Abstract: In the past ten years, an increasing number of universities have begun organizing writing "camps," or full-week immersion experiences, in an effort to address the increased need to support graduate student writing. Outside of anecdotes and testimonials, we have previously had very little data about these camps' success. This study, conducted over the course of three such camps, attempts to address this lack by measuring graduate student writing confidence levels and self-regulation efforts both before and after attendance. An analysis of our results suggests that writing camps that include process-oriented programming result in small but meaningful improvements in attitudes and behaviors that positively affect graduate student writing.
As this special issue attests, over the last decade our field has seen an increase in the attention given to the unique writing challenges facing graduate students. Also within the last ten years, but not necessarily keeping step with emerging research into graduate writing challenges, we have seen graduate schools devoting more resources to supporting graduate students as writers, supplementing departmental training with interdisciplinary instruction and support. One significant innovation is the writing camp, a full-week immersion experience modeled on the "Dissertation Boot Camp" that began at the University of Pennsylvania in 2005 (Lee and Golde, 2013). Many schools across the country offer similar camps, often run by partnerships of graduate schools, writing centers, libraries, and other support units. Camp participants and administrators are generally positive about these writing immersion experiences, and there is extensive anecdotal evidence of these camps' positive results. However, with a few notable exceptions (Simpson, 2013), we have very little data about the success of these camps outside of anecdotes and testimonials. Still less is known about how these camps affect writers over the long term and whether their impact varies across the disciplines. This is partly because, in spite of the growing body of research into graduate student writing, we still lack sufficient data on the behaviors and attitudes of graduate student writers in general and on how these behaviors and attitudes typically differ across disciplines. This paper adds to the discussion of graduate student writing support by offering a report on ongoing research into the short- and long-term impact of writing camps. Our emerging results highlight important design considerations for the construction of effective graduate writing camps.
This article begins with an overview of research on graduate student writing camps and the positive attitudes and behaviors about writing that we teach in our camps. We articulate our hypothesis that instruction regarding these behaviors and attitudes will make students more confident and better able to manage their writing process. In the following section, we describe the camps we hold and the study that we performed during our camps. The data for this study is drawn from several camps conducted over the mid-semester and summer breaks at a mid-sized private research university in the Midwest. Using surveys and focus groups to measure camp participants' writing behaviors and attitudes, we work to assess the short- and long-term impact of the camps on those behaviors and attitudes and to determine continuities and differences across disciplines. Working from a hypothesis that writing camps that offer programming can improve the soft skills required to complete a long-term project like a thesis or dissertation, we set out to measure graduate student writing confidence levels and self-regulation efforts both before and after attendance at a writing camp. In the Results section, we trace the trends we see emerging in our responses, suggesting that writing camps that teach students strategies for managing their writing processes result in small but meaningful improvements in student attitudes and behaviors. Students who attended such camps tended to feel less anxious when they sat down to write and felt more confident that they had the abilities and tools to complete the writing task at hand. We close this paper with suggestions for further research into systems of support for graduate student writing across the disciplines.
Do Graduate Student Writing Camps Affect Attitudes and Behaviors?
Graduate student writing camps are an innovation in ongoing efforts to support graduate student writers, and accordingly there is currently little research, analysis, or theory devoted to them. Mastroieni and Cheung (2011) provide a broad survey and retrospective of these programs, while Smith and Kayongo (2011) explore the collaboration between libraries and other support units in terms of senior thesis writing camps. Lee and Golde (2013) offer the first analysis of writing camps, which they divide into two categories: "Just Write" camps and "Writing Process" camps.
"Just Write" camps provide students with a physical space that is deemed conducive to writing. The theory behind these camps is that graduate students have the necessary skills and behaviors to write successfully, they simply need to be provided a dedicated time and space to actually get down to the business of writing. The location is quiet, has adequate table space, and provides sufficient power outlets for students to use laptops and other electronic devices. Students are provided with set hours during which they are encouraged to use this space, for example 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every day for a week. In many of these camps, students are also provided with refreshments of some kind, such as breakfast and coffee in the morning and snack in the afternoon; some camps with enough funding also provide lunch. In "Just Write" camps, there is no specific instruction on writing or on the writing process.
