Wednesday, April 19, 2017

I Teach, Therefore I Essay: Being an essayist is central to, if not inseparable from, being a teacher, argues Caitlin McGill

by Caitlin McGill, Inside Higher Ed:

For past few years, I’ve been trying to convince students that I write essays “for fun.”

Only recently, however, while arguing that writing essays can be fun for students, too, did I realize that I don’t only enjoy the essay form but also depend on it - in and out of the classroom.

For me, being an essayist is central to, if not inseparable from, being a teacher.

When I first attempted to organize my thoughts on this topic, I hadn’t consciously embraced that notion. I had no idea where to begin. For several days, I thought about starting, but I kept finding papers to grade or assignments to design or an essay to revise. I put it off.

After plenty of procrastination that I now recognize afforded me necessary time to think, I realized that I needed to begin as I do all of my work, that I needed to employ the very arguments I’m attempting to make now. I needed to essay: to attempt, to test, to try out, to examine.

Once I realized this, most of the pressure I’d been putting on myself disappeared. Of course, I thought. I should’ve known. After all, the act of essaying leads nearly all of my work.

Just as writing these thoughts into an essay relieved pressure, viewing teaching as an act of essaying also relieves much of the pressure of stepping onstage before students. Not long ago, I realized that I could approach teaching like I could an essay: sure, I always have some knowledge when walking into the course, but I don’t have to know exactly where the class will lead us or where it will end. With a few goals in mind, I can wander and question and fumble in the dark with my students, just as I do as the essayist on the page.

Essays offer the freedom to ponder an issue that can’t be proven one way or another, and that’s what I want to happen in the classroom. I want to elicit free and open discussion. I want to create a place to test out ideas - to care and be conscientious of others but also to allow thoughts and ideas to flow freely without fear of condemnation - knowing that we might not necessarily prove a theory but can start to unravel our ideas together.

When I began to view teaching as essaying, I remembered that some of my most exciting teaching moments were unplanned, unexpected gifts that my students and I discovered together after meandering down uncertain paths. Those moments of unrehearsed discovery are, for me, among the most exciting parts of teaching.

Perhaps, then, we should view the class period itself as an essay. We enter with several ideas of where we want the class to go, hoping our students have done the necessary homework to inform themselves on the subjects up for discussion. But once discussion begins, we allow ourselves to wind up somewhere new, somewhere we couldn’t have planned. And, in fact, we hope that we do, knowing that as we fumble we can manage to stay on a path, however obscure.

I admit this approach might not always work. Some classes will yield more fruitful conversation and discovery than others. And that’s OK. Sometimes my own essays find themselves knotted up and incomprehensible and just plain old unremarkable. But usually that means I’ll be back on a new writing path soon, maybe two or three drafts down the road. And so, too, a class can get back on track. We - teachers, students, essayists - are not perfect. And I would argue that our form demands such imperfection.

I often begin my first-year writing courses with a cliché: I discuss the etymology of the word “essay.” I realize that is far from novel and that many other instructors make this move, too, but it feels absolutely necessary this early in the semester. Can it be clichéd to students if they’ve never heard it before?

I tell my students that one writes an essay to try to figure something out. And then I tell them the part that is often hardest to sell: we don’t always find an answer after the essay is written. Sometimes we find new questions, or something we hadn’t been looking for. And when I tell them that is the beauty of the essay, of essaying, I’m reminding myself, too.

When discussing research, I return to clichés again. I offer older, broader definitions: to seek out, to search, to go about, to wander. I stress that our research will certainly include scholarly, library research, but it will also necessarily include interaction with the world. I make the case, as many other instructors do, too, that research extends beyond searching databases from a windowless room to walking outside and experiencing our subjects.

Just as many of my colleagues and I try to dismantle students’ assumptions about the essay, I attempt to dismantle students’ preconceived notions about research. I attempt to infuse our research with the act of essaying - that willingness to test out, to try, to embrace uncertainty.

An essay often demands that its narrator embody an authentic persona. So, too, should research. Thus, I attempt to excavate students’ genuine interests - not just as academics, but also as human beings.

I ask the students to make a list of topics that make their hearts race or blood boil, that make them stop what they’re doing and call a friend, text a sibling or write a long-winded rant on Facebook. Then they pick one item and write a scene of a specific moment when they realized that this thing, whatever it might be, is of interest to them. In doing so, I’m modeling my writing process, which begs that my work begin with genuine interest, with authenticity.

Afterward, students read their scenes aloud and respond to each other’s work. Though I didn’t realize it initially, that write-read-respond format models the writing workshop.

During my time as a M.F.A. student, we devoted the first week of writing workshops to in-class writing and sharing. And it was this writing - with pen and paper instead of a computer, in a room full of writers instead of alone at home, with only 20 minutes to scribble instead of a seemingly endless morning of writing ahead - that often led to my most honest, urgent discoveries.

Now, I realize that my allegiance to essaying in teaching encouraged me to employ this model. If essaying demands authentic personae on the page, then it demands we listen to and act on our genuine instincts in teaching, too. One’s teaching philosophy, then, is a representation of one’s self.

I don’t expect my students to proclaim that what they’re doing is akin to essaying. But I do expect that my allegiance to essaying will ignite a curiosity that they sustain beyond our course. That whether they declare themselves essayists or not, they will wander through the world more vulnerable and curious, less anxious about the unknown, and more excited for what they might uncover. “Get lost and take risks,” I tell them, myself and my fellow teachers. “Embrace missteps instead of fearing them.”


Caitlin McGill teaches writing and literature at Emerson College and MCPHS University. Currently, she is working on a memoir in essays about trauma, survival, race and her journey to uncover her family’s hidden past and to reveal her own. One of the essays in that upcoming book was named a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2016. Her website is

The Crisis Facing PhD Students


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Tips for Surviving a Remote PhD

PhD doctoral hood for different universities a...
PhD - made it! (Wikipedia)
by :

Doing a PhD is undoubtedly harder when you are geographically separated from your academic institution.

Whether you are doing a distance-PhD or are separated for some other reason, isolation from contact and support from your supervisor and fellow students adds a whole other level of difficulty to a task which is already pretty damn difficult.

Why is it a remote PhD more difficult?

The reason universities exist is to bring together academics with different ideas and expertise. This creates an environment where the discussions collaborations and arguments crucial to innovation can take place.

Because nobody is good at everything, the sharing of ideas and knowledge can lead to discoveries which would have been impossible for any one individual to achieve alone. Even if the bulk of the work was carried out by one person, discussions with other academics are almost always an essential part of the process. This is clearly more difficult if you are doing a remote PhD.

Also, when you start a PhD you almost certainly lack research experience. This is OK, because you are supposed top know more when you finish than when you start. If you are surrounded by more experienced researchers then you can learn from them, not just research techniques but how they think and talk about their work. Without this contact you have to figure everything out yourself through trial and error.

