Category Archives: Motivating Students

Dr Critical: Or how I learned to hate the term ‘Thesis Statement’

It is essay season.  A season sometimes dreaded by students and faculty (and most likely always by TAs who often are burdened with the majority of the marking).  Now, I say dreaded because of the marking involved, but actually (because I’m a huge nerd) it also a season that I secretly love as it is one of the few chances I get to meet with students about the research they wish to conduct.  This year I feel particularly spoiled as my 3rd year Peacebuilding students are choosing some truly original case studies, and case studies I know little about.

I know there are a few essays coming down the pipeline (no pun intended) on Indigenous-Settler relations in Canada, the USA and New Zealand.  Another student is writing a paper on memory and forgiveness in relation to Comfort Women, whilst another student is tackling the unique dilemmas of DDR in relation to female ex-combatants.  None of these topics or cases were on my ‘question list’ in the syllabus, but I have been more than happy to approve these topics, encouraged by my students’ passion for these cases and the originality in their approach.

However, in my office hour, the first question I often get is ‘Professor, will you read over my thesis statement’.   Urgh, yes I will.  But also, Urgh, here we go again.

To be clear, a good academic essay needs a clear argument, and if you want to call it a thesis statement, fine by me.  However, I worry that the getting the ‘Thesis Statement Right’ often becomes the first and primary focus of students.  I often feel that they just want to know they’ve got this piece right, they want a simple yes or no and that this approval will equate to a giant tick mark that guarantees a good mark.  When expected grades don’t materialize, one of the first bits of ‘push back’ I get from students is actually ‘but you said I had a good thesis statement!’.

I believe that this  fascination and faith in having a thesis statement approved (and my further concerns below)  can actually be detrimental to their intellectual growth and progress.  I say this for two reasons.

First, I often see students starting with a thesis statement.  Before they have done their research, grappled with the issues, thought about what part of the intellectual puzzle interests them, they feel the need to have a clear thesis statement.    The idea that they can tell you what their argument will be before they’ve done the heavy lifting of research and analysis is so problematic.   It often leads to an introductory paragraph that doesn’t match what they then go on to do in their essay (ie they get their thesis statement approved by teaching staff, slap it at the beginning and then go off on a tangent related to what they are really interested in).

This can be easily fixed of course by having students return to their ‘thesis statement’ after they write the essay to make sure there is a match.   I might also start refusing to ‘approve’ thesis statements until students can produce the research that shows me how they arrived at said thesis statement.

However, what is more concerning to me is that once students have their thesis statement ‘approved’ they become trapped/stifled for the rest of the writing and research process.  They’ve said ‘This essay will prove A by exploring XYX’  so dog-gonnit, that’s what the  essay will do, even if in their further reading  and research they become fascinated by ABC.    They didn’t get a thesis statement approved for ABC so they’d better not risk it.

I find this second scenario particularly problematic in terms of the fact that I’m increasingly seeing students think that a ‘good thesis statement’  proves something and has three parts (don’t even get me started on my hatred of the 5 paragraph essay—well, at least wait for a future post on that!).  This concern is perhaps a product of me now being in a more empirically driven department (whereas during my time at Manchester you couldn’t  fall over without taking out a Critical-Post-Positivist scholar), but I feel that the way we sometimes talk about and teach about ‘thesis statements’ signals to our students that the only types of knowledge-moves they are free to engage in are things that prove ‘A led to B’ or ‘C causes D’ or ‘E and F are locked in a dangerous feedback loop’.

These are interesting questions and I’m happy for students to go in this direction.  I want them to discover their own epistemic identity of course!  But I also want them to be aware of other knowledge-moves, ways of knowing, ways of understanding the world and I feel that in some cases the way we set up and define a good ‘thesis statement’ mitigates against students developing more critical, post-positivist epistemic identities that are so central ensuring plural ways of understanding the world around us.

As such, I’ve tried to have an honest discussion with my students about this in the lead-up to this semester’s term paper.  I don’t want them to feel like I’m trying to destabilize all prior learning and advice.  Further,  they will still certainly take courses where they are expected to have a clear/traditional/empirically grounded thesis statement.  But for my class, I leave them with the following slide and discussion to try to encourage those who want to take intellectual risks or move towards a different set of knowledge-production techniques.

