Let me be clear! How do I tell when I need to clarify my writing?

I taught a workshop for supervisors recently about assisting your students to write. I said that one reason why our students write badly is because they cannot tell whether their writing is good enough. When they read their own writing they only see what they intended to say, not what is actually written, so they can’t tell if it is clear or coherent or whether it flows.

If I’m right, then the key to teaching writing is enabling our students to recognise when they are unclear. Once you can tell that your own writing is unclear you will find out how to write clearly, and you will keep working on your writing until it is clear. You will seek out or develop strategies for clarifying your own writing. However, if you can’t tell if your own writing is clear, it doesn’t matter how many strategies for clear writing that you learn, because you won’t see the need to use any of them.

One way we can enable our students to write better is to help them see the difference between clear and unclear writing (just as a wine connoisseur can taste the difference between a good wine and a bad wine). We might ask them to read well-written journal articles and theses so they can see examples of clear writing, or we might point out where their writing is unclear and explain why, or we might suggest they read their own writing out loud so they can more easily hear anything that is unclear. Yet it is also very important if we, their supervisors, explain how we recognise when our own writing could be clarified, so our students will have a process to emulate.

So, I challenged the participants of my writing workshop to explain to their students how they tell when their writing is unclear. But how do I do this? Somehow I notice when my writing needs clarification and I make it clearer, but how? It is a mystery to both myself and my students.

To figure out how I clarify my own writing I ‘reverse engineered’1 my mysterious process of thinking. Basically I clarify my writing by comparing what I mean with what the words actually say, and trying to make these match. Sometimes I have to change the words I wrote to clarify what I mean as I was vague, ambiguous or unclear about what I actually meant. Sometimes I have to change the words I wrote because they did not match what I was trying to say. As part of this iterative process I found six things I did, or thinking moves I used, to discover if my writing was unclear. I use these at any time, and in any order in my writing process.

  1. I ask myself ‘What do I want to say? What do I mean?’ as I free-write my pre-drafts and first-drafts. For example, I want to say something about learning theories, and I first write: “Experiential learning is one kind of learning theory.” But this is not what I want to say as I instead want to emphasise that this is the main learning theory in the article I am writing. So I change it to: “The main learning theory is experiential learning.”
  2. I ask myself ‘What do the words actually say? Do they match what I mean?’ For example, I wrote that experiential learning was the “main learning theory”, but this is not what I meant, because it is merely one of many learning theories. What I meant was that it is the learning theory that I will focus on in my article. So I clarify the writing: “The learning theory that I focus on in this article is experiential learning.”
  3. I look for anything in my writing that needs clarification or elaboration. I frequently do this by asking myself ‘What do I mean by…?’ or ‘What will the reader need to be explained?’ For example, the term ‘learning theory’ needs to be explained, so I clarify my writing by adding: “A learning theory explains the mechanisms by which learning occurs.”
  4. I ask myself: ‘Is there any chance of ambiguity? Does my writing allow for multiple interpretations? Is there any chance that a reader might misunderstand or take a different meaning to the one I was intending?’ If I find anything that is ambiguous or vague, then I ask myself ‘How can I re-write it so that the reader is more likely to get what I meant?’ For example, the term ‘experiential learning theory’ is guaranteed to be ambiguous because any abstract term like this is used by different people in different ways, and I have not clarified how I am using this term. So, I clarify my writing by adding: “Experiential learning theory is learning by doing.”
  5. I give my writing to a reader and ask for their reaction. If they are confused or puzzled, or if they miss something important or interpret the writing differently from what I meant, then I need to clarify. I have to figure out what led the reader to the puzzlement or misinterpretation, and then correct this so they are likely to get what I intend. For example, a reader might say “I’m confused by what you mean. I have no clear idea about what learning by doing is.” Or they might ask me “What do you mean by doing? Doing what? How do you learn by doing? What is the process?” To clarify my writing I would need to answer their questions.
  6. I also look for any exceptions to what I wrote, as this will indicate where I have not clarified what I mean. For example, I wrote that “experiential learning is learning by doing” so I would ask myself: “Are there any examples of experiential learning that do not count as doing? And are there any examples of learning by doing that do not count as experiential learning?” If so then I have to clarify what I mean by acknowledging the exceptions.

