Supporting Graduate Students as Professional Writers, Readers and Reviewers

Leslie Atkins Elliott, Boise State University
Katie Ansell, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

At each FFPER conference since 2005, graduate student participation has been supported by grants from the APS Forum on Education, which has allowed students to pay reduced registration fees. In 2017, at the sixth FFPER conference, we continued offering a special Graduate Symposium to allow students and recent graduates to present their own work and have it critiqued by their peers and faculty mentors. The process was designed to support students in producing a publishable paper, and, through that process, develop useful practices around drafting papers, including soliciting and providing informal peer reviews prior to submission. At the same time, the close reading of peers’ work allows participants to broaden their knowledge of contemporary research in PER, network with peers, and strengthen their skills in collaboration and reviewing.

As in the 2015 Symposium, each participating student wrote a four-page paper on part of their PhD research, following the format of the Proceedings of the annual Physics Education Research Conference, and submitted it several weeks before the conference for review. The students were placed in three groups of four to five students to read and provide feedback on those submissions. Based on feedback from the 2015 Symposium, which suggested that structures for providing feedback would be helpful, each group of students wrote a review letter of each other’s papers, following the guidance provided by Rachel Scherr in the PERCoGS newsletter. In order to facilitate face-to-face discussions at the conference, the reviews were not anonymous. Faculty mentors Saalih Allie, Leslie Atkins Elliott, and Hunter Close also provided feedback, either in the form of a separate review, or a cover letter helping the author interpret and prioritize the reviews.

At FFPER, each student group had a 90-minute session to present and discuss their work. During the sessions, each student gave a short oral presentation about his or her work, and then discussed responses to the reviews they had received. In several cases, there was extensive discussion about how best to incorporate suggestions into the paper. There was also discussion about the review process itself, and what participants learned from the process, both as authors and reviewers.

The faculty mentor view: Drawing on feedback from the 2015 Symposium, which suggested that the 90-minute presentations could use more structure, one small group submitted their documents not only formatted for the PERC conference, but also as a shared Google Document. These facilitated more informal feedback, with their peers adding in-line comments to the document, suggesting references, linking to other documents, noticing and responding to the feedback others had left, and beginning a conversation around points of disagreement. For example, one student noted that a paper began too abruptly, without enough framing, while a second countered that considerable framing might be unnecessary for a four-page conference paper for a specialized audience. When we met as a whole group at the conference, these comments – more so than the formal feedback – provided the seed for productive conversations.

The graduate student view: The FFPER Graduate Symposium provided space to practice writing and reviewing papers, but I think it more importantly humanized the process and encouraged a model of review writing that helps authors’ work become better. To me, the most influential resource at the review-writing stage was Rachel Scherr’s advice (and accompanying sample letters) that critical reviews should aim to help the authors improve their work in a caring, personal way. Although I attempted to apply this advice in my reviews, I think it took the face-to-face discussions during the Graduate Symposium – where we talked about our comments and worked out ways to improve our papers with our reviewers – to help me understand how strong statements can also be supportive. Other members of my symposium group expressed a similar sentiment. I’m excited about the reviewer culture encouraged by the Graduate Symposium and look forward to applying this paradigm the next time I write reviews.

Leslie Atkins Elliott is an associate professor of education at Boise State University, where she is a member of IDoTeach, preparing secondary STEM teachers.

Katie Ansell is a graduate student in physics education research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.