The (dreaded) thesis statement

  • Your essay should of course have a clear focus/purpose
  • I use the language of the ‘thesis statement’ cautiously– I know it is a term students understand and use, but I worry it narrows understandings of what they can write about
  • Your essay does not need to prove You do not have to prove causation for example. You are welcome to do so, but this is not the only type of research political scientists engage in.
  • Think more about the purpose of your essay— the puzzle you want to solve, the issue or fact you want to explore in an in-depth or innovative way, an issue or policy you want to apply a critical lens to. This wider/more general purpose might be your ‘thesis statement’.
  • This may include—exploring how themes of victimhood materialize in your case study, how a project reinforces patriarchy in society, how definitions of peace are exposed in a political negotiation, how a specific ideology acts as a foundation for a peace talk (or how two ideologies seem to be at odds), is there a tension between rationality and emotion in the policy you are analyzing? Be creative, be original.

Guest Blogger Audrey Tong, UBC Political Science: ‘Encouraging Student Participation’

As one of Jen’s undergraduate teaching assistants, I had the welcoming challenge of contributing to Jen’s lecture activities in the second term of the school year. Whereas Jen and the students have already established a working relationship and good rapport from first term, January marked the first time I was meeting the students – and being a teaching assistant. As a senior undergraduate student, I have had plenty of good and bad professors, lab instructors, and teaching assistants. I found that having a good teaching assistant that I could go talk to and ask for advice really made a difference in my learning, especially in grasping new concepts. As such, I was motivated to be an active, empowering and encouraging teaching assistant. However, I found that this is a big responsibility, and one that takes time to grow into.

One immediate challenge that I faced was keeping the students engaged and getting them to talk. Jen always prepares carefully planned classroom strategies and lesson plans that prompt lively student discussion. However, what I’ve come to realize is that active learning strategies is completely dependent on active student interest and participation, and thus, are particularly vulnerable to student apathy. As an undergraduate teaching assistant, I have the opportunity to observe class discussions, facilitate discussions, and try to engage students. Sometimes I am simply greeted by blank stares and silence; for reasons beyond my control, students just refuse to talk at times. As a TA, I was motivated to minimize these occurrences and crack the cycle.

As I walk around the classroom to listen in on discussions and chime in at the appropriate moments, I do my best to create open, safe, and supportive spaces where students can feel comfortable speaking up and voicing their own opinions. One major concern that students usually have is saying the ‘wrong’ answer. Students perceive this as an outright negative phenomenon, so they tend to remain silent. This results in diminished participation through fewer responses, and responses of lower equality that lack critical thinking or analysis.

To model the type of participation and curiosity I would like the students to exhibit in class, I tried a couple of strategies. During in-class discussions, I would go around the groups and if students have trouble grasping the question, I would rephrase the question and give an example by thinking out loud. Since the students are often discussing in pairs or groups, I would ask them for their ideas and ask a follow up question that would lead the student to further develop their answer. I then go over and repeat what they just said to demonstrate what a full response would look like and offer a positive piece of feedback. Finally, I encourage them to raise their hand and speak up when the professor is asking for student examples. If it’s a great point and the student is still not willing to convey their point (ex. shyness, English barrier, not sure if it’s the ‘right’ answer, ‘too cool for school’), I have the ability to give them a voice on their behalf (“Student X had a great point, and I would like to share what they said to the class”).

Over time, the students got the hang of active learning and participating in group discussions. I think another big piece in motivating student participation is how a TA or professor responds when students speak up, either in lecture discussions or in office hours. It’s a two way street: if you want students to participate seriously, you have to take their contributions seriously. By being an active listener and seeing things from their perspective, I always try to provide specific and thoughtful responses to a student question or comment. What I found interesting was that once a student sees that I’m making an effort, they would make an effort and try harder too. I had a group of students who voluntarily came to my office hours today to share their case study progress. By creating a safe and encouraging environment and nurturing a positive TA-student relationship, I have seen signs that the wall of silence is breaking and that the groundwork for voluntary participation is slowly building up.

The Great Outdoors: Part One

The inspiration for my first blog post comes from an ongoing research interest of mine as well as some of my other ‘duties’ at the university.  At the moment, I am working on a project with a colleague related to answering the question ‘Where is Peace?’.   I have also been part of the Jump Start programme here at UBC—a two week induction programme aimed primarily but not exclusively at international students.  Here I am working with colleagues to help students adjust to being in a new ‘place’ (Vancouver) and what for them will also be a very new  ‘space’  (a university setting).[1]

On top of this, I have set myself a challenge of getting outside for at least 20 minutes during my work day as both a mental and physical break whilst I juggle (like we all do) a range of tasks.  OK, if I’m honest, having a legitimate reason to wander around campus and enjoy the last few days of summer has been central to the choice of my introductory post (‘I’m working on my blog about innovative teaching, not just skiving off for a pleasant walk– honest’).

