Dissertation Excellence Made Simple: What to say to your students as they get started

Neil Sutherland, having a chuckle

Today we have a guest post by Neil Sutherland, from UCL’s School of Management, in which he offers some excellent tips on shepherding students through the opening stages of a dissertation.

I have supervised Undergraduate and Postgraduate dissertation students for well over a decade, and have summarised my advice into a series of bitesize YouTube videos: The Dissertation Toolkit. These are mainly aimed at students, but in this post I thought it’d be useful to bring together some useful bits of guidance I have  given to students and offer it to you, as fellow supervisors.

The starting point here is that embarking on the dissertation journey is daunting, and it’s crucial to acknowledge the overwhelming feelings that students experience at various points along the way. As academics we’ve routinised the business of research so that these apprehensions dwindle (or perhaps we find a way to box them up and ignore them altogether!), but students are, in the communities of practice parlance, novices. 

To help them overcome this apprehension I try to help my students see this as not only a manageable and achievable process, but also one that is exciting and rewarding. By the end of this journey, I tell them, you will have expertise in a chosen field that very few others in the world will have! But that grand plan is only achieved through a series of more mundane moments, or, as our friend Vincent Van Gogh tells us: “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together”.

So what follows is a set of exchanges between an imaginary student and me…

“There’s too much to do, and the word-count is imposing”

Being overwhelmed is completely normal at the start (or even during) your dissertation. It is likely that you haven’t written to this kind of wordcount before, so are figuring out the rules of the game. The number one trick here is to (a) get a structure mapped out, and (b) tackle the research and writing ‘little and often’. 

“But I want to start writing right now!”
When we are faced with uncertainty, it can seem easiest to just start writing – to begin to eat into that word-count. But pause. Your best approach is to use 1-2 sides of A4 to simply map out what will ‘happen’ in your work. What does the marking criteria ask of you? What chapters must you include? What do you know about the topic already that might be important to include? What advice have you been given by your tutors in taught sessions and handbooks? Collate this all in one place, and use it to create a numbered guide – almost a table of contents – that can help you to stay on track. 

“I just can’t stay focussed on the topic. I’m spending hours in the library but don’t seem to get anything done”
When you have your drafted structure, you can start to set specific goals and deadlines, when you want to hit certain markers, and work out when you will dedicate your time to the dissertation each week. Don’t be overambitious, but do treat it in the same way that you do any of your other timetabled classes, and even just a few non-negotiable hours a week will keep you focussed (yes – even more so than hours-upon-hours in the library without a clear goal). Don’t say “I want to complete XX hours in a week”, say “I will complete XX hours on Tuesday from 2-5pm”. That way, you can adopt the mindset that on Tuesday between 2-5pm you will be in dissertation mode, and at other times, you can put it to the side. 

“I’ve blocked out time, but when I sit down I can’t get ‘into’ my work and am easily distracted”

Of course, it is inevitable that on some days, you will not be feeling motivated. Don’t chase ‘inspiration’ (spoiler alert: it rarely comes when you want it to) and know that uninterrupted work time will inevitably get you in the flow. With any task that I am completing, I know that I will feel uninterested, uninspired and overwhelmed in the first 20minutes while I am recalibrating to the task. I keep reminding myself of all the other jobs I have to do, and how this one could just happen tomorrow instead. Ignore that voice. After that, something magic happens, my brain clicks into gear and time ceases all meaning. If I get interrupted during that initial stage, I go back to square one. Minimise your distractions and the flow will come. 

And… on the days that you are really not in the mood, you can focus on the ‘invisible work’: finding new sources, returning to the criteria, re-watching key lectures, or organising data. This is your back up to ensure that you are always moving forward, even when the conceptual work feels challenging (and more often than not, that invisible work is precisely what you need to kick-start your flow state)

“So… now I have blocked out my time, I can start my first draft now, yes?”