In contrast, "Writing Process" camps encourage "consistent and on-going conversations about writing" in addition to providing time and space (Lee and Golde, 2013). The theory behind these camps is that attendees have not fully mastered the skills and behaviors necessary to complete a dissertation or other long writing project. Consequently, these camps offer focused instruction on the writing process, for example on maintaining a dissertation log or on generative writing strategies to help overcome writer's block. They also frequently offer the services of a writing consultant or tutor. Lee and Golde strongly encourage a "Writing Process" orientation and the involvement of writing centers in graduate student writing camps. Simpson (2013) has also advocating the "Writing Process" camps. This is in part because he seeks to create "outward-focused camps," or camps that are primarily a tool for developing writing initiatives across the university. Simpson has found that camps can serve as an important launching pad for deeper cross-campus involvement in writing and can draw graduate students into campus writing centers.
While we also encourage "Writing Process" camps, this study is aimed at testing the hypothesis that process-oriented camps are preferable to "Just Write" camps. We must assess if "Writing Process" camp participants are actually better able to manage the writing challenges they face, both during the camp and after it has ended. In particular, this study asks how the two models of writing camps improved graduate students' thoughts about writing and their behaviors as writers. In the realm of their thoughts about writing, we considered their perceived self-efficacy and their motivation. Perceived self-efficacy in writing describes how confident a writer is that he or she will be able to complete a given writing task to the necessary standard. Perceived self-efficacy can be determined in part by past performances on similar tasks, but it can also account for differences in performance among individuals with similar abilities (Bandura, 1989). Educational psychologists argue that perceived self-efficacy influences motivation (Pret-Sala and Redford, 2010; Pret-Sala and Redford, 2012). Writers with higher perceived self-efficacy are more likely to persevere in the face of obstacles and to see them as challenges rather than roadblocks. They are also less likely to respond to failure with maladaptive behaviors. This may be why writers with high self-efficacy perform better than writers with low self-efficacy regardless of writing ability.
In addition to examining students' thoughts about writing, we examined their writing behaviors. Specifically, we focused on their methods for self-regulation. Self-regulation is a set of behaviors that are correlated with self-efficacy and motivation (Zimmerman and Bandura, 1994; Pintrich, 1999). Self-regulated learners are diligent and resourceful; they tend to plan, set goals, and monitor their own progress towards achieving those goals (Zimmerman, 1990). In short, our study sought to determine whether writing camps affected perceived self-efficacy, motivation, and self-regulation in graduate student writers. In "Writing Process" camps, we teach specific behaviors that will help with self-regulation (e.g. maintaining a writing log, pre-scheduling writing times, setting short-term goals). We also foster cross-disciplinary discussion about writing and offer process-improvement tools that we hope will change students' levels of self-efficacy and motivation. For this reason, we hypothesize that students in "Writing Process" camps will increase their adaptive beliefs and behaviors while students in "Just Write" camps will not.
This study examines graduate writing camps held at a mid-sized private research university in the Midwest. Since 2011, university entities such as the Library, the Writing Center, and the Graduate School have worked together to hold weeklong graduate writing camps during both fall and spring breaks. Our initial research in spring 2013 took place within the context of these existing camps, and in June 2013, we added an additional camp to that was designed specifically for the study.
Spring Data Collection
In the writing camp offered during spring of 2013, we began our initial study of graduate student writing camps. Two camps ran concurrently, one for students working on a dissertation or thesis, and one for students working on articles. Because the camps had already been established, we designed the spring component of the study to create minimal impact on the existing structure of the camps. Each camp had been designed to feature a daily morning workshop, a morning goal-setting session, free-writing time, and a daily group wrap-up session (see Appendix A). All students registered for the camps were asked upon arrival on the first day to participate in the study. Of 40 students who attended the dissertation/thesis camp, 17 agreed to participate in the study; of the 18 students who attended the publications camp, 10 agreed to participate in the study. Of the participants, 4 were enrolled in a Masters program and 23 were enrolled in a Ph.D. program. 11 were in the humanities, 7 were in the social sciences, and 9 were in STEM fields.
Data from these camps was collected primarily through surveys and daily writing logs. At the opening of the camps, all students who participated in the study filled out a pre-camp survey that asked them about their writing practices. The survey was designed to collect information about general student attitudes towards the writing process, as well as to better understand their writing processes, including their self-regulation efforts. Participants were asked about their feelings towards writing (to measure confidence, enjoyment, and anxiety) according to a Likert scale. They were also asked about how frequently they worked on their writing project, engaged different writing strategies (e.g. brainstorming, outlining), set goals, tracked their writing, and sought help from various sources (e.g. advisor, other faculty or peers in their department, a writing center tutor, etc.). Our questions arose from our desire to get a better picture of graduate student writing processes--a necessary baseline in order to understand how camps could affect those processes. They were based on our collective experience working with graduate student writers and observing the challenges they faced.
