Preparing for your dissertation

GEOG60662 R22–0911

Supporting materials

  • Slides/materials: slides, Menti, Article extract/questioning matrix.


  • Group size: 100
  • Length: 1 hour 15 minutes
  • Room: Lecture theatre
  • Discipline: Geography
  • Level: PGT

Learning outcomes:

  • LO1 Searching for relevant and academic quality literature and evidence
  • LO2 Critically engage with the literature to deepen knowledge

Suggested online resources:

Copy the content from the following embed with these additions —

  • Note making — 1.0
  • Critical reading- 1.1


The workshop will cover the three skills most closely aligned to the assessment criteria for your dissertation. In the workshop we will cover a series of strategies that will facilitate how you approach your research. Together we will work through some activities where you will practice the strategies today with others to increase students confidence when applying the strategies to individual research and link them to the appropriate marking criteria.

Outline how writing a dissertation demonstrates the following skills and these are what will be covered in the class.

  • Knowledge and understanding of topic
  • Researching a topic
  • Organising and presenting an argument

Coursework dissertation example

Students are shown an example of a relevant dissertation topic alongside the marking criteria or rubric. This rubric shows what is needed to achieve the higher grades for the coursework e.g. critical engagement with primary or secondary resources/ originality of argument/ referencing/ accuracy and depth of knowledge. It can be a useful took to look at what is expected.

The marking criteria for the annotated bibliography is in the process of being finalised.

LO1 Researching a topic or Searching for literature

Menti activity: Audience response — Where do you currently look for information for your coursework?

Searching systematically

This introduces the next activity about why its important to be systematic when you are looking for information for your studies. It is important to document all of the research as it happens to be systematic about identifying the most relevant and up to date literature. Emphasise that the evidence that students use will influence the marker. Evidence should be relevant, valid and will have influenced students thoughts.

Activity 1: Map your keywords

The room is given a topic title and are asked to break it down into keywords and phrases that they would use to find relevant information.

TK Menti will be used to collate the student responses: need to set up the menti and refresh the code prior to the session.

Topic title

To assess the potential of remote sensing as a tool for monitoring peatland vegetation change?”

Activity 2: Rank your words and phrases

This activity is designed to get students reflect on what search terms they should use in their searches to ensure they will quickly find relevant information.

Seek out key concepts

This slide is used to highlight the keywords from the topic title in red.

What other keywords could you use?

As well as the key concepts there are also further keywords and concepts that can be used to find relevant information on the databases e.g.

peatlands; satellites; remote sensing; Sphagnum; hydrology; vegetation cover; spectral analysis; image analysis; environmental management; Environmental Monitoring; Infrared Rays; Satellite Communications; Spectrophotometry, Infrared; Water Movements; Wetlands; moisture stress index

Search Strings can expand/ refine/ exclude

This illustrates how the students can build a search to use on the library databases.

Research tools

This section of the presentation introduces the cohort to the key resources for their subject. Explain that it is important to use a wide range of resources in your research.

Library Search, the subject guide, subject database are introduced and their uses outlined to the cohort when locating information for their dissertation. An example of a relevant search is included with each resource.

TK Activity — Menti — Where you you currently look for information for your coursework?

Library Search

Key access point for information, easy to use and locate relevant information — I emphasise that its important to use the advanced search option to refine the results and increase relevance.

Screenshot of advanced search on UoM Library website. Image license CC by NC 4.0

Your subject guide

2nd key access point for information — all your resources in one place. Emphasise that all subjects taught at the University of Manchester have a subject guide and that they can find specific databases for their subject.

Key databases

Reiterate that it is important to not search in isolation e.g. never use one resource to find information. In a comprehensive search the student should use a wide range of resources in order to find relevant and high quality articles for their studies.

Google Scholar

3rd key access point for information — In addition to the library resources they should also use Google Scholar. I ask them if they use it as a key resource and there are always some that hold their hands up. I emphasise here the nature of Google Scholar and its access to information that we don’t necessarily have in the library such as pre-prints, research material and grey literature and there are limitations with the Google search engine and the fact that it could be 6–12 months before an article appears in Google Scholar and it will be available a lot quicker on the library databases.

