On-line Thesis: A simple method for supportive thesis supervision that also works in distant learning environment

Many students face challenges with their Master’s or Bachelor’s thesis work process. Getting started may feel difficult due to the infamous “blank page syndrome”, and structuring the work can feel difficult. Sometimes questions are tricky to communicate to the supervisors, or their advice is forgotten before the student gets back at their desk. Supervisors may also be difficult to reach, if they are located in different departments or institutions, and if they are unaware of each other’s comments to the work, the supervision process may become inefficient.

In our supervision pilot, we found that one way to tackle these issues is to encourage the student to do an on-line thesis in a shared process with the supervisors. A practical way for this is to utilize the university Microsoft Office 365 on-line version for Word [or some other platform for collaborative writing, such as Overleaf for users of Latex; Editor’s comment], which provides an excellent way to share a document between the student and the supervisors, and everyone can access and comment on the same document in an easy and secure way.

The on-line thesis starts with the student creating a Word file for the thesis, sharing the file with the supervisors, and adding the preliminary thesis plan as the starting point. Then the student creates an outline for the thesis – in the form of a table of contents – and starts to write the thesis directly in this document. In the beginning, supervisors can go through the thesis idea and table of contents, and the student and supervisors can agree on certain “checkup points” when the supervisors can open the document and add comments, tips and reflections on it. The supervisors can also easily discuss each other’s comments and directly answer questions posed by the student with the comment tool in Word.

Experiences of the process

We have now piloted this work with two master students, one of which just finished their thesis with excellent outcomes. The process has been smooth, and it has been easy to follow up on the students’ progress and to support the thesis work. Agreeing on checkup times and answering questions that have arisen on the way has also been very simple after a check-up request by the student. It has also been fruitful to discuss the thesis over the phone, when both parties can access the current version of the thesis [or Zoom or similar, where the view can be shared, adds the Editor]. The students have been especially happy about the exchange between supervisors and the easy way to get tips for further reading.

In my experience, an on-line thesis is an easy way to create an efficient thesis process, where the student feels supported and motivated to work with the thesis. The process has also been very efficient time-wise, as the checkup points were very easy to arrange and the current version of the thesis file is easy to access.

Considerations for the work

This type of thesis process is not probably a one-size-fits-all solution for all students, as some may want to keep their work in progress more private, and I will personally keep this method as a voluntary option for students willing to go along with a shared process. However, according to my years of experience with bachelor’s and master’s thesis projects, I think that this type of working suits most students, as it also lowers the threshold of starting the work and gives the students a strong feeling of supervisor involvement.

As a general note, I would emphasize that it is important that the student feels in control of when supervisors visit the document. The on-line method is a tool for support and not for surveillance: in other words, the idea is not to create a version of Foucault’s Panopticon prison, where the prisoners are kept in check by never knowing when they are being watched, but to motivate and support the student by a feeling of getting heard easily. After piloting the method, it seems that this type of working also lowers the threshold for students to share “work in progress”, as they know that the supervisors are involved right from the beginning with the draft version of the work, and do not expect the thesis to be presented only when it is perfectly polished.

I would be happy to hear more experiences on other thesis project, if more people have experimented with similar methods. On-line support methods for supervision are especially useful now when we are not present in campus, and the students cannot just walk into our offices to ask for advice with their work.

Venla Bernelius
Assistant Professor, Geography
Department for Geosciences and Geography
University of Helsinki


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