This is the time of year when many final-year undergraduates are grappling with a substantial piece of written work in the form of a dissertation. Despite this usually being a fractional component of the larger degree the dissertation can carry disproportionate weight in the mind of the student, drawing attention away from coursework that may be of equal or greater importance in terms of assessment, and becoming a focus of some degree of anxiety. Of course, this is not always the case: not all students are obliged to do dissertations; some universities place prior attainment obstacles on entry to a dissertation module (an unintended consequence of which, however, can be to increase the premium attached to them in terms of student perception as a whole); and, of course, some students sail through them, treating them proportionately, and benefitting from the exercise of producing a long, self-directed, and focussed piece of research. But these caveats aside, what methods can be put in place to offset the gravitational pull of dissertations, and how might academics address its potential pitfalls?
Start with the basics
Early on, preferably towards the end of their penultimate year of study, undergraduates need guidance in what, exactly, dissertations are. Be explicit about this. Students may use the word ‘dissertation’ without fully grasping what it entails, thinking of it as a vast and complicated piece of work that sits, somehow, far above the usual run of things (the interchangeability of the word with masters and even doctoral dissertations does not help). Clarify with them that the dissertation is a continuation of their work in an extended form, but it is not more important. Tell them the percentage weighting of the dissertation in any assessment of their final degree, and discuss with them how much time they should spend on it as a consequence. Finally, show them a couple of examples, so they can see that their fellow students have done it before them, successfully.
Encourage good habits
Reading into the subject is, of course, critical in any dissertation. Encourage your students to read as much as possible in the initial stages of their dissertation. You might even consider prompting students to dive into the reading in the summer period beforehand by making one of the early feedback points or hurdles the submission of an analytical literature review. But bear in mind, too, that students can also spend far too long reading and researching their subject, and may be paralysed by anxiety when it comes to writing. Students, therefore, may also need guidance on how to create good writing habits. Spend some time in tutorials addressing this directly, so that students have the opportunity to discuss their individual approaches to the process of writing, as opposed to the content. Encourage students to listen to each other’s experience of writing, and to discuss ways in which they might develop the habit of writing small amounts on a regular basis, rather than binge- or crisis-writing. If possible, ask them to produce their own suggestions for micro-writing aims each week, and discuss how these might align with the overall module timetable.
Reviewing structure and timings
A further way of helping students avoid working up to the wire is to set a series of staggered, interim tasks whereby the students submit a small piece of written work for informal feedback. Such tasks might, for example, include any or all of the following: writing a dissertation proposal (this could come at the end of the second year, and be a requirement for acceptance onto the module); writing a short literature review; compiling a bibliography, and writing a full draft.
Undergraduate students may need further support on using library resources for the more self-directed tasks of dissertation writing. Ask your library for guides to resources or for refresher sessions which will help your students orient themselves. If you have a thriving postgraduate community, consider setting up a ‘buddy’ mentoring scheme, whereby postgraduates gain some informal supervisory experience while undergraduates benefit from being exposed to higher-level students. This could also work as a way of introducing students to the possibilities of Masters-level study, and serve as a foundation on which future taught and research postgraduate communities may be built.