Here’s how your institution can support its students who are navigating significant pieces of coursework.
For many students, completing a large research piece or dissertation can be the most challenging element of their degree.
These pieces differ from other assignments as they demand more content and often count for a larger percentage of a student’s overall grade.
Large research pieces and dissertations also require students to work more independently than ever before; from the selection of their topic of interest to managing their work schedule.
Students will require specific guidance and direction from their university on how best to approach this task, as for many, this is likely to be the most significant piece of work they will have completed so far.
As a result of the coronavirus crisis, some universities have made the decision to delay the hand-in of coursework to account for the disruptions and uncertainty the crisis causes.
Graduate students with research-heavy coursework due have highlighted that “it’s difficult enough to complete a thesis with only virtual support, but outright impossible if it requires field research in places that they can no longer travel to.”
For those students who can continue working on coursework during the outbreak, it must be acknowledged that all advice and guidance you offer them must be given remotely until the mobility restrictions in your country are lifted.
For information on how you can provide support to your students without in-person contact, please see our blog: How University Staff are Effectively Working From Home.
According to research by the University of Rhode Island, there is often a disconnect in higher education between the teacher and student, which can often be attributed to a lack of communication.
The study explains that as experts in their field, teachers can “routinely underestimate how difficult a task can be for a newcomer and even when attempting to make a task easier, they omit information a novice would find valuable.”
This is because experts can sometimes subconsciously assume that the students they are in communication with possess the basic knowledge that other experts in their field also have.
Therefore, when guiding students through a large piece of coursework, it’s imperative that teaching staff not only establish regular communication with students, but that this communication is effective.
This means developing a level of trust with students to encourage them to confidently discuss their ideas and ask difficult questions.
New to work of this scale and significance, students will need to be walked through all the elements that are required of them, how to overcome any issues that might arise, and the most efficient way of approaching tasks.
Regular communication will help teaching staff to flag and address issues early so that students don’t spend valuable time on work that will need to be discarded.
When students are struggling to complete coursework of this nature, it’s easy to assume that it’s the content they’re wrestling with, as opposed to the process itself.
However, with research pieces and dissertations often being the largest projects students have worked on in their education journey so far, it’s often the idea of completing work of this scale that can become a barrier.
Students can become resistant to working on such a large and significant project and find their progress has stalled by the overwhelming task in front of them.
One way to help students work past this hurdle is to encourage them to break down the project into stages and to set goals to reach throughout the process.
These goals can then be aligned with the arranged meetings between staff and students; putting slight pressure on students to reach their goals.
As explained by Umberto Eco in his book How to Write a Thesis, “a thesis is like a chess game that requires a player to plan in advance all the moves he will make to checkmate his opponent.”
In other words, the planning process of a large piece of coursework is a key element of helping students successfully complete the task in an efficient way.
Ensure students prioritize this part of the process and spend time establishing what needs to be done and by what point before they begin the research or writing stage of the project.
For students conducting more practical research, there are unique factors they will need to plan for.
As highlighted in the University of Leicester’s guide to conducting a research project, a plan will need to “include information about what equipment you will need to complete your project, and any travel costs or other expenses that you are likely to incur through the pursuit of your research.”
As the content of each project will differ, it’s important to consider each student on an individual basis; understanding that they may need to work to different schedules and overcome unique challenges.
When it comes to the day-to-day activity of working on large pieces of coursework, adopting healthy study habits can help the process become more efficient.
Encourage your students to build structure and routine into their day that includes taking regular breaks, getting involved in exercise or physical activity, spending time outside, and approaching tasks according to priority.
Setting daily goals, such as a word count, can keep students motivated by allowing them to celebrate smaller achievements along the journey.
According to Ohio State University, setting daily goals acts as a “plan of attack that allows you the comfort of knowing that you will get to everything but can only focus on one thing at a time.”
Spending time on large pieces of coursework can also be an isolating experience, which is why checking in with others is so important during this time.
Socializing during allotted break time or regularly communicating with support networks can help to lift the spirits of students and remind them that they’re not alone.
During the coronavirus crisis, where in-person contact is limited, virtual communication is being utilized more than ever.
For more details on how students can develop the right study habits during self-isolation, please see our previous blog: How Universities can Encourage Healthy Study Habits When Learning Remotely.
One of the most important steps in completing a large research project or dissertation is choosing the subject matter.
According to research by the National Institutes of Health, having interest in a topic is one of the greatest motivational tools in producing good work in students.
The study explains how interest acts as a “powerful motivational process that energizes learning, guides academic and career trajectories, and is essential to academic success.”
Encouraging students to find a subject matter that they are passionate about or are keen to learn more about will help to keep them motivated during such a lengthy and challenging process.
One way to spark innovation is to show examples of previous work that were particularly noteworthy in their approach to the angle or research.
Students who think outside the box and research topics that are timely and relatively untouched can help to set your institution apart from others as leaders in research.
Supporting students through large research projects or dissertations is as much about providing practical guidance, such as where to find supporting research, as it’s about keeping them energized and engaged in their work.
Now more than ever, students will be looking to their institutions for advice on how to navigate the restrictions they are currently facing when it comes to their studies.
To discover insights into how prospective students at different study levels are responding to the coronavirus crisis, please download our free white paper: How COVID-19 is Impacting Prospective International Students at Different Study Levels.