Problems Concerning Students Jointly Researching and Writing their Master s Degree Dissertations: some preliminary observations

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1 Ref 4.12 Problems Concerning Students Jointly Researching and Writing their Master s Degree Dissertations: some preliminary observations Stephen Dunn Programme Director, MSc Human Resource Management, Department of Management London School of Economics Linda Walker Seear Fellow, Department of Management, London School of Economics and Senior Lecturer, University of Brighton. and Conference Stream 4: Employability, Skills and Training. Paper: 4.12 This is a preliminary working paper. Not for quotation Key words: employability, groups, quality, assessment. Abstract For 25 years the MSc HRM at LSE has permitted, indeed encouraged, students to submit their dissertations as joint work for joint assessment. Students normally work in pairs and their research co-operation is part of their professional training for graduate membership of the CIPD. Recently this practice has been challenged by external examiners. As part of the debate on the validity of joint work, some of the main points at issue are summarised here. In addition some preliminary findings of a survey of exstudents are offered. These indicate that student opinion is divided on the experience of working in pairs. A slight majority appear to have enjoyed the experience and think pairing should continue. But a very substantial minority appeared to be unhappy about it. This is a cause for concern, offering ammunition to those who insist that dissertations should be an individual effort. 1

2 Problems Concerning Students Jointly Researching and Writing their Master s Degree Dissertations: some preliminary observations The issue For over twenty-five years, students on the MSc Human Resource Management (and its predecessors) at the London School of Economics (LSE) have conducted joint dissertations. In the 1980s they worked in groups of three, four or even five. However, during the 1990s a standard pattern of working in pairs was established that still prevails. This arrangement was recently (2005) challenged by an external examiner on the degree, who thought it surprising that students were not assessed individually on their capacity to produce the complete dissertation package from literature review, via hypothesis generation and methodology to presentation and discussion of results. Subsequently, the other external examiners on the MSc HRM have also expressed doubts about the validity of joint dissertations. In the UK system, external examiners are appointed, usually for a three or four year term, as a means of controlling the quality of degrees and their associated assessment processes and of helping to ensure consistent national standards. Normally such examiners are drawn from sister faculties in other universities and are experienced teachers within the subject area. They are usually considered to be the final arbiter not only of marks, but also of the fairness of examinations. Therefore, a concerted objection to a particular form of assessment, especially one so important as the dissertation, which counts as one quarter of the degree, places that assessment in significant jeopardy. It must be justified or abandoned. The present paper is intended to contribute to the ultimate decision. As far as we are aware, joint assessments, especially joint dissertations, are highly unusual in the UK. In fact we have so far encountered only one other example at master s level. Moreover LSE s university rules permit only individual assessments. In order to comply with these rules, the examination board, with the agreement of previous sets of external examiners, decided that the two students involved in each project should specify who had written each part of the submitted dissertation (i.e. chapters would be attributed to one or the other student). In fact it was this rather cumbersome method of complying with the rules that attracted the attention of the new external examiners in Attaching names to chapters made it appear that each student was not involved in the whole process. One appeared to have written the literature review, for example, and the other the methodology chapter. Such compartmentalisation, however, was not the original intention of joint dissertations. The rationale for joint dissertations Ascertaining the original intention of joint dissertations stretches organisational memory somewhat. Even so, it is certain that a major consideration was the importance of students learning to work together. The MSc HRM, known 25 years ago as the Professional Stream, was and is a professional as well as an academic qualification. Successful students become Graduate Members of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and 2

