The challenges associated with postgraduate dissertations

-Lynn Vos with Kate Armstrong

Anyone who has supervised a postgraduate marketing dissertation knows how many challenges arise in helping students to produce a good piece of work. The following is an excerpt from a study that I did with Kate Armstrong to identify what dissertation supervisors in the UK see as the main challenges and also how we might begin to improve the learning experience for students. In particular, the study identified challenges that are context dependent (related to student characteristics or situational/institutional factors) and those that are process dependent (related to dissertation procedural factors and supervisor-student transactional and relational factors). While there are no easy solutions, particularly given the short time frame allocated to a Master's programme and the high numbers of students with English as a second language, it is time for us to begin thinking more creatively about this important sign post of a Master's degree.

Excerpt from Vos, L., & Armstrong, K. (2015). Perceptions of the challenges associated with supervising postgraduate marketing dissertations in the UK. Greenwich: University of Greenwich Working Papers Series

For most taught UK Masters degrees in marketing the traditional dissertation remains the culminating capstone project. Students tend to finish their core taught modules within 8 months and then use the remaining 4 months to complete and submit a dissertation. How students are prepared for the task of researching a particular topic varies by institution, but for the most part students are provided with a supervisor early in the academic year, take a course or set of lectures in research methods, and write a research proposal prior to working on their dissertation. In marketing, most students will undertake some form of empirical research and produce a 12-18,000 word document including a literature review, methodology, data analysis/findings, conclusions, recommendations and limitations. While some institutions are replacing the dissertation with other capstone experiences such as consultancy projects and action research reports, the majority of UK-based Masters in marketing programmes still include a dissertation.

A study of marketing dissertation supervisors at both pre and post 1992 institutions demonstrates that marketing academics face clear and increasing challenges with preparing students for and supervising them through their postgraduate dissertations (Vos & Armstrong, 2015). These challenges are either contextual: (student and situational) or process related: (procedural, transactional and relational). Table 3 provides an overview of the supervisor perceptions of key challenges they face with Masters marketing dissertations.

Below is a discussion of these factors with support from the literature that demonstrates where marketing related challenges are also found in other disciplines.

Table 3: Marketing dissertation supervisor perceptions of contextual and process challenges with the dissertation

Context Factors

  • Situational

  1. University policies on recruitment – more higher fee paying candidates; up to 80% are international students

  2. IELTS a flawed measure of English language competency

  3. Length of Masters has decreased to 12 months

  4. Increasing number of dissertation students per supervisor

  5. Increasing numbers of marketing dissertations – supervisors not always working in their area of specialism

  6. Lack of resources to provide additional support for supervisors, students, and for vivas

  7. Research methods module/lectures may not be the best way to prepare students for the dissertation

  8. Lack of collaboration and sharing of good practice amongst dissertation supervisors

  • Student –related

  1. Many international students have weak linguistic skills

  2. Large percentage of students who have not previously studies marketing

  3. Prior educational backgrounds of many international students does not prepare them for writing long research essays or for critical analysis

  4. Weak conceptual skills

  5. Weak research –related skills (literature review, methodology, analysis)

  6. Poor motivation and attendance in research methods and at supervisory meetings

Process Factors

Procedural factors

  1. Student challenges with choosing a viable topic for the dissertation

  2. Student challenges narrowing down and focussing their topic for research

  3. Problems with all aspects of literature review

  4. Weak primary research gathering and analysis

Transactional and relational factors

  1. Supervisor approach (more ad hoc or structured) does not always meet its objectives – many students tend not to follow the rules/ guidelines

