How can we improve the final year dissertation? A consideration of ethics, quality, and one-to-one supervision.

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Diarmuid Verrier Catherine Day


The final year dissertation is seen across many degrees as a capstone achievement. It is set apart from other assessments in terms of its magnitude, its requirement for originality, and the autonomy that students must show in completing it. It is also unique in that it is traditionally carried out within the context of a one-to-one supervisory relationship. However, dissertation modules are prey to a number of problems. First, the person carrying out the research may have difficulty in framing a quality, or even a feasible, research question. Second, where dissertations are based on original empirical work, ethical concerns are particularly crucial, but the ability of the student-researcher to appropriately engage with those concerns is substantially less than that of a mature researcher. Third, support comes from a single source, but the supervisory relationship may be poor, or perceived as poor relative to the supervision experienced by peers. This case study describes a suite of changes that were made to one dissertation module to ameliorate these potential problems. Specifically, supervisors create project frameworks that students work within and the responsibility for getting ethical clearance for these is a supervisor’s responsibility. In addition, a substantial programme of specialised support sessions was created to supplement supervision. We argue that these changes did not significantly undermine the autonomy and originality requirements of the module, and present evidence that suggests they had a substantial positive impact on students’ learning experience and academic achievement. Ideas for further ways in which the dissertation module could be improved are discussed.

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Case Studies


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