Essential tips for surviving a remote PhD

1- Fight for attention

Contact with your supervisor won't happen by accident. Many students assume that their supervisor's time is more valuable than their own and are therefore reluctant to seek regular contact, but this is a false assumption. If your supervisor is busy, you have to fight for their attention. it is your responsibility to ensure they don’t forget you. As a minimum, you should push to have contact via telephone or skype at least once per month. If they are not willing to spend 1 hour per month with you, you probably have the wrong supervisor.

2- Update your supervisor, no matter what

Another false assumption is that you have to have something to show before contacting your supervisor. This is probably the worst assumption you can make! It means that you won't seek help when you need it the most. It also means that the longer you go without contact, the greater expectation you put on yourself to produce something amazing to account for the time since you last spoke and the less likely you are to make contact. Email your supervisor with updates, irrespective of whether it is going well or not. You don’t have to ask for input every time, you can just let them know:
  • what you have been working on
  • progress/problems
  • what you plan to do next
Do this every 2 weeks.

3- Take every opportunity to talk to other students and academics

At some point, you will hopefully get the opportunity to meet other students and academics face to face. Take every opportunity you get, and talk to as many people as you can. If you leave without anyone’s contact details, you have missed a huge opportunity!

4- Ask questions!

You are not expected to know everything, and you do not have to do everything on your own. Asking questions shows that you are engaged and interested in the process and that you value other people’s input!

In summary …

The common factor in all of these tips is that you must make extra effort to get yourself noticed. If you hide away from contact with others, it will be a very lonely process indeed …

Hungary’s Assault on Academic Freedom is a Threat to European Principles

CEU Budapest (
by Kirsten Roberts Lyer, Central European University, The Conversation:

Tens of thousands of people recently demonstrated in the Hungarian capital of Budapest against attempts by their government to close the Central European University (CEU).

This was the second large-scale demonstration in Budapest in as many weeks - with protesters turning out en masse to challenge recent amendments to the national law on higher education that have been adopted by the Hungarian parliament.

As a university, CEU has a dual identity, and offers degrees accredited in both the US and Hungary. But the latest amendments make the university’s continued operation in Hungary virtually impossible. This is because the bill would require CEU to operate under a binding international agreement and to provide higher education programmes in its country of origin - the US - all within a very short time-frame.

At the time of writing, the legislation is on the desk of the Hungarian president for signature or referral to the Constitutional Court. Signature of the law would mean that the legislative changes would come into force, requiring a binding international agreement to be signed within six months of the publication of the law.

Referral to the Constitutional Court - a move which many of the protesters were calling for at the demonstration in Budapest - would mean that the law could be scrutinised for its legality and constitutionality.

Campaign against liberalism

CEU is a privately funded university with more than 1,400 students from more than 100 countries, that offers degrees accredited in both the US and Hungary. It is ranked among the top 200 universities in the world in eight disciplines. It excels in political science and international studies.

It has had its home in Budapest for more than 25 years, and is part of the life of the city. That CEU was founded after the fall of communism to promote democracy makes the current move against it all the more reprehensible. The university, ably led by the rector Michael Ignatieff - a former Canadian politician and internationally renowned academic - has mobilised an impressive campaign for support.

The response has been huge - with leading academic institutions in Hungary and around the world, as well as governments, politicians and individuals condemning the moves by the Hungarian government. The hash-tag #IStandWithCEU has also been trending on Twitter.

Freedom to teach

This outpouring of support underscores the importance placed in institutions that promote education and critical thinking. Academic freedom is also a prized European value, and countries across Europe rightfully take pride in the quality of their universities and support their development.

The freedom of universities to teach, research, and publish is fundamental to a free and open society. Article 13 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union provides that:
The arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint. Academic freedom shall be respected.
The need for such explicit protection of academic freedom is clear: universities and academics have long been targeted by autocrats because of the threat that free and critical thinking poses to their continued existence. And for an attack of this nature to take place within the EU should be cause for concern across Europe.

This is because the precedent it would set puts all academic freedom at risk. It is also a stark reminder of the need for constant vigilance to safeguard European democracies.

Targeting European values

While CEU has said that it will take all legal steps available to it to challenge the Hungarian law, this is not just a legal fight. This move to shut an independent university poses a fundamental question as to the extent to which European values can be ignored by an EU member state. Rule of law is supposed to be central to the operation of member states - and targeting freedom of expression through the closure of academic institutions runs directly counter to this.

This is not the only recent move by the Hungarian Government that potentially contradicts the rule of law. In October, a major national newspaper - Népszabadság - closed alleging government pressure. And the government has also recently targeted civil society with the proposed introduction of restrictive legislation justified by national security concerns and the need for additional transparency.

There also doesn’t seem to be much understanding within Hungary as to why the threatened closure of CEU is causing such outrage. Just a few days ago, in response to the protests and influx of letters in support of CEU, the Hungarian government spokesman called the situation a “storm of political hype” that was part of a “political circus”.

The European Commission has said it will discuss the situation in Hungary - and this is an important opportunity to reinforce fundamental EU principles.

But for now, individuals, institutions and governments in the UK, and across Europe, need to take note of what is happening in Hungary, and take action to make the closure of CEU a red line that cannot be crossed.

Kirsten Roberts Lyer, Associate Professor of Practice, Central European University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

How to Write an Abstract in Sociology: Definition, Types, Steps of the Process, and an Example

DaniloAndjus/Getty Images

If you are a student learning sociology, chances are you will be asked to write an abstract. Sometimes, your teacher or professor may ask you to write an abstract at the beginning of the research process to help you organize your ideas for the research.

Other times, the organizers of a conference or editors of an academic journal or book will ask you to write one to serve as a summary of research you have completed and that you intend to share.

Let's review exactly what an abstract is and the five steps you need to follow in order to write one.

Definition of an Abstract

Within sociology, as with other sciences, an abstract is a brief and concise description of a research project that is typically in the range of 200 to 300 words. Sometimes you may be asked to write an abstract at the beginning of a research project and other times, you will be asked to do so after the research is completed.

In any case, the abstract serves, in effect, as a sales pitch for your research. Its goal is to pique the interest of the reader such that he or she continues to read the research report that follows the abstract, or decides to attend a research presentation you will give about the research. For this reason, an abstract should be written in clear and descriptive language, and should avoid the use of acronyms and jargon.

Types of Abstracts

Depending on at what stage in the research process you write your abstract, it will fall into one of two categories: descriptive or informative.

Those written before the research is completed will be descriptive in nature. Descriptive abstracts provide an overview of the purpose, goals, and proposed methods of your study, but do not include discussion of the results or conclusions you might draw from them. On the other hand, informative abstracts are super-condensed versions of a research paper that provide an overview of the motivations for the research, problem(s) it addresses, approach and methods, the results of the research, and your conclusions and implications of the research.

