Recently the Guardian Professional Higher Education Network ran a poll asking Is the end of the dissertation nigh?. A resounding three-quarters of respondents answered no. Yet this suggests that a quarter of the voters thought the dissertation had had its day. From the many conversations I have had over the last year, while directing a two-year National Teaching Fellowship funded project on Rethinking final year undergraduate projects and dissertations: creative honours and capstone projects, it is clear that that an increasing number of people in higher education are questioning whether the traditional dissertation is fit for purpose.
For the last half century or more the final year undergraduate dissertation, typically an 8-10,000 word independent project, has been seen as the gold standard for British higher education. However, it is coming under pressure for reform as student participation rates have increased, the number studying professional disciplines has grown, and staff-student ratios have deteriorated. Some courses have abandoned the dissertation altogether, but there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Rethinking the dissertation involves thinking creatively. How can the most important learning outcomes associated with the traditional final year project largely be retained, while giving students a range of other benefits which are more relevant to their interests and future careers?
On June 22nd 2011, over 100 colleagues met at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham to discuss these issues. What struck me most was the wide range of views on diversifying the traditional dissertation, the forms it might take and the issues which arise in making such changes. These reflected disciplinary differences in what counts as research and inquiry and how knowledge is created and disseminated, but also pinpointed differences in institutional practices and individual viewpoints. However, the large majority of people seemed open to change, but had concerns about how they could persuade their colleagues.
Rather than thinking of the dissertation as a homogeneous activity undertaken by all students, one option may be to offer alternatives. For example, in Biosciences at Durham University students are given a choice of whether to undertake a traditional laboratory dissertation, develop a business plan to create a new bioscience enterprise, or carry out a project related to communicating biosciences in a school setting. In Broadcast Journalism at Gloucestershire, they have a different strategy. In addition to the dissertation, the students undertake a double module in which the students elect their newsroom roles and formulate working rotas to research and produce news bulletins, programmes and a news website for one 40-hour week. The module thus integrates the development of research and vocational skills in an intensive real-world environment. Other examples demonstrate creative ways of integrating the dissertation with giving students work-based or community-centred experiences.
Some dissertation practices reflect institutional strategies. So, for example, all students at Portland State University in the US undertake a community-based capstone project; while the University of Lincoln has a policy to develop 'students as producers' in which undergraduate research and inquiry is embedded across the curriculum.
Dissertations are also disseminated in a variety of ways. Conventionally the dissertation is only seen by the author and the assessors, though the best ones may be deposited in the library. At Oxford Brookes, Geography students can publish their work in an undergraduate research journal. Others celebrate the work at student research conferences, such as the .
One of the themes that came through the conference discussions was that the debate over the dissertation raises wider issues about the future of higher education, the role of the dissertation in the final year experience, and how students should be prepared for the dissertation from the beginning of their course. It was suggested that programme level assessment should replace assessment of individual modules and that the dissertation could be taken as a key indicator of student achievement of programme level learning outcomes, particularly those associated with thinking like, say a scientist, a lawyer, a historian, a professional artist or from an interdisciplinary perspective.
If the comments overheard from two delegates were representative, then the effort of organising the day was worthwhile:
"The case studies were inspiring and useful because you can show them to senior management as examples of things that are already working elsewhere rather than just a new harebrained scheme."
"I found this conference fascinating because we're touching on issues of what higher education is for, and what kinds of identity performance are considered of value in academia and the broader culture beyond it."
The dissertation has a long life yet. However, if it is to remain strong and vibrant and continue to provide a transformational experience for most students then it needs to evolve and become more flexible. We need to recognise that not all students want the same things from their degree programmes and that a choice of alternative or additional formats, experiences and outputs is desirable. Furthermore, the nature and form of these choices will rightly vary across disciplinary, interdisciplinary and professional settings.
Mick Healey is project director at the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS)
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What is a Bachelor’s or Undergraduate Dissertation?
An undergraduate dissertation (or Bachelors dissertation) is essentially an extended piece of research and writing on a single subject. It is typically completed in the final year of a degree programme and the topic is chosen based on a student’s own area of interest. It allows the student to explore a narrow topic in greater depth than a traditional module. The student works with a single supervisor chosen from their departmental faculty, and this individual provides guidance and support throughout the course of the research.
How does Undergraduate Dissertation differ from Postgraduate Dissertation?
The bachelor’s dissertation varies significantly from postgraduate dissertations. First, it is considerably shorter in length, averaging only 10,000 – 15,000 words. While this is much shorter than a Masters or PhD dissertation, it is much longer than any other piece of writing required in undergraduate programmes.