Not yet. Do not worry about starting to write the dissertation straight away, because at the start of the process, you simply have not got the knowledge to do so, and that’s ok! In the initial stages, to compliment the plan you have already created, you can just focus on reading, understanding and finding out new information about your topic (if you need guidance on finding literature, I have tips here and here), and making good quality notes to come back to later. 

The time to begin your drafting is when you feel like every piece of literature you read is telling you something you sort-of already know, or, ‘theoretical saturation’. This means that you’ve got a good sense of the field, the various subject-positions of scholars, previous work completed, and potential gaps. At this stage you might want to revise your initial structure (or even research questions) to reflect what you’ve found, and then you can confidently begin drafting. 

“But will this make for a better dissertation?”

Whilst it feels like this will make the whole process more laborious, and will be dealing with your friends telling you how many words they have written: Do not be fooled. Too many times I have seen students arrive to a meeting with thousands of words ‘finished’, only to discover that they are on the wrong track. Little and often, and dedicating non-negotiable specific time to the task, is the way forward. Don’t worry, the dissertation will steadily grow, and this will be driven by your background knowledge of the topic, not just the words you write on the page.

“What next?”

For further information and advice, subscribe to ‘Neil’s Common Room’, and do get in touch! Videos in The Dissertation Toolkit series include: 

  1. How to start your dissertation the easy way (11mins)
  2. How to make the most of your dissertation supervisor meetings (9mins)
  3. Storytelling: The secret behind all great dissertations (8mins)
  4. Overcoming obstacles in writing your dissertation (18mins)

Behold: my newly-reworked module

OR: Some thoughts on teaching and citizenship, and teaching citizenship. And a plea.

Cathy has thrown down the gauntlet, so here I go…

For a few years I’ve been running a second-year module which includes a series of ‘practitioner talks’, rather than being based around your classic lecture-and-seminar format. It was dreamt up when the degree was first put together, and by coincidence the first running of it was in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown, so the content was largely shaped by what I could make work at the time. I ran it as was for a two more rounds, and then last summer, following a bunch of conversations with Cathy, decided to overhaul it. This post explains the new structure, and ends with a plea for your thoughts (wisdom of crowds, and all that…).

The module opens with three scene-setting lectures from me. From there, we have a set of talks from people working in public policy: speech writers, think tankers, comms staffers from within government, from the private and third sectors, and researchers from the civil service. Much of that is carried over from ‘version 1.0’ of the module, but the newly-reformatted one now has four building blocks. Two develop themes from a first-year public policy module I teach, one is pedagogical, and one speaks to the ambitions or wider objectives of the module.

The building blocks

The first problematises the role of evidence in the business of policy making. We unpick ‘evidence-based policy making’ to show all the reasons why it’s really just a lofty ideal. This takes us into epistemology (is there such a thing as a ‘hierarchy of evidence’?); into institutional politics (how could we design knowledge exchange processes so that evidence can be provided more efficiently, and with more impact?); into the dirty business of academic research (how much of research is driven by the availability of funding, rather than by any kind of ‘need’?); and into the messiness of politics and policy making (how much of ‘being led by evidence’ is really just the co-opting of convenient information in order to justify a fait accompli?). So far so uncontroversial: there are books aplenty on this, and it’s a hot topic in, for example, the journal Evidence and Policy.

The second pivots away from this and looks at the role of stories and story-telling in shaping policy. I’m taking a very broad view of this, and in practice I mean everything to do with the language used to describe (and create?) a policy problem. Again, this is fairly mainstream: think Deborah Stone or Carol Bacchi, or, for that matter, the narrative policy framework and discursive institutionalist crowds.

