Overcoming ABD in the Online Doctoral Program: A Study on Writing Self Efficacy, Apprehension, and Anxiety When Starting the Dissertation Process

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Brief Abstract

Despite the extensive research on writing self efficacy, apprehension, and anxiety, few studies have explored the significance of these three factors for online doctoral students writing their dissertations. This convergent mixed methods study examined diverse graduate students' (n = 53) writing self-efficacy during the dissertation writing process in an online program.

Extended Abstract

Despite the rapid changes in doctoral education over the last three decades (e.g., the rise of online doctoral programs and professional degree doctoral programs), one of the more consistent aspects of postgraduate education research remains the often cited 50% attrition rate that plagues academia (with variations across disciplines, departments, and modalities; Berelson, 1960; Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992; Golde, 2006; Kennedy et al., 2015; Locke & Boyle, 2016). While the investigations into these attrition rates have noted many potential contributing factors, the challenges faced in the dissertation-writing process has become a central area of inquiry (e.g., Boote & Beile, 2005; Lavelle & Bushrow, 2007; Ondrusek, 2012; Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012). One challenge to studying doctoral student writing, however, is the diversification of program delivery methods, types, and goals with the rapid expansion of online and practitioner-oriented doctoral programs (Council of Graduate Schools, 2007; Hyland, 2009, pp. 5–10; Neumann, 2005; Trigwell et al., 1997). Each of these program differences can introduce complications and potential barriers to a student’s writing progress, which in turn can result in the need for reimagining the writing support needed to maximize a student’s chances of success (Blevins et al., 2021; Nobles, 2019; Werse, 2021; Werse et al., 2022).

Parallel to this scholarly trajectory on doctoral writing, many scholars have identified academic self-efficacy as a positive mediating factor that correlates with positive academic outcomes, even in the midst of complications and barriers  (e.g., Caprara et al., 2008; Eakman et al., 2019; Fokkens-Bruinsma et al., 2021; D. H. Schunk & DiBenedetto, 2016; D. H. Schunk & Pajares, 2002). Scholars of writing instruction, therefore, have logically applied these implications to writing development, noting that perceived writing self efficacy often serves as a mediating factor that can help students achieve positive writing outcomes despite potential obstacles. While such inquiries have yielded implications for the study of writing development, they tend to focus on students early in their academic journeys, such as college composition students (e.g., Lane et al., 2003; Prat-Sala & Redford, 2012; Wachholz & Etheridge, 1996; Woodrow, 2011) or students writing in a second language (e.g., Abdel Latif, 2015; Arroyo González et al., 2021; Han & Hiver, 2018; Lee & Evans, 2019; Ruegg, 2018; Sun et al., 2021; Sun & Wang, 2020; Teng et al., 2018, 2020; Tsao, 2021; Zabihi, 2018). Despite the potential that self efficacy theory has to contribute to the scholarly understanding of the dissertation writing process, comparatively few studies have focused specifically on writing self-efficacy at the doctoral level (e.g., Dupont et al., 2013; Hines, 2011; Varney, 2010).

Given how costly doctoral student attrition is to both the student and the department (Garcia, 1987; Pritchard, 2018; Santicola, 2013) as well as the potential of writing self efficacy to serve as a positive mediating factor for doctoral students writing their dissertations, this convergent mixed methods study explored changes in writing self-efficacy and writing apprehension among 53 doctoral students throughout their first semester of a dissertation writing course designed to guide them through the composition of the first two chapters of their dissertation. This study answered the following three research questions:

1.     Quantitative RQ: Is there a significant difference in graduate students’ writing apprehension, writing mechanics self-efficacy, academic writing self-efficacy, or relational reflective self-efficacy before and after taking the 1-semester dissertation writing course? 

2.     Qualitative RQ: In what ways have doctoral students’ perceptions of their writing abilities changed after they have completed a course to write their literature review and methodology chapters? 

3.     Mixed Methods RQ: To what extent do doctoral students’ written reflection data help explain their perceived writing apprehension, writing mechanics self-efficacy, academic writing self-efficacy, and relational reflective writing self-efficacy scores?

Results indicated no significant differences in pre- and post-course measures of writing self-efficacy. Analysis of written student reflections showed students felt more confident, benefited from specific feedback, built relationships through their peer working group, and identified their academic writing strengths and weaknesses. Implications point to the need for multiple resources within online programs to help support and provide targeted, iterative, and personalized feedback to students.