Case Study 1 – Exeter Doctoral College

Helping PhD students think critically and argue with clarity


For the last few years, Dani has delivered writing training days to students at Exeter Doctoral College, as part of the team’s Research and Development programme.

The workshops are offered to students who feel less comfortable with their relationship with words – particularly when faced with writing a long thesis. This includes medics, nurses, engineers, and others studying largely numbers-based subjects, as well as international students.

The key challenge for international students is understanding the western academic argument when their culture’s approach to writing is often fundamentally different.

Our approach

Dani says, ‘We often start by asking students to fill out a questionnaire, to understand the specifics of what they are struggling with. Doctoral writing can present many challenges – fitting multiple ideas together, gaining clarity on your uniqueness, and simply the enormity of writing a 100,000-word argument – especially when English is not your first language and your tendency is to argue in a very different way.

‘We present the western concept of an argument, and how it differs from a ‘row’, and introduce students to the gentle art of persuasion.

‘Then we show them how to develop a formal writing process, which is often the missing piece in the jigsaw. Students learn how to prepare a formal draft, clearly consider, and communicate different perspectives and then incorporate rounds of edits.

‘Another important part of the process is to establish a critical friend network, for students to provide feedback on each other’s work in a trusted and secure environment. It is a really constructive way to identify weaknesses and gaps, and ultimately improve.   

Outcomes ‘Our feedback has been brilliant. Students are thinking much more clearly, have a better understanding of what they need to do and feel they can move onto the next stage with more confidence.’


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