A frequent complaint about students undertaking undergraduate dissertations is that they leave everything until the last minute. The pressures of other coursework items and mid-term or mid-year examinations may encourage students to devote their time to these, as the dissertation seems less urgent.
There are various ways of trying to encourage students to start work on their research early, and not to rely on a late rush. It may be worth drawing an analogy in early discussions with them. Few students would think of arriving at an exam with only a few minutes to go, and thus finding they have no time to answer the questions. So, why should they think they can fritter away their dissertation time and start work on it when it is too late to do it justice?
However, as economists, we understand about incentives, and thus realise that exhortation alone will not suffice. We need to provide good incentives if we expect students to start work early.
One possibility is to require students to give a presentation of their intended research at an early stage of proceedings. This could be a presentation to their peers with a member of academic staff present. It would even be possible to designate a discussant for each presentation or for a small percentage of the overall mark to be attached to it. However, as soon as numbers begin to grow, this option begins to become very costly in time and effort. Ensuring consistency in the assessment becomes problematic – although if it is a very small percentage of the overall mark, this may be less crucial. If the presentation becomes more than a small percentage, then the logistics of enabling appropriate external examining becomes a potential issue.
An alternative is to introduce an interim report or research proposal that has to be submitted at an early stage. Again, attaching a modest percentage of the overall marks to this report has good incentive effects, and provides an early check to identify students that are not engaging with the process, or who have unrealistic grandiose plans for solving the world’s problems in 10,000 words. It is also a good opportunity to provide formal feedback – an important consideration when the paucity of feedback is a common criticism emerging from questionnaire surveys.
It may be helpful to ask students to submit draft material (or even chapters) to provide a framework for discussion in supervisory meetings – and to do so before the meeting takes place. There is nothing worse than having a student arrive to discuss their work clutching their precious draft, only to find that the time is mainly spent in the supervisor reading it, rather than being able to discuss it. It should be made clear that this is not for the purpose of proof-reading, which is not the supervisor’s responsibility. It may be worth setting a timetable for such discussions at the beginning of the year – which then forces the student into a regular schedule of work. Of course, your institution’s rules may prohibit the reading of draft material. You may also think that it is possible to go too far in helping the student, as this may militate against encouraging independent work and time management. However, it can make for more productive supervisory meetings – and anything that highlights that you are providing feedback may pay dividends in national student surveys.