Against the backdrop presented by sector wide concerns around students’ mental health and well-being (Remskar et al, 2022), it is important to recognise how dissertation modules for independent learning could appear daunting for some students. They may not have previously experienced this mode of teaching and learning, and/or may lack the skills, experience, knowledge, motivation, and confidence needed.
Within the School of Law, all final year, undergraduate students are required to complete a 40-credit dissertation as part of their degree programme. This blog outlines a skills-based initiative that has been piloted within the School to support students in developing a range of skills, including time management, project management, conducting research, and communication.
What did you do, why did you do it?
Anecdotally, we recognised how dissertation modules can be challenging and the emphasis on independent study and free reign over choice of topic can be overwhelming. Within the existing skills 1-2-1 sessions, students were raising issues around allocating adequate time for writing, and then being productive within that time. They also highlighted struggles around developing academic skills such as critical thinking and structure. In addition, discussions within APT meetings and dissertation supervisions highlighted a perceived lack of dedicated space and time for this research.
As a result, we are currently piloting a skills-based initiative of student writing retreats that situate students at the centre of their own learning and support them in developing their abilities to study independently and meet deadlines. These writing retreats provide students with opportunities to take responsibility for their own learning journeys or, as pedagogical research highlights, to develop the ability to move from partnership to self-authorship (Lubicz-Nawrocka, 2018). To facilitate the writing retreats, we draw on a team of colleagues from within the School of Law who are familiar/have experience in supporting students with the development of their academic skills.
We have advertised the programme through Minerva, physical posters around the School, Dissertation supervisors, emails, and word of mouth. To help foster inclusivity, accessibility, and engagement, we have facilitated the sessions online and have scheduled them to run on a weekly basis, and at a range of different times.
The writing retreats are interactive sessions which provide dedicated time and space for students to reflect on how their dissertation is going, set achievable goals, and work towards submission. Within the sessions, we also encourage students to develop skills including time management and networking, and in doing so, further build their self-efficacy.
Before each session, we encourage students to post on a Padlet wall to introduce themselves and outline their dissertation topic. To help develop a sense of community and belonging from the start. We also invite the students to add any reflections on any challenges that they may be currently facing as they work on their dissertation, for example:
I am struggling with both structure and words. I also have huge confusion about ‘critical thinking’.
Undergraduate student 2023.
Due to the challenges that some students may experience in grasping academic skills, we have found that it is important for each session to be facilitated by a member of staff with experience in supporting students with their skills development.
The initial sessions ran for 2 hours but we have recently increased them to 3 hours following student feedback. Each session is structured around the Pomodoro technique to maximise focus and productivity, and ultimately enjoyment.
See example schedule below:
|Welcome, Introductions, goal settings/questions
|Writing session 1 (including goal setting)
|Writing session 2 (including reflections/goal setting)
|Writing session 3 (including reflections/goal setting)
|Writing session 4 (including reflections/goal setting)
|Closing reflections, feedback, next steps/ questions
What was the impact of your practice and how have you evaluated it?
We encourage students to work with us in developing the format for the sessions, through encouraging feedback in the sessions themselves and through completing a Microsoft form that we circulate towards the end of each session. Feedback from students has been positive, highlighting how much they value the opportunities presented by this initiative.
The introductory sessions were set up so that 50 students could sign up. However, due to interest, this number was increased to 75. In addition, the sessions were primarily linked to the final year undergraduate dissertation module but, as time progressed, and interest grew, we also saw postgraduate students signing up. The sessions are now open to all undergraduate and postgraduate students across the School.
How could others benefit from this example?
This initiative demonstrates the value in working with students to co-create engaging, tailored, comfortable, and productive spaces within which students can work towards their assessments whilst also developing their sense of belonging through involvement within a community of practice. If anyone is interested in finding out more, or if you are running similar opportunities for students, it would be great to hear from you, as we believe there is real potential here for building on this initiative to develop wider student networks and further foster a cross-institutional sense of belonging and community.
We would also like to recognise the support the Skills Team within the School of Law have provided in helping to run these sessions.
Masha Remskar and others, ‘Understanding university student priorities for mental health and well‐being support: A mixed‐methods exploration using the person‐based approach’ (2022) 38 Stress & Health. Available at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdfdirect/10.1002/smi.3133
Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka, ‘From Partnership to Self-Authorship: The Benefits of Co-Creation of the Curriculum’ (2018) 2 International Journal for Students as Partners 47.
Karen Gravett and others, ‘‘More than customers’: conceptions of students as partners held by students, staff, and institutional leaders’ (2020) 45 12 Studies in Higher Education. Available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03075079.2019.1623769?needAccess=true
Alannah Collins, firstname.lastname@example.org, Student Success Tutor, School of Law
Jill Dickinson, Associate Professor in Law, School of Law