Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Impact Sensationalism: A Means to an End?

by : https://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/impact-sensationalism/

Photo by kazuend | unsplash.com
Photo by kazuend | unsplash.com
Jenn Chubb is in the final stages of a PhD at the University of York examining the philosophical effects of the impact agenda in the UK. Jenn’s background is in Philosophy and she has a particular interest in virtue ethics, academic freedom and the philosophy of science. She tweets at @jennchubb

Richard Watermeyer is a Sociologist of education specialising in critical social studies of higher education. His research interests include higher education policy, management and governance; academic identity and practice; public engagement; impact; and neoliberalism. He tweets at @rpwatermeyer.

We recently published an article in the Journal of Studies in Higher Education titled ‘Artifice or integrity in the marketization of research impact? Investigating the moral economy of (pathways to) impact statements within research funding proposals in the UK and Australia.

Our paper reveals that the need to articulate the potential impact of research, where it is not immediately obvious, can lead academics to embellish and create stories or charades about the impact of their work. Impact projections were described as “illusions”; “virtually meaningless”, “made up stories” - that were seen as necessary in order to secure a professional advantage.

This is perhaps not entirely surprising. After all, in making a pitch for funding researchers are inherently ‘selling’ themselves or their ideas. Polishing or enhancing claims may be the default position to make sure that a proposal stands out. However, the extent to which this is being done may signal a deeper, systemic moral dilemma concerning the integrity of competitive research funding processes.

Impact in the UK and Australia

In recent years, research councils in the UK and Australia have required applicants to include projections of potential impact in their funding proposals. In addition to this, impact is a component of the Research Exercise Framework, an exercise used to assess the quality of the UK’s research. A consultation concerning impact as a companion piece to Australia’s own national research evaluation exercise, the Excellence in Research for Australia, has also just been completed.

‘Impact’ (the effect and influence that research has on the non-academic environment) has been the subject of significant debate recently. Its critics claim that it has the potential to impede academic freedom, whilst its proponents cite the enrichment of research and public accountability.

Importantly, Research Councils UK maintain that excellent research is the primary criteria for the assessment of grant applications and that impact is a secondary concern. They make clear in their policies that where no route to impact is perceived, a researcher should instead use that part of the application to explain why this is the case. In their Pathways to Impact advice, they state:
“It is expected that being able to describe a pathways to impact will apply for the vast majority of proposals. In the few exceptions where this is not the case, the Pathways to Impact statement should be used to fully justify the reasons why this is not possible”.
Those critical of the impact agenda suggest that to be asked the impact question: ‘how will (non-academics) benefit from this research’, is just an indirect way of asking what the impact will be. There is still little evidence as to how much an impact statement can influence the outcome of a funding decision.

Some academics in our study claimed that impact was not something they considered to be a deciding factor when assessing grants, others claimed the complete opposite. A researcher’s interpretation, conceptualization and confidence in the policies in place influences their behavior in responding to this agenda. There appears, therefore, to be a disconnect in understanding what funders require and separating how this might play out in reality within peer-review.

Despite the messages set out by policy, our study identified that academics clearly locate a sense of moral tension when having to answer the impact question. This was particularly the case for academics in theoretical disciplines or ‘pure’ and blue skies research.
If I want to do basic science I have to tell you lies - UK, Professor.
The primary motivator for embellishment was the need to secure research funds, a regrettable but perhaps necessary evil:
Would I believe it? No, would it help me get the money - yes - UK, Professor.
Many claimed that this was a symptom of academic life and expressed a survival instinct over their decisions to embellish the truth. Participants felt that fiercely upholding any moral imperative to be truthful could risk one’s own job, perhaps suggesting that the moral question of impact lies not with the academics themselves, but with those demanding it:
If you can find me a single academic who hasn’t had to bullshit or bluff or lie or embellish in order to get grants, then I will find you an academic who is in trouble with his [sic] Head of Department. If you don’t play the game, you don’t do well by your university. So anyone that’s so ethical that they won’t bend the rules in order to play the game is going to be in trouble, which is deplorable - Australia, Professor.
The other concerns articulated by our interviewees were more localized, with academics reporting that the need to predict impact at the outset of the research was simply unscientific, and not feasible:
The idea therefore that impact could be factored in in advance was viewed as a dumb question put in there by someone who doesn’t know what research is. I don’t know what you’re supposed to say, something like ‘I’m Columbus, I’m going to discover the West Indies?!’ - Australia, Professor.
Others claimed that this ran counter to the research process itself, and that it was in direct conflict with the very philosophies and principles of science:
It’s disingenuous, no scientist really begins the true process of scientific discovery with the belief it is going to follow this very smooth path to impact because he or she knows full well that that just doesn’t occur and so there’s a real problem with the impact agenda - and that is it’s not true it’s wrong - it flies in the face of scientific practice - UK, Professor.
To ultimately conform to what many described as a neoliberal mandate in a now marketised higher education environment seemed, for a large number of our academics, to be the only answer. However, for some, this was tempered with the ability to draw a distinction between impact sensationalism and being disingenuous in applications:
They’re telling a good story as to how this might fit into the bigger picture. That’s what I’m talking about. It might require a bit of imagination, it’s not telling lies. It’s just maybe being imaginative - Australia, Lecturer.
Perhaps integrity is therefore not at risk - it’s just “creative people telling creative stories” as one of our interviewees believed? The picture on this front is less than straightforward.