Before You Write an Abstract

Before you write an abstract there are a few important steps you should complete. First, if you are writing an informative abstract, you should write the full research report. It may be tempting to start by writing the abstract because it is short, but in reality, you can't write it until you the report is complete because the abstract should be a condensed version of it. If you've yet to write the report, you probably have not yet completed analyzing your data or thinking through the conclusions and implications. You can't write a research abstract until you've done these things.

Another important consideration is the length of the abstract. Whether you are submitting it for publication, to a conference, or to a teacher or professor for a class, you will have been given guidance on how many words the abstract can be. Know your word limit in advance and stick to it.

Finally, consider the audience for your abstract. In most cases, people you have never met will read your abstract. Some of them may not have the same expertise in sociology that you have, so it's important that you write your abstract in clear language and without jargon. Remember that your abstract is, in effect, a sales pitch for your research, and you want it to make people want to learn more.

The Five Steps of Writing an Abstract
  1. Motivation. Begin your abstract by describing what motivated you to conduct the research. Ask yourself what made you pick this topic. Is there a particular social trend or phenomenon that sparked your interest in doing the project? Was there a gap in existing research that you sought to fill by conducting your own? Was there something, in particular, you set out to prove? Consider these questions and begin your abstract by briefly stating, in one or two sentences, the answers to them.
  2. Problem. Next, describe the problem or question to which your research seeks to provide an answer or better understanding. Be specific and explain if this is a general problem or a specific one affecting only certain regions or sections of the population. You should finish describing the problem by stating your hypothesis, or what you expect to find after conducting your research.
  3. Approach and methods. Following your description of the problem, you must next explain how your research approaches it, in terms of theoretical framing or general perspective, and which research methods you will use to do the research. Remember, this should be brief, jargon-free, and concise.
  4. Results. Next, describe in one or two sentences the results of your research. If you completed a complex research project that led to several results that you discuss in the report, highlight only the most significant or noteworthy in the abstract. You should state whether or not you were able to answer your research questions, and if surprising results were found too. If, as in some cases, your results did not adequately answer your question(s), you should report that as well.
  5. Conclusions. Finish your abstract by briefly stating what conclusions you draw from the results and what implications they might hold. Consider whether there are implications for the practices and policies of organizations and/or government bodies that are connected to your research, and whether your results suggest that further research should be done, and why. You should also point out whether the results of your research are generally and/or broadly applicable or whether they are descriptive in nature and focused on a particular case or limited population.

Example of an Abstract in Sociology

Let's take as an example the abstract that serves as the teaser for a journal article by sociologist Dr. David Pedulla. The article in question, published in American Sociological Review, is a report on how taking a job below one's skill level or doing part-time work can hurt a person's future career prospects in their chosen field or profession.  The abstract, printed below, is annotated with bolded numbers that show the steps in the process outlined above.
1. Millions of workers are employed in positions that deviate from the full-time, standard employment relationship or work in jobs that are mismatched with their skills, education, or experience. 2. Yet, little is known about how employers evaluate workers who have experienced these employment arrangements, limiting our knowledge about how part-time work, temporary agency employment, and skills underutilization affect workers' labor market opportunities. 3. Drawing on original field and survey experiment data, I examine three questions: (1) What are the consequences of having a nonstandard or mismatched employment history for workers' labor market opportunities? (2) Are the effects of nonstandard or mismatched employment histories different for men and women? and (3) What are the mechanisms linking nonstandard or mismatched employment histories to labor market outcomes? 4. The field experiment shows that skills underutilization is as scarring for workers as a year of unemployment, but that there are limited penalties for workers with histories of temporary agency employment. Additionally, although men are penalized for part-time employment histories, women face no penalty for part-time work. The survey experiment reveals that employers' perceptions of workers' competence and commitment mediate these effects. 5. These findings shed light on the consequences of changing employment relations for the distribution of labor market opportunities in the "new economy."
It's really that simple.

The Pace of Academic Life is Not the Problem, the Lack of Autonomy Is

by Carl Heyerdahl
by Alison Edwards, LSE Impact Blog: 

To many disgruntled with the quantification of scholarship, its impossible demands and meaningless metrics, it is the heightened pace of academic life that is the problem. 

For Alison Edwards, the crux of the problem is actually a lack of autonomy. Is it time for academics to take back control? This post is inspired in part by the Impact Blog’s Accelerated Academy series. 

If you work as an academic, chances are you were the smart kid in school. You always liked learning. It’s like being a fish in water, being an overachiever. You get off on performing. I hear you; I get it. Because me too.

But like many, I’m disturbed by the developments in the academy today. The quantification of scholarship, with its impossible demands and meaningless metrics, is creating perverse incentives and a toxic atmosphere. The situation has been aptly described as “heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest”.

Slow Academia has been proposed as a solution. But as a response to Neoliberal U, it is not yet fully thought out. It’s not clear that the pace of academic life is the issue here. More likely, the crux of the problem is a lack of autonomy - in which case a more felicitous call to action would be not necessarily to slow down, but (to reclaim the catchphrase of the Brexiteers) to take back control. 

Slow Academia 

It’s hard to argue with the ideas behind Slow Academia, as expressed in manifestos and movements like Slow Scholarship, Slow Science and the Slow University. To put the brakes on now and then. To let ideas brew. To “focus upon a more reflective way of being, doing and living connected to addressing … issues of well-being, the common good, connection and community”, as Maggie O’Neill puts it. Who could dispute the appeal? But Slow Academia has its critics too. In particular, it seems to have a troubled relationship with time. 

Pace is not the problem 

The focus on slow suggests the issue is specifically the frantic speed of developments in academia. But that’s not the whole story. Here’s the Slow Science Manifesto:
“Don’t get us wrong - we do say yes to the accelerated science of the early 21st century. We say yes to the constant flow of peer-review journal publications and their impact; we say yes to science blogs and media and PR necessities … however, we maintain that this cannot be all. Science needs time to think.”
It’s not about doing everything more slowly, then, but about having the space to focus on what’s important. Like thinking, rather than being slaves to the metrics machine or tethered to our email accounts (“I’m a professor of philosophy, not a cardiac surgeon”, writes Brian Treanor in the Slow University Manifesto. “How urgent can it be?”).

Filip Vostal advocates “unhasty” rather than slow scholarship, and points out that speed is not all bad. Rather, modernity has always been characterised by an inherent “will to accelerate”:
“Speed has often been chosen, desired, appreciated - either as an instrument or as a goal in its own right … [t]he commitment to speed…remains a powerful motivational force even today; a force profoundly entrenched in the modern individual’s calculating and strategising mindset.”
It’s not about being “sluggish turtles”, he continues. What academics want is “something akin to scholarly time autonomy, enabling them to determine how temporal resources should be used”. 