  2. Supervisor approach may not be appropriate for the type of student

  3. Student behaviour – not coming to meetings, lack of preparation, leaving the country to complete dissertation

Context factors represent a considerable set of challenges for supervisors. In terms of ‘situational factors’, respondents referred often to their institutions’ recruitment policies highest priority of attracting as many high fee paying candidates as possible, especially non-UK and non-EU students who can pay up to 80% more than domestic students. The consequences are higher staff-student ratios for dissertation supervision, mismatches between student interests and supervisor expertise and often a large number of students with linguistic problems that are difficult to overcome in a one year Masters. Many respondents to the study felt that their institution sets the English language proficiency requirement (IELTS minimum score of 6.0 to 6.5) too low and the test does not really measure students ability to work with scholarly texts and write effectively. Even according to IELTS, students falling within the band between 6.0 and 6.5 are merely ‘competent users’ of English (Paton, 2012) and a large study undertaken by the University of Western Ontario found that tests of English used are generally poor predictors of academic performance and students writing ability (Simner & Mitchell, 2007). In addition to the linguistic challenges that overseas students face, many have come from a different educational background that may not prepare them for writing a long research document like the dissertation, an issue that is discussed further under ‘student-related factors’.

Another situational factor that is not so much institutional as representing what could be called a tradition in UK marketing departments is the requirement that students take a research methods module as preparation for the dissertation. Findings suggest that many students’ struggle with research methods training and that the content and assessment does not prepare them well for the dissertation. Some tutors have taken it upon themselves to add additional training to help improve students’ knowledge and understanding of academic research, but this is not resource effective and departments need to work together to find better approaches.

The literature is also rich in terms of challenges that students from a range of disciplines face in learning research methods. (Edwards & Thatcher, 2006, Muronen & Lehtinen, 2005, Meyer, Shanahan & Laugksch, 2005) For example, Allison, Kewkowicz and Nunan (1998) argue that the typical way that research methods are taught and assessed is not appropriate for dissertations. For the most part, these classes are more applied than research-oriented and are assessed with short applied projects or exams. This approach does not guarantee that students will be able to apply the knowledge and skills learned to dissertations.

In addition, where a fifteen week first or second semester course in research methods is provided as the core foundation for the dissertation at UK Universities (which is mainly the case), topics such as how to undertake a literature review and how to select an appropriate research method are covered in just one or two weeks, arguably not enough time for the complexity of these topics. Considerable research has also pointed out difficulties that all students have with transferring knowledge acquired in one domain to that of another (see for example McKeough, Lupart & Marini, 1995, Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000) and that for successful transfer, students must be given multiple opportunities to apply knowledge learned to the new context (Maranville, 2015) and have mastered the earlier material (Bransford, Brown & Cixking, 2000). These may be difficult to achieve in the short time available for the dissertation. Unfortunately, there is little research on the impacts on learning or the differences in outcomes from a one year versus a two year Masters degree.

A significant category of context-related challenges for both supervisors and students relates to student characteristics. Astin (2012) describes these as either fixed (demographic and educational background characteristics) or those that can vary over time such as cognitive functioning, motivation, aspirations, expectations, learning beliefs, values and behaviour. Three key student- related factors that present challenges for both supervisors and students have emerged from the findings: language issues, prior education, and skill deficits. Language issues and competency have been considered briefly in the section above, but, supervisors report that international students evince other types of skill weaknesses. In particular, Chinese students, who make up the largest cohort in most MA Marketing programmes, are considered to have limited training in critique and analysis. Bitchener and Basturkmen (2006), Abasi and Graves, 2008 and Huang (2008) have examined the linguistic challenges that Chinese dissertation students in particular face in understanding scholarly work written in English and in writing a literature review section that requires criticality and attributing sources. In their study of Chinese student’s critical thinking performance, Ku and Ho (2010) note that while the Confucian-collectivist culture of the Chinese places a high value on academic pursuit it does not actively encourage the kind of critical thinking that is advocated in the West. They note that “in this cultural context where higher values are placed on respect for authority, tradition and social harmony, diversity in opinion may not be well appreciated” (p.57). This point should not be overstated, however, as Chinese educators are acknowledging the importance of critical thinking and students who now come to study in Western Universities may be arriving with greater experience of this type of thinking than we give them credit for (Ku & Ho, 2010). Their challenges may lie just as much with language difficulties as with thinking and prior learning styles.