The facilitator asks the students to think about developing a portfolio of research resources such as the key databases, Library search, Google Search, primary and secondary resources. Talk about how the activity that the students have just engaged in can be used as a strategy independently as part of their research. Sign post the students to the MLE resources that are embedded within Bb as a source of support when the students are carrying out their research.

TK Menti Activity: Audience response — Why should you use these resources?

This activity is to check with the students why they should be using the resources highlighted. This will be an open answer Menti and the facilitator should use as a link to the next section — engaging critically.

LO2 Critically engage with the literature — annotated bibliography

This section will emphasise the importance of engaging critically with your assessment in terms of the annotated bibliography.

“The important thing is to never stop questioning” (Albert Einstein)

TK Menti -Activity: Audience response — What does being critical mean to you?

This activity is used to gain an understanding of what the students think being critical means — this will be used as a discussion point:

  • Being critical in your literature review doesn’t necessarily mean pulling literature to pieces, you can demonstrate being critical in a number of ways.
  • When academics talk about “being critical” or “critical thinking”, they are talking about an approach you take to everything you do. It is associated mainly with questioning things and using these questions to develop your own argument.

Questioning information sources

If you want to be able to put together strong, critical, academic work and achieve higher marks, it is important to make a habit of asking questions of your source material, rather than taking things at face value.

TK What Is an annotated bibliography?

An annotated bibliography is a list of citations to books, articles, and documents. Each citation is followed by a brief descriptive and evaluative paragraph, the annotation. The purpose of the annotation is to inform the reader of the relevance, accuracy, and quality of the sources cited.

To assist you with the evaluative paragraph you can use the following questions to develop your understanding of the text and its context within the subject area.

The following six questions are a great starting point:

  • What?
  • Why?
  • When?
  • How?
  • Where?
  • Who?

You can often find the answer to some of these questions straight away (in an article abstract for example), which can help you decide whether the source in question is relevant to your needs.

Once you know whether the source in question is going to be relevant, you can start to devise further questions which will help you evaluate it.

We will now look at each of these questions in turn.

What… type of source is it?

Identifying what kind of source you have can help you in indicating the source’s quality. This is important if you are using the source to establish an argument. A high quality information source can enhance your argument or research.

Here are some questions that you could ask:

  • What are the main arguments that are contained in the source?
  • What is the content of the source that is relevant to your research?
  • Has the information been verified in any way?

Why… was the source produced?

Just as you should pay close attention to your purpose when searching for information, you should also consider the purpose of each source you come across.

  • Why was the source written?
  • What was the author hoping to achieve?

Different types of source are often written with a different purpose in mind. Let’s return to some of the source types mentioned earlier in this resource:

  • Conference proceedings are written to inform, giving those who couldn’t attend the conference a basic outline of what was discussed.
  • Journal articles are written to inform others of new research in a certain field but they are also designed to persuade the reader of the value of the author’s research and validity of their arguments.
  • Blogs are usually written to entertain readers and often feature the author’s subjective opinion on a certain subject, without necessarily including evidence for those opinions.
  • Newspapers are written to inform readers about the news and current events, however, particular newspapers tend to have a political leaning which influences the way they present information. Some information within them is also to entertain.

When… was it created?

In order to decide whether a source is relevant to your purpose you will need to gather information about when it was created. Different types of information sources are created in different ways, so the exact information you gather may differ depending on what you are looking at. Here’s what you should consider in this regard:

  • When the source was published?
  • When was it last updated?
  • How often is it updated? (especially important for websites)
  • What is the time between any events discussed and the source’s publication?

Often, your academic work will require you to demonstrate your understanding of the current debate surrounding a particular topic so you will want to make sure that the information you use is up to date.

Pro tip: Academic journal articles are often a good place to look for up-to-date research on a particular topic as they take less time to publish than an academic book. Academics will usually use a journal article as a way of sharing their newest research and ideas to see what the reaction is, then they may build on these ideas in a book later on.

Who… wrote or produced the information source?

Finding out more about who wrote a particular source can help you make an assessment of how reliable it is. Consider what the author’s background is — are they well qualified to talk about the subject? Have they written anything else? Some sources, such as academic journal articles, are more likely to make information about the author/s readily available (often this can be found in the article abstract). Other sources like websites may require you to investigate further in order to find this information.

Learning about the author of a source can also give you an indication of how objective it is.

