3.1 Laying the foundations
There is a sense in which the whole of learning and teaching in a programme can be seen as preparation for the dissertation, as it provides the opportunity for students to draw holistically upon the range of material that they have studied during their programme. However, the dissertation is a very different exercise from anything else that they will have been required to undertake and specific preparation is needed.
First, some training in research skills will need to be provided. This may or may not take place as part of a specific module within the programme that is devoted to preparation for the dissertation, perhaps in the penultimate year of study. This needs to include general discussion of research in economics, and the ways in which economists undertake research and scholarship. It is important to remember that this is likely to be a wholly new experience for most students, who may be well drilled in problem solving and mathematical exercises, but who may not have had much exposure to the practicalities of economic research.
The booklets by Greenlaw (2006) and Neugeboren (2005) may be useful references for students at this stage of the process, or they may wish to visit the "Doing a dissertation" tab of the Studying Economics website run by the Economics Network.
Included in this research training it is important to provide some guidance in library skills and the use of evidence in economics research. Being able to evaluate evidence, to weigh up the importance of a set of results and to be aware of the limitations of the evidence produced are challenging skills for students to develop.
There are different approaches to providing such research methods training. It may be that library staff will be able to provide sessions in library skills. It may be wise to incentivise students by awarding a small percentage of the dissertation marks for a library skills exercise. For example, students could be required to undertake an online literature search related to their chosen topic and produce a preliminary reading list. This has the added benefit for forcing them to start their research at an early stage of proceedings.
Depending on programme structure, some students may have had extensive exposure to statistical and econometric methods, so may be accustomed to handling data and interpreting results. However, there may still be a difference between running some regressions in response to a specific exercise during an econometrics module and devising a model to allow testing of a specific hypothesis.
Where students have not been exposed to econometrics, this will clearly affect the scope and nature of research that they can undertake. It may be that they are restricted to a theoretical approach or a literature review style of project, or that they need to find alternative ways of presenting evidence. Where there is a mixture of single and joint honours students it may well be that there are students working on similar topic areas, some of whom know some econometrics and others not. This can create particular pressures on the joint honours students, who may feel obliged to try to use techniques with which they are unfamiliar. This is almost always disastrous. It also becomes important that the skills base of students is taken into account during the assessment process, so that students without training in econometrics are not unduly penalised by markers.
It is increasingly crucial to provide clear guidance on academic integrity at an early juncture. Section 3.10 explores this issue in more depth.
Where there are large numbers of international students, support may need to be provided in academic writing. Indeed, such support may be necessary more generally, given that so many economics assessments are based on problem sets and exercises, rather than on extended continuous prose. There is some evidence that the writing skills of UK students may also need to be further developed in this context.