Skill deficits or weaknesses in analysis, evaluation, clear and coherent writing, methodology and statistical analysis are also cited by marketing dissertation supervisors. These problems are enhanced by the fact that a dissertation requires students to integrate such a wide range of knowledge and skills -some of which may be partially learned in research methods and others which, it is often assumed, students have learned elsewhere As Andrews (2007) has noted, educators tend to teach content over skill development despite the employability skills agenda, and supervisors are wrong in making the assumption that these key dissertation skills have been taught elsewhere, in depth, or have been sufficiently mastered.

Process challenges are procedural, transactional and relational. Procedural challenges are related to how students interpret, work with and understand the requirements of the dissertation and with managing their time. Procedural challenges are influenced by situational factors and are associated with prior learning and skill deficits. Situational factors include the type of preparation marketing faculty choose to give students for the dissertation (e.g. research methods module) and the short time frame to inculcate the knowledge and skills needed for each part of the dissertation in a one year programme. These issues may help explain why students are often confounded or at least initially perplexed by how to undertake different stages of the dissertation. Respondents to this study focused particularly on the difficulties students have with problem definition and narrowing down a topic for research, problems that have also been identified in the literature (Todd, Bannister & Smith; 2006; Thompson, 1999; Cooley & Lewkowicz, 199, 1997; Jenkins, Jordan & Weiland, 1993).

Procedural and student-related challenges are often compounded by the fact that students and supervisors have different expectations about what their counterpart will provide or be able to do and what exactly is meant by ‘plagiarism’ or attribution and justification of knowledge, a point we will return to later. In addition, supervisors may have become habituated to aspects of the process over such a long period that these aspects have become tacit and taken for granted, and are thus never overtly communicated to students (Bitchener & Basturkmen, 2006). Furthermore, it appears that supervisors do not often share ideas with each other so as to identify and agree on good practices.

Transactional factors are those related to how supervisors and students work out the expectations and requirements of their relationship over the dissertation process and relational factors refer to how each deals with building trust, managing communication issues and breakdowns, and working towards each parties expectations (Armitage, 2006). Transactional and relational challenges emerge when supervisors have expectations and understandings of their students’ prior knowledge and capabilities that do not match the students’ abilities (e.g. Drennan & Clarke, 2009; McCormack, 2004). McCormack (2004) conducted interviews with a small group of dissertation students and supervisors over the duration of their study and found that there was a considerable gap in students' understanding about research and what was expected of them against what supervisors believed students were able to do. In some student/supervisor relationships this gap was so wide that student’s either did not finish or did not finish on time. Armitage (2006) notes that both supervisors and students will take different approaches to dissertation study and, indeed, our study demonstrated that some supervisors follow a very structured, rule-based approach while others are more ad-hoc. Differences in approach may lead to mismatches between supervisors and students, in particular when a more ad-hoc supervisory approach is used with a student who is quite dependent and needs more structure and ‘hand-holding’. In our study, however, it appears that regardless of whether the supervisor used a highly structured, rule- based approach or a more ad hoc one, many students still failed to turn up to scheduled meetings, make use of feedback or meet deadlines.

Marketing supervisors also felt that many students showed low levels of motivation to work on and complete the dissertation. The literature is rich in terms of why students may lack motivation for their dissertation and in recommendations on how to improve motivation and student agency (e.g. Maxwell & Smyth, 2010; Akylina, 2006; Grant, 2003; Woolhouse, 2002; Taylor & Dawson, 1998; Hetrick & Trafford, 1995; Phillips, 1994; Powles, 1988). Ahern & Manathunga (2004) caution that what appears to be low motivation may in fact conceal other reasons such as lack of confidence or skill weaknesses and they recommend approaches to identifying the underlying reasons and for dealing with them.

