Transition to independence – Framing the UG Thesis

One of the big challenges for teaching Undergraduates is getting the balance right between providing support and opportunities for students to develop their independence.

This is particularly important for finalists who are making the transition from students to graduand to graduate and moving from a highly structured environment to one where their level of autonomy and responsibility might increase rapidly.

The final year thesis/dissertation represents a challenging space where students are ideally moving towards this independence. However in practice, this transition does not occur for many and there is still an over-reliance on the supervisor providing the ‘correct answers’ with the problematical outcome that the project becomes the vision of the supervisor not the student.

This academic year I experimented with trying to frame more clearly in the mind of the student that the research project is one they should drive not be driven by. I quickly realised that the easiest way to do this was to get the students to actively initiate their thesis rather than passively wait for the process to roll over them.

The route to this was very straight-forward. We held an induction session for all of the Mgmt, Marketing and Advertising students undertaking the thesis where they were presented with a physical and electronic pack of key information (Assessment criteria, module handbook).

Although supervisors were pre-allocated based on research proposals, we made it clear that they needed to signal to us that they were ready to start via completing and signing a key information sheet. The sheet included key dates and other vital information.

This is a description of what students were agreeing they had read - the handbook and assessment briefs
Students has to agree to the above statements.

Once the sheet was completed, the student uploaded it and was told the name of their supervisor. In the first instance, this was useful because not completing the form promptly indicated at the start of the process that there was an issue that might need further investigation and assistance.

However the real reason for this process was to help them with the transition into being an independent learner – as really it helped to establish the parameters of what they were responsible for and what the supervisor is responsible for. The process of starting the thesis was therefore one where they controlled.

Now a question that I get asked about this process is – what stops a student just uploading it without reading any of these things? Absolutely nothing.

The students can use their agency to simply upload it without reading a thing! However just like anything else in life, it has the same consequences of signing a financial or employment contract that you have never read. This is not to provide a ‘got ya!’ to the student but rather it further drives a conversation about responsibility and delineates the rule of the supervisor and the student on their road to independent researcher.

So If I am approached by a student who said “I was unaware of that deadline” – I present them with the two options:a) you signed it without reading it – your responsibility or b) You signed it and did read it but forgot – your responsibility. Again this is not intended to catch out students but our responsibility to prepare them for a world with less structure where signing things you haven’t read can be far more problematical… Especially given many of our students often end up free-lancing and signing contractual relationships where they promise to do X by Y.

Overall I think as a system it hasn’t been entirely without problems but it has been a success in trying to build more independence into the thesis that has existed previously.