Autonomous academia 

So control is the crux of the matter, and it’s here that the politics of slow have been accused of being not radical enough. Rather than challenging the very nature of capitalist knowledge production and consumption, Slow Academia just asks for more time to deal with it. Or as Heather Mendick puts it:
“Slowing down is mainly a way to be a more efficient and effective scholar, with slow scholarship directed towards the same aims as fast scholarship but offering a better way of getting there. But … shouldn’t we be seeking to challenge the goals as well as the means of academic life? And more broadly shouldn’t slow disrupt rather than reproduce the dominant definition of progress?”
Yet for better or worse, it is productivity as defined by the establishment that drives many scholars. We might object to the rules, but can’t help playing the game anyway. We are hypocrites, achievement fiends, “addicted to the brand” of big-name journals.

The point is about choice. In asking “is slow what the Slow University’s about?” Luke Martell says: “the issue isn’t balance, but control over the balance. Lots of things grouped under slow are about quality of life … but the key is autonomy and the ability to reclaim our lives for ourselves.” 

Taking back control

Martell goes on to propose some solutions: “one is individual withdrawal from paid employment, going part-time, self-employed or freelance. Some who do this still have lots of work and a life of speed. But because they’re freer from institutional employment they feel liberated.”

This is the route I’ve taken. I did my PhD at Cambridge, where my thesis was accepted with the rare result of no corrections. I like to think I’m not lacking in the ability and ambition departments. But the establishment route, I began to notice, didn’t sit well with me. I spent large chunks of time writing applications for grants I had next to no chance of getting, a futile process made worse by how dodgy it felt. Where is the sense in using an ultimately taxpayer-funded position to write proposals in the hopes of landing yet more taxpayer money? (see Jan Blommaert for more on this).

On graduating, I was strongly encouraged to apply for a post in Germany just as I was preparing to move to the Netherlands with my new husband, who had landed a postdoc there. “If you caught the overnight train from Amsterdam every Sunday”, he said brightly, “you’d be right on time to teach at 9am Mondays”.

The prospect didn’t sound appealing. So I bit the bullet and went out on my own as a part-time, independent scholar, funding my research through freelance editing and translation. In a broad sense, I embrace the ethics of slow. Free of the tyranny of the tenure track, I have the luxury of investing in new knowledge. I’ll take a sidestep into an adjacent field rather than salami slicing yet another paper out of work I’ve already done to death. I’ll attend a conference I’m intrigued by even if I’m not presenting at it.

But that’s not to say I work slow. I don’t want to work fewer hours or be less productive. I see myself in Mark Carrigan’s admission: “I’m aware that I like speed … time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.” I may not have external targets, but I can’t get enough of imposing them on myself. There are papers in the pipeline, collaborative projects, a second book in progress, a blog and a small business. Oh, and I’m about to have a child.

Removing myself from the establishment route doesn’t diminish that drive. I expect the personal compulsion to do more, to achieve more, to produce more will always be there. It runs deep. But it’s on my own terms. 

Featured image credit: Control by Robert Couse-Baker (licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license).

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below. 

About the author 

Alison Edwards (PhD Cantab) is based in Amsterdam, where she works as a writer, translator, editor and independent scholar. Her latest research focuses on English in continental Europe and its role in local identity construction. She is the author of English in the Netherlands: Functions, Forms and Attitudes (John Benjamins 2016). She also blogs at Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Getting Started With Your PhD

by Kristina, Academic Life Histories:

Five steps for finding your feet as a new PhD student

​I just started my PhD around 6 month ago and especially in the beginning I felt quite insecure.

Everyone I met was asking: “What are you going to do for your PhD? “ I had no clue myself, so I turned red and mumbled something like “Um … study the behaviour of blue tits?” Honestly, I often felt like an idiot and wished the ground would open and swallow me up.

But, despite all these insecure moments I was highly motivated to get into this new area of research! Beginning with something new is always tough and this is probably especially true when starting a PhD. In this post I summarized five points which I think are really important in the first weeks/month of your PhD and I hope they might be helpful for some of you.

1. Self-confidence

For your PhD you might move to another country, meet a new research group and maybe you are even unfamiliar with the research topic itself. A few weeks before I started at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology I suddenly became very unconfident. “Am I tough enough for a PhD?”, “Am I good enough to work in a world class institution?”

During the first days at my new workplace this feeling got even worse … I had the impression that everyone else was way smarter and more experienced than I am. The turning point came during a “teaching” week in which all new PhDs participated and we talked exactly about this feeling - self-doubt. It turned out that everyone else felt exactly the same! So, my message here: Get rid of your self-doubts! No one is perfect and there is a reason why you got the PhD position in the first place. 

2. Read, read, read

Especially when you are new to a certain research area: sit down and rummage through the literature. This will help you to get familiar with the area and most important it will provide you with information about what might be interesting to investigate during your PhD. In the beginning this can be a frustrating process as you discover that all your potential ideas already got published. But, at the end you will find a niche which is interesting to do research on.

To avoid getting lost in this huge amount of literature it is very important to find a good way to store and organize it. This will also help you a lot later on when writing your research proposal or your first publications (see 4).

Another hint: Do not stop with reading papers across your entire PhD. Even though you might have already finished your proposal this is really important to keep up to date! By the way, reading also helps you in getting more confident and clarifying your ideas, that way you won’t feel like an idiot the next time someone asks you about your research. 

3. Talk, talk, talk

To your supervisor: Depending on the type of supervisor (some might be present frequently, others you barely see) it can be difficult to approach them. Nevertheless, it is very important to talk to your supervisor about your research and progress! She/he is usually an expert in the field you are doing your PhD in and thus they are a very important source for guidance and inspiration! To make the meeting efficient for both of you - come prepared! Supervisors have very limited time. So, you could send around a list of points you would like to discuss or make a little presentation. She/he will definitely appreciate that!

To your colleagues/friends: Be social and talk to as many people as possible about your research. This will not only provide you with valuable feedback for your own research but open opportunities for potential collaborations. This is also true for non-biologists or friends working in a different field of biology! I experienced that they often ask very basic questions which you might have completely overlooked while digging deeper and deeper into your research topic. 

4. Write a research proposal

During my first weeks, members from my cohort complained the most about writing a research proposal. “I still have no idea about what to do”, “Planning experiments? If that ever worked!”, “All the chapters will change again during my PhD!” etc. Indeed, writing a proposal might seem to be senseless and is definitely not easy when you just started a PhD. Nevertheless, I think this was one of the most important tasks for me.

You might already have a vague idea about the questions you would like to address during your PhD and the experimental setups. However, writing it up properly and embedding this into the current knowledge of research helps to determine what your research questions and goals will be, and in particular why your research matters! While doing so, a good literature review will be of huge value! 

5. Time management

Time is one of the biggest issues during the PhD and will pass faster than you might think. You will probably encounter situations where people ask you “How is work? What did you do last week?” and you simply don’t know. How is it possible that I can’t remember what I did for one full week!?