3 Development (CIPD). As part of the vocational dimension of the degree, students have to participate in various workshops and particular emphasis is given to co-operative activities. The idea of a joint dissertation accords with this emphasis on developing interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and teamworking. An indication that such an emphasis was prominent in the thinking of the original architects of the scheme is that, as mentioned above, research teams at that time were somewhat large (3-5 students). An adjacent rationale concerns the CIPD s requirement that dissertation research be conducted within an organisation on a live HRM issue. To this end, the LSE has developed a Links scheme, by which both private and public sector companies give students access for research. Sending students to these companies as a team has clear advantages. Certainly the originators of the scheme saw their 3 to 5 person group almost as a team of consultants, who would plan their campaign, allocate tasks and produce a report in a relatively short time. A squad, it was argued, would be more energetic, be more goal oriented and produce more valuable (to the company) research than 4 or 5 individuals, tackling a dissertation in the traditional manner. This argument continues to prevail, even though the maximum size of the group is now two. The course leaders still see the mutual support and shared responsibility involved as offering efficiencies that help students tackle the sometimes daunting task of conducting research in a business organisation. They have pointed out, for example, that while it may seem shocking to allow students to work as a research team, such teams are the norm amongst professional academics, presumably because of the derived efficiencies. Papers authored by pairs of academics are commonplace and it is not unusual to find authorship shared among 4 or 5 members of a research project. However, professional authors do not operate under rules that require each to specify what he or she has written. Students on the MSc HRM do. To some extent the university rules undermine the original intention of joint dissertations, which identified the merit of a dissertation partly in terms of how skilfully the team blended diverse contributions into a seamless whole. In other words, it was the completeness of the final product, not the distinctiveness of its parts, that was under scrutiny. Even now, when students are required to label those parts, they are encouraged by their supervisors to ensure that the bits fit together and contribute to a consistent and coherent document. Above all, they are discouraged from indulging in a my chapters are better than your chapters tournament. For this reason, a dissertation is normally given a single mark, reflecting its overall quality. Only in extreme circumstances are chapters marked separately, usually when the relationship between the two students has broken down and one or both insists on separate assessment. So far, this has been rare. Problems with the above rationale The original idealism continues to underpin the defence of joint dissertations on the MSc HRM. However the rationale outlined above can be attacked from various angles. First, the university s examination rules, in forcing chapters to be labelled by the authors name, might be seen as making a mockery of the idea of joint dissertations. The markers, internal and external, are being asked to consider the separate contributions, but then ignore them in setting a single overall mark. In other words, there is a fiction involved 3

4 pretending it is the work of a notional single author, when each chapter is flagged with a reminder that it is not. As our external examiners have suggested, the fiction is unsustainable. Second, critics might readily insist that the university s examination rules are there for a good reason. Like other academic degrees, the MSc HRM is awarded to an individual, not a team. Therefore, in receiving the award, an individual should be expected to have demonstrated the necessary abilities, including the completion of a dissertation without the help of fellow students. Otherwise, prospective employers or selectors on other academic programmes are being misled. This is a strong argument, although it relies rather heavily on the notion that academic awards are generally a reliable indication of the talents of the people that hold them. Third, and related, the analogy with jointly-authored academic work can be regarded as flawed because professional academics are not publishing their articles in pursuit of a qualification awarded to an individual scholar. This is a fair point, although, of course, academics achieve individual promotions partly based on joint work, where the question of who did what may not be vigorously pursued by those who make the promotion decisions. Fourth, we might warn ourselves that in a litigious age and an era in which students pay high fees, it is only a matter of time before a student complains that joint assessment is not fair and that he or she suffered a detriment because of, say, the indolence of their partner. Under legal scrutiny, the existing process might be vulnerable. Fifth, it could be argued that there is a simple solution to the external examiner s objections. This solution only marginally compromises the aspirations of the original designers of the scheme. Specifically, students could continue to do joint empirical research, pooling their energies and resources, but they would have to write their dissertations separately, if necessary sharing their empirical results. Certainly something would be lost (i.e. developing the emotional and intellectual skills involved in jointauthorship) and issues concerning plagiarism might emerge. Even so, this may provide a workable compromise. What do students think? When the external examiners raised their objections to joint assessment and then persisted in those objections, the course leaders decided to undertake some research into the appropriateness of the MSc HRM arrangements in order to inform discussion at the next examination board (October 2008). An intended initial task was to find similar arrangements in other universities against which the MSc HRM might be benchmarked. Unfortunately such arrangements are extremely rare. A second approach was to find out what students who had experienced joint working and assessment on the MSc HRM thought about it. A preliminary examination of these results is discussed here. The next step is to supplement student opinion with that of supervisors. 4

