Guiding Undergraduates Through The Dissertation Process

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This is the time of year when undergraduate dissertation projects start to take shape, usually for third year undergraduates. Opinions differ on the amount of guidance an undergraduate should be given to help him or her through the dissertation, but there are some key issues to bear in mind when supervising undergraduates.

  1. So what’s so special about the dissertation…?

It’s true that dissertation modules may not be quantitatively distinct from other modules – in other words, they may carry the same assessment weighting as other modules. But remember, that for most students the distinction can be a qualitative one. The dissertation is the first opportunity students have had in their university career to work as independently as possible, to select their own subject and to research and present it, in depth, to you and your colleagues. Many students see it as the culmination of their work at university, and as such, it may carry great expectations. (Much more rarely, a student may think of it as an ‘easy option’ – but will soon realize that that this is far from the case). So while the dissertation may not objectively be ‘worth’ more than other final-year modules it is often experienced as ‘worth more’ than other modules by students themselves.

  1. Independent study – or guided study?

Your role should be to offer light-touch guidance to students. Even the most capable undergraduate may struggle when faced with the task of defining, researching and presenting a lengthy and complex subject entirely without support. Your role is to foster independence by agreeing with the individual student a series of internal deadlines to meet (these might include establishing a bibliography; presenting a summary of the secondary literature; drawing up a detailed plan, and so on). This set of staged goals will give the student a sense of structure in what otherwise may seem a dauntingly open-ended task, while you will be able to keep a close eye on progress and intervene if the timetable starts to slip.

  1. But how to foster independence?

Staging allows both parties to have a clear overview of the process, which will help the student feel more secure in his or her progress. However, it is equally important that you step back from the process.  One way of doing this is to get the student to write a summary of each meeting you have and to email it to you afterwards for comment and confirmation. Make sure the student includes a list of points agreed, and action points. This builds a clear written record of the process, and ensures that the student understands that it is exactly what it is he or she must act upon.

  1. Appropriate levels of support

It can be difficult to establish what are and are not appropriate levels of support if these are not agreed at the very beginning of the process. As a general rule of thumb, reading and commenting on anything up from a plan to a rough draft can be helpful; however, you should have an agreed cut-off point in writing, after which it is clear that you will not read any further material. Avoid offering your opinion of the mark you would give the student’s work were it to be submitted at any given point, but remember that it can be helpful to remind them of your institution’s marking criteria and to ask them to make a speculative assessment of their own work.

  1. Keep lines of communication open

Be proactive about arranging meetings and follow-up reports, and in between times be responsive when it comes to student enquiries. Remember that a quick response from you about formatting make take 10 seconds but can hold a student up for weeks. Be patient when it comes to what may seem to you to be unnecessary enquiries – remind students of material provided in supporting documentation, by all means, but remember that the unique requirements of the dissertation module puts particular pressure on the student. Remember too that this will be the first time a student has attempted a long piece of semi-independent work, but a quick email response can be all that is needed by way of encouragement.

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