During the camps, all students filled out daily logs in which they noted how many hours they were on-task during the day, how many words they wrote, and whether or not they achieved their writing goal. At the end of the weeklong camp, students filled out a post-camp survey. This survey asked them about their attitudes towards writing, using questions similar to the pre-camp survey. The post-camp survey also asked students about their plans for writing after the camps, including how frequently they intended to write, to seek help from various sources, and to engage various strategies for writing and for managing their productivity. Three months after the camps, students were asked to complete the same questions found on the pre-camp survey; the goal of re-administering the survey at the three-month mark was to determine if and how students' writing attitudes and practices had changed following the camp. A number of students also participated in focus groups or answered focus group questions over email four and a half months after the camps.
In summer of 2013, we continued the study with modifications to better analyze the impact that graduate writing camps have on the attitudes and practices of graduate student writers. In particular, we investigated the impact of programing designed to improve students' self-efficacy and self-regulation. In other words, we sought to test the claim made by Golde and Lee (2013) and by Simpson (2013) that "Writing Process" camps are more effective than "Just Write" camps at supporting graduate student writers. This camp comprised 26 graduate students, though not all students completed the camp and all of the surveys.
In order to assess the impact of programming that seeks to develop techniques for writing and for self-regulation, half of the students experienced "Writing Process" programming while the other half followed the "Just Write" model for writing camps. The students in the "Writing Process" cohort attended a morning session to introduce them to different writing strategies (e.g. analyzing models, setting long- and short-term goals) and to set and share goals on a public whiteboard. They also attended an afternoon wrap-up sessions to discuss challenges and report on whether or not they met their goals, in addition to crossing their completed goals off the whiteboard. The students in the "Just Write" cohort did not attend instructional or goal-setting sessions, though they were welcome to talk with each other about writing. All students—those with programming and those without—took the same pre-camp and post-camp surveys and filled out the same daily writing logs as the students in the spring study did. A number of students from the summer camp participated in focus groups or answered focus group questions over email a month after the camp.
Results and Data Analysis
While the small sample size of this initial study prevents us from making broad claims about the effectiveness of writing camps, our data does offer some interesting insight into both the highly individualized nature of the writing process and general trends that can be observed. Comparing our pre-camp surveys, which emphasized current attitudes and behaviors, with the immediate post-camp surveys, which addressed current attitudes and expected behaviors, it is clear that the writing camps which incorporated daily programming influenced the students' perceptions of their own writing ability, the value of process-management techniques, and the value of seeking external assistance. Writing camp programming clearly has the potential to influence student intentions toward making positive changes in their writing habits.
Influence of Writing Camp Programming on Graduate Student Attitudes and Process-Oriented Behaviors
By comparing the pre- and post-camp answers from the 21 complete survey sets for camps that included programming, we can see a measurable change in students' feelings towards writing. Each question was assigned values on a scale of 1-5 (completely disagree to completely agree), and the data was compared to assess areas of positive or negative change, in relation to the nature of the question. For example, in response to the statement "I am confident in my skills as a writer," 29% of students reported at least a one-point shift towards more strongly agreeing with the statement (see Fig. 1).
Answers to other related questions indicate positive gains that relate or correspond to measures of confidence. For example, 33% of students more strongly identified with either the statement "I enjoy writing" or "I have a positive attitude towards writing" (See Fig. 2).
Focus group discussions confirm that many students felt an increase in their confidence during the camp for a variety of reasons, including an increased ability to focus on the writing process, exposure to new strategies for managing time and goal-setting, and engagement with peers across the disciplines. This corresponds with findings of Fergie et al. (2011), which found that graduate students who participated in a group writing instruction module identified "thinking about writing, developing new writing and reading processes, and increased interaction about writing […] as factors contributing to an increase in confidence" (p. 241).
Even more significant changes are reflected in students' post-camp intentions for process-oriented behaviors. Before the programming-oriented camps, participants were asked to rate on a 5-point scale how often (never, rarely, sometimes, frequently, and often) they engaged in behaviors that contribute to self-efficacy and self-regulation such as brainstorming, outlining, setting and sharing goals, tracking productivity, and analyzing disciplinary models. After the camps, students used the same scale to rate how often they intended to engage in such behaviors.
