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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.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 14:03

6 Answers 6

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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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It may be just a form of communication problem.

The student probably learned that is polite to listen and nod, but actually, they either disagree with you or (more likely) consider your points to be of minor importance, to be fixed sometime later if there is time.

I know that some people consider formatting, structure, typos etc. as waste of time because it is "just about the content", and "clear enough".

Furthermore, it is sometimes astonishing that some people just don't understand a sentence that normal people would consider to be a pretty direct request NOT to do something.

I would actually try to be really as direct and clear as possible, like "if you hand in a thesis with a structure like this, you will fail", not something like "I would strongly prefer if you fix the structure first."

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  • If that's the case, "you will fail" is still not direct enough - some students see it as some annoying nagging and, possibly, a cautionary tale "no one really follows anyway". They might've made their choice to hand in a mess of a thesis a week before the deadline and beat it into shape within that week and don't see a problem with that (unlike advisors).
    – Lodinn
    Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 16:04
  • @Lodinn That is actually true. Some students are spoiled by their high schools where teachers warn them all the time, but most of the warnings are just show. Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 17:17
  • I would actually try to be really as direct and clear as possible, like "if you hand in a thesis with a structure like this, you will fail" – Well that would be an empty warning unless the structure is phenomenally bad or we are monsters, but announcements along the lines of “Fix this, or your grade will suffer.” were made, had no effect, and became true.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Apr 9, 2022 at 8:47
  • @Wrzlprmft Have you asked them why they did not change anything? Did they offer an explanation? Commented Apr 9, 2022 at 11:12
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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.

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    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
    Commented Mar 18, 2018 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
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 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.

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    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
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 9:10
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I can think of a few ideas (I fully admit, these are just guesses, although based on remembering my own experiences and experiences of people I went to school with).

First, in the general space of a lack of motivation:

  • One of the comments in the comment thread suggested this could be a form of burnout, where the students have worked hard on the project, and are tired and do not have the motivation to write it up. I think this is plausible.

  • Another plausible, related explanation is that some students toward the end of a degree have lower motivation to focus on their studies (senioritis).

  • Students may enjoy the technical aspects of solving problems, but find the writing aspects boring and simply not want to do it, or not think it is really important, and therefore not put as much effort into it.

Second, in the area of a lack of experience:

  • It's tempting to focus on major issues first and then move onto "easier" issues later, whereas at least I've found as I've gotten more experienced that it's actually better to fix the easy things first.
  • A lot of work at the undergraduate and masters level is "personal", in that it only really affects the student (you are responsible for your own grade, for example). At higher levels, work is more collaborative. So, when they turn in messy work, they may only be thinking about how this affects their grade, and not thinking about how they are creating more work for you, or that this piece of work is meant to be read by someone and communicate information. I realize that might sound silly, but I think there is a mindset shift that has to occur in at least some students between "I am turning this paper in for a grade" and "I am writing this paper because I want to communicate ideas to others."
  • Students have probably never written a document of the scale of a thesis before, nor one that will be read as carefully. Perhaps they have bad habits from skating by in courses with writing assignments. (Even talented students can develop poor writing habits that "work" for some courses but eventually do not). It is always difficult to change bad habits, and now they are in a relatively high-pressure situation to produce a thesis, which can only make it more difficult to change those habits.
  • In computer programming, there is an idea called technical debt. If a programmer chooses an easy and fast, but ad hoc solution, they accrue some "technical debt" that must be repaid in the sense that eventually that code should be rewritten in a logical and coherent way. Eventually, if one waits too long to pay off the debt, the code becomes a disjointed mess that is difficult to maintain and costly to convert into something more streamlined. A student (especially one who wants to minimize the amount of time because of burnout or lack of motivation) may feel that the most important thing is to produce text, and accrue some "writing debt" by saying that they will fix "trivial" issues like typos and references later. They don't realize that this writing debt can quickly build into a lot of work -- for them, and for you. Perhaps they even intended to fix typos, but produced a lot of text accruing a lot of writing debt, that they did not have time to pay off before the deadline.

The common themes in these scenarios (which, I admit, are just guesses) are an overall lack of motivation to deal with writing issues, a lack of planning, and a certain degree of self-absorption to not think about the effect this has on the people reading their thesis.

In terms of how to produce better behavior, as always there are "carrot" and "stick" options. The "stick" options are probably more obvious (but also likely to increase anxiety, which could be a factor, as another answerer pointed out), and include things like

  • Explaining clearly that their grade will suffer if they don't fix the issues.
  • Refusing to accept written material with a lot of typos and broken references.
  • Confronting the student during feedback meetings to explain your disappointment in their work. "I expected more from you.", "Do you think this is acceptable?" etc.

The "carrot" options (which probably require more work on your part to be creative and to implement, and thus might not be practical, and might also be considered unnecessary coddling by some people) might be things like

  • Rewarding behavior that you want. ("I noticed this section was well written compared to the others, nice work, please apply this to the other parts of the text.")
  • Offering to check in with a struggling student before their next draft is due to see if they are accruing writing debt, and offering advice on what to focus on before the next draft is due.
  • Take one chapter draft and ask them to focus on the writing aspects for a given draft, even if that means they don't fully complete all the content for that chapter. You want to see a polished draft of something, just to force them to work through the writing steps. The idea here is that they can use this draft to build up the writing skills they may be missing that they can then apply to other sections. At least they'll get an idea of how much time it takes.

Another "off the wall" idea could be to have students read and critique chapters of each others' thesis. I took a course in grad school where everyone was a reviewer of everyone else's paper. This could create some positive peer pressure to create a good version of the draft. And, making someone give feedback on someone else's work, can make them think about what someone is looking for in their work.

It may be that some students just don't want to do the thesis, and nothing you can do will help them write a better thesis. However, as an optimist, I have to believe that if there are such students, they occur at a rate far below 10%.

-3

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. The job of academics is not to play amateur psychologist to their students --- it is to teach clearly, provide proper academic assistance, and assess work using appropriate objective standards.

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. Academics should not devolve into (untrained) psychologists for their students.

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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. Commented Mar 18, 2018 at 23:37
  • 4
    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.
    – Ben
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 0:01
  • 4
    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
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 9:20
  • 2
    Nothing in this answer dismisses all responsibility of academics --- that is a straw man, or a failure of reading comprehension. The point explicitly stated in the answer is that it ought not be the case that all responsibility is on the supervisor. The fact that this opinion is considered controversial (and is heavily downvoted) is merely confirmation of the deeply-rooted nursery school mentality that pervades modern academia.
    – Ben
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 23:24
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    @Ben nothing in the question assumes that all responsibility is with the academics, that's a straw man built up by this answer or a failure of reading comprehension. Commented Oct 22, 2020 at 17:28

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