Talking about writing : a case study of a doctoral learning community (2020)
Type of ContentTheses / Dissertations
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
PublisherUniversity of Canterbury
This thesis reports a study of a group of international doctoral students in New Zealand who were brought together to develop a learning community. The intention of the community was to help students to work collaboratively as well as individually to identify the challenges they face in academic writing and to evolve strategies to overcome them. The research project investigated how students developed agency through participation in the community. It also examined the concerns the participants had with their academic writing and what they found most useful in the discussion in the community.
Many doctoral students struggle with the formalities and focused rigour of academic writing. International students at western universities have the added obstacle in that they are writing in a second language. It is a common trend in western universities to attract and enrol growing numbers of international students and in many cases; these students constitute a significant source of revenue. Consequently, the problems international students face in mastering academic writing are a concern for universities globally as they are for those in New Zealand.
In this project, the student participants came from a number of different faculties, particularly Education, Arts, Science and Engineering. There were two experienced facilitators who joined the group online.
A participatory action research (PAR) approach was selected for this study as it allows planning and action to evolve as a result of critical reflection on each stage of the project. The learning community evolved over time according to the needs, initiatives and critical insights of the participants. The participatory aspect of PAR was important to this study as it was important for the participants to be actively involved in shaping the direction of discussions within the community and for the findings to honestly reflect their experiences and perceptions.
The study draws on three principal fields of knowledge and theorisation. The first is the large body of literature that discusses the difficulties that students have with academic writing. The second is the growing body of literature that deals with the development and operation of learning communities. The third is the body of studies that explore the concept of agency.
Participants identified a range of personal difficulties in academic writing, ranging from specific problems with vocabulary and grammar to less specific feelings about ‘not doing it right’ or ‘being too simple’. Over successive meetings, participants became more confident in talking about their difficulties and more critically insightful about what was expected of them and what their actual problems were. They also became more collaborative in sharing strategies that they found useful, in brainstorming alternatives, and in positively critiquing one another’s ideas and writing.
In the final interviews each participant shared what they learned through working in the community. A common response was increase in confidence through realisation that they were not alone in experiencing problems and could seek and find useful support from others. Several participants identified particular features that they now understood better and could work with more effectively. Some stated that they had not expected to learn anything new (having joined to support others) but found they had incrementally, and almost unconsciously, gained new insights into their methodology and their findings. Several students stated that they most valued the opportunity to talk to others including professors (who were not their supervisors) about their ideas and how to express them.
The thesis finally identifies key factors, arising from the research, that contribute to the effective functioning of a learning community and makes recommendations for ways within universities to support international students in developing their academic writing.