Written by: Gina Wisker – Professor of Higher Education and Contemporary Literature and Head of Centre for Learning and Teaching, University of Brighton
It might seem very daunting and impossible to create new knowledge in undergraduate dissertations and projects, but this is far from the truth. Research is not just about regurgitating the writing of others, it is about engaging with interesting questions and approaches, and developing a new view, a new perspective on established work, taking new steps, asking new questions, asking questions a different way, using new theories, combining across work and approaches in a way that are unusual. Projects and dissertations are actually high level intellectual activities and products and they are evidence of systematic approaches, a lot of hard work organising process, practice, literature, methodology and methods, data, explanations and understanding. They are a unique mix of enthusiasm and hard work, systematic focus and planning and management and flights of fancy brought to fruition, new ideas and new slants, new comments, linking ideas and approaches to established work and creating new interpretations. (Wisker, 2009, 2018)
There are several logical steps to a good dissertation and project and the first is a sound question.
Find a question or a hypothesis which you can actually explore from the literature and in the field, in your own work.
Ensure you find it exciting enough to keep you going over a whole year. Make sure you know what questions you are interested in asking, have some idea where to find the literature, and can work out what methodology and methods will help you to ask and answer your question. You are already planning and making this manageable. When you have linked the interest you have about a specific question with the ways in which you might realistically and proactively ask that question, the next issue is that it needs to be theorised.
You need a good enough question. You also need thorough exploration and discussion of the literature to situate the new work, theories or a theory which helps you develop a perspective on the work you are doing, the question you are asking the an interpretation of the information, the data, then the findings which emerge from asking your question.
What theories will you use to give you a perspective on your work?
You will not just be asking a question and conducting a simple experiment looking at some data, analysing some text, then giving the results; you need to decide what perspectives and theories guide your questioning. There will be theories others have used in the field – you will find these from your supervisor or colleagues, and your reading.
Try them out.
Do they make sense in asking your question or are they not at all useful?
What kinds of perspective on the question and the field do they offer?
This might be a theory about how people learn, or about how we understand our identity, or how people weave ideas and arguments together to persuade others, or about the relationship between the place you grew up in and your sense of identity, or about how the height above sea level affects when water boils. All disciplines have theories, and they enable you to take a view, a perspective, ask a question from a specific angle and ask the why and so what, as well as the how questions.
I recently assessed a very good PhD which looked at how international students responded to supervisor comments and used one main theory – Bakhtin’s dialogism. This is always tough to start with – looking at the theories people use – but his theory is about how students and supervisors engage in a dialogue between them and the work and to and fro about what to look at, what to say, what and how to find, how to interpret, how to situate the new work in the old, what’s really being found, what the contested ideas and arguments are. Bakhtin has something on all of this – he sees it as not a fixed set of questions and answers but a dialogue, a communication between the student and their work, and then as their supervisor starts to help with the work, an expression of the exchange between the supervisor and the student’s work. The student needs to learn from the supervisor’s feedback and so there is another dialogue between that feedback and what the student does with it. This story indicates how that theory about a dialogue really helps us understand how and in what ways the postgraduate student asks questions about what supervisors do to enable students to learn, grow, move on, contribute something new. This student’s view was that Bahktin’s version of a dialogue – supervisor and student knowledge and new expectations in the research and understanding – through feedback make this possible.
I hope I have made this theorising sound straightforward, and indeed a good theory must be simple to understand and usable – as well as representing some complex thinking about the world, ideas, practices, values and so on, and how they relate.
You need to determine what’s new about your work and why it matters, and how you can ask your question, and develop a theoretical perspective on the question and what emerges from asking it on a project leading to a project report or a dissertation. What is developed is your data and findings. It is important that asking the theorised question using the right methodology and methods offers in the end a new perspective, a new finding, something which others will want to know about in their own questions for knowledge and their own constructions of understanding.
These are some of the early logical steps and breakthroughs at the heart of your research for a project or dissertation:
- Developing a question
- Finding a theory to give you a perspective
- Finding the right methodology and methods to help you ask and answer or address your question.
The next major skill is developing the ability to write in a systematic and planned way which expresses the excitement of addressing those questions, exploring and understanding, the contestations, the theorising of what you ask and find or construct.
It is an exciting and focused organised journey filled with hard work and something extraordinary which you find, understand, create, and contribute.
Gina Wisker (2009, 2018) The Undergraduate Research Handbook London: Palgrave Macmillan
Gina Wisker is a lead advisor on our online course: Research and Writing Skills for Dissertations and Projects. Sign up your institution for a free course trial here.