Recently the Guardian Professional Higher Education Network ran a poll asking Is the end of the dissertation nigh?. A resounding three-quarters of respondents answered no. Yet this suggests that a quarter of the voters thought the dissertation had had its day. From the many conversations I have had over the last year, while directing a two-year National Teaching Fellowship funded project on Rethinking final year undergraduate projects and dissertations: creative honours and capstone projects, it is clear that that an increasing number of people in higher education are questioning whether the traditional dissertation is fit for purpose.
For the last half century or more the final year undergraduate dissertation, typically an 8-10, 000 word independent project, has been seen as the gold standard for British higher education. However, it is coming under pressure for reform as student participation rates have increased, the number studying professional disciplines has grown, and staff-student ratios have deteriorated. Some courses have abandoned the dissertation altogether, but there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Rethinking the dissertation involves thinking creatively. How can the most important learning outcomes associated with the traditional final year project largely be retained, while giving students a range of other benefits which are more relevant to their interests and future careers?
On June 22nd 2011, over 100 colleagues met at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham to discuss these issues. What struck me most was the wide range of views on diversifying the traditional dissertation, the forms it might take and the issues which arise in making such changes. These reflected disciplinary differences in what counts as research and inquiry and how knowledge is created and disseminated, but also pinpointed differences in institutional practices and individual viewpoints. However, the large majority of people seemed open to change, but had concerns about how they could persuade their colleagues.