A final set of challenges are those that are in part contextual and in part procedural - plagiarism, attribution of sources and academic dishonesty. Plagiarism, the potential to purchase a dissertation, and misunderstandings about what and how to reference are major concerns for our supervisors. Most feel that at one time or another they may have or their institution has allowed a student to pass based on work that was either all or in large part not their own and this is a great worry to them. Some feel that the short time frame for the dissertation, cultural factors and the prior education of international students, the increasing number of online sources offering to write the dissertation, and general student skills weaknesses contribute to the problems of academic dishonesty. Supervisors, programme leaders and University managers need to view it as a multifaceted problem that a few extra training hours on what plagiarism is and how to avoid it will not solve.

What can we do?

A major objective of the original study was to identify key challenges faced by marketing dissertation supervisors. Although a small sample was used, it appears that the literature supports most of these challenges as common to dissertation supervision from a range of disciplines. A second objective was to categorise these challenges as a first step in identifying potential solutions. We argue that supervisors, programme leaders, and University managers would benefit from a discussion of the factors that affect and influence the dissertation learning experience and student outcomes. Through a structured evaluation of these factors those involved can identify which are within their control to change or influence in the short term and which as Freeth and Reeves (2004 ) note, “must be accommodated’ because of ‘genuine constraints” (p.43).

In drawing some tentative conclusions about which of these sets of challenges are most amenable to change, we can consider the following:

Situational Factors: Given the change in UK higher education to a more market oriented model where it is incumbent upon Universities to increase their income to make up for the decreases in government funding, it is not likely that changes will be made in the near future to student recruitment to UK Masters in marketing programmes. As long as overseas students are willing to come to the UK for their postgraduate education and pay the higher fees, Universities are likely to continue taking them. As more is reported in the media about the poor language skills of international students, perhaps, some pressure may come to bear on some institutions to seek ways to enhance student language skills either within the programme (e.g. Kingston University’s Masters of Marketing with English programme) or to link with overseas institutions as feeder schools where more concentrated and discipline specific language training is provided before students come to the UK. To date, little research has been done on the impact on learning or outcomes by the reduction in UK Masters in marketing degrees to one year.

In terms of research methods training as ineffective preparation for the dissertation, there is much support in the literature for how to improve the training or to provide training in different ways (Wagner, Garner & Kawulich, 2011; Edwards & Thatcher, 2006; Meyer, Shanahan & Laugksch, 2005; Murtonen & Lehtinen, 2003, 2005). For example, Andrews (2007) provides a framework for teaching students how to frame an argument and to think critically in preparation for their dissertations. Wagner, Garner and Kawulick (2011) provide recommendations on how to restructure the research methods courses and use different forms of assessment to better prepare students. Edwards and Thatcher (2006) suggest that supervisors should get refresher training in how to teach research methods particularly for the dissertation and be provided with more appropriate materials than the traditional methods textbook. They suggest that students should have a longer period of training in how to do academic research during their Masters and also be given ongoing assessments. Their study found that this approach led to significant improvements in students understanding of key research concepts and how to apply them. A final point is that supervisors both within and across institutions should be encouraged (and given the means to) share ideas and good practice in order to identify ways to improve research methods training. In this study at least two supervisors have found interesting solutions or additional support for their students that others could benefit from.

Student characteristics: The literature on the challenges that non-native English speakers’ face and how to support them is considerable. In fact, a great deal of the research into dissertation supervision and processes can be found within English as a Second Language journals (e.g. Melles, 2009; Bitchener & Basturkmen, 2006; Braine, 2002; Dong, 1998; Cadman, 1997; Jenkins, Jordan & Weiland, 1993). Among the most important findings are that supervisors often fail to realise how isolated their international students feel during the dissertation process (Alkylina, 2006) and that since many of these students face similar linguistic and skill related issues, collaborative cohort groups are useful in providing peer group support and sharing of ideas and practice. Ahern and Manathunga (2004) also note that the issues of low motivation and attendance may have more to do with other problems that a student is facing. Johnson, Green and Kluever (2000) developed and refined a procrastination inventory tool to identify reasons why students may be showing low levels of motivation and failing to move on with their dissertation. The tool differentiates between categories of factors: cognitive (lack of knowledge or skills) emotional/affective (anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, personality clash with supervisor) and/or social (social isolation, pressure of external social relationships). The authors provide techniques to help with student motivation depending on the reason or reasons identified.