NOTE: This blog post is about writing that aims to convey the author’s intended meaning clearly to the reader. This seems like a plausible view of academic writing in journal articles, but it is not a universal approach to good writing. I’m not sure it would be appropriate for novels or poetry for example.

[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

Framing your advice for thesis writers: What would your examiners think?

I stumbled across a useful trick for cultivating good writing for thesis students. If I frame my writing advice as ‘this will help you deal with your examiners’ then thesis students are more likely to act on the advice. My usual advice such as “make your sentences clear and succinct” had much less impact on thesis students, compared to advice like “the examiner will be confused if you write it like that.” Thesis students seem captivated by advice based on how their examiners will react to their thesis.

I liked this way of framing advice so much that I wrote two open-access articles about writing a thesis based on what examiners do. My first article was a systematic review of the literature that identified 11 things thesis examiners tend to do as they read a thesis. My second article developed advice for thesis students based on each of these 11 practices. These articles enable me to offer authoritative advice to my thesis students, such as: “We know thesis examiners tend to get annoyed with frequent typos and referencing errors, and then they doubt the candidate’s competence and start to read hyper-critically, so the advice is you should do a thorough edit before submitting your thesis.”

My insight about using thesis examiners to frame advice for thesis students didn’t come from nothing. It is based on several principles that underlie how I teach thesis writing. I’m not sure if these are universally applicable, but they are how I guide my own practice when working with thesis students from every department and discipline.

Advice is more or less useful depending on how it is framed.

The same advice framed in one way might be misunderstood or ignored, while if it is framed in a different way it may be transformational. It is not only what you say, but how you say it. My wife shared a lovely example of this with me yesterday: Her old dance teacher had told her for years to lean away from her dance partner, but this only gave her a sore back and made her lose her balance. Then another dance teacher told her to bring her chest and stomach into one line—doing this effectively means leaning back—and she suddenly understood what to do and had perfect posture. It was technically the same piece of advice about how to stand, but how it was framed made a huge difference.

Advice framed as general principles is better than advice framed as specific directions.

General principles enable students to judge what to do, while specific directions erode their autonomy. When students are given general principles about writing, they have to think how they will apply the principle to their specific piece of writing in their specific context, but if they are given specific directions they just do what they are told without learning to think like a writer. Also, specific directions will have frequent exceptions, unlike general principles. For example, thesis students often want specific directions about how long a literature review should be. But rather than telling them the number of words they should produce (which is likely to be inaccurate for many students in different situations), I instead offer the general principle that the literature review has to be long enough to do justice to the main ideas from the literature, and to make these clear for the reader. Of course sometimes thesis students just want to be told what to do, but they are training to be independent researchers, so we do them a disservice if we don’t ask them to judge for themselves.

General principle: Write for your reader

One general principle that I offer as advice to thesis students is to write for your reader, and in the case of thesis students, this mean writing for your examiner. This principle implies that there are two steps in writing a thesis. You should first write down what you want to say, but then you should re-write it so it is also clear, interesting and convincing for your examiner. So, the advice is to figure out what sort of writing would make a good read for the sort of academics who will be examining your thesis, and then emulate this writing. You can figure out what sort of writing your examiners would like by reading journal articles and theses in your field (and by reading the articles I wrote about what examiners tend to like in a thesis).

