• Michael Randall

Marking Honours Dissertations

When this blog was originally set up, the description stated that it was “a place where staff and students share their reviews and recommendations of books, films, TV shows, music and podcasts for others, to try and find something new to discover”. One thing that I have been very conscious of, as an editor, is that it is far easier for us to provide content in relation to recommending films, TV shows, music and podcasts, than it is to provide recommendations for books.

It is a stretch to say that our staff and students don’t read books. Our honours students will know our administrator, Rebecca Norman, for example, who can frequently be seen reading a book at lunchtime. Her father has his own podcast, Read All About It, with Rebecca making a guest appearance, which you can find here ( I haven’t got around to listening to it, yet, but I will do, honestly.

Last week saw my first attempt at writing about a book I had read – I own quite a lot of books, which can broadly be split into three categories – cookbooks, cycling books which I haven’t got around to reading yet, and miscellaneous. However, in all honesty, I very rarely make the time to sit down and read a book, and there are several reasons for that.

However, due to the nature of our jobs, I/we do still complete a lot of reading, whether for our own research, scouting out documents/preparing for tutorials and seminars (yes, we do the prep work, too), or marking. This point in the calendar year marks the point where marking comes to the fore, and this is in two ways. One is written assignments and exams. The other one, which is (for want of a better way of phrasing this) a more interesting process to go through is marking honours dissertations.

Procedurally, honours dissertations are different from written assignments, and there are two major reasons for this. Firstly, the word count is far greater (up to 11,000 words). Secondly, it is the only time that you mark a piece of written work where you know who the student is – blind marking for written assignments is incredibly important, but this is the exception. I’m going to try not to write anything identifying any individual student.

For this year’s cohort, I formed part of the group that reviewed dissertation proposals – students had marked preferences as A, B and C choices, and we had a list of staff who were available, the limits as to how many supervisees they could have each, and their area of expertise. This is a big task to complete, and it took several meetings, but for me personally, there was a level of excitement. I am never going to be a sports commissioner (unfortunately), but it is the closest that I have been to participating in a ‘draft’. Now, granted, in the NFL Draft, the picks are led by the team, not the player (I’ll link to a piece about Eli Manning’s NFL draft experience in 2004, to show what can happen if a player doesn't want to join a particular team), and in the dissertation allocation room, we were led by the students. However, there was a certain amount of anticipation as to ‘who am I going to get?’ Whether they were happy to draw me as a supervisor is another question, entirely. That is said slightly tongue in cheek, but we were trying to make the best/most fair decisions we could, and not all students could get their first choice. A high number did get one of the their A-C choices, though, and I think, to their credit, most students were understanding of the position we were in.

By definition each dissertation project, and therefore, each student, will be different. Equally, different supervisors will have different ways in which they explain concepts, and advise students. However, the first meeting with each student usually follows the same format (there are some key points to hit). I find that early on, I explain:

- This is fundamentally an individual research project. The biggest difference is who sets the question, and the student has a lot of control.

- You can only do so much in 11,000 words – “you can’t solve world peace” and “leaving something out is still making progress” are stock phrases at this point.

- My role is akin to that of a music producer. I don’t write the songs/play on the album at all, but I try to help the student get their ideas and arguments across as best they can.

One of the challenges that I find with the dynamic between supervisor and supervisee is it should be collaborative – you should be there to bounce ideas off, and give an insight. However, it is not truly collaborative in the way that a joint paper would be – we’re not back seat authors. If a student does well and thanks me for my help, that’s very nice of them, but I don’t deserve any of the credit – I’m not standing over the student’s shoulder, telling them what to write. It really is the most accurate reflection we get of a student’s academic process.

The general advice/specific points which I will explain to students in supervision meetings tend to be reflections of things which I have been pulled up for previously. Students in my 3rd year law classes will know that, for example, I tend to focus on referencing standards a lot more than other markers might – this is because I have been lax in this area in the past. I also used to be guilty of (and now highlight to students) finishing paragraphs on a quotation, without telling the reader what it added to the argument, having the written equivalent of ‘verbal ticks’ and having the text left aligned, with single line spacing. There are also some pet peeves (courts give judgments, not judgements, and it’s the law of England AND Wales) which might get flagged up.

However, the process can be incredibly rewarding in seeing the progress that students make. This can be in a variety of ways. It could be that a student struggles for a few weeks, and then has a ‘penny drops’ moment, and comes into a supervision meeting really enthused about their work. It could be that a student is focusing on something which is not entirely in your area, and looks at a point in more detail than you normally would. It could be that a student takes inspiration from your work, and applies it in another context, or advances it well beyond a blog post that you wrote previously. Or it could be that you really get to see how students have matured, and see the level of work/input that they put into a piece of work.

Over that time, you do build a slightly different rapport with a student than you would in a personal tutor meeting, in a lecture/classroom. Equally, a student might want to/be perfectly happy to be left to their own devices. Either way, you want the student to do the best that they can.

The actual marking process is distinct from written assignments for me. With written assignments, students are usually answering the same question. They’ve looked at similar sources to one another, and tend to make similar points, which answer the question asked. Key components of a good honours dissertation are making the specific question clear to me, and actually making the reader care about the subject. There’s an inherent reflection of the student’s personality in the work.

Subsequently, you get variation. We all want students to perform well, and to the best of their abilities, and seeing that pay off in an engaging way is incredibly heartening to see, and is one of the best parts of the job.

This then gets extended in the 2nd marking process. Nominally here, you are assessing the first marker’s grading standards. What this means, though, is you get snap shots into other topics and questions, which are not within your research field. This, again, is incredibly rewarding to read. You also get to see how other markers provide feedback, which helps you to refine the approach you take (i.e. some first markers provide very long page by page breakdowns – I don’t tend to go that far, but it encourages you to provide more explanation for your methods).

This year’s dissertation process was different at the beginning, with the allocation process being implemented, but also came to an end in a way which I know disappointed a lot of students. I love seeing dissertation submission photos – they are a recognition of the culmination of the longest project students complete, and it’s also impossible to not make them look staged, in an endearing way. Last year, we had a prosecco reception upon submission, and were looking forward to repeating that this year (although in my case, probably with more food in me first. That wasn’t a productive afternoon). Our students, though, were fantastic with their virtual dissertation submissions – whilst people were disappointed about the circumstances, not one person complained, or said they were hard done by (that I’m aware of). And we also got possibly the greatest image I've ever been sent, too (below).

The originality, effort and often the quality of the work in most years is a true representation of our cohort of students, but this year in particular makes us as staff incredibly proud to be at Strathclyde. We didn’t get to have that prosecco reception on this occasion. But we’ll be sure to make up for it when you are able to attend graduation.

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