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Writing more or more often?

Recently I’ve been looking at a number of awesome blog posts that contains some great tips for writing more quickly. I got to thinking about how this might apply to myself and my students. And I realised most students actually do know how to write extremely quickly – if I had a dollar for every student I saw who wrote their entire essay in the 24 hours before it was due, I’d be very rich, very rich indeed.

So, when pressed, most students can write extremely quickly and this last minute speed writing becomes their modus operandi. But be warned, biblically speaking, what’s permissable, isn’t always beneficial. If I also had a dollar for every student I had crying, overwhelmed and melting down because they’ve left all their assignments to the last minute I would be even richer.

Most of the time writing is not very fun especially when these writing tasks have been externally imposed, appear to bear absolutely no relevance to your life and when you have countless options in front of you that seem infinitely more desireable than writing.  The trick then, is to work out a way to get your writing done without losing your sanity.  The way that I do this is by writing a little bit and doing this often.

In February this year, I had written a little over 20000 words on my thesis and by May, I had almost doubled that amount simply by doing a little bit and doing it often.  I set myself a goal of 500 words per day and committed to writing 4 days per week. I kept a log of my daily progress and made notes to myself about what I needed to address or think about the next time I started writing.  Things I found useful about this approach:

– I had a clear and quantifiable goal of what I was going to do. So often students set themselves intangible goals without breaking down that goal into the specific tasks. Eg. “My goal is to finish my whole assignment today.” and “I’m doing my research on Thursday.”

– I knew when I was finished. By doing a little bit every day, I felt absolutely no pressure to write more than 500 words in a day. Often, I did write more than 500 words but I felt absolutely no guilt about stopping once I had met my goal

– I could track my progress. By keeping the journal, I could see exactly what I had done and when. I felt motivated by my progress and inspired to keep going

– My stress levels went way down which was good for me and my family.

– I wrote more in 3 months than I had written in the 18 months prior to starting the journal

Often when I suggest this approach to students I am met with the following:

“I just work better under pressure.” (Subtext: “I do my assignments at the last minute and can still pass doing it that way.”)

“I’m just so busy – I can’t set time aside every day.” (Subtext: “I have better things to do.”)

“I just don’t work that way.” (Fair enough – different things work for different people but my question is always, “How do you work then?”)

“It just takes me so long to write!” (This is a very common one. My response: Rather than setting a word goal, set a time goal. There are some great apps that can help facilitate this. Also, it is takes you so long to write, isn’t it better to start earlier and do a little bit at a time?)

My favourite of these responses is most certainly the ‘busy’ excuse. Unfortunately, most of us are extremely busy and when people use their busyness as an excuse for not doing something to another busy person…well, it doesn’t really fly. I also think of my amazing and inspirational colleague who wrote her entire PhD in a year whilst working full time with a 2 year old at home: if that’s not busy, then I don’t know what is.

So, when it comes to writing, my suggestion would be to write a little bit and write often. Yes, you may be able to write your entire assignment in one day but is that really the best idea? Do you actually like staying up all night, living out of vending machines in the 24 hour lab at uni and being overly emotional and irrational? Set yourself a goal you know you can achieve and stick to it. It’s just like exercise: nobody ever really wants to do exercise but after they’ve done it, they feel better for it, and nobody ever regrets doing exercise! Same principle applies here. I’ve included some photos from my journal so you know I’m not lying and that I do practise what I preach!

When I first started keeping the journal - a little over 20000 words into my thesis

When I first started keeping the journal – a little over 20000 words into my thesis

When I had finished a complete draft of my thesis - more than double the words I had when I first started keeping the journal 3 months prior!

When I had finished a complete draft of my thesis – more than double the words I had when I first started keeping the journal 3 months prior!

Stopping myself once I had met the 500 word goal

Stopping myself once I had met the 500 word goal


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Get ready to squiggle

The students I see usually present themselves in a variety of emotional states. These emotional states are inextricably linked to where they are in the semester, as well as where they are in their assignments. As I’ve had to dive back into my thesis this week to do some more writing, I found myself empathising with my students. The process of collecting information for an assignment, reading that information, and then distilling that information into a cogent and coherent piece of writing is tough! What’s perhaps more tough (for me at least) is that I know what I have to do but the emotional rollercoaster that this process tends to take you on is, I find, more draining than the process of writing itself.

I was reminded this week of what one of my colleagues calls, “The Squiggle”.  This is essentially a big squiggle that we draw to show our students that most of writing and reading does feel confusing and like a big mess but that feeling confused and all over the place is part of the process and (hopefully) results in clear thinking on the other side. The aim of showing students the squiggle is to reassure them that the state of confusion/ sense of feeling overwhelmed is normal and an attempt to reassure them that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

The squiggle is not to say that writing and/or reading is disorganised (in fact we advocate a very organised and methodological approach to tackling assignments).  However, I’m sure most could agree that the process of writing assignments, no matter how organised you are can feel like the squiggle.

I’ve drawn a version of the squiggle below that reflects, in part, what I feel I’ve been going through recently having to read and reread some new texts. Underneath the squiggle you can see the actual steps and on top of/in the squiggle you can see the ‘inner monologue’ of sorts that tends to accompany such a process.

Writing reading interior monologue



I often wonder if these, often quite horrible, feelings will go away. Or, indeed if everyone feels the same way? Certainly, my own experience and the experience of my students seems to suggest so. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as perfect writing. There is only rewriting. And unfortunately our ideas don’t generally tend to come to us fully formed (unless, of course, you’re J.K. Rowling and the idea for the Harry Potter series comes to you in an epiphany as you’re riding a train and then you decide to go with the idea and then you make billions of dollars and then you never have to write anything again or think of another idea ever again which would be cool). In the meantime, remember: There’s no such thing as perfect writing – only rewriting (I think it was Robert Graves who said this!). The squiggle is your friend!

