Project Details

A project to evaluate good practice, identify critical success factors or good doctoral writing feedback. A collaboration involving University of Auckland, Victoria University of Wellington and Tai Poutini Polytechnic.


 The project aimed to evaluate good practice, identify critical success factors or good doctoral writing feedback.


The methodology of the project included:

  • data gathering from supervisors
  • data gathering from doctoral students
  • consideration of the current literature and the contribution of Māori and Pacific experts.


the university of auckland

Susan Carter

The University of Auckland
victoria university

Deborah Laurs

Victoria University of Wellington
tai poutini

Lisa Chant

Tai Poutini
victoria university

Rawinia Higgins

Victoria University of Wellington
victoria university

Jen Martin

The University of Auckland
victoria university

Teresia Teaiwa

Victoria University of Wellington
victoria university

'Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki,

The University of Auckland




37427.00 (excl GST)

$16,800.00 Regional Hub Project Fund
$20,627.00 Victoria University of Wellington, Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and Tai Poutini Polytechnic

Key Findings

Findings on supervisor experience

  • There were no significant disciplinary differences in the challenges supervisors experience with their students’ writing.
  • Many staff indicated that they struggled with finding the balance between substantive matters and stylistic corrections when it came to writing feedback.
  • It was agreed that providing feedback could take up a significant amount of time and was most challenging when the writing was of a poor quality.
  • Some supervisors expressed frustration when they found themselves repeating the same feedback over several drafts.
  • Others found it difficult to provide honest critiques in a supportive manner.
  • Supervisors were consistently under time pressure [yet] sufficient time was essential when it came to effective supervision.
  • The lack of consistency in attitudes about the amount of time spent on editing, together with the lack of literature suggested a need to talk nationally about how good practice might balance the demands of quality and time constraints.
  • A number of supervisors highlighted that the stages at which students undertook writing could create problems.
  • These included writing too early in the process, but more usually, the problem was not writing regularly enough, and/or leaving things too late.
  • Some supervisors experienced problems with the way in which students responded to feedback provided on their written work. Of note, they expressed frustration when their advice was (continuously) ignored.
  • A number of supervisor participants commented on difficulties communicating with students when they were experiencing difficulties and/or written outputs were not forthcoming.
  • There were a range of writing challenges faced by doctoral students, as perceived by supervisors, eg, students’ ability to write simply, clearly and succinctly.
  • Supervisors reported that some students struggled to produce written work because they found the writing process difficult.
  • Supervisors recognised reasoning and argumentation skills as the one of the most challenging aspects of doctoral study.
  • Many supervisors found it rewarding to observe the development of their students’ skills.
  • Some supervisors called for specific training or support in relation to this aspect of their role.

Findings on doctoral student perspectives

  • The vast majority indicated that they had all received helpful feedback at some stage, with only a few reporting that they had not.
  • A number of students reported that specific feedback on the content of their writing, or the ideas presented, was helpful.
  • Others appreciated receiving feedback that made suggestions on their writing style (eg, tone, clarity of information presented, etc.)
  • A number of student respondents highlighted the value of comprehensive critiques, which provided very detailed and specific feedback on written work.
  • Students defined supportive feedback as feedback that highlighted positive aspects, offered encouragement and provided acknowledgement of effort and work completed to date.
  • Constructive feedback, students commented, made them feel more confident, inspired and motivated.
  • The timing of feedback, particularly on a regular basis throughout the writing process, was considered helpful.
  • Some respondents found it helpful to discuss feedback with supervisors.
  • Other characteristics of helpful feedback included comments being delivered in a straightforward and clear manner, with the supervisor’s expectations clearly understood.
  • Unhelpful feedback included non-specific comments, overly critical feedback, delayed feedback, contradictory feedback, over-attention to proofreading.

Key Recommendations

Recommendations for supervisors

Establish expectations early | While allowing for flexibility, it is important to establish clear expectations from the outset.

Prioritise focus on writing | Supervisors and students should view writing as a crucial tool for trialling, testing, articulating, organising and clarifying thought processes throughout the entire research journey.

Foster a working relationship | Getting to know students (as people first and scholars second) will help enhance the feedback relationship as a whole

Acknowledge the whole student | It is important to acknowledge that students for whom English is an additional language (EAL) bring previous knowledge and experience as they embark on writing a thesis in English.

Give targeted feedback | While all feedback is both useful and necessary, it can be counterproductive to overwhelm students with too many points at once. Feedback needs to be appropriate to the stage of writing.

Maintain momentum | Doctoral students are colleagues in the making. Supervisor should foster the transition from student to scholar.

Anticipate (& manage) reactions | Criticism is hard to take at the best of times; students need to recognise that successful doctoral completion is largely based on the merits of the written thesis.

Play to your strengths | Don't expect to be expert in all aspects of writing. Instead, support and empower students to take responsibility for their own development as independent researchers.


Supporting Doctoral Writing: He Ara Tika Mā Ngā Kaiārahi

A report prepared by Susan Carter & Deborah Laurs, Lisa Chant, Rawinia Higgins, Jen Martin, Teresia Teaiwa and ’Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki.

(PDF, 841 MB, 87-pages).

  • 25 October 2016
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A Guide for Supervisors Supporting Doctoral Writing: He Ara Tika Mā Ngā Kaiārahi

A guide prepared by Susan Carter & Deborah Laurs, Lisa Chant, Rawinia Higgins, Jen Martin, Teresia Teaiwa and ’Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki. 

(PDF, 675 MB, 25-pages).

  • 25 October 2016
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Supporting doctoral writing: Good practice guidelines

An A4 poster prepared by Susan Carter & Deborah Laurs, Lisa Chant, Rawinia Higgins, Jen Martin, Teresia Teaiwa and ’Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki.

(PDF, 209 KB 1-page).

  • 25 October 2016
Read more