Is integrity at risk?

For some, the prominence of perceived game-playing, insincerity and a tacit coercion to inflate the truth surely risks the view that academics are truthful authorities, worthy of the trust of the communities that support them. For others, the response came that the moral obligation sits not with those at its mercy but with those who impose it and, ultimately, those who assess it. The truth is perhaps somewhere in between.

We have seen how the research councils in the UK and Australia repeatedly reassure academics that the primary assessment of grants is the excellence of the research itself.

When our paper was published, it prompted significant debate on Twitter and in online news outlets such as the Conversation. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) also ran a feature on it including comments from Professor Aidan Byrne (former Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council) who stated that ‘a small number of proposals did go too far, but most were accurate and all were heavily examined’. He claimed that the peer review will protect integrity and sift out bogus claims of impact:
“The proposals are reviewed by experts who do have a really good and sharp sense of what’s plausible and what’s implausible, and what’s fictitious and what’s not” - Professor Byrne, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council.
Indeed, our own research was described using sensationalist headlines that were elaborations of what we found. There are, however, issues to be discussed given the testimonies of academics who are struggling, and feeling the need to embellish and dramatize the important work they do.

Despite reassurance from those who create research policy, the testimonies provided in our study tell a somewhat problematic, less straightforward story about research impact policy.

Our findings raise the concern that policies that encourage certain behaviors that run counter to the intrinsic moral fabric of academics risks becoming ineffective for all parties.

Monday, August 29, 2016

18 Digital Tools and Strategies That Support Students’ Reading and Writing

(Brad Flickinger/Flickr)
“We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them …”.
Levesque said she wants to make sure teachers and students are aware of tools that could help them, and to develop the agency to choose what works for them. Some students use many tools to bolster their writing and build skills, others don’t use any. The idea is to give students a toolbox they can continually return to both in school and in life beyond its doors.

“Kids have different learning styles,” Levesque said. “Why should I make them learn in a way that’s not their strength.” She said often teachers let students know about the district’s sites for writing, reading and research tools at the beginning of school and then let them decide what will work for them throughout the year.

Marissa Broyles taught English and social studies to a class or sixth graders who needed extra support last year. She experimented with many of the tools Levesque has compiled and saw how her willingness to be flexible as a teacher made her students feel supported.

One girl with dyslexia could easily have been mistaken for being further behind than she really was because of how much she struggled with writing. “That was her only barrier, and it was so sad for me because she’s one of the brightest students I’ve ever taught, but the dyslexia was really getting in her way,” Broyles said.

Broyles began allowing the student to use Screencastify, a Chrome extension that lets users record a video of what’s happening on their screen while voicing an explanation. The student would pull up a digital copy of a book, for example, find evidence to support her claims, and explain her thinking orally. All her moves on the computer, as well as her exposition, were recorded, showing Broyles the complexity of her thinking.

When Broyles presented to her middle school colleagues about the success of this approach she got push back from some teachers who wondered when the girl would learn crucial writing skills if she was always allowed to use the work around.

“At that point I wanted to know her thinking,” Broyles said. “I didn’t really care about the physical act of her writing, and I wasn’t scoring her on the writing.” But at other times they did focus on the mechanics of writing, and the student did improve. But Broyles doesn’t believe a student should have to write as a prerequisite to having ideas. Even better, the student learned to advocate for herself, identifying some assignments when Screencastify was appropriate and others when writing was necessary.

That student is now entering seventh grade, where she won’t have the same intensive support that she had last year, but Broyles feels confident that she now has a bag of tools to rely on for her assignments. And, since all students at this middle school have Chromebooks, no one has to know when she’s using a support or not.

Both Broyles and Levesque say the important thing is for kids to begin to think metacognitively about what they need to succeed in school and to advocate for what works. Not every student will use the same tools, but there are lots of powerful ones that could be the slight boost a student needs to feel successful. 


Graphic organizers are a common way teachers try to support kids to brainstorm ideas and organize them into cohesive arguments. But some students might not find graphic organizers inspiring or exciting, and since the ideas, not the worksheet are what is important, Levesque has compiled many tools kids might use to organize their thoughts.

For example, some kids still prefer to write and draw ideas on paper, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t do that even if their ultimate writing product will be digital. Students can easily take a snapshot of written thoughts to document them digitally. Or they could download a variety of visual templates Levesque has compiled or even use a tool like Answer Garden to generate a word cloud. “It’s just one more way to capture it,” Levesque said. 


Many students who struggle with writing get hung up when it comes to putting the first ideas to paper. But if teachers help them see drafting - the first iteration of a writing piece - as a separate step from editing, there are many ways to help students jump this initial hurdle.

Voice typing could be one such strategy. “Just have the kid talk about their topic, and at least they can draft it out and then have time to edit,” Levesque said. After getting those initial ideas down, a student can spend time restructuring sentences and improving the vocabulary. Often having something to work with can make this process smoother and it helps students begin to see multiple drafts and editing as a crucial part of writing. Levesque also noted voice typing is good for students still learning English, especially because it can translate languages.

“Drafting is for ideas and editing is where you’re going to start making sure all those ideas are right,” Levesque said. That’s why she often encourages students to “remove spelling suggestions” for documents in the drafting stage. When kids aren’t paralyzed by the squiggly red line indicating spelling mistakes it’s often easier for them to get their ideas down. 


