The IU2030 Strategic Plan’s emphasis on “meaningful and mentored research and creative experiences” for undergraduates is an opportunity to think about how we support our seniors’ writing thesis and capstone projects.
Thesis writing can be overwhelming: often a student’s first foray into long-term research projects feels like a completely different experience to classes and coursework. And for many students, the thesis is their first time working for an extended period on their own and on a project that few friends and colleagues are familiar with. There’s a lack of solidarity and support implicit to this model of academic work, one that many of us have experienced throughout our own careers.
Although every student’s writing process is different and each program will have its own expectations for senior theses, here are some general strategies for supporting students throughout their thesis writing:
Help Students Contextualize Their Projects
Especially when beginning new and exciting projects, settling on a research question of an appropriate scope and depth takes time! Harvard’s Bok Center for Teaching and Learning offers the following advice: “One of your most important jobs as a thesis adviser is to roleplay your student’s future audience, and to help your student understand that the most successful theses ask questions that are not only meaningful, but that can be answered at least somewhat plausibly by the set of skills, resources, and time that is available to a Harvard undergraduate.”
Guide students toward keeping their audience in mind as they frame their research questions: what scholarly conversation are they entering into, what has already been done, and what is there left still to do? Remind them of the long-term skills they are developing through the process: project management, data collection and analysis, and the ability to undertake long-term independent work.
Talk openly about expectations
Start early with a conversation about what expectations you (and your program) have for the project, as well as work timelines, check-ins, sending drafts, and your own approach to giving feedback. Ideally, this will be a two-way conversation: every student will have their own process, and by the time they are seniors, many students will have a good sense for what works and doesn’t work for them, the main difference with the thesis project is the scale or scope. This dialogue can help not only lessen anxiety around timelines and feedback, but also acknowledges students’ ownership of their projects. You could also write up a timeline together, which can serve as a foundation for later check-ins, for thinking through and discussing obstacles or successes the student experiences, and for working together to adjust and re-evaluate progress and writing plans.
Encourage students to use the writing process
Encourage students to think of writing as an ongoing process:
- writing as a way of thinking
- using outlines to give structure to research
- reading and note-taking with their argument in mind
- using drafts to form and organize thoughts
- revising as something that can happen multiple times in a variety of different directions.
The approach to writing papers that students develop in classes can lead to thinking of writing as a linear process. Students may try to complete all their reading, planning, or research before they’ve set fingers to keyboard. This is difficult for a writer moving into a new genre and is unsustainable when it comes to managing long-term writing projects. When we frame writing as a process, we help students to think of revision less as making something better, and more as taking their thoughts down a different path or shifting an argument’s direction. Feedback can then be thought of as a form of revision, which may help to lessen the anxiety that always comes from receiving feedback on written work. In this way, we can also encourage students to develop a regular, or even daily, writing schedule in which everything they write “counts” even if it doesn’t end up in the final draft.
Share your own experiences as a writer
Part of what helps us to be great mentors is that we’ve been through this same process ourselves. Share your own experiences, obstacles, difficulties, and successes with your students! Writing, especially long-term projects, is difficult, though in different ways for each of us. The more we can speak openly and honestly about positive and challenging aspects of this process with our students and with each other, the greater our capacity to alleviate writing anxiety, to help our students feel more confident in their own developing skills, and to create meaningful and sustainable networks of support for all of our students.
Check in with your students regularly
Part of the writing process is learning and experimenting with schedules and habits to find out what works for each of us, and as the semester goes on and thesis writing is added to the already long list of classes, work, self-care, and many other demands, the process can quickly become overwhelming. Working together with your students to set a schedule of regular check-ins can ease some anxiety by providing a solid foundation of support and ensuring you have time to dedicate to each of the students you’re mentoring. It can be especially helpful if these check-ins are not tied to giving feedback on drafts, but rather times for the student to share challenges, successes, ideas, and questions, a conversational space guided by the students’ own experience of their writing process. These meetings can also be valuable for encouraging reflection on the writing process itself, especially at early stages of the project: how, when, where are they working, what strategies have they found successful in the past, and how well have those habits translated to this new project?
If you or your colleagues are interested in talking more about strategies for mentoring thesis writers, contact the CITL for a consultation. If students want additional feedback on their writing, or to talk more generally about the writing process, they can schedule an appointment with a WTS Writing Tutor!