I have a master’s student who’s almost done, so I’m reading the last draft of her thesis to give her the last batch of feedback tomorrow. It’s always wonderful seeing the progress from the first drafts to the final stages of a thesis – and I love seeing how students always end up managing to connect all those scrambled ideas from the start of a project. It’s very rewarding to be able to follow that journey.

But it takes so long for me to read these drafts and comment them in the way I feel that I should. I always imagine I’ll do about twenty pages in an hour, and I always end up managing no more than about ten pages an hour, and at times even less. This thesis isn’t double-spaced, it’s only using 1.5 spacing, so I suppose I’d be doing fifteen double-spaced pages an hour, but even that seems quite slow.

For a 90-100 page thesis, that means ten hours reading and commenting on the thesis before I’ve even met with her.

Should I be aiming to improve my speed? Am I putting too much effort into it, commenting too profusely? Are there other ways to increase my speed, apart from lowering my expectations of what I should be doing? Or is this simply the way it is and what I need to change is making sure that I schedule enough time for reading drafts during the work week that I don’t have to spend my Sunday mornings doing it?

If you respond to student drafts, how long does it take you?

8 thoughts on “how much time should it take to read and comment on a student draft?

  1. Johan

    For one thing, 90-100 pages sounds like too much. At my department, I believe we have scaled down masters theses to max 60 pages, and shorter often means better: more concise, more to the point, less fill-out. Apart from that, my experience is that speed reading techniques really work, especially for least pleasure reading like grading student papers and the like…

  2. Michael Faris

    I don’t have any suggestions, really, but I do know that my thesis adviser, when she was reading drafts of the first two chapters of my thesis, spent about 8 hours on 60-ish double-spaced pages, which is about 8 pages an hour. She also provided a lot of detailed response on higher order concepts as well as localized style issues. So while your reading my feel slow to you, I know others have read thesis drafts more slowly.

    Related to Johan’s comment, though, I don’t think 90-100 pages sounds like too much (then again, mine was even longer). I think the decision on length should be one made at a more localized (the department or adviser-student) level.

  3. M-H

    I think that the fact that you’re thinking about this means that you’re doing it well. It’s a pedagogical task that is usually conceptualised as a chore, and I don’t think there are really any ‘should’s in this kind of work. It’s up to you the amount of time you’re willing to spend to engage with the student. It’s a piece of string really – you could spend 10 minutes micro-editing each page if you were so inclined (and didn’t need sleep!).

  4. bjorge

    My advisor read a 11 page draft for a chapter and his only remark was: “Some spelling mistakes otherwise OK”. Needless to say he did not do his job! I ended up never finishing the damn thing.. (not only his fault, but he didn’t help)

  5. Jill Walker Rettberg

    Bj¯rge, I’d say if you get such a response again you should ask your advisor whether he has some specific suggestions for how to improve the paper – ask what the good points were and what could be improved. Of course, even advisors have bad days – and weeks…

    Our rules are that an MA thesis should be 70-100 pages. I think that’s probably an appropriate length, really – students take a full year to work on the thesis, after all, and it’s long enough that it really is a major project that isn’t that different from writing a book. It’s a great foundation for any future large writing project (a PhD or a book) and hopefully also for other large-scale projects that require time management.

    Speed reading is an idea. That wouldn’t help me catch stylistic things – and often theyt’re imprortant, you want to help students learn how to write convincingly – but would be good for grasping the larger ideas.

  6. Matt Whyndham

    You are putting too much effort in, unless this is your only student.

    I never comment in detail on entire drafts, and I don’t think it’s the supervisor’s job, but make enough (sufficiently annoying?) comments on a small section to make the writer want to take it from me and do the rest themselves. Apart from that, I aim to spend about 2-3 hours on a draft and give comments at a variety of levels, as in “I notice you refer mainly to industrial knowledge management practices” rather than “The work of Huey and Duey should be compared to the corporate KM model of Luey”. I might do that two or three times during the writing process, but it depends on what other supervision activities (meetings, presentations, email, sharing literature) there have been.


  7. mark bernstein

    10 hours seems reasonable to me.

    I probably spend at least this much time reviewing a similar quantity of conference or journal papers. On one hand, the conference papers are cutting edge research, while a master’s thesis might not be *quite* there. But the conference papers are all written by people who have done this before — by professionals — where the master’s thesis is often going to be the student’s first big research publication.

    Much depends, too, on the stakes. We wouldn’t budget a mere 10 hours to edit a hypertext novel. (Some might have come in at this range, but I think this would be very fast work indeed.)

  8. Jill Walker Rettberg

    Oh dear, no, 10 hours to edit a hypertext novel – or any novel – would be terrible. Lots more time goes into the master’s thesis than those 10 hours though – by the time the student hands in the final draft I’ve usually been meeting with them every 2-3 weeks for a year and reading 15-30 pages each time (1.5-3 hours prep + discussion time).

    Ten hours is probably a reasonable amount of time – although I’ve certainly considered scaling back like Matt suggests. Sometimes I worry that I over-manage students – I mean, how specific should I be about what they should be reading? At this point, a lot of the sources used are specifically suggested by me. So are some of the arguments made. It’s clearly still the student’s own work and they do way, way more work on it than I do of course, but there’s a line there that I’m not entirely sure of.

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