School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Participants at the writing workshop at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus.

Building Research Writing Capacity in Postgraduate Students

The Discipline of Geography in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) hosted a series of postgraduate workshops to teach writing methods and encourage peer learning.

Workshops were part of a deliverable on a Water Research Commission (WRC) funded project investigating the use of water in agriculture*.

The third and last workshop was on the Pietermaritzburg campus and included students at Honours, Master’s, PhD and postdoctoral levels. Each workshop had around 15 participants.

Project leader, Professor Trevor Hill, arranged the three workshops over 18 months, with the first two set up to train students working on the project from UKZN and other universities, and the third open to postgraduate students in Geography.

‘My intention is to develop a postgraduate workshop that follows a more structured pathway to the completion of the degree and writing of papers, working towards grant writing and submission,’ said Hill. ‘If we nurture students through the degree, instil respect for the research process and move them beyond degree completion, we will have a better chance of keeping them in the academic sector,’ he added.

The workshops took place over three non-consecutive days in a week, allowing students to spend days in between working on Honours reports, research papers, theses and proposals.

At the beginning of the workshop, Hill and colleagues teach the theory behind structures of various academic writing, covering proposal writing, developing research questions and appropriate methodologies, literature reviews and investigating the structure of a dissertation. The workshops then progress to knowledge translation which is achieved through a peer-reviewed or non-peer-reviewed paper, posters, newspaper articles and more.

A final session dealt with applying for scholarships or grants as well as writing application proposals. The KwaZulu-Natal Language Institute contributed to the first workshop.

Academic staff and supervisors were available for consultation during the third workshop to assist participants with queries, while students who had completed their degrees as part of this project attended to assist other students.

Peer evaluation takes place during the project, giving students at different levels a chance to learn from one another.

‘The workshop has been helpful and has given me time to work on my Honours project,’ said Ms Sibahle Dladla. ‘I have enjoyed making friends and working with other participants as well as getting input from students at higher levels has been useful,’ she added.

Hill plans for the workshops to lead on to others, hoping the model will be useful to other disciplines in the training of students.

* Project K5/2402: “Assessing the impact of erosion and sediment yield from different land uses in farming and forestry systems and their effect on water resources in selected catchments of South Africa”.

Words and photograph: Christine Cuénod