General principle: Give feedback about the reader’s reaction

Advice framed as feedback about a reader’s reaction is often better than advice about how a student should improve their writing (though advice about how to improve is also useful in its place). When we share our reaction to their writing, such as “I was confused here”, or “I couldn’t see the connection between this paragraph and the next”, we train students to make judgements about their own writing, rather than stealing this thinking work from them. They have to judge how to respond to the reader who says “I find that unclear” rather than just following instructions about how to fix the paragraph. They have to decide what made the reader think the writing was unclear, and therefore, how they can improve their writing: Was the sentence too long, so I need to make it more succinct? Did I omit an important signpost that explained how one sentence followed from the other, so I need to add ‘because’ or ‘a second perspective is…’? Did the reader have a different interpretation of the words I used, so I need to define what I mean by ‘emotion’? The underlying principle is that writers need to understand how their writing affects their readers, so they can then improve their writing for these readers. The gift of feedback is understanding the impact of our writing, so we can then make it better.


Golding, C. (2017) Advice for writing a thesis (based on what examiners do), Open Review of educational Research, 4(1), 46-60.

Golding, C., Sharmini, S., Lazarovitch. A. (2014) What examiners do: What thesis students should know, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(5), 563-576.

I also posted this on the DoctoralWriting SIG. Check them out for some great stuff about writing a thesis.

Posted in Postgraduate education, Writing

Ah-ha! having reflective insights

How common is it to have ‘ah-ha!’ moments as a result of reflective thinking?

There seems to be an assumption that reflection should lead to profound, transformative insights. This is even given as a reason against using reflection in teacher education courses: Teachers think they can only pass their reflective teaching course if they have completely transformed their teaching by rejecting some fundamental assumption, so they invent transformative experiences (Macfarlane and Gourlay 2009).

But I think these sorts of transformations rarely result from reflection. I can’t even remember a time when suddenly my whole approach to teaching was transformed and I saw everything differently. My reflections about teaching typically result in small, satisfying changes, which I call insights, but which are not the massive, earth-shattering upheavals we might expect. When I reflect on my teaching I might tweak a teaching method, solve one particular issue I was wondering about, or come up with a better way of explaining something to my students, or devise a new strategy that I hadn’t thought of before. For example, this blog post is the result of my reflection about how I change and improve my teaching. I had a vague idea that I developed new insights, and I have clarified that these insights are frequently small rather than transformative.

I only rarely experience moments when several different issues fall into place – for example when I suddenly realise that I had seen assessment solely as grading students, but it was better to see assessment more broadly as evaluating student performance, with or without grades. This is more than the typical experience of clarifying an isolated point, because it transforms a lot of my teaching practice. But it is also not a complete transformation. Perhaps it is a kind of like a micro ah-ha! It is a very satisfying experience where something hazy suddenly comes into focus.

Reflection frequently involves more plodding than great leaps of insight. It is hard work that is rewarded by a slow revealing, like cleaning a very smudged painting, rather than a flash of insight that suddenly illuminate the entire picture.


Bruce Macfarlane & Lesley Gourlay (2009) The reflection game: enacting the penitent self, Teaching in Higher Education, 14:4, 455-459

Posted in Learning to teach, Reflection and improvement

A better way to think about and discuss course planning

When we design courses or papers at a University we often start by deciding who is going to teach, what they going to teach, and the mode of teaching. For example, I might decide to teach topic x and y, using lectures with associated tutorials. This is a default way of thinking about course design and teaching, often based on how we administer teaching or assign EFTS funds.

But this way of thinking constrains us and limits what is possible. We think and talk about what we will teach, what we will cover, and what students will know, but this automatically frames teaching in a teacher-centred way based on what we will do, and in a knowledge-centred way about what students will know. We think about learning solely in terms of the knowledge we will cover, and we are blinded to the other things that students might learn.

If I think about teaching in this default way, then I assume that teaching is about covering knowledge, and I cannot make sense of students learning skills, values or ways of being. For example, I take it for granted that I will cover topic x and y in my lectures and tutorials, but this leaves no room for students to learn broader communication skills or learn to be critical and reflective. Even if topic x is communication, if I think about teaching as covering this topic, then I end up telling my students about communication, rather than enabling my students to be good communicators.

