On Saturday I was shopping in Big W (everyone has to sometimes) when I wandered by this aisle. What I saw made me stop to snap a photo with my shiny new phone because I was so excited.

What is it? A bunch of whiteboards of all sizes – some with a pinboard full of extra corky goodness attached

Put away those iPad dreams for a moment, because I think a whiteboard is just almost the best thesis tool that money can buy. Why? Because it can help you to think in novel and interesting ways.

There’s a lot of thinking that has to go on during any research degree. Some of it is thinking through doing – such as the process of making things or conducting experiments. This is the kind of thinking artists and designers are more likely to wax lyrical about than scientists, but I would argue every discipline does it.

The other kind of thinking is more reflective kind which mostly happens in and through the medium of writing. Sure, we may have the odd idea while in the shower, walking in the park or cooking, but these ideas generally need to find their way into writing in order to be tested out and developed further.

One reason writing is such a good thinking tool is that it encourages us to think in a linear fashion – one word in front of the other. In this way we can build up ideas and chain them together in a coherent argument. In writing we can reflect on the ideas and add the evidence, definitions, side arguments and all the rest which our arguments weight and heft.

This is a good thing – most of the time. But many people find they can only sustain a linear mode of writing for about 1500 words. Certainly this is the case for me. I can write about 2 pages at most before I have to stop and review where I am going. You may be able to go for longer – but inevitably, if you keep working words in a straight line, your writing will start to lose coherence.

This is because stuck in the line by line, word by word business of writing it is easier to lose sight of overall purpose; how the part we are writing relates to the whole. I have never yet met anyone capable of writing a whole 90,000 thesis in this stream of consciousness / linear way (but feel free to write to me if you have!).

To re-orient during the writing process most of us will stop to read back what we have written. The danger here is Editing. Too much editing at the initial drafting stage is, more often than not, the enemy of done.

Robyn Owens, in the excellent (if badly named) ‘Doctorates Downunder’, calls this editing-as-you-go ‘the spiral method’ of writing. She warns that the spiral method, while good for creating coherence, can lead to the ‘one step forward, two steps back’ problem where work is done – but little real progress is made. You probably have experienced this: found yourself opening your document, tinkering around with paragraph number one for what seems like five minutes, then looking up to see it is already lunchtime.

A whiteboard gives you a different kind of space to work your ideas; a way to draw back and seek out higher ground from which to survey your whole thesis or chapter. On a whiteboard you are not committed in quite the same way as you are in a word processor. Ideas seem more playful, tentative and open.

Most importantly I think is that you can more easily draw diagrams which help you to arrange ideas in novel ways. Of course you can do this on paper, but on a whiteboard it is significantly easier to rub stuff out and move things around.

One of my favourite exercises for this purpose is the ‘clustering’ or ‘spider’ diagram:

Here I started with a theme in the central bubble called ‘Research Student Experience’. The next step is to try literally ‘draw out’ sub themes or related ideas in new bubbles connected with ‘legs’ to the original bubble. The next set of ‘legs’ contain references to papers which talk about each of these aspects of the research experience.

This diagramming method enables me to find relations between the ideas and the authors that I am reading – great for lit reviews. Each of the bubbles might simply translate to a subheading in your thesis. Then you can rub out the diagram – preferably after you have snapped a picture with your snazzy new phone so you have a record of your thinking.

I would be interested to hear from others about uses for whiteboards in research practice – I’m sure there are many!

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