At this stage, students are working to make their sentences crisp and clear and to use higher level vocabulary words to express their points. Levesque said many of Littleton’s teachers use a strategy called “find richer words” when students are editing digital documents. Right clicking on a word in Google Docs brings up a list of synonyms. The student can choose a richer word and make a note to the teacher about the word used previously.

“We see a lot of teachers doing this so when they have time to edit [students] work they have a quick visual of what were those edits that they made,” Levesque said. This is also a good time to turn spelling suggestions back on and clean up any mistakes.

Teachers can also look at the full revision history of a document to see the progression and changes a student has made over time. Many students have appreciated learning about revision history when they delete a paragraph and what to recover it in a later draft.

Levesque has also written up careful directions for ways students can embed snapshots or images and then label them. In science, students will often take a picture of their lab station, upload it as a drawing, and then add arrows and text to label each element. 


“When it comes to writing, we’re changing our writing product to not just be a writing piece,” Levesque said. Teachers in her district are trying to honor the strengths of different students within the same assignment by assigning an artistic representation and an audio description alongside writing.

“The reason this example stuck with me is maybe this kid’s writing is not their strength, but wow did they showcase on their speaking part, or the art piece,” Levesque said. The writing is still important, but honoring the strengths of the whole child can give students confidence that their ideas will be understood.

Teachers are also experimenting with publishing to more authentic audiences. In one assignment, elementary students published their art pieces online and high school students wrote poems based on that art before publishing them again. Levesque said the elementary students were thrilled that high school students had taken the time to appreciate, interpret and reinterpret their work. And having the same ideas bouncing around within the district in multiple mediums and multiple times strengthened the meaning of the work. 


Evaluating is important for both teachers and students. It’s important for students to be able to identify accurate sources and understand online permissions as they work on writing and multimedia projects. Levesque has put together some exercises teachers can use with students to get them in the habit of carefully evaluating the accuracy of online sources.

And when teachers evaluate student work within an online environment they have a huge advantage; they can see the revision history and comments from students about their changes, which also have a time stamp. Levesque recommends teachers embed the rubric for an assignment at the bottom of a Google Doc so students know exactly what’s expected of them. Rubistar is an easy way to create a rubric. They can also give examples of specific skills they’d like to see so students know what’s expected of them. 


“These tools help scaffold reading for many of our readers who can’t access certain texts,” Levesque said. “Kids use tools they think they need.” She has compiled a list of Chrome extensions that help kids access dictionaries and pronunciations they don’t know, as well as Speak It and Read&Write, which offer audio supports for students having difficulty reading text.

“Some kids are using this a lot especially in content areas like science where there are a lot of vocabulary words,” Levesque said. Some teachers she works with no longer compile vocabulary lists for students. Instead students make lists of the words they don’t know with definitions and examples as they read.

Levesque was surprised at how excited her high school teachers were to discover a tool called Rewordify, which allows students to paste a link and get back a version with simpler words and sentence constructions. When students hover over highlighted areas the original, richer text shows up so they can gradually build their vocabulary and familiarity with difficult texts.

Levesque also recommends Newsela and the free and nearly identical tool Tween Tribune for non-fiction readings offered at various reading levels. The app offers texts in both Spanish and English. 


Research is a central skill for students and yet often teachers don’t give them questions that require the synthesis, analysis and critical thinking inherent in good research. Levesque has compiled resources to help teachers design “thicker questions” that push students to use multiple sources, analyze them, develop an opinion and connect to the real world.

There are lots of useful digital tools to help students keep track of information they find online and to cite it correctly. The easiest is the research tool within Google Docs, which pulls up a whole list of resources related to any right-clicked word, and can be filtered by license or type of search. If students pull quotes, images or tables into a research document they’ll also get a link back to the original site and information about how to correctly cite it.

Younger kids can get overwhelmed by text-heavy search results might enjoy using Instagrok. This tool will return a concept map related to the topic, instead of text heavy articles. That could help students plot a roadmap for their research without getting overwhelmed and frustrated.

Levesque finds students are often most appreciative for little tips or tricks that make their researching more efficient or less frustrating. For example, they were thrilled when she told them that if they accidentally closed a tab in Chrome they could re-open it by right-clicking on the previous tab and selecting “reopen closed tab.”

Students can also “pin tabs” that they are continually going back to so they don’t accidentally close them. A frustrating moment like that can discourage students from continuing with their research, and little tricks help smooth the process.

“Being aware of the small things that help with transitions my students say are crazy important,” Levesque said. For example, students were thrilled to learn about “bookmark all tabs” for those moments when they have ten tabs with research open and the bell rings. It helps them save all the research they’ve carefully found and they can open them all easily next time they need their work.

Above all, Levesque wants to build self-confidence in students and teachers around helpful tools. After that, it’s up to the individual to own what strategies are helpful and which can be ignored. 

Explore: Digital Tools, , ,

Author, Katrina Schwartz

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

Five Ways to Structure a Literature Review

  • A chronology
As the name suggests, this is an historical map of the field. In writing historically, your intention is to show how your research either adds logically to what has gone before, or to show how your research challenges a taken for granted assumption in the field, or how it advances a particular body of work in the field. In doing this kind of temporal mapping, you need to highlight the key texts, groups and categories that your work is building on and/or speaking to. Even though a chronology is  linear, you need to also trace threads and associations through your chosen timeline.