I don’t mean to imply that all university teachers think about teaching in this way, just that it is a tendency, a common discourse, that is problematic. We need to resist this way of thinking, and discuss course design in a different way if we want to revise or reinvigorate our courses and get better results for our students.

Here is a better way of thinking about course design, influenced by the idea of seeking constructive or instructional alignment.

Start designing your course by deciding what you want your students to learn, and in particular, prioritise the broader and deeper objectives. What skills and conceptual understandings will your students get from the course? What values or dispositions will they develop?

Second, work out the structure of the course that will enable students to develop these broad learning objectives. You are better to first structure the course based on what students will do rather than what the teacher will do. For example, what will the students do in the course so they have a deep conceptual understanding of communication, and so they learn to be good communicators? They will need multiple opportunities to do tasks where they can practice their communication, get feedback, reflect on the nature of communication, and then tackle more sophisticated communication tasks. Yes, they will also need to listen to some lectures to understand some of the theories about communication, but if we want our students to develop broad skills and understandings, then the backbone of the course needs to be the communication tasks completed by the students, not what the lecturers cover.

Third, work out the assessment structure. How will you know that students have learned the skills, understandings and ways of being that you aim to cultivate? Set assessment tasks that guide students to develop these learning objectives, and which will allow you to judge how successful they are in developing them. You are assessing the broad skills and fundamental understandings, rather than the details of the content that you have covered. And, these need not be formal, graded assessments, but they can be informal opportunities for you and your students to assess their performance.

Only then do you decide the specific topics that you will ‘cover’. These will be the areas of knowledge students need in order to develop the core skills and understandings. You need not cover everything, only the fundamental concepts and principles, with some details to illustrate.

So in summary, we need to change the way we think and talk about course design. We should give up thinking and talking about what we will cover, and instead think and talk about what students will learn and what they will do to learn this.

Posted in Planning teaching

Writing my teaching philosophy: abstract claims and concrete illustrations

Sometimes a teaching philosophy is too abstract: “I believe in a student-centred approach and I adopt this in all my teaching. I attempt to create a safe space so learners can blossom.” These can be important claims about you and your teaching, but without concrete illustrations they can mean virtually anything, and so they are almost meaningless.

A strong teaching philosophy is a blend of the abstract and the concrete. It makes clear claims about your teaching, but it also illustrates these up with concrete examples and evidence: “I take a student-centred approach in all my classes. For example, I begin every lesson by asking my students what questions they have, and I reorganise my prepared lesson to make sure I address these questions.”

Constructing a teaching philosophy requires a lot of preparatory thinking and writing, where you first try to figure out what you do in your teaching and why you do it, and then you write it in a form that will make sense to a reader. You can start with an abstract claim about how you teach, and then find examples of this to illustrate. Alternatively you can start with an example of something important in your teaching, and then work out what abstract claim this illustrates. You then work backwards and forwards between abstract claims and examples, each time refining and adding to your understanding of your teaching philosophy. You might elaborate or refine your abstract claim, or add some justification, because your examples helped you to see your claim was broader or more specific than you first thought. Or, you might elaborate your examples, and find more evidence, based on the refined abstract claim you made about your teaching. When you are clear about what you want to say, you might combine your concrete and abstract ideas into one paragraph for your teaching philosophy.

Here is an example of my thinking process as I write my teaching philosophy, moving from the concrete to the abstract and back again:

1. Concrete: One example of something important in my teaching

I give students time to ask questions or to say something. I ask a question and then count to 10 in my head before moving on so I ensure they have enough time.

2. Abstract: What claim does the example illustrate?

I allow my students thinking time so they can make sense of the material I am teaching.

3. Concrete: Give further examples of this abstract claim

I deliberately ask questions that require thinking (eg. what is an example of that?) and also deliberately give students enough time to think of an answer.