The third is where I started to venture into what was, for me, newer territory (or at least, in the classroom – I’ve written here about my earlier dabbling in sports coaching). The module operates through a mode of experiential learning: in the classes the students combine the readings with the insights from the practitioner talk to set about doing something, like writing a speech, or a press release. In the opening week we made a big deal of how different this is compared to other seminars the students have, and we spent the first round of classes establishing a whole new set of norms and ways-of-working which would be more appropriate for this format of learning. The students came up with some really cracking suggestions, like abandoning laptops and using flipcharts / post-its to collate ideas, or bringing coffees to class to simulate a ‘crisis meeting’.

The fourth is where, I’ll happily admit, I feel I’m on shaky ground. The initial inspiration for this block came from a conversation with Simon Usherwood in Bratislava last year (around the margins of a ECPR T&L conference), where he explained how, in his university, they had a view of a politics degree doing three things: teaching students about politics, teaching students how to research about politics, and teaching students to do politics. I worked the third one up into a not-very-well-articulated idea around helping students develop a set of skills to enable them to become active citizens in the world beyond university. ‘Doing politics’, then, is more than voting every now and again, but it’s about being critically-engaged, politically-savvy citizens capable of parsing through the various bits of policy communications that come their way in the public domain (speeches they see, op-eds they read, the think-tank summaries that either of these draw on, and so on) and understand how evidence and narrative devices were consciously used by the original authors in order to achieve some political end. 

Bringing it all together in the assessment

To bring this all together, the assessment has the students do a piece of creative writing and an accompanying essay. The students imagine their future selves being disgruntled about some aspect of public policy in their local area or in the country, or working in some part of the policy system, and then set about writing something which will (hopefully!) bring about some change. They have pretty wide-ranging creative freedom in this regard: they could write a campaign speech for a local MP, or an op-ed intended to swing public opinion, or a Tweet thread (or whatever it is that we call them nowadays), or a podcast script, or a memo for a minister, or the executive summary of a think tank report. In the essay component they explain their choices of medium, audience, content, style, tone, evidence, framing, and so on, linking back to the underlying literatures on political communication.

Now, back to the part I’m unsure of. I think the reason I’m unsure of it is that I’ve picked up the message from somewhere that we shouldn’t talk about our educational mission in any terms that might approximate this ‘citizenship training.’ We certainly talk about ‘critical thinking’, and the importance of teaching students to question – but this is generally framed in academic, scholarly language: students should think critically because that’s what good academics do, rather than because that would help become ‘better citizens’ in the future. To shore this building block up, I drew on some Deweyian thinking (sp?) about the role of education in supporting a healthy and vibrant democracy, but I’m curious to hear what other readers of this site think about the ‘citizenship training’ aspect of a politics degree – and, for that matter, about the broader educational mission of a politics department beyond just ‘teaching students about politics.’

On rowing and teaching

In my younger days I was a very keen rower. I caught the bug at university, and it took about another 15 years to really shake it off (and, TBH, I don’t think I really have, to this day). Towards the end of my time in the sport I lost a load of weight and switched into coxing – becoming the short shouty guy in the stern of the boat with the mic and the rudder strings – and from there got involved in coaching. And that, come to think of it, was one of my first ventures into teaching.

Now, rowing is a weird sport, in that the ‘training-to-competing’ ratio is hugely skewed towards the former. A quick comparison to rugby helps here (and may reveal some deep-seated jealousy of / animosity towards the egg-chasers). I had friends who played rugby who’d train one or two nights a week and then play a fixture every weekend – and then, true to the stereotype, spend a good few days recovering from the hangover. In contrast, we, at the rowing club, would spend nine months of the year training six days a week, then race frantically for about six weeks, and then have a month off. 

What has this to do with teaching? Well, hear me out…

Teaching is a bit like coaching sports – or rather, for the time being, coaching sport is a bit like teaching. The coach of my friends’ rugby team would be able to run them through a particular drill, or practice a particular tactic, on a Wednesday evening, and then (provided the oafs had remembered said drill / tactic) watch it in action that weekend. A review would ensue, followed by some tinkering in training the following week. The point is: the coach had a regular flow of data from his team, about how well his teaching methods were working, how well the individuals and the team were executing what he had taught them, and how to calibrate all of this in order to get the best of the team.