  • Major themes
You might choose to just focus on mapping the current themes or topics in the field Your intention here is to show how your research connects to, uses and adds/speaks to contemporary themes/topics. You structure the thematic review through either an examination of the kinds of questions that have been asked and the topics that have been studied, or a look at the key concepts and categories that have been developed and used, or even a look at methodological and methods that are used.

  • The canon/classic studies
This can be standalone, a variation on either (1) or (2) or may also appear as a subsection of either of them. Your intention in a canonic review is to show how your research fits with the studies that can’t be ignored. This kind of literatures review is always heavily evaluative and comparative, so you usually need to set out some explicit criteria, drawn from your research question, that allows you discuss specific texts in some detail. You need to make a very clear connection with your study. One of the metaphors used for this kind of literature work is a tree, where the ‘trunk’ of the discipline is its classic studies.

  • The  wheel
Research very often draws on more than one body of literatures. These might be from different disciplines or be literatures that have been used to address very different topics. Your intention in the wheel-like review is to show that the originality of your research stems from the ways in which you’ve brought together areas that are usually kept apart. This bringing together is clearly elaborated in the discussion of literatures, where each formerly separate chunk is discussed in relation to your research interest. You need to draw out the key contributions of each corpus of literatures and their relevance to your research. You also need to show very clearly the ways in which the various spokes work together- you must show how the various spokes relate to and support the centre of the wheel - this is where your research is situated.

  • The pyramid
A pyramid literature review places your research in its context. Your intention is to show how your research interest is shaped and framed by other events/practices/people/policies etc. The literature review can be organised to start from the tip - what there is written about your specific topic already - and then move out and down through relevant contextualising literatures. More commonly, the pyramid is inverted, and the review begins with the wider context, honing in ever closer to your topic. The concluding tip section of the inverted pyramid review is what is written about your particular topic. By then you have indicated all of the potential issues and insights you will need to bring to your study.

There are of course variations on these  five structures and various ways to combine them. You will ‘bespoke’ your literature review to fit your topic. However, if you are at a stuck point with structure it can help to simply brainstorm how you would organise your material in some or all of these ways.

It is crucial to remember that the literature review is not a summary, a description or a list! Because the literature review is always an argument about why your research is the way that it is, some play with structure will help you to think through which set of moves allow you to make the most persuasive case.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Emotional Side of Leaving Academia

Guest contributor Virginia Schutte
by Jack Leeming, Nature.com: http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2016/02/19/the-emotional-side-of-leaving-academia/

It took a lot for Virginia Schutte to set aside the feeling that she was wasting her PhD. Guest contributor Virginia Schutte.

I’m transitioning from a traditional academic career to one in science communication. There are many challenges that come with this shift, but I didn’t expect the process to be so emotionally difficult.

I left my academic career path in the best possible situation. I have a great relationship with my PhD advisor and everyone I talk to is encouraging when it comes to my new direction. But in my academic experience, changing position meant moving up, or at least adding something to my CV.

Graduating and then immediately starting at the bottom of the ladder in a new career felt like I was moving backwards; I was convinced that I had disappointed the people who invested in me because I was “wasting” my PhD.

Most of all, I struggled to accept that being employed during this career transition might mean taking a non-science job while I acquire skills and reshape myself professionally. I’d attached my identity so strongly to scientific research for so long that giving up that work was like losing a part of myself.

These emotions crippled my career advancement for months - I stalled my own progress by second-guessing my attempts at advancement instead of just working to advance. By believing I was failing, I actually was.

Now I’ve finished feeling this way. I can confidently answer when people ask me what I do, even if I’m talking to an academic: I’m an English teacher, but I’m also a media consultant. I talk about science online while I work towards landing a full-time communications job that connects the public with science. I’m driven and am once again excited to see where I end up.

Here are a few things that helped me leave my corrosive emotions behind and make real progress towards starting my new career:

1) Distinguishing unemployment from failure. Employment gaps are horrifying when you’re working your way through the academic system, so taking the time to build a new skill set and find a transitional job after graduation was always going to be difficult. But it takes time to shift careers. This is not the same as wasting time, even if I do not produce a tangible product or add a specific line to my resume each day. As a top headhunter says, “I don’t mind [employment] gaps so long as there’s a sufficient explanation.”

2) Taking charge of my rebranding. I had none of my academically-rooted confidence when it came to my new career path. I wasn’t just unsure whether I had the necessary skills to advance - I was certain that I didn’t. This changed after I sought help from the career center at the University of Georgia (my graduate institution). While reworking my resume and cover letter to convince others that I could succeed as a science communicator, I convinced myself. But more importantly, I realised that I have the skills to identify and use the tools that I will need in order to complete this journey.

3) Organizing my goals. Everything I did as a graduate student was planned to lead ultimately to professorship. Shifting professions muddied my career path and diversified my goals so I ended up questioning my priorities daily: it didn’t seem possible that I could get my dream job without first expanding my skillset, but it also felt wrong to spend time applying for something that I didn’t want to do forever. Now I spend my time working towards three goals: finding something to keep the next 6 months fun, securing a full-time transitional job, and landing my rest-of-life job. Laying out my goals according to these 3 timescales lets me see why each objective is worthwhile and that working towards one doesn’t mean that I’m neglecting the others.