Procedural Factors: Much research has been undertaken into how to help students through various stages of the dissertation process. (Cassuto, 2010; Maxwell & Smyth, 2010; Ahern & Manathunga, 2004; Swales & Lindemann, 2002; Johnson, Green & Kleuver, 2000; Ryan, 1999). For example, Zuber-Skerritt and Knight (2010) suggest a series of early workshops with group discussion, group support and reflection to help students with problem identification and focus. Having group versus individual discussions allows students to see that they are not alone in their challenges and that there are a number of ways to (for example) narrow down a topic. This also helps save time for the supervisor. Andrews (2007) provides detailed advice on how to help students build critical thinking and argumentation skills for the dissertation. As noted above, greater sharing of ideas across departments and disciplines would very likely help to propagate good practices that others could benefit from.

While the present study only looked at supervisor’s perspectives, the literature demonstrates that students often view the problems in the relationship quite differently (De Kleijn, et al., 2012; Drennan & Clarke, 2009; Dong, 1998; McCormack, 2004) Aspland, Edwards, O’Leary and Ryan (1999) reviewed a series of studies on student perspectives versus supervisor perspectives of supervision and found that while supervisors often complained of students not attending meetings and not making use of their feedback, students complained that supervisors took too long to provide feedback and did not provide them with enough guidance at the beginning. An unpublished study by Fan (2013) for the Higher Education Academy (UK) also found variation in the perspectives of supervisors versus those of non-native-English-speaking dissertation students in particular. Student comments included the fact that it was often hard to make an appointment with their supervisor, that the supervisor never replied to emails, and that they took a long time to provide feedback. Fan’s supervisors complained that many international students are not active in contacting them and generally lack motivation. Clearly, this study pointed to considerable differences in expectations and understanding which very likely affect both student experiences and outcomes negatively.

Transactional and relational factors: Two key messages emerge from the review of transactional and relational factors: students and supervisors often have different expectations and different understandings of challenges each are facing, and, as noted above, lack of attendance and failure to adhere to supervisor guidelines may have more to do with cognitive and emotional factors than motivation. There is a clear need for supervisors to identify or at least attempt to clarify student expectations, skill weaknesses, and – after the fact - their experiences with the supervisory process in order to take student perspectives more into account when designing their approaches to supervision (Armitage, 2007). They also need to be more reflective on what has worked, what has not and why and to share ideas with colleagues. As noted above, supervisors should also identify the reasons why students are showing low motivation, as these may have to do with lack of confidence, skills deficits or emotional factors rather than disinterest.

Plagiarism: The literature is rich on the issues of plagiarism and academic dishonesty (Joyce, 2009; Gu & Brookes, 2008; Cooper & Bikowski, 2007; Duff, Rogers, & Harris, 2006; Leask, 2006; McGowan, 2005). Abasi and Graves (2008) argue that students need to go through different stages of learning in order to be able to come to terms with the skills that are required (evaluation, critical thinking) as well as the meaning behind various practices. They note that more and more studies are pointing to the increasing complexity of the behaviour and their review of the research into plagiarism and international students showed “that inappropriate source attributions might have to do with students’ culturally shaped life trajectories and their outsider status relative to their prospective discourse communities”(Abasi & Graves, 2008, p.222). They argue that somewhere in their current programme students need to be shown that attribution is a vitally necessary convention, is about crediting an author’s way of approaching a subject, but not accepting that it is the ‘absolute truth’ and that the student’s point of view is also important and valued. They also argue that most institutional plagiarism policies are written in ways that focus only on the negative, “punishable” aspects of failing to attribute sources, and thus students are afraid of doing the wrong thing to a much greater extent than they are encouraged to develop the kinds of scholarly attitudes and practices that supervisors expect

-Lynn Vos and Kate Armstrong

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