Dissertations: What *are* you doing?!

I wrote recently about using questions to think about writing as a dialogue rather than a monologue and make the reader more present in the writer’s mind. We’re getting towards the summer now, and therefore dissertations, and I’ve been coming back to the use of questions in my teaching to help students get a handle on their dissertation.

Dissertations are a one-off assignment. Students may do many essays over the course of a degree, which allows them to get a feel for them, within the predefined constraints of the task, and feed forward their learning into future essays. Not so with the dissertation. It’s often the longest thing they have written to date, and moreover the most open-ended, as its one of the few opportunities they will have to generate their own question. If writing assessment questions is hard enough for those of us with some teacher training, how much harder is it for students? And yet (albeit with supervisor guidance) they are often expected to generate a workable research question of their own. We let them loose on an open-ended exercise with little idea or experience of what makes a well-defined, appropriate question, with far more scope than they’ve ever had before, and…. well. It can be enormously rewarding. But it can also result in the kind of issues that are often brought to a learning developer over the summer!

I’m sure you’ll recognise these issues – overlong dissertations which far exceed the wordcount; unfocussed writing with few criteria for deciding what is relevant and what can and must be cut; long, descriptive passages with little angle of the student’s own from which to comment critically; stressed students who at this point are understandably too close to their project to see it clearly and and objectively and tell the wood from the trees!

Learning Developers aren’t subject specialists or supervisors, and it’s not our remit to help the student develop and refine a suitable research topic. However, we are developers of learning, and using questions, can help the student to view the dissertation through the reader’s eyes to rediscover the focus, use the focus to make decisions about relevance, spot the opportunities for criticality and their own angle, and produce something which is a viable dissertation within the scope of words and time available. I use an activity consisting of seven consecutive questions at an early stage to scaffold students as they think about developing and refining their proposal to a point where they can negotiate it further with a supervisor, and also in the later stages to keep it on track in terms of length and depth. I use this in workshops and in one to one appointments. The questions are these:

  1. What is your assignment about? (this gives students their topic, which is a good starting point, though some students have never thought past this first question! However, if they just write about a topic, they risk being too descriptive and too broad – when will they have finished ‘writing about’ it? What criteria do they have to omit irrelevant material, if it’s all loosely ‘about’ the topic?)

  2. What about it? What aspects will you focus on? (What possibilities are there to narrow it down? It’s very hard to know how ‘big’ a research question will turn out to be, especially if this is their first experience of research, as that’s the nature of it. How might they reduce its scope, if you need to?)

  3. What are you going to do? (A dissertation is not just going to describe everything there is to know about the topic. Encourage students to look to the kind of words they find in essays, assignment briefs and marking criteria – will the dissertation analyse how something works? Evaluate the best strategy or explanation? Argue for a new approach?)

  4. What question will you answer? (Encourage them to frame it as an actual question with a question mark. Where there is a question, there is an answer – an end point. Anything that’s about the topic but which doesn’t help them reach their answer to that question can be cut as irrelevant. Anything which is actually answering a different question, even if related, is off-topic. And when they’ve answered their question, they’re done!)

  5. What might your answer look like? (this gives them a sense of the sort of conclusion they will be reaching – a list of things, an explanation for something, a recommendation etc. and help them keep this end goal in mind, as well as a sense of the structure they might employ to bridge the question and the answer.

  6. What problem does it solve? (ask them to frame it as a problem. This helps to distinguish between what’s important, and what’s just nice to have, as well as justifying the research question in terms of its significance and the research gap).

  7. What sources and methods/tools/ideas/models/theories might you use to reach it? (this is the beginning of exploring the dissertation’s do-ability, which they can negotiate further with their supervisor).

Somewhere in those questions will be your actual dissertation title, and it doesn’t matter so much whether it’s more no. 1 or no 4. A title alone goes some way to helping you refine your thinking, but taken together, the seven questions help you think it through thoroughly.

Having worked through these questions, each one in turn scaffolding up to more focus and critical depth, I find that many students feel they are in a position to discuss their proposal further with their supervisor, or return to drafting and editing it with a clearer sense of what they’re doing.


ETA the student-version of this blogpost can be found here, with a downloadable handout. https://blogs.ncl.ac.uk/academicskills/2016/04/11/dissertation-toolkit-starting-on-the-right-track/


Introductions: What’s this all about then?

I think the point when I started to become a learning developer rather than a subject teacher was when I realised that I didn’t have to have the answers, only the questions. It was very liberating! Since then, I’ve used questions a lot in my work, but one of the most useful ways is in teaching students how to structure their work. Thinking of writing as a dialogue, not a monologue, anticipating what the reader’s questions will be, almost like an interview rather than an essay, helps them think of their audience and create this mysterious thing called ‘flow’ which writing is supposed to have.

It’s a particularly useful approach when teaching introductions. Introductions can be a pain to write – not the essay proper yet, none of the ‘real’ meat of the writing, but a necessary formality to get out of the way before you can get on with it. There are a number of recipes for what should go into an introduction, which can be helpful, but as these elements are prescribed for the writer as conventional courtesies, they don’t feel natural or encourage a real sense of ownership. The result can be a hurried, mechanical, meaning-free paragraph tacked on at the beginning which doesn’t tell the reader very much at all and doesn’t do much for the student other than give them writer’s block.

But what if we put ourselves in the reader’s shoes? What do they want to know, when they first pick up an essay? This can broadly be covered by three simple questions:

What are you doing? What is your understanding of the topic (give me some definitions, a bit of background to check we’re both talking about the same thing)? What is your interpretation of the assignment or what you’ve been asked to do, given the different directions it could be taken in (break the title down, negotiate any terms)?

Why are you doing it? Because you’ve been told to… but that’s the boring answer, the one that takes no ownership of the learning. Why do you think that this has been set, why is it a good question, why is it worth addressing? What’s the problem here which needs to be solved, and why? (unpack the question, problematise it and show its significance, mention the literature on the subject and any debates or gaps).

How will you do it? What structure will you use (signpost your structure – how many sections should I expect, how do they relate to each other, what keywords should I be looking for)? And if relevant, what parameters will you set to focus your discussion within the word limit (negotiate with the reader – you can’t cover all of it)? And finally, what theories, models, case studies, data, or examples will you use to explore the question?

This approach to introductions can help to make sense of the formalities and make them feel a bit more natural and purposeful. If your reader is the lecturer who taught you this material and set the assignment in the first place, it can feel odd to be introducing them to something they already know (the advice to write as if for an intelligent lay person can feel a bit false). But what the lecturer doesn’t know is how the student has understood the assignment, and the individual direction that particular student will take it in, out of all the other students in the class, each of whom will write something different. And if the student is working on a dissertation, these questions become even more pressing for the reader, who really may not know the individual topic they’re researching.

Using questions helps to bring a sense of that audience to the writing, and understand the purpose behind the elements that we’re often told to include in an introduction. The questions are broad enough to allow the student a bit of scope to decide for their particular assignment what is and isn’t relevant to tell the reader (whereas a list of specific elements to be included may not always apply). They can be a planning tool, to help students think through their own approach in advance, or an editing tool, to check that they have anticipated their reader’s questions and communicated clearly. And best of all, as the learning developer, I don’t need to know the answers myself! In asking these questions with the student, I’m bringing the voice of the reader to life.

(thanks to Michelle Schneider, who I was discussing this approach with recently and prompted this post!)