Six basic assessment criteria for dissertation:
1. The clarity of the aim or purpose of the dissertation, and the extent to which this is carefully justified
2. The extent to which the dissertation uses an appropriate and adequately justified research strategy and research methods to investigate the chosen topic
3. The extent to which the dissertation draws carefully and critically on existing literature that is relevant to the topic
4. The extent to which the material collected for the dissertation is carefully and systematically analysed
5. The degree to which the dissertation draws conclusions that are precise, relevant to the aims, and based on the investigation, with consideration given to their implications for policy and practice
6. The degree to which the dissertation is clearly written, attractively presented, and follows the required format
Note: A minimum and maximum length is prescribed for the dissertation. If your dissertation exceeds the upper word limit by more than 10%, the ‘additional’ words may be ignored and the mark awarded may be based on what has been read by the markers. Remember that you must give the word count at the beginning of the final submission.
The following notes explain in a little more detail what is meant by the six criteria listed above. In the Appendix a grading scheme is provided to give you an indication of what would count as a pass, fail, merit and distinction against these criteria. In reaching a final grade for your submission, the markers will look at the balance of achievement across all the criteria. You should note, though, that a dissertation would be unlikely to pass if it failed to achieve a satisfactory standard on more than one of the criteria.
Criterion 1 The clarity of the aim or purpose of the dissertation, and the extent to which this is carefully justified
It should be perfectly clear what your dissertation is aiming to investigate. Without this, it is difficult to see how a dissertation could succeed against most of the other criteria. To put this another way, a dissertation should have a clear focus. This is usually best defined in terms of a question which the dissertation is seeking to answer or examine. You are therefore advised to state the aim or purpose of your dissertation by reference to a research question. Having done that, you then need to ensure that the whole of your dissertation is closely tied in to your aim or question, and that you do not digress unduly into issues that are irrelevant to the research problem you are examining. It can be just as important to be clear about which aspects of your subject your dissertation is not examining, as to be clear about what it is examining. If your dissertation has a clear purpose it helps you to avoid losing direction and straying into irrelevant or marginal material. Your dissertation must not only possess a clear purpose, but this purpose must track through the dissertation as a whole, so that the whole of your dissertation coheres around that purpose.
The above has suggested that the purpose of a dissertation is best stated as a question in the singular. But, of course, you may wish to examine more than just one question; you may wish to examine two or even three linked questions. That may be appropriate, as long as the scale of the task remains manageable. And it still needs to be stated clearly. Moreover, if your dissertation is examining a number of questions, you need to make clear at different points in your dissertation which of these questions you are examining.
Not only must the aim or purpose of your dissertation be clear, it must also be justified. This means that you must demonstrate that the topic, and the particular question posed about the topic, is worth examining, or is important to examine. This justification may derive from an examination of the relevant academic or policy literature in which there is a concern about, or debate on, the topic in question. Alternatively, you may wish to advance your own reasoned argument explaining and justifying why the topic is worth examining. Either way, having made clear what your dissertation is examining, you need also to explain to the reader why it deserves to be or needs to be investigated.
Criterion 2 The extent to which the dissertation uses an appropriate and adequately justified research strategy and research methods to investigate the chosen topic
Given a clearly stated purpose, together with a justification of that purpose, you need to ensure that the strategy and methods of research you employ are: (a) relevant to that purpose, and (b) likely to be fruitful in yielding results which advance our understanding of or knowledge about the topic in question. This then needs to be discussed carefully in the dissertation. In other words, you need to demonstrate in your dissertation a self-conscious and reflective awareness of the methodological problems of accomplishing your research aim or examining your research question. This involves more than simply describing your research strategy and methods (e.g. “first I did this, then I did that . . .” etc); it involves explaining and justifying your research strategy. Indeed, to achieve a high standard against this criterion, a dissertation would have to explain and justify its research strategy and methods in comparison with other, competing strategies and methods which might have been employed to investigate the topic in question. Further,a masters dissertation should show an awareness of any possible shortcomings of the research strategy and methods adopted, and hence an appropriate degree of caution about what can be concluded from the research.
