Digging deeper: How do I tell where to go deeper?

When we write academically, one of our main tasks is to deeply explore the topics we write about. It is not enough to present a superficial overview, so we need to drill deep. Yet it is often difficult to judge where we need to go deep, or whether we have gone deep enough. Many students think they have deeply explored a topic, only to find that their marker disagrees.

To figure out how I deepen my own writing, I ‘reverse engineered’1 my own process of thinking. This might provide some guidance for tackling an otherwise mysterious process of digging deeper.

How do I judge where to drill?

First I sketch an overview of the topic to get the lay of the land. I need a map of the intellectual terrain that shows the relationships between all the main ideas, points or concepts which I could investigate. For example, if I’m writing about reflective practice, the overview might include ideas such as Gibbs reflective cycle, reflection as learning, the difference between reflection and learning, reflection on practice, and reflection as practice. I might also isolate the different elements involved in reflective practice such as uncovering assumptions, evaluating past practice, planning future practice, etc.

Next I rank the most promising areas for drilling. I look at each idea and decide which are the main ideas important for understanding the overall topic, or which need the most attention (perhaps because of some gaps in our understanding), or which ideas I am most interested in.

Finally I choose to focus on only the top ranked ideas, and I include only the quantity of ideas I can cover in the available time and word limit. For example, if I only have 1500 words and one week, I might choose to only investigate one of the main ideas, such as uncovering assumptions as one important aspect of reflective practice.

Sometimes I explain how I judge where to focus my investigation using the metaphor of travelling to a new city, rather than the metaphor of drilling. This is a useful way of understanding a research project like a thesis. A research topic is like a new city, and I start my exploration by wandering around the new city, reading almost randomly, until I have a good sense of the whole map. But you cannot research the whole city, so next I have to choose one building to explore, and one floor within that building, and one room within that floor in which I will work for an extended period of time. This means my research is on the city, the whole topic, but I investigate the city by working in depth on only one small area.

How do I judge if I have gone deep enough?

I start by asking what needs elaboration, justification and illustration about the idea that I am probing. For example, what do I mean by an assumption and what do I mean by uncovering an assumption? Why is this important for reflective practice? What is an example of someone uncovering an assumption, and how does this example illustrate the process of reflective practice?

I write my answers to these questions, and then ask about this new writing: what needs elaboration, justification and illustration? For example, if I described uncovering as assumption as finding out my prejudices, then I now need to answer the questions: what do I mean by a prejudice and what is an example of a prejudice?

I keep writing further drafts, and re-reading what I have written, looking for anything that needs explanation, justification and illustration until there is nothing more to elaborate, justify or illustrate, and the questions no longer arise. Then I know I can’t go any deeper.

Sometimes when I tackle 2 or more ideas, I write so much about one of the ideas that I can no longer fit all the ideas into my available word limit. In this case I have to delete one of the less important ideas as I cannot do justice to all of them. I might replace the deleted idea with a phrase like: “Another important idea is reflection during practice, rather than reflection after practice, but this is beyond the scope of this essay.”


[1] Golding, C. (2011) Educating for Critical Thinking: Thought-encouraging questions in a community of inquiry, Higher Education Research and Development 30(3), 357-379.

Posted in Reflection and improvement, Writing

Snow writing

snow writingLike many people, I schedule writing time to make sure I fit it in my busy week. But sticking to your schedule is often difficult, and there are many good reasons why you might miss your writing time (like getting snowed in and unable to travel to work). Sometimes you just have to find creative ways to stick to your schedule, no matter what.

Posted in Writing

The Slow Professor

Slow professor

The Slow Professor had me revise what it means to be an academic. It is well worth a read in full, but in short, I think the message is: stop worrying about time management and making time and fitting things in and instead focus on the pleasures of the academic life. Putting this another way, the authors of The Slow Professor encourage us to resist the corporatisation of academic life (a symptom of which is speeded up, efficient performance and the resulting need for time management) and instead devote yourself to what is academically pleasureable, meaningful and interesting. Devote yourself to collegial discussions, crafting your ideas into an article, working in the lab, the library or the field, fostering the love of your subject in a new generation, and creating ah-ha moments for your students.

Posted in Book review

My student complains I don’t give enough feedback, but I give lots of feedback!

Here is my reflective, diagnostic process for figuring out what to do.

My initial analysis of the situation: Although my feedback practices normally work for my students, they aren’t working for this student. I need to diagnose what the problem is and work out a strategy that will support this student.

