For history students, the dissertation or final year project should be the crowning glory of their undergraduate studies. However, for many, it becomes more of a crushing weight they simultaneously can’t ignore but can’t seem to progress with. This is the time when it feels like the wheels are coming off the whole thing. This post will focus on some practical steps you can take to make sure those wheels stay on and you’re able to steer it all safely home.
It’s that time of year again. Seminars are mainly over, ‘silence’ signs are appearing all over campus and there’s not a seat to be had in the library for love nor money. It can only be the exam period.
Students seem to see exams as a hurdle, a challenge, a horrible pain-filled Herculean labour that exist solely to cause the most amount of stress before the joy-filled days of post-exam frolics. I’m not about to suggest that anyone should really enjoy exams (although I suspect some people do get off on the drama of it all – flouncing round the library with water bottles & coloured pens, distracting everyone by talking about how little revision they’re doing and how they’ll definitely fail before doing annoyingly well). But I do think we can – and should – break down some of the myths about exams. Here’s my top four exam myths and some advice on how to bust them.
It’s late at night (or possibly early morning), and you’ve just got down the final sentence of your final paragraph of that essay that’s been haunting you for days. And the deadline is tomorrow/later today. Excellent. Job done. Now you’re finished, you can relax…
You probably know by now that’s not the case. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that needs to happen when you finish writing but before you can submit a finished piece of work. The thing is, realistically, you might not have much time between finishing writing and submitting, and sometimes things get shoved to one side and you only remember them when they’ve been circled & underlined and handed back to you by your marker. It’s annoying and frustrating, for both you and your marker. You might well even have lost marks for things that you know you meant to do… Only you never did them. And that’s probably the thing that niggles the most.
I’ll write more about the stages of writing an essay and the importance of giving yourself time to edit in another post, but for now, here is my checklist of things to check before you hand your essay in. It’s divided into two main parts – Content and Style. Continue reading Dr Barker’s essay checklist→
Well, it’s hard to believe but the summer is officially over and now begins the chaos of the start of term. In the midst of moving house, catching up with friends and generally getting back in to the swing of things, it is easy for an ongoing project like a dissertation to be pushed to the side-lines but at HE History Hub we’re here to make sure you keep it front and centre.
Well the summer vacation is nearly upon us and for those of you just finishing your second year thoughts will be turning to dissertations and the work that you have to do over the coming months. Beyond actually deciding what you’re going to spend the next academic year working on and the idea of having to write ten thousand words on one single topic, probably the most daunting prospect is having to face doing a significant amount of primary research. Most of you will have done a far amount of research already – every time you write an essay or prepare a presentation there will be some degree of research involved – but it has probably been guided by your tutor to some extent and based either on online resources or what is held in your own institution’s library. Depending on what you’ve chosen to work on for your dissertation, chances are you’re now going to have to go further afield in the coming months to other libraries and archives in order to track down the sources you require and do so entirely of your own volition.
*Ok, well not deadly and strictly speaking not sins but definitely seven things you should try to avoid doing.
It’s almost the end of the year, so what better time is there for us here at the Hub to reflect on some of the most common student queries and missteps we have encountered over the past few months in an effort to stop you bringing those bad habits back with you in September. How many of these have you been guilty of this year?!
When you look back at all the things you do at university, well, the academic things, your dissertation should be the thing of which you are most proud. For history students, it is the headline event. You’ll spend a large chunk of your final year, and probably a whack of your penultimate year, working on it: it will most likely be the lengthiest thing you produce as an undergrad, and it will sit on a shelf in your house long after you graduate, finished and bound like a proper published work. It’s the thing you can show your friends and family for years to come – an essay’s an essay, but the dissertation looks and feels that bit different, that bit more significant.
Yet the dissertation can also be scary. It looms ahead of you throughout first and second year, when all you really know of it comes from the harassed looking third years camped out in the library. They might terrify you with mind-boggling scare stories, or they might have really helpful advice, like this recent Guardian blog post. You don’t really get to practice it, like you do with essays and presentations and the like – you only get one shot at the dissertation. You probably don’t have classes in how to do the dissertation, you’re just expected to get on with it (you’re not really, but I’ll cover that in another post).