Honestly, I still have to struggle with this but according to more experienced PhDs and Postdocs this is completely normal. Nevertheless, it is important to make a rough timetable for your PhD and to set yourself specific millstones to reach! For example, every 6 months you set yourself a specific goal: In the first 6 months you might want to finish your research proposal, after one year finish your first experiment, and so on.

Further, time management also means a good work-life balance. I won’t go into detail here about this but what I would like to say: There is also a life outside of your research and breaks are really important to stay motivated and creative! So, go out every now and then and have a beer with your colleagues and friends!

Why Even Great Teaching Strategies Can Backfire and What To Do About It

A famous study found that when preschool children were incentivized to draw they no longer chose to do so when they had free play time.
by , Mind Shift:

Educators often look for classroom inspiration from instructional strategies that 'work', focusing on how many students improved based on a given strategy.

While that’s important and helpful, focusing only on how a strategy works, without examining why it didn’t work for some learners, is a missed opportunity.

Examining the conditions when a strategy is ineffective or unintentionally misleads students doesn’t necessarily mean teachers should abandon that strategy altogether, but it does help them plan ahead for how it might backfire.

“What seems to be a great way to learn for the teachers, the students, the instructional designers is often a great way to learn,” said Daniel Schwartz, dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, at the Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco. “But sometimes it’s a horrible way to learn.”

There are many examples in education of ideas implemented as though they were gospel backfiring because educators lost sight of the nuances. Rewards are a commonly misapplied tool in education, for example. Simple behavior theory predicts that rewards produce more of a desired behavior, while punishments yield less undesirable behavior. But a famous study by Mark Lepper, David Greene and Richard Nisbett found that misapplied rewards can have disastrous consequences for intrinsic motivation.

For their study, Lepper, Greene and Nisbett first observed a preschool classroom for baseline observations and found that drawing was one of the most popular activities. They wanted to test intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards, so they put out felt-tipped markers (a big treat) at the art table and told one group of students that if they chose drawing during free play time they would get a certificate with a gold seal on it. A second group was not told about the reward, but after making art they received one. The third group was neither told about the rewards nor received one. After a week or two, the researchers again put out the felt-tipped markers and observed from behind a one-way mirror what activities the children chose to play with on their own.

Children in the reward condition chose to draw much less during a three-hour play period than either of the other two conditions. What happened? “The [certificate] replaced the satisfaction of drawing,” Schwartz said. “When there was no more reward, the kids didn’t want to draw.” And, interestingly, when kids were being rewarded for their drawings, they produced less creative work.

Another example is the commonly believed notion that treating each case as unique is a good problem-solving strategy. But this, too, can be misapplied. “Sometimes you design instruction that leads students to inadvertently do the wrong thing,” Schwartz said.

In one study done with college undergraduates, physics students were learning about how magnets affect electric current. They were given three cases of how a magnet interacted with a lightbulb attached to a wire loop. In Case A, the magnet moved right and the lightbulb lit up. In Case B, the magnet moved up and the lightbulb did not light up. In Case C, the magnet was flipped and the light went on.

Students were asked to come up with one account that could explain all three cases. They were placed in two groups, one of which was asked to use the “Predict-Observe-Explain” (POE) strategy, common in science education. This is a difficult problem and only about 30 percent of the control group got the correct answer: the lightbulb lights up with a change to the x-vector of the magnetic field. However, only one student was able to get the right answer in the POE group.

The researchers found that when students used POE, they treated each case as separate and weren’t looking for patterns across the cases. Schwartz said another way the each-case-is-unique idea can go wrong is when students are doing problem sets. They often treat each problem separately, instead of thinking about how they relate.

This is an example of what Schwartz calls a “learning frailty,” or things students are likely to do and that teachers can predict and plan to circumvent. To do this, teachers often have to explicitly tell students what the frailty is and advise them not to give into it. “You have to address what you want them to do, but also what you don’t want them to do,” Schwartz said. 


Schwartz wanted to know whether he could teach students to seek constructive feedback and to explore a space before prematurely settling on an idea, both strategies found to improve learning. He inserted an intervention into the setup of design thinking activities that 200 sixth-graders were doing in math, social studies and science. Students went through a design cycle where they were told to explore materials and ideas, generate solutions, create prototypes and reflect on the process.

One group was told that at each stage of the design process, they should seek constructive criticism on their idea. They were also told to avoid the learning frailty, “we like to hear what we have done well,” in favor of criticism that would help them improve. The other half were told that at each stage of the design process they should resist the temptation to settle on the first idea (the learning frailty), and instead to try multiple ideas before picking one.

Measuring whether these interventions taught the students to use the strategy on their own was tricky because Schwartz and his team were interested in whether students would recognize the value in the strategy and choose to use it on their own when they weren’t explicitly told to do so. They needed a way to measure choice, not knowledge, so they chose a game format.

Screenshot from Schwartz' feedback game. Students could choose to either hear positive or negative feedback on their posters.
Screen shot from Schwartz’s feedback game. Students could choose to either hear positive or negative feedback on their posters. (Courtesy Dan Schwartz)
The seeking-criticism group played a game in which they are hired to make posters for booths at a school fair. The game offers various tools kids can use to create the posters, and then students present their first draft to a focus group of animals that provide feedback that includes praise as well as constructive criticism. Students read the feedback, make changes to the poster, and then see how many tickets they sold.

Researchers were looking for how often students chose to hear more feedback from the focus group and made changes to their posters as part of their process.

“The more feedback you choose in this game, the more likely you do well on the California standardized tests,” Schwartz said. He also found that lower-achieving kids weren’t using this strategy before the intervention, but after the design thinking project they recognized its power and did use the strategy more. Kids who were already high achievers were already using this strategy, so it didn’t make much difference.

Similarly, Schwartz designed a game for the group that was asked to design in parallel instead of choosing the first idea they had. In the game, students are photographers with a variety of settings on their cameras. The game measured how many different camera settings students tried before settling on their final version. And, once again, kids who had not previously used the “exploring the space” strategy did improve.

“You want to teach students what to do and what to avoid. And acknowledge why you’d want to avoid it,” Schwartz said. Another common learning frailty is to do the thing that takes the least time. Teachers can try to circumvent the frailty by explaining why a better strategy, while more time-consuming, will pay off in the end.

Schwartz is wary of anyone who says teachers should never lecture, or never give rewards because it is “bad pedagogy.” “The key here is understanding that these instructional moves are good. You just have to figure out when,” Schwartz said. Rewards work well to incentivize something students don’t like to do, but educators have to be careful about unintentionally reinforcing the idea that whatever is being rewarded is work and therefore not fun.