The vast majority of science PhDs will now find work outside of the academic system. This figure gives a detailed breakdown of the 92% of biology doctoral graduates, for example, who will not become professors. At the same time, graduate students are trained almost exclusively by professors. This set-up assumes and naturally encourages a mindset that a professor position is the career to aim for.

If you leave academia, remember that you’ll have to adjust your psyche as well as your application materials. Be prepared to overcome emotional barriers on your path to a new career, and if you find yourself getting in your own way, fix it.

Virginia Schutte earned her ecology PhD from the University of Georgia in 2014. She worked in tropical mangrove forests for her dissertation research, but now works to connect the public with the science that will improve their lives. She currently lives in Germany, where she is building her credentials working with science in the media. You can read her other post on Naturejobs, covering how to handle sexism on social media, here.

Seven Upgrade Strategies for a Problematic Article or Chapter

Image result for The art of academic writing
by Prof Patrick Dunleavy, Writing For Research, Medium: https://medium.com/advice-and-help-in-authoring-a-phd-or-non-fiction/seven-upgrade-strategies-for-a-problematic-article-or-chapter-3c6b81be9aa2#.3o7ypr198

Do one thing well. Flatten the structure. Say it once, say it right. Try paragraph re-planning. Make the motivation clearer. Strengthen the argument tokens. Improve the data and exhibits.

I guess every researcher and academic writer has often faced the task of trying to upgrade a piece of work that just will not come out right.

 Sometimes it’s clear what the problem is, and colleagues, friends or supervisors who read the article or chapter can make concrete suggestions for change. But often it’s not so clear-cut. Readers are cordial but obviously unenthused. There’s nothing massively wrong, but the piece feels thin or unconvincing in some diffuse way.

Sometimes too the problem occurs well before you want anyone else to read your text. If it is a one-off piece of research then maybe it can just be filed for later reconsideration. But often the research plan in a grant bid, or the book contents page crafted a year ago, or the PhD structure devised two or more years ago, mean that an article or chapter just has to get done. Here an unsatisfactory first draft is not just much less than you’d hoped for at the distant planning stage, but instead a depressing roadblock to completing a whole, long-term project.

At times like these it is handy to have a set of standard things to try to improve matters - familiar strategies that you can frequently use, deploying them quickly because you’re deliberately not treating each article or chapter as sui generis or unique. Everyone has their own moves for coping with the upgrade task. Here are my top seven, in hopes that some of them work for you. 

1. Do one thing well. Many writing problems stem from trying to do too much within the same few pages, causing texts to inflate beyond journal length limits (often fatal for passing review), or just introducing ‘confuser’ themes that referees love to jump on. ‘I’m not clear if the author is advocating X, or trying to do Y’. Keeping it simple (within well defended boundaries) makes things clearer, so long as your paper is also substantive i.e don’t go from this point to try and ‘salami slice’ a given piece of research across multiple journal articles. A nice blog by pat Thompson puts this point alongside other common mistakes.
2. Flatten the structure. All articles in social science should be 8,000 words or less and most chapters are similar or verge up to 10,000 words. Given the attention span of serious, research readers, you need a sub-heading about every 2,000 words or so - that’s just four or five main sub-headings in total. They should all be first-order sub-heads, at the same level, and preferably dividing the text up into similar-sized chunks, that come in a predictable way and have a common rhythm. If you have two or three tiers of sub-headings in a hierarchy, make it simpler.

In other fields, length limits are much less - e.g. just 3,000 words for medical journal articles. So the numbers of subheadings needed here will be correspondingly reduced.

Each of your section headings should be substantive (not just formal, conventional, vacuous or interogative). Ideally they should give readers a logically sequenced set of narrative cues, about what you did, and what you have found out. You can add a short Conclusions section with its own smaller kind of heading. Also, never label the beginning bit of text ‘Introduction’ - this is already blindingly obvious.

Many structural problems and inaccessible text are caused by people using outliner software to create overly hierarchized sets of headings at multiple levels, made worse still by adding complex numbering systems (e.g section to ‘help’ readers. At an extreme, an analytic over-fragmentation of the text results, with sections, sub-sections and sub-sub sections proliferating in bizarre complexity. The text can become like the traditional British tinned desert called ‘fruit cocktail’, which contains many different kinds of fruit, but all in small cubes and smothered in a syrup so thick that you cannot taste at all what any component is.

The writing coach, Thomas Basboll, shrewdly remarked that: “A well-written journal article will present a single, easily identifiable claim; it will show that something is the case … the [typical academic] article will consist of roughly 40 paragraphs. Five of them will provide the introductory and concluding remarks. Five of them will establish a general, human background. Five of them will state the theory that informs the analysis. Five of them will state the method by which the data was gathered. The analysis (or “results” section) will make roughly three overarching claims (that support the main thesis) in three five-paragraph sections. The implications of the research will be outlined in five paragraphs. These are ball-park figures, not hard and fast rules, but “knowing” something for academic purposes means being able to articulate yourself in roughly these proportions”.

3. Say it once, say it right. Nothing is so corrosive of readers’ confidence in a writer than repeating things. Academic readers are not like soap opera fans - they do not need a thing previewed, then actually said, then resaid, and then summarized. So it a bad idea to take one decent point and fragment it across your text in little bits. If your current structure is forcing you to do this, recast it to make this problem go away.

