Center for Faculty Excellence

Building Skills

Helping Students with the Thesis

Click here for a useful handout on the thesis.

Rivier University faculty from virtually every discipline on campus gathered during Writing Program luncheons to discuss “the thesis,” asking if there is a common pedagogical approach to that term in our writing instruction across disciplines. We pondered the following questions: Do we have a common understanding of this term? Does it figure prominently in the genres which we assign? Do we foreground its importance during discussions of course readings? What specific strategies do we use when teaching students to construct a thesis statement? Responding to a survey constructed to assess pedagogical approaches to “the thesis,” faculty unanimously claimed that, while disciplinary nuances exist, faculty do indeed expect a thesis statement all or most of the time in their writing assignments. Faculty offered several ways of characterizing the term “thesis”:

  1. The overarching claim the writing seeks to prove: 
    Nursing (1), Biology, History (2), Philosophy, English, Religious Studies, Criminal Justice, Counseling, Business, Education (2)
  2. The conclusion: 
    Nursing (1), Philosophy, Criminal Justice, Counseling, Education, History
  3. The overall point the writing seeks to make: 
    Nursing (2), Biology, Philosophy, English, Religious Studies, Computer Science, Counseling, Business, Education (2), History
  4. The answer to a question (a question which is sometimes left implicit): 
    Nursing (2), Biology, History (2), English, Religious Studies, Criminal Justice, Education
  5. Problem Statement—transforming input into desired output: 
    Computer Science

By our September meeting, we pondered the value of promoting a unified approach to teaching thesis-driven prose across the curriculum. In the end, we generated a series of recommendations:

  • Collect an exemplary essay from a former student and, with permission, distribute the essay with your annotations, specifying what is successful in the thesis statement.
  • Engage students in a scaled-down drafting strategy by requesting that they submit for your feedback a preliminary thesis paragraph with bulleted supporting claims and evidence.
  • When approaching course readings, give small groups of students specific tasks to perform: identify the thesis; pinpoint key evidence in the body of the text; evaluate the coherence between the introduction and conclusion of the essay; etc..
  • Help students attend to thesis statements in all classroom discourse. Where are there points or propositions requiring proof?
  • Use consistent terms and explicit expectations when talking about the "thesis"; however, acknowledge and talk about synonyms. Be explicit about what a good thesis is not. Students are adjusting to expectations across courses and levels. They are what one researcher, Lucille McCarthy, calls perpetual "strangers in a strange land,” adjusting to different disciplinary expectations and customs.
  • Take a modest amount of class time to preview assignments in a way that models the generation of a thesis.
  • Expect failure -- a good thesis takes a while to generate!

Cliff Davis also assembled the following web resources for helping students compose strong thesis statements: 

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