S/He said what? Managing interaction and feedback along an MA thesis trajectory

By Lauren Wagner; graphics by Pinelopi Kaslama

The students of this year’s MA Globalisation and Development Studies (GDS) have just rounded up Period 3 working on their MA thesis proposals. As they finished the thesis development course, I heard from a supervisor that one of her students had gotten comments from a tutor about the scope and direction of her proposal that seemed to go too far. They had spent a good part of a supervision meeting on reconfirming that the thesis was going in the right direction. Since I am coordinator of that course, I could look up the written feedback the tutor had provided. I summarised it to the supervisor, and she said ‘Oh, that’s exactly what I was saying. And it’s very well put. So different from what the student told me!’

Our ongoing project, Learning by Doing, is designed to address problems like this – the missed signals and crossed wires of interaction and feedback about MA thesis work.

When you think about it, it’s an amazing feat that every year we graduate hundreds of students who start their MA in September and complete it with a research-based thesis in June. It requires so much coordination to match the course content students absorb with guidance on academic writing and research methods, collaboration with supervisors and external experts, and the necessary project management skills to complete the whole thing independently.

This project, funded by a SURF grant for Online Educational development, aims to combine some of these elements by deploying Canvas-based tools for students to track their own progress, recall course resources, and especially gather feedback from various sources in a centralised place. The hope is that we can avoid some of these missed signals and crossed wires by making moments of feedback transparent across multiple participants… not that all those giving feedback will necessarily agree with each other, but at least we might be able to dialogue without appearing to disagree 🙂

We have recently finished the first phase of the project, which focused on gathering design ideas and input from a variety of MA programmes on how the thesis process – in particular feedback moments – are organised. With the help of research assistant Pinelopi Kaslama – who has just graduated from MA GDS – we collected and analysed documentation from MA programmes in Maastricht (including several from FASoS – thank you!) and the Netherlands. We used these materials to map out structures and milestones in a thesis trajectory (in the mindmap below), with a focus on programmes where students ‘leave the nest’, traveling abroad for internships or research, making online spaces for interaction more needed. Of course, this project was conceived pre-COVID; this problem of online interaction is now one that resonates with many more programmes than these.

Figure 1: Mindmap of our preliminary research comparing how different programmes organise their MA thesis trajectory structures and milestones 

Perhaps not surprisingly, we found that many programmes have similar core steps and structures to guide students in a 1-year thesis, but they are organised quite differently in their implementation. With the objective of making a set of tools that can be adopted by many different programmes, we distilled how these steps connect with ways students track their own progress and interact with others – ranging from their own supervisor to the thesis coordinator/programme director, external advisors, and peers (in the timeline below).

Figure 2: Timeline showing our initial breakdown of thesis trajectory steps, with moments for interaction among different actors 

Most recently, based on this initial design, we’ve gotten feedback from a UM-based advisory board. Among their many detailed comments, they also raised issues like the challenge thesis coordinators face in communicating expectations and guidelines to the whole range of participants in this process, and the need to balance guidance and instruction – often more concentrated early in the year – with moments for feedback and discussion as students become more self-guided in their thesis trajectory. They were also particularly curious about how we can implement something like a portfolio or research diary that students would keep along the way – one part of the project we will explore more next year.

Now, as we enter the second phase of Learning by Doing, Sjoerd Stoffels, Karlijn Haagsman, Floris Peters, Elsje Fourie and I are trying to incorporate these lessons as we start implementing some online course-based resources for ‘doing analysis’, in the final months of the GDS thesis trajectory. In addition, we have been testing out some of the available tools in Canvas, like Feedback Fruits and other peer review functions, to evaluate their functionality and portability for students to gather effective feedback, from multiple sources, and carry it with them as they continue thesis work in their next course or next supervisor meeting.

Next year, we will hopefully have more updates for you on how this has worked out… Personally, while I can still see the need for designing a more self-directed and transparent thesis portal – especially since we still have problems of crossed wires on feedback – I am wondering if we can find a way to use the technology available on platforms like Canvas to make this easier instead of more complicated.

About the authors

Pinelopi Kaslama is a graduate of MA Globalisation and Development Studies from Maastricht University. She never stops dreaming of a better world and she believes that research is the basic step to identify challenges that need to be tackled.

Lauren Wagner is currently Programme Director of the MA Globalisation and Development Studies at FASoS. Though a holder of two MA degrees and a PhD, she is still trying to figure out how to write a good thesis.

Suggested reading

  • On supervision: Roberts, L.D.  & Seaman K. (2018) Good undergraduate dissertation supervision: perspectives of supervisors and dissertation coordinators, International Journal for Academic Development, 23(1), 28-40, https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2017.1412971
  • On feedback: Blair, A., Curtis, S., Goodwin, M., & Shields, S. (2013). What Feedback do Students Want? Politics, 33(1), 66–79. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9256.2012.01446.x
  • On working with students that one only sees rarely: Middleton, D. (2012). The loneliness of the long-distance student: Supervising students you rarely see. In C. Gormley-Heenan, & S. Lightfoot (Eds.), Teaching politics and international relations (pp. 226-235). Palgrave Macmillan.