Thesis writing in groups

When it was first introduced a couple of years ago, the idea to form thesis-writing groups and replace individual tutorials with group sessions struck me as a bad idea. I could not conceive of thesis writing in any other way than as an individual process. It was the final stage of the senior year when, after all the mass lectures and large seminars, students finally had a chance to discuss their ideas thoroughly in one-to-one meetings with the supervisors of their choice. Coaching students with their research and writing and following closely their growth as young scholars has always been the most satisfying part of my job. It seemed that the new system abolished a fundamentally important and precious dimension of our work with students.

I saw it as yet another example of a neoliberal approach to higher education where speed and quantity outweigh profundity and quality. The goal was – according to the official motivation – to increase ‘productivity’ and ‘study success’ and ‘facilitate’ students to write their thesis faster so they could graduate on time. It was presented as a win-win situation for everybody: students could enter the job market or the graduate school earlier, instead of being stuck in a thesis-writing limbo and a study delay period that could last for a year or more, while the university would receive its funding from the government on the basis of every diploma granted. The problem was that none of these official communications ever mentioned quality. It was all management-speak without a single hint at the core business of higher education; refined critical thinking, thorough knowledge of a certain field, enhanced learning abilities, scholarly justification of research, and improved analytic, writing, and presentation skills all seemed to be of secondary importance. All that mattered was efficiency and speed.

During the past few years while experimenting with thesis groups, I tried to develop some ways to use the dynamics of group work for the individual benefit of each student. The challenge was to figure out some method that would explore the potential of the group as a learning unit, instead of just viewing it as a random gathering of individuals with different research interests who had not much in common besides the fact that they were all working on their thesis. I tried to think of strategies that would keep all the students involved all the time during the two-hour-long group sessions. I wanted to avoid a problem I encountered in the beginning, namely that while I moved around to discuss the progress of students or pairs of students individually, the rest of the group tended to chat about other matters than their thesis. Though the usual techniques of peer-review and general feedback on the technicalities of writing worked well enough, they could not sustain their attention for two hours, which made the sessions repetitive and often boring.

This year I had six students in my group. As a first step, I defined each of the five sessions in terms of a theme related to the current stage of writing of my students:

1. “Clarity” – The first session was dedicated to “clarity” and focused on finding a good thesis question or statement and writing a clear proposal.
2. “Solidity” – The second session focused on the “solidity” of their proposal and the relationship between their proposal, the sources, and their case study.
3. “Analysis” – The third session was devoted to “analysis” and discussed their case studies.
4. “Originality” – The fourth session was about “originality” and scrutinized their methodology and the scholarly “frame” of their research.
5. “Coherence” – The fifth and last session focused on “coherence” and compared their introductions with their conclusions to check how the case study was presented and developed for the sake of the research question, and if the research question was answered in their conclusion.

Students were required to come to the first session (“clarity”) with a research question and a thesis proposal. In the first session everybody had to fill in a so-called “thesis generator form” which asked some basic questions about the feasibility, originality, and importance of their proposed research. As a model for this form I used a worksheet I found on the website of The Chicago Metro History Education Center. On the thesis generator form students had to complete the following sentences: 1) “I want to learn from this project …” , 2) “I want to prove that …”, 3) “I support my claims with …”, 4) “You should care about my research because …”, 5) “My thesis is …”, 6) “The main arguments/claims of my thesis are …”. After they filled in this form they were divided into groups of two. I asked them to read each other’s proposals and to fill in the thesis generator form again based on their peer’s proposal. Then their task was to compare their own thesis form with the one filled in by their fellow student to see what the differences were and what caused these differences. As a last step they had to reformulate their own thesis proposals in a more convincing way to convey the most important issues they had mentioned in the thesis form with well-structured and clear arguments. For the next session they were asked to write and comment on each other’s first chapter, which was a piece devoted to literature review. I read all the chapters and gave them feedback before the second session.

In the second session (“solidity”) they were first asked to share their experiences about writing the first chapter and then they discussed their papers while I was rotating among the groups and joined their discussions. We did this exercise in every session, just to make sure that students understand the comments and know how to integrate the feedback into the rewritten version of their chapter. As a next step I asked them to write an inverted outline of their chapter to see if it still made sense and if their arguments were logically organized. Finally, as the last task of the second session I tried to prepare them for their case study and make them think of the story they want to tell in their thesis. Their assignment was to imagine their topic as a movie for which they have to write a screenplay. What makes it interesting? What sort of characters do they have? What is the sequence of the plot? It did not have to be long, just a few paragraphs. Then each student read their script out loud and they realized that by letting their imagination run wild about their topic they not only had lots of fun, but also made them aware that they all actually do have an interesting and solid story to tell.

We started the third session (“analysis”) with discussing the feedback on their chapter examining their case study. The following exercise was to experiment and think of another case study which would fit their main statement or question, and see if they could analyze another similar case with the same results. Then I asked them to use “cubing” (a method I found on the website of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center full of useful writing exercises tips and practices) to gain a different perspective on their topics. They had to 1) describe, 2) compare, 3) associate, 4) analyze, 5) apply, and 6) argue for and also against their own thesis statement. This helped them to see their own work from a fresh point of view and hopefully gave them new ideas to take up in their following chapters.

In the fourth session (“originality”), after discussing the feedback on their following chapter, they were asked to talk about the difficulties they had faced so far and the solutions they found for overcoming these obstacles. Then I asked them to find a perfect cover illustration (either by browsing the internet or using their imagination) as if it were to be published. This was great fun and students enjoyed letting their imaginations loose on their research. Afterwards they had to draw a timeline positioning all the secondary literature about their topic and indicate where they would place themselves in this diagram and how they differ from all the other scholars named in the chart. Finally, they drafted a preliminary conclusion which they saved to compare with their final conclusion in the next session.

The fifth and last meeting (“coherence”) started as usual with reviewing the feedback on their last concluding chapter. Next they had to write two letters: the first one was addressed to the editor of a famous journal and was written by somebody who 1) praises their thesis and 2) another person who disagrees and is furious about their research. The second letter was written by themselves to a family member, to whom they had to explain in everyday language what their thesis is about and why it is important. The inspiration for this exercise I found again on the website of the University of North Carolina Writing Center. Then I asked them to come up with five keywords related to their thesis. Finally, they had to finish the following sentence “The most important advice I received regarding writing was …” which we discussed together and drew conclusions about the process of writing and the way the group dynamics shaped their writing experiences.

These activities made the group meetings more fun and created a mindset defined by writing and thinking about writing. I am not suggesting that all these exercises are necessary or that they could help every group throughout every discipline, but they proved to be useful for my group of students who were required to be actively and intensively engaged with their research. It also proved to me that thesis groups could function well if the teacher takes a creative and active approach. I still believe that thesis writing (in the humanities) is not meant to be a group activity, and that students do need the individual attention of the supervisor. Yet I am also convinced that thesis groups could have beneficial effects: they set a pace for structuring the research, improve self-discipline, enhance creativity, and contribute to keeping students engaged with writing. Once they are used to reading critically their own and their peers’ work, they will also become more confident writers. After all, thesis groups could indeed turn a period of writing agony into a win-win situation.