Preparing for your dissertation

GEOG60662 R20–0671

Supporting materials

  • Slides/materials: slides, Menti, flip chart paper and pens, A4 paper


  • Group size: 100
  • Length: 2 hours
  • 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
  • LO3 Incorporate references into writing

Suggested online resources:


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 above document was sourced from the lecturer and is not publicly available.

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. Flip charts and pens are given out and they are asked to write down all the words in a mind map format to capture all the terms.

Topic title

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

Activity 2: Rank your words and phrases

The groups are next asked to use the Traffic Light Approach to highlight the terms that they don’t want (red), terms they might want (yellow) and terms that they definitely want (green).

Image of traffic lights with the green light lit up
Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

TIP — If you don’t have red, yellow or green pens then ask them to cross out for red, write a question mark for yellow and a tick for green.

This activity is designed to get students refining their search terms so that they only using the specific ones they need to 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.

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.

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

This section will emphasise the importance of engaging critically using the assessment criteria. The strategy that the students will practice now will enable the students to connect what they know with what they are seeing/reading. Students can use this with written material.

What is happening in this picture?

© Tanya Habjouqa/ Panos Pictures used under UK copyright exception

To begin students are shown the above picture on a slide.

Step1: At the top of their paper, students should write: “What is happening in this picture?”

Step2: At the bottom of the page, they should answer (very simply, in 1–2 sentences) with what they believe is happening in the photo.

Step3: In the middle of the page — and this is why it’s called “Gap Fill In” — students write down all of the steps they took to arrive at that answer. Students are encouraged to write down the evidence they see that supports their conclusion.

The students should look to be answering the following questions

• What is going on in this character/scene?

• What do you see in the text that makes you say that?

• What more can you find?

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

The above image is used to highlight key points that the students need to be aware of in order to gain the higher marks — emphasise the link between the resources they should be using and the critical element which links to this part of the session.

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.

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.

Critically evaluating sources

The facilitator talks through the following key points:

Throughout your dissertation it is important to make sure you are critically evaluating the sources that you are finding and using — are they any good? why are they good? Is the data useful? Where is the evidence?

Being Critical

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!

When reading critically, you are trying to establish the validity and significance of a text through critical reading and critical writing.

Critical reading is much like being a judge at a trial; you must cross examine the arguments of other scholars. Remember these arguments are subjective, much like a witness testimony in court.

To ensure that you are being truly critical will require connections to be made. Emphasise how valuable it is to identify how ideas and concepts relate to each other, this will enable critical decision making about the validity and relevance of the arguments made but also deeper understanding to push towards a new insight.

What are you reading for?

Reading for information — Overview: looking for specific pieces of data

  • Examples: getting directions, finding opening hours, looking up an author’s date of birth.
  • Technique: scanning a text to look for keywords or phrases that answer your question,then moving on.

Reading for understanding — Overview: gaining an overview of an area; gathering general information.

  • Examples: reading for pleasure, background reading into a topic.
  • Technique: reading a text once from start to finish, often passively.

Reading for analysis — Overview: engaging your prior knowledge and actively applying it to what you’re reading.

  • Examples: reading for an essay, dissertation, literature review or thesis.
  • Technique: reading a text actively multiple times, asking questions of the text. This is critical reading; we will examine a strategy in more detail in this section.

To be critical means to examine concepts, ideas and arguments from all possible angles, taking an analytical stance to evaluate and constantly question what is being presented to you. It is a means of scratching below the surface to question assumptions and gaps within an argument or idea, while bearing in mind how it fits (or doesn’t fit!) with other sources of evidence and your own existing knowledge.

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

Note taking — Cornell notes

The facilitator explains how 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

Using references in your coursework

The facilitator highlights the three main ways you can use referencing to incorporate the ideas of others in your work.

Activity: Audience response — how many references should you use in your dissertation?

It says/ I say/ And So

The facilitator demonstrates a non prescriptive strategy for incorporating your references in your work — it is a rough break down of the number of marks you would receive for the data/references, the analysis and the connection to ideas.

These 4 slides are a useful example that demonstrates to the students how they can incorporate a reference into their writing correctly using the It says, I say & so.

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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