Similarly, some educators argue that telling students information is wrong or anti-constructivist, but there is a time and a place for telling students information, a relatively efficient way to transfer knowledge. Schwartz and Bransford completed a study in 1998 showing that when college students analyzed contrasting data sets from classic psychology experiments and then read a text or listened to a lecture about why those experiments were important to the development of psychology, they were more prepared to understand and contextualize the new information. The students were then better able to grasp the outcomes of a similar set of data a week later, as compared to students who had summarized the information before the lecture. The analyze-and-lecture condition also predicted more accurately than students in a condition who analyzed the data twice. 


Ultimately, Schwartz’s warning about unintended consequences of instruction is a rallying cry for teacher professionalism. “The science points out what’s necessary; the trick is making instruction where that component sits in an environment that’s sufficient for learning,” Schwartz said. For example, scientists can prove that overwhelming students’ cognitive load is bad. But reduce cognitive load too much and students are bored. That’s why teachers are so important; they are the investigators carefully taking note of how different students respond to strategies in the classroom, and are constantly tweaking ideas to improve them.

“The scientists can give you certain laws about learning, but they can’t put it together into instruction,” Schwartz said. They understand the neuroscience, not how to translate it into a classroom environment. That’s why Schwartz believes the most important thing for good instruction is for the teacher to be an “adaptive expert,” someone who is constantly reflecting, and learning from what he or she has tried in the past. Adaptive experts have growth mindsets about their teaching, whereas “routine experts” get good at one way and repeat it over and over.

“You develop a great deal of expertise by designing instruction and looking at the outcomes of the instruction,” Schwartz said. “You as the teacher need to think about this as a creative endeavor.” Observing how students interpret a lesson and thinking through what learning frailties may have led them in the wrong direction is one way to try to avoid unintended consequences of instruction.

This discussion of instruction misfiring may feel frustrating for educators looking for tried-and-true research-based strategies, but it also reaffirms the importance of educators’ expertise in the classroom. The one guideline Schwartz offers is that often when the rationale for an instructional strategy is to save time or be more efficient, the likelihood of an instructional backfire is high. Resorting to only telling students things, rewarding them for doing what you want them to do and oversimplifying are all ways this can happen.

Friday, March 3, 2017

PhD Impostor Syndrome
by :

During my PhD, there were times when I felt I shouldn’t be there. Some of the other students in the research group were ridiculously smart, and while I was struggling to get even the roughest of results, they were publishing article after article and presenting their work at international conferences.

Many of them had done their undergraduate degrees at the same university, so their supervisors had known who they were recruiting, but I had moved from Sheffield to Nottingham and always had the slight feeling that I had bluffed my way in and would, eventually, be found out. This is the impostor syndrome, and is a common problem among PhD students.

If you’re working day after day in pursuit of a goal, part of you must believe it’s possible. But the contradiction between the belief and the doubt - the forces pulling in two opposite directions - creates a stress that can stop you working to the best of your ability, which in turn reinforces the doubt.

Because impostor-like feelings are so common, it’s easy to dismiss them as just something that everyone goes through. I don’t think it’s enough to say “everybody goes through this, just believe in yourself, keep going and it will be OK”. I think it’s better to examine the ideas behind the impostor syndrome and how they affect your work, then think about whether there’s a more effective way of approaching it.

Although I present some ideas for dealing with impostor syndrome below, I want to make very clear that persistent feelings of unworthyness (or worthlessness) can be a sign of depression, and it would be deeply irresponsible to pretend that I have a solution to this other than seeking qualified help (speak to your doctor or your university counseling service).


If you feel like you aren’t good enough, how good do you think you should be? At a recent talk I gave in Sheffield, one student said that “to get a PhD means you are the world’s leading expert in your topic.” While that’s a kind of almost true, in that nobody else knows your project like you do, if taken literally it’s a near-impossible expectation to live up to.

It’s healthier, and more accurate, to think of a PhD as a beginner’s qualification. It is during your PhD that you develop basic research skills, which you can then develop further should you continue in academia. Maybe you can become the world’s leading expert in something, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work and a hell of a lot longer than your PhD to build that experience and reputation.

Even when you graduate you will still be a relative beginner, so what matters is not how good you are now, but how your skills develop over time.

Ability is not fixed - it is almost always possible to improve upon whatever talents you have, but in order to do so you have to consciously work on the uncomfortable boundaries of your skills. This is only possible if you acknowledge where those limits are.

Impostor syndrome vs beginner mindset

Impostors, by definition, hide their identity. In the context of a PhD, this means hiding any insecurity or weakness in knowledge; avoiding asking the “stupid question”, avoiding mistakes, avoiding risk and avoiding difficulty. It is a state motivated by fear, by the avoidance of a negative outcome, but it actually makes the negative outcome more likely.

Sometimes it’s worth embracing the very thing you fear the most. Rather than avoiding being found out, why not be open about what you don’t know?

If you think of yourself as a beginner, the question is no longer whether you are good enough, but how to get better. If you embrace the beginner mindset by being enthusiastically open about your weaknesses, it frees you to ask questions, to make mistakes and to learn. This is a much more positive outlook.

Really, it’s about identifying problems you can do something about. If you can specify a skill that you need to strengthen, and specific actions to strengthen that skill, this is something you can focus on instead of the vague and destructive sense of unbelonging. 

James Hayton

Author of "PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life"

Does Your Classroom Cultivate Student Resilience?

photo of a proud young womanby Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD, Edutopia:

Over 100 years ago, the great African American educator Booker T. Washington spoke about resilience:
I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles overcome while trying to succeed.
Research has since established resilience as essential for human thriving, and an ability necessary for the development of healthy, adaptable young people. It's what enables children to emerge from challenging experiences with a positive sense of themselves and their futures.

Children who develop resilience are better able to face disappointment, learn from failure, cope with loss, and adapt to change. We recognize resilience in children when we observe their determination, grit, and perseverance to tackle problems and cope with the emotional challenges of school and life.

The Capacity to Rebuild and Grow From Adversity

Resilience is not a genetic trait. It is derived from the ways that children learn to think and act when faced with obstacles large and small. The road to resilience comes first and foremost from children's supportive relationships with parents, teachers, and other caring adults. These relationships become sources of strength when children work through stressful situations and painful emotions. When we help young people cultivate an approach to life that views obstacles as a critical part of success, we help them develop resilience.

Many teachers are familiar with Stanford professor Carol Dweck's important work with growth mindsets, a way of thinking that helps children connect growth with hard work and perseverance. Educator David Hochheiser wisely reminds us that developing growth mindsets is a paradigm for children's life success rather than a pedagogical tool to improve grades or short-term goals. Simply put, it's a way of helping children believe in themselves - often the greatest gift teachers give to their students.

Resilience is part of The Compass Advantage™ (a model designed for engaging families, schools, and communities in the principles of positive youth development) because the capacity to rebuild and grow from adversity is a key factor in achieving optimal mental and physical health. Linked by research to happiness and the other abilities on the compass, resilience is one of the 8 Pathways to Every Student's Success.

