Thursday, March 1, 2012

How to teach independent projects

For the past two years, I've been overseeing the students in my department who are writing senior theses. This is now required for all of our majors. 

For the most part, this is a very positive teaching experience. It's gratifying to see students begin with ideas for their theses that are embryonic (or less charitably, half baked) and arrive at an intellectually credible piece of philosophical scholarship. I also enjoy being able to see the learning going on — to witness their struggles to identify an argument for a claim they find plausible and so on. And in general, I find this sort of teaching, which is closer to coaching, more my style than classroom theater.

Still, overseeing these theses presents various teaching challenges, and I'd welcome advice from those who oversee theses (or similar independent student projects) about how to meet these challenges:
  • Balancing scholarship with one's own voice. Our student theses must have at least five philosophically respectable sources. One problem for students is how to integrate these sources with their own philosophical thinking. The dangers here come from two directions: For some students, their interest in making their own philosophical claims and arguments results in the scholarship receding to the background, and at its worst, the student end ups writing in ignorance of what came before. For others, the scholarship swamps their voice, and the thesis ends up too summative, like an intellectually sophisticated book report. Of course, this is an issue in scholarly writing generally, but it becomes very prominent when students have to conduct their own research.
  • Actually hearing feedback. Far too many students come to my office to get feedback, which I'm very happy to provide, but subsequent drafts often don't seem to reflect this feedback. I try hard to check and make sure that the feedback has been understood, but it baffles me why the very portions of their drafts that I suggest are the most problematic are often left untouched in subsequent drafts.
  • Maintaining momentum. This is the biggie. Our thesis is organized so that students take a thesis course in both the fall and winter quarters, with the thesis then due in May. So they have 7-8 months altogether to complete a thesis of 4,000-8,000 words. And while we have a few class meetings in the beginning just to get things off the ground, most of my 'teaching' consists of reading their drafts, talking about their ideas, etc., in face-to-face encounters. My observation has been that students build up momentum and then squander it with apparent inattention to the project. I'll see series of drafts from students that mark glacial improvement. They do have deadlines: They're required to complete an outline and 1,000-word abstract by the end of fall, and they asked for (and got!) four deadlines for drafts in the spring quarter. But still, their progress seems to falter, and it's not obvious to me why. Is it motivation? Time management? The theses that turn out best, as you might expect, are those where the student has made steady progress over the months, so that come spring, it's not a mad scramble just to get the basics of the argument on paper. Those students can focus on tightening and polishing, But this is a challenge I'd welcome advice on.


  1. This is based on my own experience writing an undergraduate thesis, but it was a really great experience and so I think the model one worth emulating. My advisor before he took me on as a student made me commit to meeting with him very week and he made sure to stress how serious he took advising. During our weekly meetings, I would have reading assigned for that week and I had to write a short summary of it (1 page or so) before our meeting. The final product wasn't as polished as it should have been and I did end up writing a not insignificant part of it during the final stretch, but I learned so much from our weekly meetings and discussions. The process was really invaluable in preparing me for graduate school, even if the thesis could have used a lot more work.

  2. I agree that there are challenges in motivating students to meet deadlines despite the constant supervision that advisors give. Even when we try to give them good thesis ideas as well as strict deadlines, there will always be other curricular works that would add to their already full plate. But students always surprise me with the way they manage to succeed in meeting deadlines for their requirements. I guess that's the thing about advising; it's not entirely in our hands. Progress all depends on the students and whether or not they take our advice to heart.


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