Many students were more willing to take on strategies that the writing camp programming had promoted: 57% indicated they were more likely to share their goals with others, 67% indicated they were more likely to write goals for each writing session, 71% indicated they were more likely to use a journal to track their productivity, and 76% indicated that they were more likely to analyze model writing products within their field (see Fig. 3). Focus group discussions indicate that these process-improving changes are highly individualized: students are apt to be drawn towards one or two particular strategies that were presented during camp programming, and to make a conscious decision to implement them on a more regular basis. Students reported employing a number of different post-camp strategies that would affect motivation and self-efficacy, such as starting a dissertation notebook to track ideas and writing progress; creating a spreadsheet of hours spent writing and number of words set to the page; and finding a group of students to meet with weekly in order to share goals and written drafts.
The survey results also indicate that at the close of the camps, over half the students expressed a greater willingness to seek external help with their writing, either more frequently than previously or from a greater variety of sources. 57% showed a willingness to work more frequently with their advisor, 52% indicated they would more frequently seek help from other faculty within their discipline, and 57% indicated they would work more often with peers in their department (see Fig. 3). In addition, 52% of the students indicated that they would be more likely to visit the Writing Center for assistance with their projects (see Fig. 3). This willingness to interact with others about writing may be a reflection of students' increased confidence, as well as an important factor contributing to it.
Nurturing this desire represents an excellent opportunity to increase graduate student traffic in often predominantly undergraduate-focused centers. Most significantly, the interdisciplinary atmosphere of the camps contributed to 71% of students indicating that they would seek support from fellow students outside their discipline (see Fig. 4). Participants appear to have considered the interdisciplinary atmosphere and programming activities (such as public goal setting and wrap-up sessions) designed to create a sense of community with other students to be highly valuable, a notion that post-camp focus group responses bear out.
Programming Camps vs. "Just Write" Camps
As stated above, in order to test whether or not the change in student attitudes and intended behaviors was simply the experience of writing within a camp environment or the specific programming, we held two camps in June 2013, one with programming (a "Writing Process" camp) and one without it ("Just Write" camp). Half of the students were located in the University's Writing Center, and took part in process-oriented programming and shared their goals with other students. The other half of the students were in a similar space in the same building, but were largely left to their own devices. Writing Center staff interacted with the students only to collect daily writing logs and to furnish refreshments. A comparison of the data from the 14 respondents who completed both pre- and post-camp surveys indicates that programming is, in fact, necessary to make significant changes in student attitudes and intended behaviors.
67% of the students who engaged in writing camp programming reported a decreased level of anxiety at the close of the camp, while none of the students in the "Just Write" section of the camp reported such a decrease. Overall, the majority of attitude shifts displayed by the "Just Write" students were negative (see Fig. 5). Students with programming did not show any negative shifts in their attitudes towards writing; in fact, they showed positive changes in three categories, including enjoying the writing process, feeling confident in writing skills, and feeling less anxious (see Fig. 5).
As with the previous participants, students in the June 2013 camp also reported on their intended post-camp behavior. While students in both sections indicated positive changes in a number of categories, only the students in the "Just Write" section reported a significant decrease in their willingness to engage in behaviors related to motivation and self-regulation. Overall, the group that did not have access to programming reported more negative changes in more categories, from pre-camp to post-camp surveys, while the students who engaged in the programming saw more positive change in more categories. This trend does seem to indicate that writing camps have a more positive effect on student attitudes and intended behaviors when they involve at least some group programming. It also indicates that programming should be at the minimum instructive, but camps will see greater results if students are asked to engage in specific self-regulatory and motivational techniques.
Improved Behaviors Three Months After Programming-Oriented Camp
The trends present in this small data set do seem to indicate that writing camps are, in fact, able to change student attitudes about their own writing and their perception of the value of process-improving strategies. However, data from a survey given three months after the camp indicates that student expectations of their behaviors may be higher than the actual pay-off.
For the nine students we were able to track successfully through the three-month mark, we saw an interesting trend in their actual implementation of the strategies emphasized during camp programming. By and large, at the end of the camp students indicated an increased desire to set written goals for writing sessions. Survey results indicate that three months after the camp, students did indeed set written goals, but did not do so as frequently as they had planned to immediately following the camp. Six of the nine students did indicate that they used writing goals more frequently than they had before the camp, which does represent a significant effect. Other camp programming intended to increase student accountability also seemed to have a small, but sustained effect at the three-month mark.
Overall, three months after the camp students did not maintain the level of engagement in sharing goals, setting written goals, tracking productivity, or analyzing disciplinary models that they anticipated at the end of the camp, but they did report a greater level of engagement than before attending the camp (see Fig. 6). A number of students who took part in a focus group 4.5 months after completing a "Writing Process" camp indicated that, while they experienced an immediate change in their writing routine after the camp, their increased writing productivity had started to wane.