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On Feedback

Well, this week for me has been all about feedback. I’m in the fortunate position that I’ve been able to both give and receive feedback this week – this can be extremely difficult though ultimately invaluable. The benefits of timely and specific feedback are well documented.  According to Educational researcher John Hattie, feedback is in the top 5-10 most influential of teaching strategies as they relate to achievement.  Despite this, feedback is fraught with a number of issues/concerns/criticisms/complaints both from those giving the feedback and from those receiving it. Some of the most common are students not taking feedback on board; instructors being overly critical/saying something needs improving but not providing a means for improvement; timeliness (“Why didn’t you tell me this before I started??”); the amount of time it takes to write/provide feedback etc Given these criticisms, knowing how to both give and receive feedback in a way that is constructive and productive becomes even more crucial!

I’m about to go on a rant so, if you don’t want to read it. Here’s a summary of my own opinions about both giving and receiving feedback:

Receiving Feedback:

  • Receive feedback graciously: Often when we’re receiving feedback we don’t necessarily agree with, we tend to get agitated and defensive.   Try to listen to the feedback rather than spending the entire time feeling annoyed, frustrated, or angry. If you feel yourself getting this way, focus on what is being said and not how it is being said.
  • Feedback will make you better: Well, ideally it should sharpen your ideas, writing, thinking or assessment! Try to be thankful when you receive feedback – someone has spent time and energy thinking about how you could improve your work.
  • Feedback is not personal: This is often very difficult. When we receive negative feedback, it’s exceptionally difficult not to take it personally. The feedback you receive is not a reflection on you, your worth, your value as a person etc

Giving Feedback:

  • Include feedback about what was done well as well as what could be improved
  • Be specific about how areas of weakness could be improved upon
  • Allow opportunities for your student to ask you questions and for clarity in regards to your feedback

Ok – big rant about feedback begins here! Feel free to stop reading at this point!

Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006, p. 205) propose 7 principles of good feedback practice which I think serve as a good starting point.

1. Clarify what good performance is (goals, criteria, expected standards): This is often easier to do in undergraduate study when there are criteria sheets; markers have often seen/assessed the same assessment task previous which they can use to guide their judgements. One of the best ways I have found to do this is to provide students with an example of the task deconstructed according to the criteria/task requirements. One of the easiest ways to do this is with a three-column deconstruction (which I first found out about in Lindsay Williams’ English Teaching Survival Manual).

Often with postgraduate research, this can be a lot more difficult as many of the expectations are tacit/nobody has ever done the research you’re doing so clarifying what’s actually required can often feel like finding your way in the dark. I heard a great talk on this by Jonathan Bader – if you ever get to hear him speak – I would highly recommend it!

2. Facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning:  I wrote about the important of reflection in my last post. I think there are a number of really excellent ways to development reflection. One which I have been quite interested in is the ideas of ‘comments not grades’ which I first came upon is a great 2 part documentary called ‘The Classroom Experiment’. The premise is that we’ve become so preoccupied with grades that we don’t take note of the comments we get. In the experiement, the teachers return students’ work without grades but rather only with comments for improvement; leaving the students none the wiser as to how they’d performed much to the frustration of the students. I noticed this frustration in myself this week when I received feedback and all I wanted to say was, “Ok, fair enough, but is this work passable?” We need to move from a preoccupation with results to a preoccupation with learning.

3. Delivers high quality information to students about their learning: What I find most interesting about this principle is that it talks about providing information about learning rather than assessment. This point might be best paraphrased by simply saying – tell students how to improve and not just what they did or did not do well!

4. Encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning: The key here is dialogue! I also think this needs to be reciprocal – students should provide feedback to teachers about how teachers can improve as well as teachers providing feedback to students about their learning.  The importance of peer assessment here should not be underestimated! I often suggest my students read one anothers’ work – this can be better scaffolded by providing a peer assessment checklist. Or, doing it online!

5. Encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem: Now, I’m a bit of a sensitive one so, for me, this is extremely important! In saying that, last week I showed a colleague a student’s draft (I wanted her feedback on my feedback!) and she asked me if I had anything nice to say about the student’s work. In my zeal to provide the student with suggestions about the ways they could improve, I had neglected to provide any positive reinforcement. The student would likely have had a terrible impression of me. Often we forget that students have put hours (sometimes years!) of work into their assignments and, despite our best intentions, providing only ‘constructive criticism’ can be really heartbreaking and leave a student feeling like deflated, distraughtdejected, or depressed.

6. Provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance: This is, I feel, the most problematic of the principles. Many of the students I see set desired goals that are almost entirely out of their control (for example, attempting to get 7s for all assessment items). We speak a lot about making quantifiable, achievable and realistic goals. For example, I will work on my assignment for 1 hour today. Aside from goal setting, teachers can help to close this gap by providing specific draft feedback; modelling and scaffolding. However, as I say, I feel that this principle needs to be applied with discernment – ensuring desired performance goals are achievable!

7. Provides information to teachers that can be used to shape the teaching:  I mentioned this earlier – feedback on our own teaching is crucial. I used to gain this feedback at the start of the year, when I’d ask students to write me letters telling me about themselves and describing the features of effective and ineffective teachers. At the end of the year I’d have the students (anonymously) tell me what they felt my strengths and weaknesses were as a teacher – they were not shy in telling me!


Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007).  The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.

Nicol, D. J. & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.