5 Our sample consisted of 70 ex-students. The questionnaire was a mix of fixed-choice and open-ended questions relating to how partners were chosen, how work was planned, how the dissertation was written up and the respondents opinion of the experience. The most general question we asked was: Are you glad you worked as a pair? ` YES 54% NO 46% Of course, it is always tempting to say that a solid majority was happy and therefore everything is rosy in the garden. Such a conclusion might be reinforced by: And: Would you advise us the continue this way of working? YES 56% NO 44% Was it useful to be in a pair when you visited your Link? YES 56% NO 44% However, it may be best not to be too sanguine about these findings. Given that the assessment arrangements are controversial and abnormal, such a level of dissent is rather worrying. In any given year, if these results were typical, it would mean that, of a cohort of about 50, as many as 23 would be less than happy with the experience of working as a pair and would not recommend we continue. Even the basic rationale of pairing up students (i.e. mutual support when entering an alien environment) is disputed by nearly half those experiencing it. One of the key problem areas may well be how the pairs are formed. Qualitative answers suggest that students have a propensity to team up with a friend on the programme, although this reason competes with mutual interest in a topic and complementary skills. Friendship is an obvious criterion for selecting a partner, but may not prove to be the most efficient. Joining up with a friend is initially an anxiety-reducer, a comfort zone. But during the task, it may merely reveal common shortcomings. It might be noted here that 20 years ago, the cohort was mostly UK students because the CIPD offering a UK qualification. Nowadays UK students are very much in the minority and one difficult issue is that, despite all the discussion about the importance of diversity, students tend to bond along national/language lines. In other words, friendship is a proxy for nationality/first language. Among other things, this may mean that cultural difficulties in conducting research are exacerbated by friendship bonds. 5

6 A way to overcome this is for the programme leaders to assign partners rationally, based on complementary skills, work experience, research interests and company preferences. As it stands, some students are assigned partners, but this tends to be a default, if they fail to do it for themselves. Responses to the open-ended questions tend to suggest that being allocated to a partner is a source of discontent ( lazy, nobody else would work with them ), even though two-thirds of people who were allocated a partner were happy with the result. Over time, some programme leaders have suggested that to counter these difficulties, pairs should be selected randomly by secret ballot. However, this might be expected to raise the levels of discontent (via powerlessness ), so a mixture of self-selection and allocation has prevailed, especially when matching pairs to companies. When asked to comment on the benefits of working as a pair, ex-students tended, as expected, to emphasise mutual support when visiting their company. On the disadvantages, replies were sometimes quite bitter. They tended to underline not that partnership was entirely bad as a concept, but that there was a degree fortune involved in how the pair performed that made some students feel aggrieved. In short, the process was beyond their control. The difficulties involved in writing up the project jointly appeared to provoke a lot of hostile reaction. This would seem to be the most challenging part of the process, with more than one ex-student saying that they effectively ignored their partner and wrote the entire thing themselves. There were far more comments on the drawbacks than the advantages. Moreover, when asked what they would do differently if they had another opportunity,16 out of 70 said that they would have chosen a different partner or have insisted on working alone. This is quite a disturbingly high proportion, although, to be fair, 21 out of 70 said that they would not have changed anything. Concluding remarks This research is at a preliminary stage and it is important not to be drawn into conclusions that claim to be definitive. However, the survey responses are illuminating and indicate that joint dissertations imply quite a high level of risk in terms of student dissatisfaction. Almost as many students as find it rewarding and enlightening find it frustrating and even enraging. Clearly these findings provide much food for thought for the programme leaders, especially those who have championed joint dissertations for many years. They are also ammunition for those who insist that an academic dissertation should be the product of individual effort. 6

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