A key aim of any honours degree programme in the UK is to encourage students to become independent learners. This is no easy task in an environment in which many students arrive from school or college with preconceived notions of what is meant by study, and an array of expectations about the support they will receive from academic staff, not to mention the feedback and interaction with staff that they can expect.
The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) in August 2008 set out the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which contains the following descriptor for a Bachelor’s degree with honours:
‘Bachelor's degrees with honours are awarded to students who have demonstrated:
- a systematic understanding of key aspects of their field of study, including acquisition of coherent and detailed knowledge, at least some of which is at or informed by, the forefront of defined aspects of a discipline
- an ability to deploy accurately established techniques of analysis and enquiry within a discipline
- conceptual understanding that enables the student:
- to devise and sustain arguments, and/or to solve problems, using ideas and techniques, some of which are at the forefront of a discipline
- to describe and comment upon particular aspects of current research, or equivalent advanced scholarship, in the discipline
- an appreciation of the uncertainty, ambiguity and limits of knowledge
- the ability to manage their own learning, and to make use of scholarly reviews and primary sources (e.g. refereed research articles and/or original materials appropriate to the discipline).’
In the context of an economics programme, where in many cases students can arrive at university with no prior knowledge of the discipline, it is ambitious to think that students will be able to use ideas and techniques ‘at the forefront’ of the discipline after only three years of study, especially if this is really to be the aim for all honours students. On many programmes, the dissertation has become the prime vehicle by which students find an opportunity to become independent learners and to confront current research. For many students, the dissertation is the culmination of their undergraduate careers, and a rewarding and satisfying experience that gives them the opportunity to undertake an in-depth study of a topic that interests them. However, it can also become a traumatic and disillusioning venture for students who do not engage with the research, or who have a bad experience with some aspect of the dissertation process.
This chapter sets out to share good practice and provide guidance for co-ordinators, curriculum planners and supervisors, highlighting danger areas and providing discussion of some of the more contentious aspects of the dissertation process.
After a brief investigation of the current experience in the UK, this chapter is organised around the typical life-cycle of a dissertation, divided into a series of stages:
- laying the foundations
- topic selection
- early practicalities
- progress monitoring
- data issues
- dissertation structure
- academic integrity.