Alternatives to traditional dissertations offer students new ways to reflect on their learning.
They can invite group work, interdisciplinarity, different writing styles and digital outputs, and engagement with external stakeholders. In these ways, they can offer new methods for assessment, employability skills development, motivating and empowering learners, and novel approaches to applied research (Healey et al. 2013).
Alternative dissertations can be divided into two categories:
- Engaged [with external stakeholders]
- Capstones and ePortfolios.
Engaged dissertations can include consultancy, education, community, business or charity collaboration. These can take the form of a structured consultancy project, a communication resource tailored for a particular audience, or a research report based on real-world data provided by the partner organisation. Engaged learning fits well within the Civic University ethos, and can be framed as community-based and experiential learning.
The project scope for an engaged dissertation is determined in collaboration with academics, the external organisation and the student. Academics ensure subject-relevance, the organisation ensures work is relevant/applicable to them, and the student can follow their interests. Engaged dissertations are viewed as meaningful and provide value for each stakeholder and encourage students to see how research is relevant to the real world.
The process of collaboration invites skills development, particularly around negotiation, facilitation and interpersonal dialogue. Students feel empowered through their learning and build confidence in tackling complex real-world issues and professional environments.
Engaged dissertations require more scaffolding than traditional dissertations. To respect this limitation, opportunities for engaged learning dissertations can be offered competitively to reflect the scale, capacity and resource available to manage them. Students should be supported in how to communicate well and resolve challenging situations with resilience, principally with regard to effective communication with the external organisation, recognising and managing their expectations. Regular check-in points and research goals help direct students. Additionally, routes to adapt the research if things don’t go well supports students’ confidence in completing engaged dissertations.
Support is available from University teams and national organisations.
- The Engaged Learning Team can facilitate brokering with external stakeholders and provide worked examples and models of best practice, including templates of agreements and due diligence questionnaires.
- You can also use the Skills Bridge facility that operates between UoB and UWE, https://skillsbridge.ac.uk/.
- The NUS Dissertations for Good is a national initiative that can be integrated alongside UoB efforts, https://forgood.nus.org.uk/.
Capstone dissertation projects are common in the USA and Australia. In these projects, students work to synthesise and apply their knowledge and experience from their whole programme. An important facet of capstones is that students reflect on their existing knowledge, rather than on new research materials.
Capstones can take a variety of forms, including ePortfolios that draw together collected summative, formative and reflective materials that are reviewed regularly by staff. Students then select which elements of these collated materials to rework and submit for their final assessment. This negotiated portfolio of reflections on the students’ programme experience enhances programme cohesion. Students can readily observe the relevance of all aspects of their programme through a capstone. They also benefit from a sense of control over their learning.
Assessment on the capstone can include written reports, exams, oral presentations, reflective journals, discussion forums and project planning. Capstone outputs are highly varied, including websites, collated materials, portfolio, performance (presentation), exhibit, video, write ups of various lengths. They can extend to event planning, showcases, service learning or volunteering, internships, developing new resources.
Capstones require tailored teaching approaches to facilitate students’ ability to synthesise their learning effectively. Top tips (drawn from Bailey, van Acker and Fyffe 2013) include:
- Shifting the focus to student-centred activities
- Interactive lectures, including discussions and debates
- Guest speaker presentations and prompts (problem based learning)
- Applying existing knowledge in new contexts
- Practical activities and hands-on workshops that mimic workplace activities
- Peer to peer learning, such as discussion boards.
Dissertations for Masters students present their own challenges. Toolkits tailored for masters programmes and case studies of good practice are available here: www.mastersprojects.ac.uk (see also Vos 2013).
AdvanceHE toolkit on using ePortfolios as a reflective assessment tool.
Hallam, G. & Creagh, T. 2009 “ePortfolio use by university students in Australia: a review of the Australian ePortfolio Project” Higher Education Research & Development 29(2) pp. 179-193 https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360903510582
Jaeger, A. J., Sandmann, L. R. & Kim, J. 2011 “Advising Graduate Students Doing Community-Engaged Dissertation Research: The Advisor-Advisee Relationship” Journal of Higher Education, Outreach and Engagement 15(4) pp. 5-25 http://openjournals.libs.uga.edu/index.php/jheoe/article/viewFile/626/480
Kachra, A., & Schnietz, K. 2008 “The Capstone Strategy Course: What Might Real Integration Look Like?” Journal of Management Educatio, 32(4) pp. 476–508 https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562907300811
Peyrefitte, M. & Nurse, A. 2016 “e-Portfolios: evaluating and auditing student employability engagement” https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/e-portfolios-evaluating-and-auditing-student-employability-engagement
Stohlman, T. A. 2019 “The MePortfolio: Electronic Media Capstone Portfolios for Student and Program Assessment” Assessment Update 31(4) pp. 6-13 https://doi.org/10.1002/au.30179
van Acker, L. & Bailey, E. 2011 “Embedding Graduate Skills in Capstone Courses” Asian Social Science 7(4) pp. 69-76 https://research-repository.griffith.edu.au/bitstream/handle/10072/42695/75107_1.pdf?sequence=1
Bailey, J., van Acker, E. & Fyffe, J. 2013 “Capstone courses in undergraduate business degrees Final report 2013” Griffith University (Australian Government; Office for Learning and Teaching) https://ltr.edu.au/resources/PP10_1646_Bailey_van%20Acker_report_2013.pdf
Healey, M., Lannin, L., Stibbe, A. & Derounian, J. 2013 “Developing and enhancing undergraduate final-year projects and dissertations” A National Teaching Fellowship Scheme project publication, HEA (July 2013) https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/resources/ntfs_project_gloucestershire_2010_final_0.pdf
Making the Most of Masters (MMM) www.mastersprojects.ac.uk
Vos, L. 2013 “Dissertation study at the postgraduate level: A review of the literature” The Higher Education Academy https://s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/assets.creode.advancehe-document-manager/documents/hea/private/dissertation-study-literature-review_1568036698.pdf