My diagnosis process starts with talking with the student and reading their work, then forming a hypothesis about some promising diagnoses, then devising a solution based on these diagnoses and trialling one or more of these solutions. If that fails, I rule out the first diagnoses and go to an alternative, trialling a different solution based on this diagnosis. And so on until I find a solution.

One diagnosis I always reject: It’s their problem because they aren’t smart enough, or they shouldn’t have been let into my class, or they don’t do the work, or they simply ignore my feedback.

I don’t even consider this diagnosis, first because it’s based on the fallacious idea: “I’ve tried everything, and it didn’t work, so it must be the student at fault.” But I haven’t tried everything, and it is impossible to try everything, so it is a fallacy to blame my current lack of a solution on my student. Put another way, it is an unjustifiably defeatist response. Instead I take the mindset that there is always a way to enable every student, but I may have to do some work to figure it out.

But most importantly, I ignore this diagnosis because it is irrelevant. The only relevant point is that my teaching is not working for this student. Blaming my student (or even blaming myself) is missing the point. The job I have as an educator is to devise methods that will work for this student.

As an aside, because teachers can be overworked, it is both honest and appropriate to think: “I don’t have time to sort out this student at the moment”. Then you can come back to a diagnosis and possible teaching solutions when you have more time, perhaps when you are designing your next round of teaching. Just don’t fool yourself that there is nothing you can do.


Here are some of the diagnostic possibilities that I do consider, each one followed by a possible ‘treatment’. The list is not exhaustive, but does cover many of the most common areas of trouble for students.

  1. My feedback is not clear for this student.
    • Try to explain in several different ways, and find an way of expressing yourself that does make sense to this student.
  2. I am asking too much of this student, too fast. I’m asking them to do tasks that are too hard for them.
    • Break the task into do-able steps, and support the student to tackle each of these steps.
  3. They are terrified of the task, or they think they are incompetent.
    • Build their self-confidence and self-efficacy. Tell them they will succeed with time and effort. Give them doable tasks so that they experience a sense of success.
  4. They don’t understand what feedback is, what it is for, or why it is important.
    • Explain what feedback is, and convince them that it is beneficial for them.
  5. They don’t understand how to use the feedback I give.
    • Give them guided practice at using feedback to improve. Show them how you would use your feedback to improve a small aspect of their work, then ask them to follow the same process, using other feedback to improve a different aspect of their work.
  6. They expected more or different feedback than what I provide.
    • Negotiate with the student to align your expectations with theirs. Find out what they expected, and either convince them to change their expectations to what you actually provide, or change what you provide to better meet their expectations, or some combination of the two.
  7. The student has some deeper conceptual misunderstanding about the nature of the task for which I am giving feedback, for example, about what it means to write a critical essay. While they lack this foundational understanding, any feedback or instruction I give them will be misunderstood and pointless.
    • Identify concepts that are crucial to the task (sometimes called threshold concepts) – such as argument, evidence, reasons, and convincing the reader – and help the student understand these concepts. Build this understanding before you tackle the issue of feedback directly.
Posted in Postgraduate education, Reflection and improvement

Learning is a journey

My colleagues and I have been researching student conceptions of learning using a research method called photovoice (Wang &Burris 1997; Wang 2006). Students take photographs that metaphorically represent learning, and then talk about what they have depicted. To prepare for a second round of this research, I decided to take my own photos to explore my own conception of learning. (Luckily for me, photovoice is about the quality of the ideas represented, not the quality of the photos).



We often start a learning journey without a clear view of the journey we will face. We might see some signposts, but they don’t always make sense at the start of the journey, and we only have a glimpse of our path ahead.




If we start the learning journey we get a clearer picture of the daunting climb we face.





But after the climb we realise that our initial view of our learning path was inaccurate, and there is much further to go than we thought.





With further progress we start to see a glimmer of light, the end of our journey?





And finally a whole new vista opens up for us, which we could not have imagined at the start of our journey. Now where to?



If this is a useful picture of the learning journey, then what does it say about good teaching? What would a good teacher be doing?

  • Guide students so they keep making progress along the path of learning
  • Motivate them to carry on, especially when they are unclear where they are going or how to get there
  • Build their self-efficacy so they feel that they are doing well, and that they will succeed if they carry on, despite difficulties
  • Give them feedback on what they have achieved so far, and what is next.


Wang, C., & Burris, M. A. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education & Behavior, 24(3 ), 369-387.

Wang, C. C. (2006). Youth participation in photovoice as a strategy for community change. Journal of Community Practice, 14(1-2), 147-161.

