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 Writing


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 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 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 Reflection and improvement

Mentoring teachers

One of my roles is to mentor other teachers and enable them to improve and enhance their teaching. How do I mentor another teacher (the mentee)? When I reflected on this I realised I went through roughly ten steps. My actual process of mentoring tends to be a bit messier and less linear than what I present, but these simple steps help me to understand what I do.

  1. First meeting. I first meet with the mentee to gauge where they are at in relation to teaching: How do they feel about teaching and about themselves as a teacher? How confident are they? What do they think they are doing well and what can be improved? What are they concerned about and what are they interested in? and, finally, What do they want from the mentoring relationship?
  2. Assist the mentee to move to a space where they can tackle improvement and enhancement. Some mentees aren’t ready for mentoring because they are in an unsuitable frame of mind, so the next three steps are about how I help them take a different perspective about their teaching.
  3. Reassure and build confidence. If a mentee lacks confidence or doesn’t feel efficacious as a teacher, then they will find it difficult, if not impossible to improve. So, my first step is to create a foundation of “I’m OK as a teacher” so that my mentee is able to undertake improvement. This requires them to see their teaching difficulties as opportunities for learning, not as indicators that they are bad teachers.
    • Normalise the struggle in teaching. I point out that all teachers struggle with their teaching. These problems and issues don’t make them a ‘bad’ teacher, they are an inevitable and essential part of being a teacher.
    • Difficulties are necessary for learning to teach. I emphasise that we learn to teach in a University by trying something, noticing problems and difficulties, and then improving and enhancing what we do. Thus any problems the mentee may be facing are just one step on the journey to learning to be a teacher.
    • All teaching is a learning process. I also point out that teaching is always a learning process. For example, all teachers have to learn how to teach the particular students they are faced with. No matter how good a teacher is, they will face students who do not respond to the methods they normally use, and who expect something different from what the teacher expects. All teachers have to learn to deal with this challenge every time they teach.
  4. Invite them to take an enhancement attitude to their teaching. I invite my mentee to see their teaching as a process of improvement and development. All teachers, no matter how novice or how experienced, can develop, improve and enhance their teaching. When we take an ‘enhancement attitude’, we look at evaluation evidence like student evaluation questionnaires as an indicator of what worked and what didn’t work for students, and so as an indicator of how we might improve student learning. Thus I encourage my mentee to see that evaluation evidence is not about them, but about the impact of their teaching on their students. I want my mentee to see the evidence we gather about the impact of their teaching as information they can use to improve, rather than seeing the evidence as implying a judgment about them being a good or a bad teacher.
  5. Identify something to enhance, work on, or inquire into. I assist my mentees to find something that we can focus on that will motivate them to improve and enhance their teaching. This will likely be something about teaching that they are interested in, concerned about, or which they want to improve or enhance. Relating to them as if they are ‘broken’ or ‘bad teachers’ will not inspire them to improve, so we need to assist them to identify some inspiring result they want to achieve.
  6. Gather evidence about the impact of their teaching on their students, for example:
    • Observe their teaching
    • Read evaluation data from student questionnaires or other student feedback
    • Talk with my mentee about how they teach and what they do
    • Read their course documents and assessments
    • Talk with their students
  7. Judge what might be changed to improve or enhance student learning.
    • We first hypothesise about what might be ‘blocking’ or ‘restricting’ student learning. For example, the evaluation questionnaires may indicate that the students think the mentee is ineffective as a teacher. But after talking with students and watching a lecture, we might realise that the underlying issue is actually that the mentee is speaking too quietly for students, and there are too many slides in their powerpoint presentation so students don’t have enough time to understand anything, and the result is that students don’t follow what the mentee is saying.
    • Then, we hypothesise about what might enhance the teaching to deal with the ‘blocks’ or ‘restrictions’. For example, my mentee could use a microphone or get some voice projection lessons, and they might cut down the number of slides in their presentation so they focus on the fundamentals without distracting students with irrelevant details (which can instead go into further readings).
    • If we are not sure about what might be blocking or restricting learning then we need to gather more evidence. For example, after discussing the mentee’s teaching, and reading student questionnaires, it might be obvious that students are not engaged, but we don’t yet know why. So, we go back to step six and talk with students to find out why they are not engaged.
  8. Action plan. I assist my mentee to design what they will do differently in their teaching, and how they will evaluate whether these changes have enhanced student learning.
  9. Action. They make the changes in their teaching!
  10. Evaluation and feedback: We finish by considering what they did and what happened as a result, including what they observed and any other evaluation evidence they gathered, and we use this to judge if the changes worked. If the changes worked, I congratulate them and assist them to refine and embed the changes so they become part of their normal teaching practice. If the changes had no impact, then we go back to step 6.
Posted in Learning to teach, Mentoring