This post will cover the things you need to consider at the start of the dissertation process, when you’re coming up with the initial ideas and as you start your research. In particular, I’m going to focus on how you go about deciding what to work on. The dissertation’s big selling point – you get to work on whatever you want – is also what terrifies a lot of people – how on earth do you pick one thing? Finding the topic that will allow you to complete a good dissertation is challenging, but not impossible, and there are some things to bear in mind as you start to narrow down a topic.
A few things have prompted me to write this post. I’m putting together some new module outlines, and I’ve been thinking about how to assess these. I’ve also spoken to several students about their experiences of group work recently, both as part of the official feedback process and in general conversation. And I talk regularly with my colleagues about how teaching is going. These situations typically prompt me, and my colleagues, to reflect upon our practice, but also how we communicate that practice to our students – in other words, do we make it clear why we ask you to do the things we want you to do? Ideally we should, but there’s a big difference between listing some bullet points in a module template’s ILOs (Intended Learning Outcomes) and really explaining to students how the different parts of their studies all fit together. That’s one of the reasons we started this blog – to de-mystify the process a bit.
What really got me to my computer though was finding out what students think about their studies when they’re talking to each other and not to a tutor. It’s Sabbatical Election time on campus at the moment – there are posters and slogans and people in colourful costumes all over the place! Over the weekend, I was reading about some of the policies suggested by candidates for the Vice President Education sabbatical post (their debate was helpfully recapped on Twitter and then written up by the Exeter student paper Exposé.) I have the utmost respect for students who are engaged and driven enough to stand for election to these demanding posts, they play a crucial role in shaping how universities work, and I think even more students should get engaged with the process – if only through the simple act of voting! And I was impressed with many of the ideas and policies proposed by the various candidates. Several of the candidates brought up group work when outlining their policies, in particular ensuring that the marks awarded for group work were fair. The general point being made was that students should be rewarded for the work they, individually, put in. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it?
It did get me thinking, however, about how tutors are explaining group work to students, if it is mainly seen as leading to a grade based on hours of work done individually. The balance between the individual and the group is a tricky one to navigate, but group work is about much more than grades, and if tutors are not getting that across, then that worries me a bit.
After a few weeks away, HE History Hub is back and this week we’re going to be thinking about student-led seminars. With increasing emphasis today being on ensuring that students leave university with a useable skill-set as well as knowledge, chances are that at some point you are going to be asked to run at least part of a seminar. This is can be a really daunting task: you have probably given little thought to what it is that your tutor does to prepare a seminar and now all of a sudden you’re faced with filling a big chunk of time and taking responsibility for leading your classmates through a particular topic, all the while knowing that you’re being judged on how well you do this by both your tutor and your peers. Once the initial panic subsides a little, you’ll find that the best approach is to work systematically through the various stages of what you’re being asked to do and, while this will differ from class to class, what follows should be broadly applicable to most scenarios.
For those of you who have just started at university, the last few weeks have probably been a bit of a whirlwind, and just when you’ve got to a point when you’re settling in, finding your way around your new town or campus and have figured out where the best place is to get a fulfilling (if not particularly nutritious) snack for your post-night out walk home, we expect you to begin doing some work. As a History student, the bulk of your teaching will be done through seminars and as this type of class will form the backbone of your entire degree, getting your head around both how they are meant to function and how you can best prepare for them is crucial.
As Sara pointed out in our last post on what exactly a seminar is, there are really no hard or fast rules and you will come across a wide variety of different styles of seminar teaching during your degree. Some tutors use group work extensively, some will make use of various technologies, some love student presentations, some may be more old school and run each session as a two hour discussion of the major issues; chances are that within each module you will encounter slightly different formats as the tutor tailors what you do to the subject and tries to make sessions remain fresh. However, whatever the style of the seminar, the substance remains the same – we are looking for a willingness to participate, to share your ideas and interpretations, to listen with respect to other people’s contributions and to discuss points of disagreement with consideration for your classmates’ own points of view. Like most things in life, the more you put into your seminars, the more reward you will gain from them – coming to class to sit there and hope that you will be able to make up for your own lack of preparation through the hard work of others, or the knowledge of your tutor is bad form. You mustn’t just sit there lapping up the insights of others, you must be willing to contribute some of your own!