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Writing to Success? Non-traditional Doctoral Learners, Admissions Essays, and Dissertation Progress

Hazel Smith (Grand Canyon University, USA)
Rachel Behling (Grand Canyon University, USA)
Additional Authors
Ted Cross (Grand Canyon University, USA)
Michael Berger (Grand Canyon University, USA)
Session Information
July 7, 2015 - 5:30pm
Institutional Leadership & Strategy
Areas of Special Interest: 
Institutional Initiatives
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research and Evaluation
Institutional Level: 
Universities and Four Year Institutions
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Discovery Session
Plaza Foyer
Session Duration: 
60 Minutes
Discovery Session 1

Admissions essays for non-traditional blended doctoral students were analyzed. Results indicate categorical thinkers may be more successful than dynamic in the dissertation phase.

Extended Abstract

Recent trends of non-traditional adult learners seeking doctoral level programs has spurred enrollment throughout the country (Francois, 2014). Although enrollment is increasing, high attrition remains an issue. Prior studies have shown a relationship between word choice in undergraduate admissions documents and subsequent academic performance (Robinson, Navea, & Ickes, 2013; Pennebaker et al, 2014). Similarly this study aims to extend previous research on writing patterns in admissions essays to the doctoral level by examining 156 admissions essays via content analysis software (LIWC). Initial results indicate a relationship between similar word patterns as Pennebaker et al, (2014) with some interesting variations. This study supports the notion that content analysis of admissions essays may be helpful in identifying students that may or may not be successful in blended nontraditional doctoral programs. Thus appropriate remediation strategies may be implemented to better support students.

Research Questions and Methods
This study was centered on understanding if there was a relationship between word patterns as analyzed by LIWC in admissions essays and academic success of non-traditional doctoral students. We conceptualized academic success by how far a student had made it in the process of completing their dissertations denoted by key steps called "Milestones."

In this way, the research questions for this study were:
1. Is there a relationship between language patterns as measured by LIWC in student admission essays and subsequent student success in the dissertation phase of their program of study as measured by "milestone attained?"
2. Is there a relationship between categorical and dynamic thinking (as measured by preposition and article use (categorical thinking) and pronoun, auxiliary verbs, verbs, conjunctions, and negations (dynamic thinking) and subsequent student success in the dissertation phase of their program of study as measured by "milestone attained?"

In line with this research question, we hypothesized that:
1. There will be a significant relationship between language patterns as measured by LIWC in student admission essays and subsequent student success through the dissertation phase of their program of study as measured by "milestone attained."
2. There will be a relationship between categorical and dynamic thinking as measured by preposition and article use (categorical thinking) and pronoun, auxiliary verbs, verbs, conjunctions, and negations (dynamic thinking) and subsequent student success in the dissertation phase of their program of study as measured by "milestone attained."

In order to examine these research questions a quantitative methodology was chosen and a correlational design (Devlin, 2006). For this study 156 admissions essays were collected and analyzed. Admissions essays were from the year 2011, and chosen because this group was the largest extant essays available. These essays were analyzed first via content analysis using Pennebaker's Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count Software (LIWC) (Tausczik & Pennebaker, 2010). LIWC outputs were then analyzed in comparison to the same student's milestone completion data using a Pearson correlation.

Results and Discussion
In the case of research question 1, we found positive correlations between LIWC's "Word Count" category and the milestone attained, r (156) = .218, p < .01 and between "Article" usage and milestone attained r (156) = .173, p < .05. Thus, the more words used in the admissions essay the further the student was in the dissertation process. In addition the more frequent the "Article" usage the further student was in the dissertation process. Also, negative correlations were found between "Personal Pronoun" usage, r (167) = .173, p < .05 and the use of "I" r (156) = .179, p < .05 and dissertation progress. These results confirm our hypothesis for research question 1, namely that there is a significant correlation between certain linguistic patterns in admissions essays and subsequent dissertation progress.

Interestingly, in the case of the 2nd research question there was some evidence to support categorical thinking in relation to student success and more evidence to support dynamic thinking as negatively related to student success. As Pennebaker et al (2014) has shown in his previous work, categorical thinking is related to article and preposition usage and correlated with academic success at the undergraduate level. Our study shows correlations between article usage and dissertation progress as measure by millstone attainment, but not for preposition use. Thus, we cannot conclusively argue that categorical thinking is positively related to dissertation progress, but there is evidence that this may be the case. However, a positive correlation between word count and milestone progression may indicate that verbal fluency and talkativeness may be important for success in writing a dissertation (Tausczik & Pennebaker, 2010). Conversely, the correlations we have found between "Personal Pronouns" and "I" usage fall in line with Groom, & Pennebaker (2002) previous results that showed that pronouns, adverbs, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, and negations were related negatively to student success at the undergraduate level. Thus, it may be that narrative styles of writing, which Pennebaker et al, (2014) categorizes as a psychological proxy for dynamic thinking, may be related to worse progress in completing the dissertation. In short, our study both confirms and adds new insights to the relationship between admissions essays and student success. In this case it appears that nontraditional doctoral students participating in a blended doctoral program that used larger word counts, and by proxy have greater verbal fluency and talkativeness in their admissions essays were more likely to have made more progress on their dissertations (Tausczik & Pennebaker, 2010). This same correlation is also true for article usage. Similarly, those students that used more pronouns and instances of "I" and thus have a more dynamic thinking style, were less successful. This may indicate that those with narrative writing styles may need extra help in converting to a more technical writing style.

Lead Presenter

Ted Cross is the Director of Dissertations in the College of Doctoral Studies as well as an instructor at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, AZ. Teds work focuses on improving online community, teaching, and research practices. As a former Manager of Full-Time Online Faculty and finalist for Online Teacher of the Year, Ted brings experiential knowledge to the world of online education. Ted earned a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University, a M.A. in English from Arizona State University, and an M.S. ed in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. Further, Ted holds a Post Bach Certificate in H.R. Management from the Wharton School of Business and a Doctorate of Education n Organizational Leadership from Grand Canyon University.