising that there is a correlation between students who can't write a text, and students who are otherwise poor performers.

My (ours, I should say) attempt at a solution is to be very open with the students about this. Tell them that it is uncommon to have students who are good at writing from day one, and their first returned drafts will be red with ink. This does not mean that they are bad, it means that they are learning. Sometimes TA's needs to be reminded about this as well, in order to not take away the students' motivation.

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First, that's a great system for getting students to write and seek feedback. It sounds like it makes writing and seeking feedback a habit, rather than letting students wait and worry. Though we often think of "writer's block" as about being out of ideas, often it's about anxiety, and it might be what you are seeing with the students who don't look at the revisions. Here are some things the Purdue OWL recommends for writer's block and I found "The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block" to be helpful during my thesis.

If your school has a writing center, they may have a workshop or resources aimed at graduate students, and they might also have insight from the students they see.

  • 1
    What the OP describes doesn't seem to be a case of writer's block, but of failure to incorporate straightforward changes (e.g., typo corrections) from the reviewer's comments to the new draft. – cag51 Mar 18 '18 at 23:37
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    @cag51: While I am not convinced that writer’s block is the answer, I wouldn’t dismiss it that easily. E.g., if a student focusses on major corrections first and encounters a writer’s block, they may obsess on this and never perform the minor corrections. – Wrzlprmft Mar 19 '18 at 9:05
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I have no experience or evidence to support this, but wanted to share one uncomfortable possibility because it fits the symptoms and the apparent incongruity so well:

  • The feedback never reaches the writer.

If your first bullet point describing the problem is in error, and the reality is that

  • Students hand in the work of a ghostwriter.

it would surely explain your observations.

I realize that your system of piecemeal submission and early feedback is supposed to prevent this, but nothing stops the students from pulling sections out and submitting them as if the writing were an ongoing process.

  • 3
    Thank you for your answer. While this explanation is surely something to consider, I would dismiss it in the cases in question as there is plenty of evidence that the students do the underlying scientific work themselves (they are capable to discuss it and do incorporate feedback) and are clearly sufficiently intelligent to incorporate trivial changes such as typo corrections into a ghostwriter’s work. – Wrzlprmft Mar 19 '18 at 9:10
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One could speculate on all sorts of possible causes for this behaviour (see e.g., comments to the original post), and much as I would prefer not to answer a question that was not asked, I think the more important issue here is to establish the proper limits of responsibility over a student who does not wish to avail him/herself of expert advice. With great respect to the questioner, who is obviously interested in helping, in my view it is pointless and counter-productive to embark on a speculative psychological exercise designed to understand the failure of a student to act on repeated expert advice about their work.

This attitude of the nursery-school campus, where all responsibility is on the academics and none on the students, has been creeping deeper and deeper into academia for decades, and it seems to be currently at its apex. How can we better motivate this student? How can we make this class more "relevant"? How can we encourage this student to follow advice and instructions? What are the causes for this student not doing his work? Etc., etc. In the particular case at issue here we are not speaking of early undergraduates in their late teens (who might be expected to have some bad working habits as a hangover from high school), but in this case even some Masters students with their undergraduate education already under their belts.

If a student has been repeatedly advised of defects in their work, and declines to correct these, that is on the student. If an inquiry is to be made into the deep psychological causes of this behaviour, it is for the student to undertake that inquiry.

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    "This attitude of the nursery-school campus, where all responsibility is on the academics and none on the students, has been creeping deeper and deeper into academia for decades, and it seems to be currently at its apex." -- this is all opinion and neither of the two sentence halves may be true. – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 18 '18 at 23:37
  • "If an inquiry is to be made into the deep psychological causes of this behaviour, it is for the student to undertake that inquiry." I disagree. Supervisors (and universities) are the service providers and are responsible for understanding their clients' (students) behaviours which may reflect sub-optimal service (i.e. supervision). – Orion Mar 18 '18 at 23:45
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    Part of the role of the university is certification of knowledge according to a standard that is independent of the "client". In my view, the sub-optimal service that is presently being provided in universities is the excessive deference to the desires of this "client" and the consequent failure to adhere to appropriate expectations for the work undertaken. – Reinstate Monica Mar 19 '18 at 0:01
  • @Ben Standards do apply to both students and supervisors/universities. – Orion Mar 19 '18 at 9:19
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    While I agree that students are adults and responsible for their own actions, it would be foolish to dismiss all responsibility for student’s failures like this. Sure, there will always be students who fail due to reasons of their own responsibility, and there is nothing you can do about it – if the phenomenon in question had happened only once, I wouldn’t worry much. However, if otherwise normally performing students fail at a certain step in a consistent manner, you should at least try to understand the source of the problem. – Wrzlprmft Mar 19 '18 at 9:20

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