Benefits of doctoral writing groups

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Dr Lynette Pretorius

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Dr Lynette Pretorius is an award-winning educator and researcher in the fields of academic language, literacy, research skills, and research methodologies. 

For many years now, I have been working to improve the experiences of PhD students. One practice I’ve found particularly useful is incorporating collaborative and peer-based learning through doctoral writing groups. My work with writing groups started way back in 2013 and, over more than a decade, I have further refined my approach. I currently facilitate four such groups on a fortnightly basis. Writing groups embody some of the most important aspects of learning: working together to co-construct personal knowledge through experience, constantly reflecting on one’s own understanding to improve professional practice, and building rich experiences that inspire learning and foster an environment of empowerment.

My approach to teaching in these groups is unique: doctoral writing groups are not common and, even in
settings where they are available, they are usually run in a very different manner. My doctoral writing groups are set up as a peer-based environment where small groups of students receive feedback on their academic writing from the facilitator and their fellow students. There are three sections of each writing group meeting:

  • Collegial chat: Meetings start with a friendly discussion time where participants can share their doctoral journeys over the past two weeks.
  • Reflection: Ten minutes of discussion where students who shared their written work in the previous meeting reflect on how they have incorporated the feedback they received.
  • Feedback and discussion: The rest of the meeting is focused on students sharing their written work and receiving feedback on areas for improvement in a peer-learning environment.

My writing groups have been set up in this way to create a space for authentic learning about actual writing, where peers support peers. Participants discuss suggestions for improvement as a group, fostering an environment where all participants learn from the feedback provided. As such, in many ways, the learning in a doctoral writing group is a continuous process of reading, discussion, personal reflection, and peer-based learning. In this way, the writing group becomes a site of academic social practice.

I also wanted to create a collegial space in which any question would be valid at any stage of the process. To achieve these goals, modelling of the academic writing process was particularly important. During meetings, I will regularly share draft documents I am currently writing, explaining to the writing group what I aim to achieve with that text. I will then also model how I would provide feedback to myself, highlighting errors in logic, poor phrasing, lack of evidence, or other academic language and literacy issues. Through this modelling, students gain an authentic insight into how academic writing is actually done. This helps to normalise the concept of writing as a process and helps them to learn how to critique others’ (and their own) work.

Collegiality is the cornerstone of the success of this type of group. Feedback discussions and personal reflections would not be effective if the students do not feel safe and part of the learning community. It is important to create a safe space to allow for the collegial critique of each other’s written work. I do this by establishing expectations from the beginning. Each participant is provided with the writing group’s code of conduct. If you want to create a code of conduct for your writing group, you can use the one below.

Ensuring a safe space

In order to ensure that all participants are treated with respect, we should behave in a manner that affirms the worth, dignity, and significance of all participants.

  • As part of the writing group, you are supposed to critique other’s work, but this should never be done in a way that disrespects the other person. Do not use language that devalues another person or the significance of their research. All participants in the writing group have the same right to be there and should be treated in a way that affirms their worth and significance.
  • Be respectful with the words you use when you talk to or about others. Listen to others and take note of others’ reactions to your tone of voice and manner.
  • Never use derogatory language, put downs, racist or sexist language, even sarcastically or as a joke.
  • Show respect for other cultures, traditions, or religions. Remember that everyone does not necessarily think the way you do. Avoid statements that reflect ignorance or bias about other cultures, traditions, or religions.
  • Have a zero tolerance for discrimination. If you believe someone is behaving in a discriminatory way, you should feel comfortable to raise the issue in the group or by talking to Lynette afterwards. We do not condone any discriminatory behaviour in the writing group setting.

Respectfully critique someone else’s work

  • When giving feedback to another participant, start by highlighting what you thought was done well in the text you read.
  • Focus on areas for improvement in academic style and language. This can include suggestions for improvement in referencing, style, voice, organisation of ideas, as well as any area of English language.
  • If you are knowledgeable about the topic that the other person wrote about in their text, you can also provide them with suggestions for improvement in content. This can include suggestions for further readings, as well as theories or concepts that can be added to strengthen the arguments in the text.

Want to learn more about the benefits of academic writing groups? My research has demonstrated that writing groups are spaces for academic pastoral care which foster academic identity and sense of belonging. You can learn more by watching the research presentation or reading the paper below. Why not start a writing group today?

Questions to ponder

Have you ever participated in a doctoral writing group or a similar peer-based learning environment? Share your experiences regarding how this setup impacted your learning, writing skills, and academic identity. Did you encounter any challenges in giving or receiving feedback, and how did you overcome them?

In your opinion, what are the key elements of effective feedback in an academic setting? How can such feedback contribute not only to the improvement of academic writing but also to the development of a sense of belonging and academic identity among doctoral students?

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