These results indicate a positive result on student behaviors, at least for a short period of time. Writing camp programming that engages students in process-improvement strategies that lead to increased self-efficacy and self-regulation certainly seems to improve their willingness to undertake such activities after the close of the camp. Students then need to negotiate the integration of such strategies into their regular routine, away from the "artificial" environment of the writing camp – a fact that begins to account for the gap between students' expectations of their behaviors and the actual results. A longitudinal study would be necessary to suggest whether or not students can maintain such behaviors past the three-month point without a "refresher" camp. They also suggest that there is room for innovation within graduate writing camp design: camp designers should work to develop strategies for helping students maintain the positive changes they make during camp once they return to their normal routines.
Breakdown of Attitudes and Behaviors by Division
Beyond a better understanding of the potential effectiveness of writing camps, this study also gives us limited but useful insight into graduate student attitudes towards writing. If we look for general trends in the pre-test feelings of the 38 students for whom the March or July camp was their first experience at a writing camp, we can make a few observations. Overall, these students, who self-selected to attend a writing camp, display a somewhat low confidence in their writing ability.
Humanities students displayed the most confidence in their writing skills, while social science students displayed the least confidence in their skills. Social science students also displayed the lowest level of agreement with the statement, "I enjoy writing."
These numbers, along with enrollment statistics, seem to indicate that humanities students are more likely to attend a writing camp, but they begin the camp with a somewhat more positive outlook than students in other disciplines. For this reason, organizers may want to consider more aggressively recruiting students in STEM and social science fields to participate in writing camps. During the camp and in the post-camp focus groups, students indicated that a mix of disciplines is highly desirable: the students found it particularly useful to understand how diverse the writing process is for students outside their own discipline. Their own confidence may be increased by hearing about the broad spectrum of challenges that others face.
In regards to student behaviors, at the pre-camp stage students across the board report a fairly low frequency of activities that might contribute positively to their self-regulation. Students in different divisions do, however, report varying degrees of frequency in process-improving behaviors that may influence self-efficacy.
There is no appreciable difference between divisions in the frequency of sharing goals with others, but other process-improving behaviors show interesting trends. Students in the STEM divisions tend to engage more frequently in process behaviors like creating quantifiable goals and tracking productivity (see Fig. 9). This could be the result of a number of factors, including the quantitative focus of their research and the greater emphasis on collaborative writing products. In general, it is clear that disciplinary practices and department protocols vary widely, and they likely have differing impact on student self-efficacy.
Our studies on graduate writing camps indicate that camps can positively affect the beliefs and behaviors of graduate student writers, but that there is room to improve current models for camps and to conduct further research. First, our research suggests that in order for camps to improve self-efficacy, motivation, and writing processes, they should include programming that emphasizes discussion, collaboration, and process-improving behaviors. We encourage additional research on these camps since our small study size limited our results. Second, since our research suggests that positive changes in graduate students' beliefs and behaviors decrease over time, researchers and teachers should work to improve the curricula of writing camps and to develop supplementary programs to help graduate student writers to maintain improvements after the camp ends. The development of improved curricula and programming would be supported by our third recommendation for future research: cross-institutional analysis. While graduate student writing camps are a new innovation, they have been adopted by a large number of universities in relatively short period of time. However, each institution modifies the basic model to fit their students' needs and their available resources; we suspect that there is a great deal of diversity from camp to camp. We recommend that future research seek to discover the prevalence of graduate writing camps and to describe and analyze the various models different institutions have employed in the hope that we can learn from one another. Finally, we recommend more basic research on graduate students as writers. Little is known about their behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes about writing and the role it plays in their disciplinary and professional training. A better understanding of graduate student writers is necessary if we wish to improve graduate student writing support.
In general, our study and other studies of writing camps offer a glimpse into the beliefs and behaviors of graduate student writers. The picture that emerges illustrates a number of challenges facing students that include lack of self-efficacy, negative attitudes toward writing, struggles to learn disciplinary norms, and difficulty at managing an appropriate writing schedule. Writing camps are not a panacea for all that ails graduate education, but they can offer specific and targeted instruction to reduce the challenges graduate students face in their writing. Each student responds differently to camps, and his or her attitude towards writing is linked to many factors outside the camp environment, such as the stress caused by impending deadlines and the unpredictable nature of academic research. However, camps that provide direct instruction on strategies for managing the writing process and a collaborative, supportive environment that fosters positive attitudes towards writing do lead to incremental but meaningful improvements in the beliefs and behaviors of graduate student writers.
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