  • Does the author have a bias?
  • Has the author been funded by or affiliated to an organisation?
  • Who is the intended audience and does this affect its relevance?

When searching for sources to use in your academic work you will usually want to find sources which have been produced by experts in the subject area. However, in some cases your assignment brief might specifically ask you to comment on public opinion during a particular time period, in which case newspapers and other primary sources might be helpful.

Where… was the source produced?

You can look at this through a couple of lenses. You might want to look at the geographical location of where the information source was made available. This might be relevant to your research area. You may also want to look at where the source was published and the process that the information went through to be made available.

The second lens is to look towards where the source was published; this can support you in defining the objectivity and reliability of the source. If you are looking at a research journal article then you might want to look if the journal is peer reviewed. Peer review is a publishing process where before research is published the article will be looked at by experts in the discipline. This process is considered by some to enhance the quality of the research.

Questions you could ask are:

  • What is the purpose of the source and does the purpose influence the objectivity?
  • Where is the source published?
  • Was the source peer reviewed?

How… was the information produced?

When you examine how the information was produced you are looking in more detail at the source. You want to know how the author got to their main idea that they are sharing. So you might be asking questions to establish the reliability of the source by looking towards any references that they might have provided to substantiate their ideas.

If the source is a piece of research then look at how sound their methodology is to establish reliability as well as relevance. If the source is not a piece of research then has it been informed by research, can you identify that research and examine the credibility of the original work and then analyse the purpose of the secondary source?

So you may be asking questions like:

  • Does the source provide references that have informed its current form?
  • What methodology was used?

Reliability, objectivity, relevance

While thinking like a detective is a good way to approach evaluating the sources you read, consider how you will have those sources earn their place in informing your opinion. Studying at university you will be expected to make judgements on the information that you give credence to, that you use to inform your thinking and that you go on to cite in your work.

You can use the previously outlined questioning approach to make an evaluation that will lead you to think about the information source from the three following perspectives. Thinking about information sources and their reliability, objectivity and relevance can help you to elaborate on the evaluation that you have made and support you in writing and talking about the information that you have identified.

Reliability: Is the evidence trustworthy? There needs to be a good reason to believe that the information presented is accurate and complete in order for a source to be considered reliable.

Objectivity: Is the evidence objective/neutral? Note that a source doesn’t need to be objective for you to use it in your work. In some cases, you may be seeking sources from a particular perspective to illustrate a point, or provide a counter-argument. However, it is important that you are aware of any bias when using a source.

Relevance: Is the evidence useful/relevant? A source can be reliable, objective and of a generally high quality, but if it’s not relevant to your work then there’s no point in using it.

Is the evidence useful/relevant? A source can be reliable, objective and of a generally high quality, but if it’s not relevant to your work then there’s no point in using it.

Activity: Try using this questioning strategy handout to help you come up with questions that you might ask of the following article.

Matthew Clarke, Sophie Perreard & Phil Connors (2019) Building a humanitarian sector career: understanding the education vs experience tension, Third World Quarterly, 40:9, 1655–1669, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2019.1601549

You may need to log-in with your university username and password to access the journal article.

This image illustrates what is different between descriptive and analytical — the key parts of “being critical” in an academic way — questioning, querying, where is the evidence? Looking at and evaluating the work of different researchers with a critical eye and connecting with information that you know.

Being Critical — Recap

The facilitator talks through these key bullet points about being critical.

  • Question and evaluate what you read
  • Are any claims supported by evidence?
  • Comparison and conflict of the literature
  • Provide an argument
  • Contribute new ideas to the debate surrounding your topic

Question Question Question!

TK Critical reading strategy — refer to the the MLE resource — predict, identify, question.

Note taking — Cornell notes

Highlight that Cornell notes can help you keep track of the key facts/dates, Main notes and summary of the sources the students find.

What else do you need to keep?

  • Details of the paper so that you can find it again and reference it
  • Relevant quotes/data that you will use
  • Your thoughts on the paper — evaluation, what it means to your project
  • Summary of the paper

Wrap up and Further help

The facilitator highlights sources of support e.g

  • Referencing LibGuide
  • SLS website and the SLS publication
  • University of Manchester academic phrasebank
  • My Learning Essentials — citing it right tutorial
  • Library Chat/email

Ask the SCONUL question with Menti



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