Posted in Learning

How do you judge whether someone is a good teacher?

Judging teaching is like diagnosing measles.

There are many things that can indicate measles, but no single indicator is proof of measles. A few spots doesn’t mean you have measles because there are plenty of other reasons why you might have spots. However, if you have spots and a temperature, and if the spots persist for longer than hives or insect bites, then you can be more confident of the diagnosis of measles.

Likewise, good scores on one evaluation questionnaire doesn’t mean you are a good teacher, because there are plenty of other reasons why students might have given good evaluation scores, and we don’t know whether the evaluations are equally good in your other courses (and neither does one bad questionnaire mean you are a bad teacher). However, if a teacher gets consistently good results from evaluation questionnaires from multiple courses, and over multiple years, and their peers also say they are a good teacher, and their students do well in their assessments, and in later careers, then you can be more confident that they are indeed a good teacher.

Posted in Evaluating Teaching

Disciplined learning, when students are reluctant to tackle the tasks we assign

Sometimes we ask students to do a series of tasks that are necessary for their learning, but which they would rather avoid. For example, we might assign readings for every class, or ask them to complete weekly reflections, or to post regularly on a discussion board. What do we do if our students resist doing these tasks, or if they simply don’t do them? How do we deal with their complaints: “I can’t see the point”, “it’s too hard”, “It’s too simplistic”, “I don’t like learning in that way” or “I don’t have time”.

We are asking for disciplined learning

What we are asking of our students is a disciplined approach to learning, similar to how someone learns to be a ballet dancer, a musician or a professional athlete. Disciplined learning is needed for particular kinds of learning which can only be achieved with regular training and exercise, such as being fit, being a dancer, being a musician, or being reflective. To achieve this kind of learning, students have to follow a disciplined process, supervised by a skilled coach/teacher, where they have to do things they would rather avoid.

Disciplined learning is not easy. It involves regular exercise and training for students, where we push the students beyond what they would do if they were left to their own device, like the personal trainer who shouts “just one more, you can do it!” Students might not want to do another stretch, or play another series of scales, or write another reflection, but if they don’t do these tasks regularly and frequently, week after week, they will not be able to achieve the learning objectives.

It is pointless and inappropriate for us to blame our students if they don’t do the tasks we set. There are many demands on their limited time and energy, so of course they are reluctant to squeeze in our regular learning tasks around their study, their work and their lives. Nevertheless, we know that regularly doing these tasks is necessary for their learning. There seem to be three ways we might help our students to regularly tackle these disciplined learning tasks.

1) Require students to do the tasks and support them

Make the tasks a requirement of the course. By this I mean, no exceptions to the requirements to do the task. Regular exercise and training only works if it is done regularly. If you miss the exercise you get no benefit, even if you have a good reason for missing it. So, the requirement is that students do the tasks on time, every week, no excuses. Another way of seeing this is that the tasks are the course. They are not an optional add-on to the real course which might be attending lectures, they are the course itself.

Even if you require students to do the tasks, there are various reasons why students might fail to complete the requirements, with common reasons being “I forgot” or “I ran out of time”. So, to support the students to complete the tasks you need to be like a personal trainer and monitor their performance, remind them to complete the tasks, and make them accountable for having done so. This is easiest if you specify exactly what is to be done and by when, so you, the student and the rest of the class can tell if the tasks have been completed or not. Ask students to let you know when they have completed their task, and you can also marshal the power of peer pressure and have them accountable to the rest of the class for completing their tasks. If they don’t complete the task in time, have them complete it during class time while the other students are doing something else.

However, I avoid giving grades for disciplined learning tasks. Assigning too many graded assessments is detrimental for student learning (Wass et al. 2015), and it means students are only doing the tasks for the grade. Intrinsic or personal motivation provides better encouragement. Instead of offering grades, I have something like a learning contract, where at the beginning of the course students agree to complete the tasks as a condition of doing the course.

I also avoid coercion or punishment for not doing the tasks. I think fostering personal motivation, where students choose to do the tasks, is a better way to foster learning. It is better if they voluntarily choose to complete the regular tasks, choose to be accountable for completing them, and choose to have someone act as their coach who will push them to do the tasks and help them overcome any forgetfulness or weakness of will.

2) Motivate students to do the tasks

Fostering student motivation is also essential for disciplined learning. The only feasible and ethical way to ensure students will do the tasks we assign, week after week, is if they are personally motivated to do them. So, how do you motivate students so they want to do tasks they were previously reluctant to do?

