Metaphors and the PhD

Guest Post by Rod Pitcher:

Last year Rod wrote one of our most popular posts on the use of metaphor in conveying concepts to students. A PhD student in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the ANU, he returns to the tomtom to share some thoughts specific to the PhD.

A woman walks the Merri Creek Labyrinth, Victoria, Australia.

Merri Creek Labyrinth, says Rod: “…a good metaphor for the PhD with all its dead ends, new views, backwards and forwards movements…”

Some supervisors have found metaphors useful in explaining what is required in the PhD research to their students. Two areas where metaphors are particularly useful is in aiding the student’s understanding of the progress of their research and the formatting of the thesis.

Metaphors of planning the work

The PhD work can be described as a journey or as a story. Both are useful in understanding the progress of the PhD.

The PhD work can be described as a journey, in which a certain amount of territory must be covered by certain times, and where there are rest stops at certain places that have to be reached at certain times. Using this idea the student can plan the work of the PhD. The amount of work to be done each week can be planned and plotted. Rest breaks, at the end of each section, can be assigned times. Progress can be ascertained by comparing the actual progress with the plan.

Alternatively, the PhD can be compared to a story. Each chapter can represent a stage of the research work. Rest breaks can be taken at the end of each chapter. The chapters added together represent the work towards the completed research and the writing up of the thesis. If dates are assigned to the completion of the stages, represented as chapters, progress can be verified by comparing chapters that are unfinished with those completed. A useful timetable can be drawn up from the work ascribed to each chapter.

A metaphor for the thesis

A useful metaphor for writing the thesis is weaving. The long warp threads represent the strands of the thesis, such as the literature, the methodology and the intermediate results. The cross threads, the weft, represent the work done at that particular stage. The material, the thesis, can be seen to progress as more and more weft is added to the warp to produce finished material. If the warp and weft are imagined as coloured then a pattern might develop in the material that indicates a useful direction in which to continue. The weaving can be briefly interrupted at any stage and then work re-started when new weft material in the form of results is available. Rests can be taken as necessary, and the work already completed can be viewed at any time to measure progress.


Metaphors are useful for PhD students as they can represent the two main problems that many such students have in organising their progress and understanding what the thesis involves. The illustrations above are useful in those areas.

If you prefer you can make up your own metaphors. Would you prefer the PhD to be voyage of discovery, stopping at various islands on the way?  Would you like putting together the thesis to be like organising and cooking a meal and serving it up to your guests? If that suits your way of thinking then go ahead. I’ve just described the ones that I find useful. You might like something different.

Rod Pitcher is a PhD student whose focus of study is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their research. His original post on the tomtom can be found here. Rod’s profiles are at: and

Share your thoughts about any aspect of the PhD process in the comments below!

Improving attendance or reshaping the whole gig?

Posted by: Kylie Budge, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Recently on Twitter I came across an article: Five Techniques for Improving Student Attendance. At first glance I thought, “That’s helpful”, but I very quickly found myself thinking, “Wait, we’re still focusing on this?” Ten years or more ago I can remember reading articles about how to improve attendance in university classes. It seems we haven’t moved very far along the path of addressing this issue.

However, the landscape is radically shifting; it’s been doing so for some time, and in many ways this is a good thing for learning.

So here’s what I think: we need to reframe the question. The question now should be not so much how to improve attendance, with its associated faith that a student present is a student learning; it should be: what can I do to advance these learners within this time limit?

Despite all the technology at hand and all the research that’s been done into how to design learning environments to maximise student engagement and learning, it seems that many of us are still stuck in the rut of scheduling 12 face-to-face weeks of classes each semester (at RMIT University higher education semesters are 12 weeks long; in TAFE they are 16 weeks). For as long as we can remember that is how it has been done and many of us think this is what our universities expect us to do to fulfill our obligations as lecturers/tutors/teachers.

If we imagine a 12 credit point allocation for a course (or ‘subject’ – language depends on your institution) then what we are probably bound by is time – we meet our students on day 1 and we need to have completed delivery (two problematic words) of our course after 12 weeks. What can 12 weeks of tertiary education achieve? What are the intended outcomes for students in the course?

Let’s break it down into some detail. In higher education disciplines with the lecture/tute model, for example, one might consider designing the learning experience to include a whole range of ways to engage students instead of scheduling 12 weeks of 2-hour lectures with a 1-hour tute to follow.

To stay with the model above, if we can imagine that those 36 hours of attendance and participation  are necessary but not sufficient for success in your course, have you made it clear to your students what a successful learner would be doing week-to-week outside of those hours?

