Blog Series #1 Undergraduate Dissertation Research in SoE: Where to Start?

By Dr. Amanda Williams  School of Education

One of the most exciting things to happen in the academic year is our Year 3 undergraduates submitting their dissertation projects. This past academic year I, along with Dr Will Baker, had the privilege of co-leading the Undergraduate Dissertation Unit. In this role I delivered taught components that guided students through the process of their dissertation while they worked closely with their individual supervisor to complete their independent research project.

I must confess, I was unprepared for the variety and calibre of the research completed by our students. The supervisors, Dr Baker, and myself are immensely proud of what our students have accomplished this past year. Because of this, we have decided to share some of our student projects in a series of blogs. This first blog will focus on a general overview of projects, and students’ suggestions to future cohorts starting in on their own dissertations.  The second and third blogs will focus on projects completed by Education Studies and Psychology in Education students, respectively, and offer more targeted advice for completing a dissertation.

 Choosing a Dissertation Topic

The breadth of projects coming out of our recent third year students was staggering. The range of methodologies – from a Freirean analysis of secondary data to experimental designs and everything imaginable in between – reflected the research methods training delivered across the programmes. Topics reflected the diversity of research seen across the School of Education. We had students examine the impact of mindfulness training on attention spans; bullying in China; teachers’ perceptions of non-classroom-based interventions; attachment in twins; and the list goes on.

So how does one go about selecting their dissertation topic? The most important thing is to select a topic you are interested in learning more about. Millie Morfitt (Psychology of Education) studied LGBTQ+ students’ mental health. She suggests students “choose a topic you are truly passionate about and fascinated with.” Picking a topic that is intrinsically interesting is what students should focus on early in the dissertation process; research questions and methods will be refined through conversations with your individual dissertation supervisor.

Your dissertation supervisor will be able to help you decide your dissertation topic

Pinpointing a research topic that interests you can take time. I recommend that students read abstracts of papers in the general area as a first place to start. Once you have been allocated a supervisor, look at their staff research page to see if there is overlap in areas of interest. You may be able to capitalize on your supervisor’s expertise, resulting in a research project with the potential to push the boundaries of knowledge in your chosen field of study.

Starting a Dissertation Project and Staying the Course

As exciting as it is, a dissertation is a large piece of work. The prospect of starting and maintaining momentum can be daunting. Choosing a topic that you love is the first step. Between this and the submitted dissertation there are many things that need to be completed.  Sam Leitch (Education Studies) examined the experience of secondary students accessing Behaviour Support Units. He stresses the importance of breaking the project down into manageable pieces. “Think about writing a hundred words in thirty minutes, rather than 3,000 words a week”.  He also notes that building a body of knowledge on the topic by reading existing literature is instrumental when starting into the writing process.

Your supervisor will be forthcoming with the fact that research very rarely goes without a hitch; across the duration of your project there will be many highs and lows. Elisha Cruthers (Psychology of Education) focused on phonological awareness and reading comprehension in her dissertation. She stresses that research is a process and not everything will go to plan all the time. “Try not to worry too much about the blips in the road – we all had them and got through. This is just a part of doing research”. The key to a successful dissertation is being persistent and creative in the face of unexpected challenges.

Concluding Thoughts

Conducting an independent research project and writing this into a dissertation is … a lot. It pulls on all of the skills that students have developed over their three years of study. The research projects submitted this year have been a credit to the critical education students have received. It is bittersweet to see our first undergraduates – the class of 2020  – leave the School of Education; they will be missed. But we are confident that they will go on to do wonderful things. However, as educators we naturally look to the next academic year, and we can’t wait to see the dissertations that the class of 2021 will bring us.