4. Abstract: Refine my abstract claim by considering why I do this

Learning requires thinking. Students must engage with the material, otherwise it is only memorisation. So, I need to give my students opportunities to engage with the material, and also encourage them to think about the material. I want them to clarify, give examples, apply the material to their own situation, ask and answer questions, give reasons…

5. Concrete: Refine my examples and consider any evidence I might have

I also encourage thinking by using think-pair-share where I ask students to think on their own or to write down their ideas, then share it with another student, and finally share it with the whole class. Another example is using asynchronous discussion boards where I ask my students to present their reflections, and to respond to the feedback of others. Because this is asynchronous, the task has thinking time built into it. My students often say that my courses really make them think.

6. Turn this into a paragraph

Deep learning requires thinking so students can construct their own understanding. Otherwise it is merely memorisation. So, to encourage deep learning, I build in lots of thinking time in my classes. For example, I ask questions that require thinking, such as ‘What is an example of that? And then I wait 5-10 seconds so students have time to think of their own responses. I also encourage thinking by having paired-sharing where students share their ideas with another student. This is safer and easier than talking to the whole class, but it still encourages think-talk (ie. thinking via talking). Another method is to have individual students write down their ideas, or think-write (ie. thinking via writing). Even if students don’t say anything to the whole class, I know they are engaged at thinking via their paired sharing or writing. My students commonly say “I’ve never had to think so much!”

Posted in Evaluating Teaching, Learning to teach, Reflection and improvement

Getting to know your students

In another blog I argued that we need to know our students if we are to teach well, because teaching is about who you know, not just what you know. But, every time we start a new course we have a new group of students. How do we get to know them before the course?

One of my colleagues, Fi Graham from the Rehabilitation Teaching and Research Unit in Wellington, uses an excellent survey to get to know her students (the ‘Student profile questions’ which are linked to this blog). I interviewed Fi to find out how and why she uses these questions.


Fi teaches a course to around 30 health professionals, with a range of areas of expertise, and who are studying part-time while working. She emails the Student Profile Questions to her students before her course starts, and she asks them to send her their answers before she meets them. The answers provided by her students tell her:

  • What they already know
  • What they want to know
  • The importance they place on the different learning outcomes for the course
  • How familiar they are with the technology used in the course
  • How familiar and how interested they are in the different topics covered in the course

She then uses their answers in a variety of ways:

  1. Asking the questions is a good way of quickly building relationships in a course. By asking these questions Fi is saying to her students “I’m starting this course by listening to you. I’m interested in you.” This creates an ethos in the course that is a firm foundation for learning. As a result students are more likely to feel understood and respected as individuals, more likely to be motivated and inspired by the lecturer who took the time to get to know them a little, and they are more likely to invest more in the course.
  2. The questions offer a simple way for students to engage in the course, which takes very little time. Right from the start Fi is saying to them, “This course is for you, and I will provide you with ways to engage.” (She also offer a range of alternative ways for students to engage so they can choose which are useful for them and which are not)
  3. The answers help her to know her students as individuals, but also to know the cohort of students as a whole. For example, in any year Fi can find out which students are interested in which topics. However, one year she also found out that the whole class is more tech savvy than she assumed, and less anxious about the technical aspects of distance learning, and she found out that there was a surprising amount of interest in learning background skills like finding information and writing.
  4. Fi uses the answers from her students to explain the course objectives and the various learning tasks and why these are important, and this helps to motivate students. For example, she might say: “Many of you said the ability to communicate was one of your most important learning goals, well, one way this course will develop your communication skills is through the International Classification of Functioning framework, so that’s why we spend a lot of time on this.” Or she might say: “The essay in this course requires critical thinking skills. This was another thing that many in the class said they were interested in. So the essay is one of the places where you will get a chance to practice and refine your critical thinking skills.”
  5. This teaching method is in ‘instructional alignment’ with all of Fi’s course learning objectives. It sets a foundation for good learning in general, and it allows her to show her students the importance of any particular learning objective. For example, it shows that Fi values her students and builds a learning relationship with them, which is a useful foundation for learning any of the learning objectives in the course. And, if one of the learning objectives is to learn about x, the lecturer can use the student answers about their interests to show why learning x is important, and this is useful to motivate and help them to learn x.
  6. Fi uses the answers to ‘tweak’ the current course. For example, one year the survey indicated that there was lots of initial interest about teamwork, so Fi changed her plan for guest speakers and invited extra speakers for the course who could talk about team work.
  7. The student survey also provides useful feedback about what students want and need, which can also inform overall curriculum design for a Department, and for Departmental reviews and reports . The Department can use the answers to judge if they are hitting the mark for their students, or if they need to offer something different. For example, if it turns out that most of your students are interested in learning about x, and the Department doesn’t offer anything about x, the Department can add this into either the current course or into a follow up course. On the other hand, it is useful evidence for a Department to show that they are hitting the mark for their students with the content and design of their courses.
Posted in Evaluating Teaching, Learning to teach, Students