In many cases, the research strategy will entail a substantial element of ‘primary’ information gathering. But, as noted in the first section of this guide, other kinds of dissertation are also perfectly possible. For example a dissertation could be based on analysing or re-analysing data sets or other empirical information that has already been collected for other purposes (e.g. Census data; statistics on house completions or house sales). Before embarking on this kind of dissertation you would need to ascertain early on that such material was available in a usable form. A dissertation could also focus on conceptual or theoretical development of some kind, i.e. seeking to unravel significant conceptual or theoretical issues (eg ‘what is ‘legibility’ as applied to urban spaces?’ ‘what are ‘hidden needs’ in relation to housing?’). For this, the research strategy would involve the critical analysis of various texts in which the concepts in question are used. Yet another type of dissertation would be one seeking to address questions that are methodologically very challenging, where the focus would be on exploring research design issues (‘how might this be investigated?’), without going on to execute fully the research design. A design-based or problem-based dissertation is also possible. So, be aware of the different types of dissertation that can be done, make sure you are clear about what type you are embarking on, and ensure you give careful thought to the research design issues raised by the type of study you are doing.
Criterion 3 The extent to which the dissertation draws carefully and critically on existing literature that is relevant to the topic
A masters dissertation should always be seen as an extension to existing knowledge on a subject. It is extremely unlikely that you will be coming to something that hasn’t, to some extent, been explored before, even if you are proposing to look at it from a novel angle. A dissertation will therefore always involve drawing on some relevant literature in order to clarify and justify your aim or question, and provide a framework of ideas for examining the subject. To achieve a satisfactory standard against this criterion, then, you should ensure not only that you summarise relevant ideas and information from these sources, but also that you properly analyse and discuss this material and its bearing on your own research problem. Your dissertation should not just give a summary description of what various authors have written on your subject; you should also seek to draw out and discuss the main points which emerge from the literature. This is likely to include any debates or areas of disagreement that are relevant to your question, and any concepts and theories that appear to be helpful in making sense of the subject. Clearly, you will get credit for making use of the most current, up to date, literature, and for literature that goes beyond the standard, familiar references
Criterion 4 The extent to which the material collected for the dissertation is carefully and systematically analysed
Whether your dissertation is based mainly on a detailed review of secondary sources (e.g. official reports or published research) or involves substantial primary investigation (e.g. interviews, questionnaires or design projects carried out by yourself) or design activity, it is not enough just to lay out the material you have collected. You need to present and analyse it in a methodical and systematic way. And you need to include some commentary that shows you have reflected critically on these findings, i.e. thought about what they show in relation to your research question. To achieve a high standard against this criterion a dissertation would have to exhibit conceptual and analytical sophistication in both summarising and analysing the findings.
Criterion 5 The degree to which the dissertation draws conclusions that are precise, relevant to the aims, and based on the investigation, with consideration given to their implications for policy and practice
There is a difference between reporting the findings of a piece of research, and drawing conclusions from these findings. Given some research findings, the business of drawing conclusions from these findings involves some further assessment of what these findings show, what is (or is not) important about these findings, and so on. In other words, drawing conclusions from research involves weighing and assessing findings; it involves considered interpretation and judgement, deliberation and critical reflection. This in turn may require a more extended discussion of different interpretations which might be made of, and hence different conclusions which might be reached from, your findings.
Within this School, most masters dissertations are taken as part of a programme of study concerned with some area of public policy or professional practice. Where this is the case you should attempt to draw out the implications which the conclusions of your dissertation could have for this area of policy or practice. For example, as a result of your work on the dissertation, you might conclude with some criticism of current policy or professional practice, and this should suggest some ways in which this area of policy or practice might be modified (and improved) to meet this criticism. Even some apparently purely theoretical conclusions about how, for example, some phenomenon might be better understood can have practical implications. For example, a geographical study explaining patterns of flooding in a river basin might have implications for planning policy concerned with development on flood plains, and/or for environmental policy more generally. In short, where your dissertation is taken as part of a postgraduate programme which is concerned with some area of policy, planning or professional practice, you should seek to show what practical implications follow from the conclusions reached in your dissertation.
Criterion 6 The degree to which the dissertation is clearly written, attractively presented, and follows the required format
Reference has already been made to the need for the dissertation to have a clear focus and for the different elements to hang together coherently. In addition to this, a dissertation should be clearly written, and otherwise clearly presented (i.e. presented in an attractive or “professional” way). To reach a pass standard, a dissertation should be written in clear, unambiguous, and grammatically correct English prose. If the language is unclear, then the substantive ideas you are dealing with will be unclear.
In addition to its written style, your dissertation should also be clearly laid out; any illustrations used should be of a high quality and located at appropriate places in the text; and any tables or other figures used should likewise clearly set out and located, etc. The standard academic conventions regarding the citing of sources and the listing of references at the end should also be carefully observed.
Source: University of the West of England