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).
For nine out of ten students, the above works fine¹. The remainder follows the following scheme:
- They hand in their writing as we suggest.
- They listen to and seem to accept the critique and suggestions. In particular they get to keep their annotated writings and make notes themselves.
- 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.
- They continue handing in revisions.
- 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.
- 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.
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.