Compass with Resilience, Self-Awareness, Integrity, Resourcefulness, Creativity, Empathy, Curiosity, and Sociability as compass points
Image Credit: Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD

The ability to meet and overcome challenges in ways that maintain or promote well-being plays an essential role in how students learn to achieve academic and personal goals. Resilient young people feel a sense of control over their own destinies. They know that they can reach out to others for support when needed, and they readily take initiative to solve problems. Teachers facilitate resilience by helping children think about and consider various paths through adversity. They also help by being resources, encouraging student decision-making, and modeling resilient competencies.

Five Ways to Cultivate Resilience

1. Promote self-reflection through literary essays or small-group discussions

Short written essays or small-group discussion exercises that focus on heroic literary characters are an excellent way, particularly for younger students, to reflect on resilience and the role it plays in life success. After children have read a book or heard a story that features a heroic character, encourage them to reflect by answering the following questions (see the Heroic Imagination Project for additional resources and videos).
  • Who was the hero in this story? Why?
  • What challenge or dilemma did the hero overcome?
  • What personal strengths did the hero possess? What choices did he or she have to make?
  • How did other people support the hero?
  • What did the hero learn?
  • How do we use the same personal strengths when we overcome obstacles in our own lives? Can you share some examples?

2. Encourage reflection through personal essays

Written exercises that focus on sources of personal strength can help middle and high school students learn resilience-building strategies that work best for them. For example, by exploring answers to the following questions, students can become more aware of their strengths and what they look for in supportive relationships with others.
  • Write about a person who supported you during a particularly stressful or traumatic time. How did they help you overcome this challenge? What did you learn about yourself?
  • Write about a friend that you supported as he or she went through a stressful event. What did you do that most helped your friend? What did you learn about yourself?
  • Write about a time in your life when you had to cope with a difficult situation. What helped and hindered you as you overcame this challenge? What learning did you take away that will help you in the future?

3. Help children (and their parents) learn from student failures

In her insightful article Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail, published in The Atlantic, middle school teacher Jessica Lahey touched on a topic near and dear to every teacher's heart: How do I teach students to learn and grow through failure and setbacks when their parents are so intent on making them a shining star? The truth is that learning from failure is paramount to becoming a resilient young person. Teachers help when they:
  • Create a classroom culture where failure, setbacks, and disappointment are an expected and honored part of learning.
  • Establish and reinforce an atmosphere where students are praised for their hard work, perseverance, and grit, not just for grades and easy successes.
  • Hold students accountable for producing their own work, efforts from which they feel ownership and internal reward.
  • Educate and assure parents that supporting kids through failure builds resilience - one of the best developmental outcomes that they can give their children.

4. Bring discussions about human resilience into the classroom

Opportunities abound to connect resilience with personal success, achievement, and positive social change. Expand discussions about political leaders, scientists, literary figures, innovators, and inventors beyond what they accomplished to the personal strengths they possessed and the hardships they endured and overcame to reach their goals. Help students learn to see themselves and their own strengths through these success stories.

5. Build supportive relationships with students

Good student-teacher relationships are those where students feel seen, felt, and understood by teachers. This happens when teachers are attuned to students, when they notice children's needs for academic and emotional support. These kinds of relationships strengthen resilience. When adults reflect back on teachers who changed their lives, they remember and cherish the teachers who encouraged and supported them through difficult times.

Do you have a teacher who played this role in your own life? What do you remember about him or her?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Is It Time To Go Back To Basics With Writing Instruction?

Pens Paper
Flickr/David Merz

Most educators acknowledge that literacy is important, but often the focus is on reading because for a long time that is what achievement tests measured.

In the last few years there has been more focus on writing in classrooms and on tests, but many students still have difficulty expressing their ideas on paper.

Often students struggle to begin writing, so some teachers have shifted assignments to allow students to write about something they care about, or to provide an authentic audience for written work. While these strategies are important parts of making learning relevant to students, they may not be enough on their own to improve the quality of writing. Practice is important, but how can teachers ensure students are practicing good habits?

Nell Scharff Panero taught high school English for 13 years before going back to school to get her Ph.D. in educational leadership. She is now the director of the Center for Educational Leadership at Baruch College, part of City University of New York (CUNY). As a teacher she was often frustrated that she didn’t have more concrete tools to teach writing. Like many teachers, she taught her students to brainstorm, to write outlines and thesis statements with details that backed them up, but when students still struggled she didn’t feel she had the tools to dig deeper.

“If language was breaking down at the level of the sentence, I didn’t know how to break it down or what to do about it,” Scharff Panero said. “And I didn’t know how to expect more.”

These experiences teaching ultimately led her to the work she currently does, guiding teams of educators in an inquiry process to identify specific, granular gaps in students’ ability to write. Peg Tyre documented one school’s inquiry and implementation process at New Dorp High School in her article “The Writing Revolution,” published in The Atlantic.

Despite initially pushing back, Tyre writes that through inquiry teachers began to see that their students didn’t understand things like how the conjunctions “but, because and so” work in sentences, and these gaps were preventing them from expressing complexity in writing.

“I think what’s most counter-cultural, and not really in the knowledge base, is how to develop students at the level of the sentence and all the ramifications that has in terms of thinking and content,” Scharff Panero said.

She has recently published a paper titled “Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing” in the journal Improving Schools about the New Dorp approach and how it compares to commonly held beliefs about writing instruction, as well as the existing literature on how to teach writing.

“There’s a belief that you immerse kids in it and they kind of figure it out,” Scharff Panero said. And some kids can, especially if they grow up in a language-rich environment without any of the common barriers found in public school classrooms, like learning English as a second language, special needs, trauma and poverty. The idea is that models of good writing naturally transfer to students as they regularly practice their own writing, but sometimes students don’t pick up on crucial ideas that end up inhibiting them as they advance in school.

Indeed, many students in the public education system aren’t “catching” what they need to know about writing - the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress writing test found almost 75% of eighth- and 12th-graders in the U.S. wrote below grade level and only 3% of U.S. students, across all demographics, wrote at an “advanced” level.

“Some people can make it, but how do we learn more about how we can teach it better, so everyone does better?” Scharff Panero asked.

The strategies New Dorp teachers used to fill gaps in students’ understanding came from Judith Hochman’s book Teaching Basic Writing Skills, and they seem simplistic. To the average high school teacher, spending a semester on sentence-level exercises that are heavily scaffolded seems easy and boring.

But Scharff Panero said that when teachers try taking instruction back to basics using what she calls “progressive mastery,” they see big improvements in the quality of both thinking and writing, and that students can meet high school expectations when teachers slow down to show them how to write well.

The New Dorp turnaround inspired New York City to require the approach at the 30 lowest-performing high schools in the district, called Renewal Schools. Some of these schools are now beginning to see a shift, but only after some difficult discussions with staff.

“It was very much an attitude that we went in; we taught it; the kids didn’t pay attention; they didn’t study; and they should have learned it,” said Dan Scanlon, principal of John Adams High School. “A lot of people felt they were being blamed for their kids not learning something.”

