What is the idea?
Students find writing their dissertation intimidating, as it is an isolating process, and also often because they’re not quite sure what the overall focus of their research is. This fun, sociable activity, which is like ‘speed dating’ for students who are writing dissertations or extended projects, allows them to develop a clear articulation of their central thesis, enabling them to gain confidence in their ideas.
Students are paired up, sit in a row of chairs facing each other, and the facilitator tells them to start. One of the pair begins and has two minutes to tell the other person about their idea for their dissertation. The facilitator will signal the end of the two minutes (perhaps with a buzzer) and the other person will then be given two minutes to communicate the focus of their dissertation. After the end of these two minutes, one person from each of the pairs will move to a new pairing, and the process will be repeated.
Why this idea?
Many students find writing their dissertation intimidating (Hill et al, 2011; Huang, 2007) – it is often the first time they have undertaken research, or produced such a long piece of writing. Two key issues within the dissertation period are 1) the difficulty in keeping research focused to a central idea (Anderson et al, 2006) and 2) the isolated nature of this work (Manathunga & Goozee, 2007) which is often carried out with limited contact with a supervisor, and no group classes enabling peer support. The benefits, of an active-learning, group-based approach, are combating some of the loneliness experienced during a dissertation period, as well as enabling students to move away from just solo writing, into verbal discussion which can result in a different approach to their work. Talking through their dissertation with others provides the vital opportunity to practice, learning through making mistakes in their summaries, in a much lower-stake environment than with their supervisor – it thus includes elements of ‘doing’, ‘making sense’ and ‘feedback’ which have been suggested by Race (2014) as crucial to learning.
To address the first problem, a repeated articulation of a student’s research idea within a time limit means that their ideas become more concrete and more coherent. Being asked to provide an overview of their research several times means that each student becomes more confident about its key focus, and can identify areas needing further exploration or increase their awareness of how to structure their ideas. Often students’ initial reactions to their first few turns are that the time went really quickly, and they didn’t manage to mention a particular aspect, or they realised that they had left out a main point after the buzzer went. As the activity continues, students are able to provide a more concise version of their idea, leaving out extraneous material and concentrating on the crux of the matter – perhaps their central question and crucial aspects of their methodology. This more polished verbal overview leads to clarity in their own minds, and having a clear sense of purpose about the overall focus transfers into their dissertation writing meaning that they are able to use the word count more efficiently.
The reactions from students to the activity are overwhelmingly positive. In particular, students get excited about connections between their research and others’ projects – particularly in larger cohorts where they may not have realised that someone was using a similar approach or method, or examining a related issue. The connections that are established during the session are often followed up on, so that students have a range of peer support and an outlet for sharing their research progress; these associations counteract the possible experience of dissertation writing as a lonely pursuit.
How could others implement this idea?
In its simplest form of face-to-face teaching, students sit in a row of chairs facing each other. When the time limit for both people is up, the people in one row move down one seat. Clear instructions are crucial at this point – an approach that works well is to tell everyone on one side to stand up, and then direct them to move one seat to the right, indicating the direction clearly and showing the person on the seat at the end that they need to walk back around to the far left chair in the row. Allowing for four or five changes of partner, the activity would take around 30 minutes (with extra time for moving around the room).
In an online session, it would be very complicated to create breakout rooms that ensured a different pairing each time without long delays during the change of pairings. Instead, you could do random allocations of pairings. If pairings are repeated, it doesn’t matter too much – it means that students have fewer opportunities to hear about others’ research, but they still benefit from repeating their own project articulation. Students are also likely to find it useful if they are encouraged to reflect afterwards about how the other person in their pair changed their verbalisation of their ideas in a subsequent meeting.
In either setting, as a final exercise, to increase the opportunities for hearing about the research of all the cohort, some simple way of sharing their research ideas could be set up, such as a forum post of no more than 100 words which provides an overview of their dissertation. This would also provide a way to move from talking about their research to writing about it, in a less formal way than when they tackle a draft of their dissertation.
The activity works well at the beginning of a dissertation module, and it can also be useful to repeat it either part way through, or towards the end to maintain the focus on the dissertation’s key ideas. It could be adapted to focus on specific elements – by asking students to just talk about either the key literature supporting their research, their methodology, or the highlights of their findings.
This strategy can be readily applied to a range of alternative scenarios. For example, you could ask students to each read a research article, and then use this speed-dating technique as a way for them to share the details of the research article with each other which would a) provide practice in their summarising skills and b) enable them to benefit from an overview of a range of research articles.
Anderson, C., Day, K., & McLaughlin, P. (2006). Mastering the dissertation: lecturers’ representations of the purposes and processes of Master’s level dissertation supervision. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 149-168. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075070600572017
Hill, J., Kneale, P., Nicholson, D., Waddington, S., & Ray, W. (2011). Re-framing the geography dissertation: a consideration of alternative, innovative and creative approaches. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 35(3), 331-349. https://doi.org/10.1080/03098265.2011.563381
Huang, R. (2007). A challenging but worthwhile experience! – Asian international student perspectives of undertaking a dissertation in the UK, Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education, 6(1), 29-30. https://doi.org/10.3794/johlste.61.130
Manathunga, C., & Goozee, J. (2007). Challenging the dual assumption of the ‘always/already’ autonomous student and effective supervisor. Teaching in Higher Education, 12(3), 309–322. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562510701278658
Race, P. (2014). Making learning happen (3rd ed.). Routledge.