Refining my reflections

Here is an example of my reflective thought process from rough reflections to more and more clear, elaborated and insightful reflections. This process normally happens very quickly, but I have deliberately slowed it down to show you how I think through what I write. I will divide it up into stages from the initial rough reflection through to a polished, reflective piece of writing, and I will explain each stage of my reflective process.

1. Initial rough idea: Just putting my idea down on paper (without worrying about spelling, grammar, etc.).

“Relationship is crucial for good teahicng”

2. What needs clarification or elaboration: What do I mean by…?

‘Relationship’, ‘crucial’, ‘teaching’ and ‘good teaching’ all need clarification. They are fairly vague and I haven’t said what I mean by them

“A positive, supportive relationship between students and teachers will improve student learning”

3. Where can my statement use more examples: What is an example of…?

This is still pretty abstract and I am not sure what I am referring to. I need to make this concrete as well.

“A positive, supportive relationship between students and teachers will improve student learning. For example, a supporting relationship would be created if the teacher learns the names of their students, and shows that they care about their students by asking them how they are going, listening to their answers, and offering support or encouragement where needed.”

4. Where does this need reasons? Why do I think …?

I also realised that I have not given any reason why someone should believe what I am saying (or even why I think this is correct), so I need to add reasons as well.

“A positive, supportive relationship between students and teachers will improve student learning. For example, a supporting relationship would be created if the teacher learns the names of their students, and shows that they care about their students by asking them how they are going, listening to their answers, and offering support or encouragement where needed. This sort of relationship will make the student feel cared for, and if they feel cared for they can engage better in their learning.”

5. Where can my statement use more examples: What is an example of…?

My idea is getting more and more sophisticated as I reflect on what I mean. But now my reasons are too abstract and it needs an example to illustrate what I mean.

“A positive, supportive relationship between students and teachers will improve student learning. For example, a supporting relationship would be created if the teacher learns the names of their students, and shows that they care about their students by asking them how they are going, listening to their answers, and offering support or encouragement where needed. This sort of relationship will make the student feel cared for, and if they feel cared for they can engage better in their learning. For example, if John feels like the teacher cares about him and cares that he is doing well, then John will be willing to do tasks that he may ignore if the teacher did not care, and he may be willing to take risks and try out ideas that he might be unwilling to try out if he thought the teacher did not care about him. And if John does these things he is likely to learn more.”

6. What further questions could I address to enhance my reflection? Another question this raises is…

What do I mean by supportive? Supportive of what? Of whom? What exactly is being supported? Who or what is doing the supporting?

What does it mean to improve student learning? What does it mean for Tim to get better at learning? He understands more quickly? Is it a speed thing? He understands more deeply? Is it about depth of understanding?

Do I have any evidence that being cared for leads to better learning?

(and lastly – double checking spelling, grammar and whether it makes sense to a reader)

Posted in Learning to teach, Reflection and improvement