I, as a rowing coach, had no such luxury. We’d spent months and months training essentially in isolation, with very little contact with opposition (apart from the occasional accidental race against the much-derided Club From The Other Side Of The River), and it would be ages before we could see if the crew were able to hold their own in an actual race.

A while back it struck me that this is quite similar to our teaching-and-assessment model. In my department, and indeed, in many other political science departments around the UK, the pattern is quite similar: we spent eight to ten weeks delivering material and teaching skills, and then, after a briefing and cheery ‘Good luck!’ we send our students off to write their essays / policy briefs / to do whatever it is we ask them to do. Along the way, we have very little opportunity to see how well they’re learning the stuff we’re teaching them; and, for that matter, they have very little opportunity to find out how well the can do whatever skill it is we’re asking them to demonstrate.

(Before I get to the point of my piece, let me clarify something. There’s a conflating of ‘material’ and ‘skills’ here – and it’s deliberate. Back to my rowing analogy: I can explain to a rower, using a whiteboard and some video, how to perform a certain part of the stroke, and why it’s important that it’s done in a certain way, and that would constitute ‘material.’ That rower could understand that ‘material’, but whether or they can do actually do that thing is another matter – and that’s what I mean by ‘skill.’ TBH I’m not sure we’re clear enough with our students about this distinction, and I think we tend to assume our job is just to deliver material / transfer knowledge, and it’s their job to master the skills (subconsciously? From elsewhere? Who knows)).

There are a few fixes I can think of for this pickle. The first is to build in some form of continuous summative assessment, using spaced repetition and the frequent release of grades (and feedback) to help students learn. Although this makes me shiver and reminds me of my schooldays I see the attraction: at least that gives us a much more constant flow of data about performance (sorry, learning), and allows us to calibrate teaching accordingly.

The second is to structure the course around a portfolio of work, which is not assessed during the course, but from which students draw material when compiling their summative submission after the course has finished. This time, the ‘data flow’ comes in the form of on-the-go formative feedback, either from the teacher or from peers (or both, for that matter).

My approach harks shamelessly back to my rowing coaching, and goes like this.

Back in the day, we’d spend weeks and weeks practicing one miniscule aspect of the rowing stroke (think of those films of sprinters performing odd prancing drills in order to perfect their take-off). Then we’d switch and practice some other skill; and then much later we’d put them together, combine them, and have a crack at doing it at speed and under pressure. The point is these ‘miniscule aspects’ were the disaggregated bits and pieces of the finished article: the individual rowing stroke, to be repeated several hundred times during the race; the start, the mid-race push, and the finish; the steering of the tricky bend; and so on. When coaching – sorry, teaching – the crew how to do each element, we’d explain in great detail where it sat in the overall scheme of things, and why it was important that it was done like this and not how The Crew From The Other Club do it, and so on.

And so it is with teaching political science. I take the final thing I want the students to do well at, and I think about all the sub-tasks behind that thing: scraping the literature, presenting and justifying a position, using and critiquing evidence, even taking notes. These are my ‘miniscule aspects’, which I then blend into the design of the seminar activities. We might, then, spend a seminar discussing a particular contention in the literature about a certain topic, where my aim is both to ‘convey material’, and also to give the students a chance to learn, and refine, a particular skill – which in turn will feature in their eventual race (sorry, summative assignment). I make sure to explain how that nugget of material, and the accompanying skill, will be important further down the line.

Thinking about things this way has really helped me confront two interlocking challenges: how to handle a teaching-and-assessing pattern in which the latter is compressed into one instant at the end of term; and how to foreground the assessment without making the course all about the assessment (which, I fear, would just undermine the students’ deep learning of the material). One day I might summon up the nerve to screen a rowing race in the first week (Rio 2016 men’s four?) as I explain all this to the students…