In this section, Prof. Michael Short shares how his experience taking the NSE Thesis Tutorial as an undergraduate student at MIT inspired him to make improvements to the course as an instructor. He discusses strategies he’s employed to improve the course, such as using elevator pitches to help students succinctly communicate their research agendas to others, requiring students to learn from each other and from examples on a regular basis, and co-teaching with with a librarian and communications expert to provide students with extensive support.
Opportunity for Improvement
When I was an undergraduate student at MIT, I wrote my NSE thesis prospectus at the end of my sophomore year, and was required to take the thesis tutorial class. I never showed up. I thought it was a complete waste of effort. This was because, at that time—nearly 12 years ago now—the course was very unstructured. There were two meetings per year: one during which the instructor gave the assignment to write the prospectus and another during which students shared their progress. It was mostly up to the students and their advisors to organize a program of research and to write the thesis prospectus. Not everyone can teach themselves—even with the support of an advisor—how to organize a research agenda. As a result, students expressed a desire for a more structured thesis tutorial class. Since I took the course as as an undergraduate, instructors have made the class more constructive, but I still saw an opportunity to significantly improve the experience for students.
Helping Students Develop Research Agendas
This year, we held hour-long weekly meetings with students to discuss not only what should be included in a prospectus, but how to go about actually planning a research program. For many students, this was the first time they had thought about thinking about research.
To begin this process, we spent the first class session working on elevator pitches about their research. Elevator pitches are 30-second research summaries that convey why the research is important. It was probably the hardest assignment for students, because, although they knew (or thought they knew!) what they wanted to study, they had a hard time expressing their agendas in one or two sentences. Not being able to succinctly describe your research agenda and its relevance is a problem, because if you can’t express these things succinctly, no one is going to listen and say, “Interesting, tell me more.” The conversation stops before it begins.
Although it was a struggle for students, they recognized that refining their elevator pitches had value. They left the course being able to communicate their research agendas to friends in other departments, to parents, etc.
Learning from Each Other and from Examples
Requiring students to reguarly come to class and to learn from each other was a major improvement to the course. In addition to working on elevator pitches, I had them debate with each other about aspects of sample prospectuses and theses: Did they think a particular citation was really applicable and appropriate? Did they feel the writer had adequately contextualized a certain statement? To help students learn how to write effective abstracts, we looked at examples culled from previous years’ prospectuses and theses. Students read the abstracts prior to class and we then we critiqued them together. Much learning happened during these face-to-face discussions.
Providing Students with Three-Dimensional Support
Another improvement was the inclusion of MIT Librarian Christine Sherratt, and MIT Writing and Communication Center Coordinator Jane Kokernak, as co-teachers in the course. While I was able to teach the science content of the course, Christine was better equipped to teach students how to locate difficult-to-find literature among library resources. Similarly, Jane was able to provide students with unparalleled support in the areas of rhetoric and expression. In short, students benefited from having me as a content expert, Christine as an information literacy expert, and Jane as a writing expert. This three-dimensional support system allowed students to learn about content, structure, form, and expression—and how these elements would come together in their prospectuses and theses.
A quote provided by undergraduates to a visiting committee in 2015 suggests this support system, along with the other adjustments we made to the course, created a more useful thesis seminar for students:
“22.THT (Undergraduate Thesis Tutorial) is showing marked improvement. [An] issue raised by the previous delegation’s report was the poor quality and perceived uselessness of 22.THT, a class that ought to help prepare students adequately to write a thesis. The class has been redesigned to provide more information, resources, and feedback from writing instructors to help each student write a high-quality thesis prospectus in manageable steps by the end of the semester.”
Students’ feedback about the course has inspired us to continue to offer an interactive and supportive seminar.