Simple, big block structures are generally best. Complex structures, with points developed recursively on in frequent discrete iterations, are easier to mess up. Close to every nuance of your own argument, you may well feel that you are thematically advancing, embroidering and extending your arguments each time you come back to a linked point. But readers will just see repetition. So, say each point once - and say it right first time.

This motto also has resonance at the micro-level. Fellow scientists or academics normally do not need points to be so hammered home that every tiny scintilla of meaning has been triple-locked in case some doubt remains. This way lies turgid prose (as Voltaire shrewdly remarked: ‘The secret of being a bore is to say everything’).

4. Try paragraph re-planning, as discussed in my separate blogpost. This is a great technique for really helping you understand what you have done/got in the existing draft of your article or chapter. Rachael Cayley has a similar approach, which she calls ‘reverse outlining’. The core idea is to start with your finished text and then to resurface a detailed, paragraph-by-paragraph structure from that. Looking at this synoptic view of your whole text, you should find it easier to come up with an alternative Plan B sequence for your text. Unless you are a genius writer already, re-modelling text is an inescapable burden at multiple stages of securing acceptance by a journal.

5. Make the motivation clearer. Give readers a stronger sense of why the research has been done, why the topic is salient and how the findings illuminate important problems. Researchers who live with their topic over months and years often lose track of why they started, why they shaped the study as they did, and what the significance of their findings is for a larger audience. If a text is not working, or not quite working, the author is often too close-up to the detail of the findings, too convinced that the study could only have been done this way and that its importance is ‘obvious’. Being unable to write an effective conclusion is a good ‘tell’ for this problem - an apparently separate symptom that is actually closely linked.

Trying to achieve a high impact start for an article (or a clean, forward-looking beginning to each chapter in a book or PhD) can help readers to better appreciate a motive for reading on. A quick start usually helps readers commit to learning more.

6. Strengthen the argument tokens. At research level every paragraph draws on ‘tokens’ to sustain the case being made - which might be literature citations, supportive quotations, empirical evidence, or systematic data presented in charts or tables (see point 7). On citations, quotes or evidence it is usually worthwhile to ask if your search and presentation could be made more convincing - for instance, by multiplying references, showing evidence of systematic and inclusive search, more methodical evidence-gathering, or simply updating and refreshing a literature search that is now a little dated. People often do a literature search at an early stage of their research, when they only understand their topic rather poorly - but then neglect to do a ‘top up’ search just before submission, when they are likely to be much better at recognizing material that is relevant.

7. Improve the data and exhibits. This works at two levels. First, at an overall level it is important to design effective exhibits that display in a consistent way and follow good design principles. Second, at the level of each chart, table or diagram, make sure you provide full and accurate labelling of what is being shown, and that the data being reported are in a form that will matter to readers - not ‘dead on arrival’. 

To follow up these ideas in more detail see my book: Patrick Dunleavy, ‘Authoring a PhD’ (Palgrave, 2003) or the Kindle edition, where Chapter 5 covers ‘Writing clearly’ and Chapter 6 ‘Developing as a Writer’.

There is also very useful advice on Rachael Cayley’s blog Explorations of Style and on Thomas Bassboll’s blog ‘Research as a second language’.

And for new update materials see the LSE’s Impact blog and on Twitter@Write4Research

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Five Things Master Teachers Know and Do

by Deborah MacNamara: http://macnamara.ca/portfolio/the-five-things-master-teachers-know/

What is the difference between a great teacher and a master teacher? After years of hiring and working with teachers, along with decades of experience in the classroom, I am convinced there are a few tangible things that set these groups apart.

Here are the five things I have learned from being a teacher and watching master teachers in action.
  1. Relationships comes first
Master teachers know it is the relationship they have with their students that opens their minds to learning. They know their degree of influence in a classroom is attributable to the strength of their relationship with their students. Kids instinctively look up to, follow, obey, are loyal to, try to measure up to, seek to please, listen to, defer to, and share the same values of teachers they are attached to. These characteristics are not about a child’s character but indicative of the connection they have with their teachers.

Strong attachments to one’s teacher enhances school success, is related to higher grades, better emotional regulation, and a student’s willingness to take on challenges. To build this attachment each child needs to be collected. Collecting and building a connection can be as simple as saying hello, having a small conversation, or checking in about a shared interest. For students who are harder to reach it might require a consistent effort to find a way to come to their side and engage them in things that they will talk about.

One mother told me her son had been sent to the principal’s office three times in September despite having a successful kindergarten experience the prior year. When I asked her if he liked his teacher she said, “No, he hates her.” I told her the problem wasn’t with her son but with his relationship he had with his teacher - she didn’t have his heart.

When a student has a connection with their teacher they will trust in their care and readily follow them. This is how a master teacher influences a child’s attitude to learning and school overall.  When we look back to the teachers we remember most, they were the ones we gave our hearts to for safe keeping.
  1. Injecting play into learning enhances engagement
Play is a natural way to help kids learn. When the pressure comes off producing outcomes, kids are more willing to experiment, be curious, and creative. I would often tell my students I wished I didn’t have to grade them because I felt it detracted from their overall engagement in learning.

I have watched master teachers inject play into their lectures - science teachers who wheeled carts of chemicals outside to experiment with - to teachers who sang their lesson plans with a guitar in hand. I sorted my students into groups by putting them into families such as the Simpsons or Ozbournes, or gave them crayons and paper to draw out their academic work, or used yarn balls to turn the classroom into a web of connections. For more mature students, it was the stories their teachers told about their subject area that made learning more engaging.