I realized that all of these tasks involved thinking about space—how we define it, how we use it and how it influences us.  It struck me how we, in our busy lives as academics and students, running from class to class, meeting to meeting, take for granted the spaces in which we spend a not unsubstantial part of our adult lives.  The aim is to get us talking about how spaces at our universities do or do not facilitate student learning. I hope to challenge universities and the people who populate them to think about how spaces can be improved to both motivate students and facilitate learning outcomes.

So, my first two blog posts will explore the characteristics of outdoor spaces that can help facilitate learning.   Next week I will carry on with this theme and discuss the importance of exploring nature and the built environment in this regard as well as coming to terms with the history of our campuses.

Using spaces to remind students of the purpose of academic endeavors

There are many reasons why students come to university and why academics have chosen to focus on their particular areas of research.  These are often highly personal and range from the economic to the altruistic, to simply an often inexplicable fascination with a particular topic.  Unfortunately, staff and students often find their motivation for being here  waning (particularly at the end of term when we are all fatigued  and/or stressed and/or disappointed with our progress). Feeling disillusioned with various aspects of higher education, it is easy for us to loose site of our original motivation and our essential task.   I also find that students  often lose sight of the purpose of learning itself as they (necessarily at times) focus on the material they need to know for a specific test or paper, losing sight of the original motivation for their studies as they strive for excellence on individual pieces of work.


‘Wisdom’ rock outside C.K. Choi building—part of installment displaying 5 Confucius characters


‘Start an Evolution’ flag—found all around campus (note: personal urge to add an ‘r’ to these flags)

For me, as I enter my office I am provided with a very tangible reminder of what I am here to do.  A small rock garden just outside my building presents five Chinese characters  based on the basic principles of Confucius.  The one I encounter first each morning represents wisdom and knowledge.  A gentle reminder of this several times a day as I head out to classes and meetings is a useful motivator.  A similar reminder comes from flags scattered around the campus, which encourage students to ‘Start an Evolution’ (I myself always imagine an ‘r’ in front of this, but I digress).

If we think about the breadth, depth and quantity of material we throw at our students every week,  taking a few moments or finding ways to bring the conversations back to the ‘wider prize’ may be useful.

Using spaces to inspire students on the importance  of their academic endeavors and as a tangible set of ‘tangible texts’ to study

Linked to the above, I have noticed how several spaces on campus have been used and designed to inspire students to achieve excellence in specific subject areas as well.  The random allotment of my teaching space for my Critical Peace Studies seminar last semester was particularly inspiring.  Teaching in the law school, as no rooms were available in the buildings where most Political Science courses are taught, required my students and I to walk over and past a range of sayings related to peace and justice—just two of which can be seen below.

peacebench1 peacebench2Benches on my way into the law school where I taught critical peace studies, engraved with various sayings, including ‘the most advanced justice system in the world is a failure if it does not provide justice to the people it is meant to serve’ and ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’

I imagine this is where some readers might scoff at the ‘warm fuzzy’ sentiment behind this reflection (yes you, the Realist in the corner!). However, it was more than a simple reminder for me and my students about the importance of achieving success in our studies—it also provided concrete learning opportunities that contributed to my learning outcomes.  These quotes were discussed and debated on the first day of class as we explored (as per the course syllabus) competing definitions of peace (physical vs structural violence,  ‘just peace’ vs stability).  In fact, my students also identified over a dozen further ‘tangible texts’ on campus that signified different definitions and intellectual understandings of peace and security.

The potential of spaces to be used to remind students of the key intellectual debates and developments in their field, not only as inspiration but as another set of ‘tangible texts’ that teach students something discipline specific is another area of consideration for those able to influence campus planning.  Challenging students to not only to identify these texts themselves but to also debate and discuss these texts that are present in campus spaces is a great learning activity that exposes students’ creative and intellectual capabilities.

….Join me next week for more on outdoor spaces at UBC and how they contribute to positive learning environments and help us meet our learning objectives……

[1] My colleague in geography, Dr Siobhan McPhee does a fantastic 30 second lecture on the difference between place and space should anyone want to discuss the finer points of this conceptual distinction