Students become motivated to complete the disciplined learning tasks when they are convinced that these tasks are important. If the students see the value of doing the tasks, see why they have been assigned these tasks, then they are more likely to voluntarily do them. So, as teachers, we need to show our students how completing the tasks is a milestone on the path to some important learning goal. We have to convince our students that the only way they can obtain something that they find valuable is via these tasks. For example, a teacher might explain how the tasks are exercises for an important learning goal, and invite past students to share how they use what they learned from these exercises. Another teacher might confront their students with problems that the students want to solve, but which they cannot solve unless they complete the tasks. A third way to show that the tasks are valuable is for you to do the tasks along with your students. This shows that you actually value the task in practice, which can be enough to motivate them to follow your lead.

However, even if our students see the value of doing the disciplined learning tasks, in a sense they still may not want to do these tasks. Even if someone knows that they can only be a great athlete by getting up before the sun to train, they still may not want to get up that early. Even if a student knows that they have to do the readings to get their dream career, they still may not want to do the readings. The problem is that we have a hierarchy of conflicting desires. On one level we can desire to avoid something, but this can be over-ridden by our higher-order desires for some bigger goal. For example, my desire to become an excellent teacher overcomes my desire to avoid writing regular reflective posts about my teaching. This hierarchy is important for understanding how we motivate students to undertake disciplined learning – we have to appeal to their higher-desires (this extends the idea of higher-order desires in Frankfurt 1971 and Cam 2016).

A third element of motivating our students is fostering confidence or self-efficacy about the tasks. Students will be more motivated if they feel they are doing well on these tasks, or at least improving (Bandura, 1982). So, teachers should use class time so students can practise doing the tasks, and they should give regular and frequent feedback to build the confidence and capacity of their students.

Build trust so students are more likely to do the tasks you set

A further way of ensuring your students tackle disciplined learning tasks, is to foster student trust. Students will be more motivated to do the tasks we assign, and more likely to complete them, if they respect their teacher, have confidence that their teacher is competent in this area of teaching, if they trust their teacher is working to support their learning, and if they trust that they will benefit from following the teacher’s instructions.

How do you build this trust and confidence in your students? One way is to show that you value your students. They are more willing to trust your methods, and go along with them, if they think you value them. Another way is to show your students your credentials as a teacher and as a subject expert. In the first class or two your students will be sizing you up, and you need to show them you care about their learning, and you know what you are doing (and even better if you do this before the first class using pre-course emails).

Doing the task with your students can also help build trust. When you do the same tasks as your students you can indicate where you struggle, and how you overcome these challenges (this is sometimes called ‘intellectual streaking’, Bearman and Molloy, 2017). This shows your students that you trust them enough to expose your mistakes and errors. It also gives your students a more accurate view of how difficult these tasks are, even for someone who is experienced. This can reassure your students that their own struggles are normal, which gives them confidence to persevere despite challenges.

Sometimes student-trust can replace student-motivation. If students really trust their teacher, they will be willing to do the tasks the teacher assigns, even if they cannot see the point of these tasks. This is the Karate Kid approach to teaching. Mr Miyagi, the karate teacher, tells his student to paint the fence all day using up-down strokes with the brush, and the next day using side-to-side strokes, and alternating right and left arms. This seems like a complete waste of time to the karate kid who rebels, but Mr Miyagi then shows him how the movements he used for painting translate to karate punches and blocks. The karate kid then realises that he can trust Mr Miyagi: If he does the weird tasks Mr Miyagi sets him, he will learn something important, even if he doesn’t understand why he is doing these tasks. He learns to trust the teaching.


Note: Some of these methods for encouraging disciplined learning will also be useful when your students resist learning the content you are teaching; They are useful methods when your students complain “Why are we learning this?” because they think the topic is boring, irrelevant or pointless.



Bandura, A (1982) Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2): 122–147.

Bearman, M, & Molloy, E (2017) Intellectual streaking: The value of teachers exposing minds (and hearts), Medical Teacher, 39(12), pp. 1284-1285,

Cam, P (2014) Fact, Value and Philosophy Education. Journal of Philosophy in Schools, 1(1), pp. 1-10.

Frankfurt, H (1971) Freedom of the will and the concept of a person. Journal of Philosophy, 58(1), pp. 5-20.

Wass, R, Harland, T, McLean, A, Miller, E, Sim, KN (2015) Will press lever for food: behavioural conditioning of students through frequent high-stakes assessment. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(6), pp. 1324-1326.

Posted in Learning, Planning teaching, Students