Secondly, the undergraduate dissertation is not required to contain the same level of originality as postgraduate work. Students are still expected to complete the work independently and cite all sources, but they do not need to present any new ideas. It is sufficient to conduct thorough, sustained research and present a critical discussion of a relatively narrow research topic. It is not necessary to discuss the philosophical context of the research, or to design a distinct methodology.
However, it is important to note that the best bachelor’s dissertations demonstrate genuine critical thinking skills and an ability to combine information derived from many different sources.
Finally, the undergraduate dissertation also varies in the type of research conducted, which will be more focused on texts and documents rather than active field research. For the most part students will examine secondary sources or easily accessible primary sources, and they will not be required to pursue obscure or costly data sources. In some disciplines a practical element may be incorporated into the dissertation, but this is usually performed with less independence than would be expected at the postgraduate level.
Undergraduate Dissertation Requirements
- Topic selection: At the end of the penultimate year of study students will be asked to select an area of research for the dissertation. You should be sure to choose a topic that is likely to hold your interest over a long period of time, as it is difficult and dangerous to change your topic once your research period has begun.
- Finding a supervisor: Depending on the university, there may be a formal process in place for allocating supervisors or students may simply approach a member of faculty that they are interested in working with. It can be helpful to meet with potential supervisors before registering an intended research area, as they can help you to refine your proposed topic and give you suggestions for specific research questions. Once the formal dissertation period begins you will meet with your supervisor regularly to discuss your progress and refine your study.
- Early research: Most students begin general reading around their chosen subject area in the summer before the final year. This period is truly key in developing a broad awareness of the subject, and it prepares you for more targeted research once your final year commences.
- Research outline: Once the undergraduate dissertation module begins (usually at the start of year 3) you will be asked to draft a brief dissertation outline of about 2-3 pages in length. This should include a summary of chapters and a full bibliography. By now you should have decided upon a narrower aspect of your topic, and this should be formulated into a research title with the help of your supervisor.
- Refined research and writing: At this stage your research will be much more targeted, in order to pursue your proposed dissertation agenda. You should also begin writing as soon as possible. Most departments require students to submit a substantial piece of writing (3,000-5,000 words) by the end of the first term. Remember that you should submit at least one draft to your supervisor before this deadline, in order to give you time to make necessary revisions.
- Final dissertation: When you’ve completed the writing process you should have roughly three or four chapters, as well as an Introduction and Conclusion. It must all be formatted according to university guidelines, and you must be certain to properly cite all if your sources.
- Binding and submission: Unlike undergraduate essays, the undergraduate dissertation must be professionally bound before being submitted. This is usually done on campus but you need to allow enough time for the process before your submission deadline. The final due date is usually at the end of the second term of the student’s final year.
The marking system for undergraduate dissertations is the same that is used for all other aspects of the undergraduate degree. Students must generally achieve a minimum mark of 40 to pass, but most will aspire to higher marks than this. Marks of 60-69 earn a classification of 2.1, or B; Marks over 70 earn a First classification, or A.
The dissertation is marked as a stand-alone module and it is combined with other module marks to determine the overall degree classification. There is no standard rule for UK universities regarding the weight of the dissertation mark when calculating the degree average, so it’s best to check with your university to understand their individual regulations.
For many students, the undergraduate dissertation provides their first taste of prolonged independent research. This can be a daunting experience but it is helpful to remember that your departmental supervisor can be called upon frequently for advice and support. If you work at a consistent and dedicated pace you will have no problem completing the dissertation on time. You will also develop important research skills that can prepare you for postgraduate study.
Bryan Greetham, 2009. How to Write your Undergraduate Dissertation (Palgrave Study Skills). Edition. Palgrave Macmillan.
Manchester Metropolitan University, 2008. Guidance on the Writing of Undergraduate Dissertations. Available: http://www.ioe.mmu.ac.uk/cpd/downloads/UNDERGRAD%20DISSERTATION%20HANDBOOK.pdf. Last accessed 08 Apr 2013.
University of Warwick, 2010. Dissertation Guidelines for Undergraduate Study. Available: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/study/cll/currentstudents/undergraduatemodules/ce302dissertation/dissertation_guidelines_2010.pdf. Last accessed 08 Apr 2013.
Nicholas Walliman, 2004. Your Undergraduate Dissertation: The Essential Guide for Success (SAGE Study Skills Series). 1 Edition. SAGE Publications Ltd.