How students get help with academic writing
A case study of mixed methods research design and project management
In recent years, the media and university faculty have increasingly expressed concern about the ways that students in higher education seek support with academic writing. The aim of this study was to explore how students receive writing support in order to help draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable practices.
This study formed the basis for my dissertation research.
Blog article with headline "International students are turning to proofreading agencies to get support."
An article in The Guardians education blog expressed moral panic over international students’ ways of seeking support with academic writing.
Connection to UX research
The methods employed in this study can also be applied to draw insights from user data.
Social network analysis is useful for answering questions about how users connect to other people and what kinds of exchanges are made through network connections. For example, a user researcher might ask How does our product facilitate collaboration within an organization? or How are users of our product and users of competitors’ products distributed within a specific social network? Social network analysis can be combined with qualitative methods to gain insight into users’ experiences and can inform the selection of users to participate in follow-up research.
Thematic analysis is useful for identifying patterns in qualitative user data, such as data from user interviews or contextual inquiry. This type of analysis can answer questions about common or recurring experiences, emotions, behaviors, or pain points related to the user experience. UX researchers often use affinity mapping to perform this kind of analysis.
Content analysis is useful for quantifying patterns in qualitative data. For example, it can be used to determine what percentage of user reviews or interviews mention a specific pain point, even if they describe it in different words.

My role
primary investigator

Core skills
• Social network analysis
• Thematic analysis
• Content analysis
• Interview moderation
• Participant recruitment
• Survey design
• Writing & synthesis
• Ethical review

Research questions
• Who helps students with academic writing? Where are these sources of support located in students’ social networks?
• Why do students seek help with academic writing from others besides their instructors? 
• What types of help do students receive? 
• How does receiving help outside the classroom shape the development of academic texts?

This study was carried out in two phases.
Phase 1
In March 2020, I administered a survey to a random sample of students enrolled at a large US university. The survey contained questions about students’ social networks, academic writing practices, and demographics. In the social network portion of the survey, I asked students to name up to four people they were close to and up to two additional people who could help them with academic writing. Then I asked follow-up questions about each of the people named. 
Screenshot of survey questions with four blanks for "someone you are close to" and two blanks for "someone who has helped with academic writing."
In social network research, a name generator is used to collect information about people in an individual’s social network.
Social network diagram with colored shapes representing a student and people in their social network. Lines connect people who know each other.
The social network data I collected could be used to assemble a network diagram for each participant. In this student’s network, blue squares indicate individuals who provide writing support to the student participant (yellow triangle), and red squares indicate people who do not provide writing support. The diagram shows that in addition to working with two writing tutors, this student also receives writing support from within their close network. Many students receive this kind of support, which is typically invisible to their instructors and institutions.
Phase 2
In spring 2021, I recruited nine survey participants who were willing to participate in follow-up interviews. Each student was interviewed twice, at the beginning and end of the semester. In between, they shared drafts of writing projects they had been working on and filled out a brief survey about each file they shared with me. At the end of the semester, I collected data from some of the participants’ instructors and tutors through surveys and interviews.
A flowchart from student network surveys (N = 241) to focal student participants (N = 9) to two interviews per student (N = 18), text upload surveys (N = 43) and contact info for instructors/tutors to instructor/tutor surveys (N = 7) and instructor/tutor follow-up interviews (N = 5).
Analysis & synthesis
From summer 2021 to spring 2022, I worked on analyzing the data and detailed the findings in four chapters of my dissertation.
I used social network analysis to learn about students’ ways of seeking writing support from within and outside their social networks.
I used thematic analysis to identify the student interview participants’ views on the importance of academic writing and the kinds of identities they wanted to bring forth in their written texts. I also explored their reasons for and perceived outcomes of seeking writing support from third parties. 
I used content analysis to analyze drafts of four students’ texts to show how third-party interventions shaped students’ written texts and revision practices.

I was awarded more than $36,000 in competitive research funding and fellowships to complete this study.
I successfully defended my dissertation in October 2022.
Findings from this study will be published in an invited chapter for the forthcoming book Proofreading and Editing in Student and Research Publication Contexts: Expectations, Responsibilities, Policies (Routledge, 2023).

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