Even more radically, rather than expect students to come to classes 12 or more times over a semester, it might be that we ask them to come to 3 or 4 key face-to-face sessions during the 12 weeks where there is a learning task or series of activities that requires them to interact face-to-face. In short, we could stop asking them to attend classes where there is no reason for them to be physically present.

You  may well be asking: how will they learn then?  Well in many, many ways actually. Contemporary students have all the tools at their fingertips and are well-versed in finding out how stuff works, what things mean, and who was involved in doing it outside of class (they do it all the time in their personal lives).

But only if we facilitate a framework for learning for them.

In the modern world of learning that is our key role as experts in our field. We facilitate the learning because in the majority of cases, students can’t do this alone.

So over a 12-week semester students may be required to:

  • attend some face-to-face sessions;
  • complete a series of projects or tasks (this can happen any time, anywhere, depending on what it is they’re learning and what equipment may be required);
  • interact online with you (as the facilitator) and each other about learning tasks or projects (there are many forums in which this can occur);
  • read and analyse course information via the university LMS (learning management system);
  • watch online videos and listen to podcasts as set up by you as the facilitator;
  • participate in field trips or live events;
  • photograph work in progress and share it with you and their peers using online forums.

The above list is not exhaustive and of course there are any number of creative ways that learning can occur that are relevant to your particular disciplinary focus. The key is moving away from the notion that learning only happens when we can physically see students. Learning happens all the time and isn’t bound by the timeslot of a lecture.

If we focus on what an engaging learning experience that achieves the course outcomes might look like, rather than ask how we can improve attendance at a weekly lecture, we ask how we can improve engagement in our subject. We’re no longer putting our energies into getting students to attend classes every week just because it’s always been done like that. Instead, learning is conceptualised in a more varied, dynamic and interactive way, and – most importantly – the student takes centre stage.

Do you have ideas on restructuring the traditional model of attendance and participation at university? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.


Sheridan, R. (2012, June 25). Five techniques for improving student attendance. Retrieved from:

Course Guides: Bloomin’ Verbs

Daphne in winter, Melbourne, ready for Semester 2

Daphne in winter, Melbourne, ready for Semester 2

Posted by: John Benwell, Principal Advisor, Learning and Teaching, Design and Social Context College, RMIT University.

It’s that time of the academic year when we have to revise our course/subject guides — the details of the course you are running and an important document for students. Independent learners need a menu, a planting guide, a chart, of what is to be learnt during the semester, and how their learning will be assessed. Without a guide, they will not be able to plan their studies.

Clearly articulating your learning objectives and learning activities will allow students to proceed at their own pace and use their own initiative and skills in learning the material you are presenting.

One key field in a course/subject guide outline is the learning objectives. Whilst these high-level objectives are developed and written at the time the program is developed (and at RMIT, are in Part A of the course guide), have you ever thought of creating a subset of learning or key objectives for each lecture/week to help the student study and learn? Perhaps it could be as simple as linking the course objective to the relevant week (or weeks) and unpacking it with your students as you go along.

As tertiary educators, we would hope that all students understand the main topics in the course, but what is delivered each week, and what is meant to be understood and studied should also be communicated. This is easily done in the Part B course guide (at RMIT) with small statements in the teaching schedule outlining each week’s topics. The language of these key outcomes can be the same as the learning outcomes, which usually begin with a verb. The statements should demonstrate a structured approach for students’ learning.

Following on from Helen McLean’s post on Bloom’s Taxonomy and Constructive Alignment, Bloom can also help set a framework for the verbs we use in creating learning objectives by linking them to cognitive actions.

Below is a handy list of verbs you might like to use in constructing or revising learning objectives and teaching schedules. For your lectures, and Part B course guide, think about how you can summarise the lecture content using sentences that follow this framework. Try using several from each section to make sure you have covered the spectrum of Bloom’s Cognitive Objectives in your course.

Keep it handy while you’re planning your course and visit the link below for more information. Good luck for Semester 2!

The list is re-published with permission from Bloom’s Taxonomy, Penn State Learning Design Community Hub:

Cognitive Objective Verbs
Knowledge (Ability to recall previously learned material) Define











Comprehension (Ability to grasp meaning, explain, restate ideas) Choose

Cite examples of

Demonstrate use of



Differentiate between





Give in own words













Application(Ability to use learnt material in new situations) Apply















Analysis(Ability to separate material into component parts and show relationships between parts) Analyse

















Draw conclusions















Synthesis(Ability to put together the separate ideas to create new and establish new relationships) Arrange






















Evaluation(Ability to judge the worth of material against stated criteria) Appraise
















Feedback on the outer limits

Posted by: Rebekha Naim, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University.

Artist concept of Voyager 1 encountering a stagnation region.