Scanlon said it was difficult for his staff to acknowledge that pointing fingers at students wasn’t going to improve performance. Instead, the staff had to accept the reality of where their students were at and try something new and different for most high school teachers. Because John Adams has been a low-achieving school for a long time and has been designated a Renewal School, teachers ultimately had no choice. The whole staff got trained in the writing strategies, called Writing is Thinking through Strategic Inquiry (WITsi), and learned how to apply them to their content areas.

“We have better teacher practice because of their implementation of WIT and that has improved performance on Regents exams,” said Joanna Cohen, a vice-principal at John Adams. School administrators chose to implement writing across the curriculum because they began to see that many of the gaps in writing knowledge also pointed to fundamental abilities to express relationships. Using “so” correctly in a sentence, for example, indicates causality, an idea that’s just as important in math and science as it is in more writing-intensive disciplines like social studies and English. 


The WIT activities are not a set curriculum meant to be used exactly the same way by every teacher. Instead, Scharff Panero explained that teachers are trained in the strategies and then use their own discretion to introduce different approaches, according to their instructional goals.

For the program to work well, it’s important for teachers to be able to pick out and focus on writing structures that indicate a way of thinking, no matter the discipline. For example, distinguishing general ideas from specific statements is a crucial skill that comes up when students write paragraphs that include a topic sentence, along with supporting sentences that back up the topic sentence.

When the idea of distinguishing general from specific is the focus of the lesson, the teacher can approach it in a different way. For example, in the Hochman Method used at New Dorp and studied by Scharff Panero, teachers started by giving students a paragraph and asking them to pick out the general statement, the topic sentence and specific statements, the supporting detail. Starting with the model before asking students to write their own topic sentences helped reinforce the bigger idea of the difference between general and specific.

The idea behind progressive mastery is to protect students from what confuses them until they have mastered each individual component. With that in mind, the freshman high school students Scharff Panero studied focused on the level of the sentence, as well as note-taking strategies, for a whole semester. They looked at examples, identified different kinds of sentences and the details within them, filled in word stems, learned to expand sentences and how to combine them.
A scaffolded activity focusing on the differences between but, because, and so in a sentence.
A scaffolded activity focusing on the differences between but, because, and so in a sentence. (Nell Scharff-Panero/"Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing")
Many of these activities are “closed” in that they have a right or a wrong answer that indicates both how well students understand the writing structure, as well as the content involved. Scharff Panero is aware that many educators believe writing in this didactic way inhibits creativity and free expression, but she says students need to understand the rules of writing before they can break them. And, she pushes back against the idea that this approach is dumbing down expectations, arguing that short, sentence-level exercises can contain a lot of rigor and show deep thought.

“My feeling is that if you believe, as I do, that they’re missing foundational skills, then if all you do is increase the rigor without closing the skill gap, then you’ll just make the divide bigger,” she said. Asking students to read longer and more challenging texts, and to write longer essays without first showing them in concrete ways how to build up to that level, defeats the purpose in her mind.

After mastering sentences, teachers move on to how to build a paragraph. They teach students how to write quick outlines using a specific note-taking strategy that can then provide an easy guide for writing. Many of these ideas are familiar to English teachers, but the difference with the progressive mastery or WIT strategies is how teachers break down each aspect of writing.

Many high school teachers haven’t been taught to teach this way, and while they know how to write themselves, they may not be thinking clearly about the scaffolded steps required to accurately summarize or build on an idea. As simple as they sound, these writing strategies are meant to fill in those gaps.
Example of a sentence expansion activity.
An example of a sentence expansion activity. (Nell Scharff-Panero/"Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing")

It was frustrating, but John Adams teachers had to face the reality that their kids needed them to step back and explicitly teach things like how to effectively use conjunctions in a sentence. While it’s natural that the English department expected to be reading and analyzing literature, its teachers soon realized that if they didn’t help their students master writing, they’d never get there.

“We weren’t really sure how well it was going to work because we thought it was really low level for high school,” said Loribeth Libretta, an English teacher at John Adams. She’s been using the WIT strategies for five years now and has seen the difference it has made for students. She remembers one shy freshman boy who lacked confidence and most writing skills. Now, he’s a junior in her class and she says it’s a joy to read his well-developed paragraphs that flow together and express high-level thinking. He’s also become much more confident as a learner.

“Ideally they should have learned this in elementary and junior high school,” said Lauren Salamone, who teaches sophomores Global History. “That’s your automatic reaction, but it’s not the reality.”

There’s a lot of writing on the New York Regents Global History exam, which requires students to answer several document-based questions as well as two essays covering a lot of content. Salamone didn’t resist the writing strategies because she could see early on that her students didn’t have the skills to write at the level required of them. And, to her surprise, her students were grateful to learn the code to good writing.

“They just kind of naturally grabbed on,” Salamone said. “They didn’t really question at all. If anything they found the benefit in it.”

As a science teacher, Jennifer McHugh was skeptical of the schoolwide writing strategy. She didn’t see why she should use valuable class time to teach writing when students wouldn’t need that information to pass the Regents test in her class. But, she complied with the program because she had to, and has come around to how the writing strategies improved her students’ scientific thinking as well.

Asking students to use “but, because and so” about the science they are learning has given students new tools and perspectives to discuss what they know. And, McHugh has found that the writing exercises help her see where students have gaps in their knowledge. For example, if a student uses “but” incorrectly in a sentence, it’s likely he or she doesn’t understand the relationship between the two things yet.

“It helps with their critical thinking skills because they’re thinking from multiple perspectives,” McHugh said. She’s seen her students grow over the year and they earned better Regents scores as well.

What started out as a writing program has become a way to scaffold content and improve teacher performance at John Adams. Teachers are consistently asked to dive into the data in their classrooms and try to understand where the gaps are and how they can be filled. The inquiry that staff did to find the gaps and develop strategies to fill them is ongoing. This work is pushing them to think more critically about how they teach as well.

Scharff Panero believes education researchers need to do more explicit studies on best practices to teach writing, and sees her paper as a starting point for that work. Research has already shown that improving writing also improves thinking, content knowledge and speaking skills.

She’s not convinced the WIT strategies that she helped develop for New York City’s Renewal Schools are the only way to see pronounced growth in students’ writing abilities. It could just be that identifying and actively trying to fill gaps in writing, no matter how it’s done, is enough.

She’s also skeptical that a software program could find and remediate weaknesses in writing. The processes she has witnessed are very human-based, requiring a teacher’s expertise. Principal Scanlon also thought it might be hard for a computer program to yield the same results. He pointed out that software can give a teacher a lot of data, but how he or she uses that data is much more important. He believes that requiring teacher teams to do cycles of inquiry into their students’ skills, while providing them with support and ideas for closing gaps, serves the important purpose of helping teachers grow, too.


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.