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Struggling with Academic Writing? Metacognition Might Be the Reason Why

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The literature on graduate students’ academic writing is unusually unanimous: across the disciplines, faculty are frustrated by the low quality of the literature reviews they receive.

The most common complaints are that students:

  • Use summary rather than synthesis as the organising principle
  • Fail to narrate or tell a story about the literature
  • Treat all of the literatures with equal reverence rather than evaluating the strengths and limitation of their sources
  • Do not identify the gap in the literature or explain how the proposed research responds to that gap
  • Do not clearly situate their own research within the context of the literature

As a graduate writing consultant, I see their frustration mirrored in the students I work with in university workshops and in my private practice.

In general, these students understand what they are supposed to do: synthesise, find the gap, and evaluate – they just don’t know how to do it. Many of them have been reading the literature for months or years, but have very little written down to show for it.

Sheepishly, they admit that they don’t remember most of what they’ve read. Some have been assigned to write annotated bibliographies and then don’t know how to break out of summary. Some of them are so stuck that their whole projects are at risk of dying at the feet of the literature review.

But why do students who have competent projects and who are otherwise strong writers struggle so hard to produce literature reviews that feel satisfying to their professors?

Metacognition might play a crucial role in achieving this task. Put simply, metacognition is thinking about one’s thinking. More precisely, it refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. 

Metacognition includes a critical awareness of one’s thinking and learning. It also includes thinking oneself as a thinker and learner. Also, metacognitive awareness also seems to have a reciprocal relationship with self-regulation and students’ development of individual writing approaches.

Here are three reasons why the literature review is difficult and ideas for how to support students in developing the skills they need to be successful:

The literature review is a new genre to most students

While students have written the other genres required by the dissertation (introduction, summary, research, analysis), they typically have not done a literature review before they sit down to write one for their thesis or dissertation. Rather than just direct student to ‘go read examples’, find and annotate a few excellent and a few weak examples.

Annotate what works and what doesn’t work, and share these with students. Then ask them to ‘code’ a few samples and discuss them as a group. The experience of reading other people’s undigested summary can make students more self-aware of the need to synthesise and narrate in their own work.

Reading for synthesis requires a high level of metacognition

Sadly, students struggle to develop methods for reading and ‘processing’ literature that support this kind of cognition. Instead of having students write summary as an intermediate step, focus on having students identify connections, patterns, and trends in the literature.

Good summary is important, but it should be a supporting ingredient not an organising principle. Create guiding questions to stimulate synthetic thinking, or better yet, ask students to generate a list of questions to guide their reading.

Students don’t always know how to carry out synthesis and evaluation

They might have a conceptual grasp of these processes but could struggle to express themselves in writing. The literature review is a genre that requires discipline – specific rhetorical moves. In other words, literature reviews in history, sociology, and public policy will sound different and obey different conventions.

Help students identify the written conventions specific to their field by highlighting synthesis and evaluation statements in literature reviews in their field.

If you’re working with an interdisciplinary group, highlighting the differences between fields can help make students more aware of the conventions specific to their own group.

I find that students generally get good training on how to carry out bibliographic searches, but receive little instruction on how to conceptualise, organise, and write a literature review. Given the importance of the literature review to establishing the need for the project and connecting the student’s own work to the broader scholarly conversation, this is an important part of the thesis or dissertation to focus on. Taking the time to scaffold this process reduces frustration for faculty and students alike.

Daveena Tauber, PhD is a consultant who specialises in working with graduate programmes and graduate students in the US and internationally. 

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