Artist concept of Voyager 1 encountering a stagnation region. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Well done – HD”, read the scrawl across the top of the page. Nothing more! She placed the paper down on the table feeling angry and upset. All that work, all that effort – for what? To be given a simple compliment?

On his back page were a whole lot of words he could hardly read or understand. He had found the teacher’s response eventually – “Fail”. He had suspected he didn’t have a clue, and this confirmed it.

Giving feedback to students validates their learning and ensures they are on the right track. For most students, particularly students who sit at either end of the spectrum like the ones above, feedback needs to be explicit and appropriate. It needs to resonate with the learner providing closure on a task, or a step in the task, and pointing to what they have to do next.

Exemplary students commonly put extra effort into their assessments and expect detailed feedback, even if it is all positive. Transforming learners who already seem transformed is still possible. They need to see just how ‘right’ they are. That way, they will be more likely to keep performing. Anyone who has ever been on top of their game will know that staying on top is not easy. Every learner can still be given guidance on further development.

I firmly believe we achieve what others expect of us, so it is equally important to continue to challenge high achievers and extend their boundaries and capabilities even further. Offer advice on further development. Introduce them to RMIT’s LEAD program. Discuss research opportunities with them. Connect them with mentors and industry professionals.

Moving learners into new horizons beyond their own expectations supported by visionary educators. This is what tertiary education can aspire to do.

The learner who has failed or is at risk of failing needs careful consideration and your personal touch. But why aren’t the avenues above appropriate to them? Perhaps these activities, the ones that open up a bigger picture of your discipline or of learning in general, are what they need too?

More specifically, low performance should trigger a set of questions and response systems to improve the situation. Are you aware of any learning difficulties they may have? Are their English, literacy or numeracy skills letting them down? Could they be referred to the Disability and Liaison Unit? Are there personal or cultural reasons as to why they do not understand the material? Could there be personal problems that have affected them during this period? Do they need information about the university’s Counselling Service?

Will writing a paragraph on the back of their work actually help them to “get it?”

It’s important that lecturers and tutors identify how to support students who struggle early to avoid escalation of the problem and address issues quickly. In the TAFE environment it should be par for the course that struggling students are identified and supported. Once identified, struggling TAFE learners can be assisted through one-on-one sessions, extra classes, extra support material and support from Student Services. RMIT’s vast resources can address many underlying concerns, and staff PD sessions can help you to manage students who do not seem to be achieving their best.

Early intervention is key for students who might not be making a smooth transition into tertiary studies. Try to identify them in early assessments and formative tasks. The efforts of students who ‘struggle’ might not be that dissimilar to the efforts of their ‘high-achieving’ counterparts, despite the differences in their final output.

Once a student’s individual needs are met, someone who previously struggled can be transformed, a wonderful reward after a failed assessment. I once taught someone who suffered from bouts of depression. After not submitting yet another assignment he broke down in class. I encouraged him to see an RMIT counsellor, which he eventually did and the decision was the first of many positive changes he has since made to his life. He is now a successful IT programmer in his hometown of Darwin.

Assessment Rubrics

In the TAFE School of Media and Communication where I teach, assessment rubrics are used to give student feedback and they double-up as assessment tools as well. Used to grade students’ work by looking at a range of criteria, they can be applied to all tasks. There is a vast array of rubrics to be found on the internet to get you started (and they come in all sorts of formats). They can also be implemented in myRMIT/Blackboard.

They require every element being assessed to be listed on the rubric, with defined and clear differences between each level of achievement. It takes time to develop a robust assessment rubric that aligns closely with the assessment requirements. I would put aside three hours to develop one from scratch.

Developing a rubric with colleagues and industry professionals is even better. Distributed to students at the start of the course, an assessment rubric will give students (and you as their assessor) a clear understanding of what is required of them to achieve certain grades. For the student who achieves a good (but not outstanding) outcome, the rubric level descriptors gives them a clear indication of their achievement without vague adjectives or confusion about the distance they still need to travel.

Hopefully it moves them away from a comparison with their peers and their ‘rank’ in the class to an understanding of what they need to do to get better. Ideally, they would consult it before they approached their next task in your unit. Rubrics allow students to target their revision or improvement efforts.

Finally, I also recommend using self-review whenever possible. When a student hands in their work together with a self-assessment (either answering a few questions or as an analytic or holistic rubric) it re-affirms student understanding and their feedback can help guide yours.

Receiving a filled-in assessment rubric from a teacher highlights particular achievements in each area of the assessment easily. And a comment section allows for recognition of individual effort; particularly useful for students at either end of the spectrum, on the outer limits.

Do you have examples of feedback and assessment strategies that work? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section!