Doyle Online Writing Lab

Helping Thesis Students

Every thesis student and advisor is different. There are some general challenges that students face during their senior year. Many of these have to do with organization and anxiety. Because the thesis is almost always the most complex research project and the longest piece of writing a student has undertaken, the thesis can often get awkward, even for good writers. Here are some tips for helping thesis students get organized and decrease their anxiety:

  1. Make your expectations explicit. Help students break the thesis down into manageable parts. Be clear on what parts of the thesis you want when. If possible, have students write a schedule for when chapters and chapter drafts are due. Here is an example of a handout (or pdf version) given by Jackie Dirks (History) and adapted by Laura Leibman (English) that lays out some of the expectations for the thesis year. Notice how the handout gives the student tips on how to begin and organize research and clearly outlines expectations.
  2. Have students download the template and use it from the start. This saves a lot of heartache and anxiety during the last week of classes.
  3. Save yourself time by using word to compare thesis and chapter drafts. Have students submit drafts electronically, particularly as the semester and year progress. This allows you to compare drafts in Word and will save you an enormous amount of time in reading drafts (all changes will be highlighted in red and all deletions will be crossed out in red). To compare documents in word, open the latest file then go under Tools ==> Track Changes ==> Compare documents. Select the second most recent version to compare with the current one. If you cannot bear to receive electronic files, have the student save drafts each week under different names and submit the new file after they have compared documents themselves.
  4. Help students prevent writer's block before it starts. Having students turn in work regularly (every week or every other week) can help avoid many problems with writing. It also ensures that the student is writing. Also see tips for helping students with writer's block and procrastination. If a thesis student has writer's block, have them get help!
  5. Clarify what the expectations are in your field for academic arguments. Different fields have different expectations for where a thesis statement, evidence, etc. belongs in a critical argument. Walk your thesis student through an article you admire and point out what belongs where. This may seem obvious to you, but it usually isn't to students.
  6. Help your student clarify their argument. Often in the oral students are asked to state the "thesis of their thesis." Make sure the student knows this information should be in the written introduction of their thesis. You may find Joseph Williams' handout on the four parts of the standard academic argument helpful for clarifying your expectations.
  7. Students often forget that the basics of organization apply to the thesis. A student who was a superb writer once asked me if each thesis chapter really needed a conclusion. If one needs a conclusion after five pages, how much more so after forty or fifty! Help students identify structural markers in the model paper/article you share with them. They may find it useful to mimic the organizational language of the work.
  8. Students who are used to writing five paragraph essays often have problems conceiving of how to organize longer pieces of writing. You may want to encourage your student to break their chapters into sections (with or without headers) and to think of each section as a mini essay. The writing center also offers workshops on organizing longer pieces of writing.
  9. Encourage students to keep a list of "common errors" you have marked in their thesis. They should proof for these you don't have to mark every occurrence.

Senior Thesis Links

Avoiding Plagiarism (Purdue OWL)
Citation Formats
Organizing Longer Pieces of Writing (Leibman, Reed College)
Problem of the Problem (Joseph Williams, University of Chicago)
Research Paper Links (Purdue OWL)
Thesis and Your Senior Year (CUS)
Thesis Templates (CUS)
Writing a Thesis (Dartmouth U.)
Writing a Senior Thesis in Anthropology (Reed)
Writing a Senior Thesis in Chemistry (Reed)
Writing a Senior Thesis in Psychology (Reed)
Writing a Senior Thesis in Sociology (Reed)
Writing Research Papers (USCD)