Master teachers inject play and fun into their teaching methods, engaging their student’s interest and easing the pressure that comes with being focused on outcomes. When we look back to where we learned the most it was usually when we got to play at figuring things out, at making connections, and through trial and error. When a teacher makes work feel like play, they will engage students attention and create a natural learning environment.
  1. An invitation to learn goes a lot farther than coercion
Master teachers know that you can’t make anyone learn but you do need to invite them to. Engaging a student means taking time to ask about their questions on a subject, what they already know about it, and why they might be interested in learning more? Master teachers know learning is about asking a student to step forward to be an active participant rather than a passive bystander. A student will feel invited to learn by a teacher’s generosity, warmth, and their desire to know and understand who someone is as a learner.

Master teachers know that coming alongside a child’s effort and their intentions are more important than focusing on the outcome. They encourage persistence, make room for resistance, and ensure a child knows they are not alone in their struggle to learn. When I was involved in hiring teachers I always looked through their academic transcript to see whether they had struggled as a student. I would ask those who had to tell me the story of how they had found their way through. It was these teachers that often spoke most about how learning can be frustrating and that what every kid needed was to look at a teacher who believed they could succeed. What a student sees in their teacher’s eyes shapes how they see oneself as a learner.
  1. How you treat one student is applied to all
Master teacher’s know that what is good for one student is automatically applied to everyone else in a class. Students learn vicariously through watching how a teacher leads through impasses in the class, deals with breaches to rules and limits, and manages learning and behavioural challenges. When a master teacher handles these things in a way that maintains a firm caring stance while preserving a student’s dignity, everyone in a class will feel more secure as a result.

A student will only feel as safe in a class room as it is safe for the struggling student. It is a master teacher’s ability to lead this student that will give other students a sense of rest and help to quell anxiety and alarm. Research suggests that when a teacher yells or is unable to handle difficult situations in a classroom, it can take a child’s body hours to release the tension and stress stirred up in these situations.

Students can’t learn if they are worried and are unsure about whether a teacher can lead through situations that arise. Students judge how others are treated and automatically apply the same criteria to oneself.

           5. The most difficult kids to manage are the ones that need you the most

Master teachers know that the hardest students to teach and build relationships with are the ones that need adults most of all. Not all students are ready to learn when they come to school. Learning requires a luxury in attention that not all students have - there are other distressing issues and events that have hijacked their focus.

Every student has a story to tell and a lack of learning isn’t always about the relationship with a teacher but indicative of a child’s overall life situation. Master teachers are often moved to reach out to these students and see past the behaviour and learning problems. They yearn to give these students an adult relationship that will work for them, to invite them to learn, and to lean on them. What they offer these kids is a lifeline. They work to help the students see they are still holding onto them, that they are still welcome to be in relationship with them, and that they are confident there is a way through.

Kids who need adults most of all often reveal it in the most unusual of ways and master teachers know this. They are developmentalists at heart and believe all things grow with time, patience, and good caretaking.

What master teachers know is that neither their curriculum, nor educational technology, nor credentials will assure them of success in a classroom. They know that what their students need most of all is an invitation for relationship where they feel a sense of belonging, of mattering, of being seen, heard, and of being valued. The teachers who start from this place will take their students far. It is surest way to know that they will be following close behind. 

Dr. Deborah MacNamara is a counsellor and Director of Kid’s Best Bet Counselling and Family Resource Centre, on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). For more information see www.macnamara.ca or www.neufeldinstitute.org.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Boostering (Yes, "Boostering") Your Introduction and Conclusion

This evaluation of teacher professional development is one of the largest and most rigorous to find evidence of an impact on student academic outcomes. It
 found that CRWP affected student outcomes on a particularly complex task - writing an argument supported by reasoning and developed through the use of evidence from source material. This type of argument writing has been identified as critical to college and career readiness and is central to new academic standards for English language arts and literacy. Given that the evaluation found consistent implementation in more than 20 districts across10 states, the findings SUGGEST that CRWP CAN BE effective in diverse settings.
You can see from the words I have underlined that the evaluators are using boosters to make strong claims about the relationship between the intervention and the outcomes - they assert that their results matter because their research was large and rigorous and it found evidence about something complex  critical and central.

The reader is positioned by  this boosterism  to understand the significance of the study. However, after all this boostering, the writers then make a ‘suggestion’ (I’ve put this in capitals). The programme ‘can be’ effective - this is not a definitive claim by any stretch of the imagination. But even though the writers hedge their final So What, their ‘suggestion’ for action has been made very persuasive by their previous use of boosters.

Boosters are a kind of rhetorical assertiveness. They signal ‘Look at what I’ve done and how important it is’. For this very reason, it is sometimes difficult for doctoral researchers to use boosters, perhaps because they feel anything like the expert that is implied in writing compelling reasons to, sufficient evidence for, it is crucial to.

Occasionally, doctoral and early career researchers can inappropriately use boosters, making over claims for the work that they have done. But mostly, conclusions in theses and early papers in particular suffer from too much hedging.

It is helpful for doctoral and early career researchers to find out the ways in which hedges and boosters are used in their discipline - and to read some papers specifically looking to see how qualifying is done. Understanding how these linguistic tactics work means that they can then become an explicit resource in an academic writing toolkit.

