'I Guess it Must Be Up to Me' - student autonomy and reflections on 'writing' the undergraduate dissertation

P. Greenbank, C. Penketh

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


The dissertation not only represents the most sustained engagement an undergraduate student will have with writing, but it is usually the focus of a research project. It therefore 30 offers the potential for the development of specific graduate attributes and skills. In particular, the dissertation is often promoted as a means of advancing autonomous learning. As such, it is said to offer the potential for students to move along a continuum from dependence to independence. The approach adopted for this study stemmed from a desire to develop the practice of the two authors by giving voice to the student’s experience of undertaking a dissertation. Ten students who had recently completed their undergraduate dissertation were interviewed for the first (pilot) stage of what is envisaged to be an on-going piece of action research. In order to promote discussion and obtain rich narratives an ‘interview guide’ rather than a structured questionnaire was used. The interviews took between half-an-hour and an hour (with most taking an hour). They were recorded, transcribed and analysed using matrices and cognitive mapping. The interviews focused on how the students chose their dissertation topic; the factors influencing when they started work on their dissertations; and the nature of the student’s relationship with their dissertation tutor. The extent to which students demonstrated a willingness to exert control, or take charge of their own learning, during the dissertation process depended upon a complex set of factors determining their ‘competency values’ - i.e. what students believed was the most effective way (in terms of meeting their objectives) to go about researching and writing-up their dissertation. The small sample size adopted for this study means that further research into the factors influencing the way students research and write-up their dissertations needs to be carried out. This research does, nevertheless, suggest that rather than trying to direct or persuade students to adopt particular approaches, it would be more useful for tutors to enter into a dialogue with their students about the values underpinning their perspectives on how the dissertation should be tackled. Given a better understanding of each others values it is envisaged that the tutor and the student would be in a better position to negotiate an approach to researching and writing-up the dissertation. It is planned to put these ideas into practice and to evaluate them using action research.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Event5th Education in a Changing Environment International Conference - Salford, United Kingdom
Duration: 15 Sept 200916 Sept 2009


Conference5th Education in a Changing Environment International Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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