Why not try playing with hedges and boosters? It is useful to make checking the introduction and conclusion for the use of hedges and boosters a regular part of your revision strategy. Looking for the way in which you have used  hedges and boosters allows you to focus specifically on the level of authority you are assuming through your writing. It allows you to check whether you have your discipline-appropriate level of caution and assertion. You can see whether rationale for the research, the results and claims work together in a convincing way.

And understanding that hedges and boosters are used in introductions and conclusions can help you to ‘whistle a happy tune’ - that is, to write as if you are feeling more confident than you actually are. When you use the right mix of linguistic strategies you can write as if you are the expert in your field, even if you don’t feel like it. When you get the hedges and boosters working together, they tell your reader that you are a credible and trustworthy researcher who knows what they are talking about.

Photo credit: John Train, FlickrCommons

What it's Really Like to Mark a GCSE or A-level Exam

English: School children doing exams inside a ...
Children doing exams inside a classroom, 1940 (Wikipedia)
by Velda Elliott, University of Oxford, The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/what-its-really-like-to-mark-a-gcse-or-a-level-exam-64034

Every summer results day gives rise to a raft of headlines about the number of students who have to appeal because of inaccurate marking - though strangely enough, no-one ever appeals because they think their paper has been marked too highly.

Despite the headlines, the actual likelihood of a marker getting it totally wrong is actually pretty low. This is because markers do not know what the actual grade boundaries will be for each paper - their job is simply to apply the mark scheme as accurately as they can. So even if they are generous on principle, the effect will simply be to raise the grade boundaries. Besides, examiner training emphasises the need to be fair to all candidates, rather than sympathetic to a few.

As a former marker myself, and someone who has researched the topic, I know how examiner training, and the system used to check up on marking accuracy throughout the marking period, is designed to remove as much variability as possible. Although there is of course an element of subjectivity with all marking - and in some subjects more than others.

When it comes to marking test papers, it stands to reason that the more straightforward the question, the more straightforward the marking - and questions requiring short answers are naturally the easiest to mark reliably. With these types of questions, markers can compare the actual answer with the correct one and then can simply check for a match or mismatch.

But as answers get longer, it becomes more difficult to anticipate every possible response - meaning there is of course more scope for variability in markers’ judgements of the same script.

To be or not to be

English is notorious as being particularly difficult to mark - and “creative writing” pieces are especially subjective. Computer marking systems that are considered to be completely reliable are known for giving poor marks to what are widely considered great pieces of writing by the likes of Winston Churchill or George Orwell - because no matter what rules you lay down for making judgements, there are always exceptions.

Besides, what makes good writing is a subjective judgement. If it wasn’t, the same book would win all the literary prizes in any given year. What can be specified in writing, however, is spelling, punctuation and grammar - so grade criteria will include things like “using a variety of punctuation”, and “varying sentence lengths for effect”.

English exams: a marking minefield. bibiphoto/Shutterstock

But of course, interest and imagination in a written piece is not captured in spelling and grammar. And how a reader reacts to the creative element - such as word choice, ideas, or literary language - will depend on that individual and their life experience.

Essays are also difficult to mark - they are long, and markers must bear in mind the mark scheme, and model marked essays. This makes it a tough mental activity. Add in the time pressure and it becomes harder still, although exam boards are careful to remind examiners to mark at an “appropriate rate”. That is, slowly enough that they aren’t making mistakes, but fast enough to meet demanding deadlines.

Collaborative effort

Ofqual, the exams regulator in England acknowledged in its review of marking reliability in 2014 that “there would always be an element of subjectivity in some marking”. The difficulty for appeals is distinguishing between actual errors, and acceptable subjectivity.

But despite this element of subjectivity, in reality it would actually be difficult for one examiner to get it wrong enough to change the whole outcome. Not only because grade boundaries are unknown by the marker, but also because qualifications are often made up of more than one examined paper. Each paper at the very least will have different markers - and in many examinations now, papers are scanned and questions separated so that several markers will have input into one paper.

This should, in theory, increase the reliability overall because it reduces the chance of any paper being marked by an overgenerous, or overly mean, marker. It also means that examiners cannot give the benefit of the doubt where a candidate is on a boundary - because they don’t know how the candidate has done on the rest of the paper.

Additionally, the mark scheme which markers use in the examining process only refers to marks, not grades. Grade boundaries are set separately every year after the marking is complete, using statistical information alongside the proportion of each grade awarded the previous year. And this is informed by the expert judgement of senior examiners.

Off the mark

And yet, despite all of these efforts to avoid bias and remove as much subjectivity as possible, there is still a tension in the examination system in England between the “criteria-referenced mark schemes” - which imply that anyone can get an A, providing they work hard enough and meet the criteria - and the actual way in which grading functions.

The marking system can leave some parents and students feeling let down. Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Grading is not quite “norm-referenced” - where grades are allocated on a bell-curve, as is the usual practice in the US - but the number of As is limited by the proportion of students who are predicted to get that based on previous results. The number of As given in previous years is also taken into account - with a small margin for increased standards if necessary.

This leaves a mismatch between the expectations of students and parents, and the way the system actually works. But while it may sound harsh, we need qualifications to function at least partly as a sorting mechanism for entry to university or to work places - because if everyone could achieve an A grade, they simply wouldn’t fulfil this function - meaning these marks wouldn’t be worth the paper they’re written on.

Velda Elliott, Associate Professor of English and Literacy Education, University of Oxford

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