Category Archives: Discussion

Thesis Management Discussion Notes

1. Mary Coffey (Romance Languages and Literatures)

  • The number of disciplines and departments at Pomona is important.
  • Fundamental Attention to scheduling
    • What Mary tends to do is to let her students create a schedule
      • She meets with the students to discuss the process, schedule, and expectations
      • By the end of the fall, half of the thesis should be done, but this is usually not the case, since it takes time to complete a thesis
  • Viewing Senior Exercises
    • A senior exercise is similar to a course
    • It is an independent project and should be the best work that a student does in their senior year
    • Therefore you need to have clear communication, and communicate your expectations
    • A senior exercise is like an independent study
      • Let the student address what they want and how they want to approach their thesis
    • Mary says that she allows the student to approach it they way they want to and she is just there to guide the students. Especially if the student is doing a topic on information that she does not have an expertise on.
    • Since it is like an independent study, each student is different, and therefore needs different support
      • Same may need to meet weekly, monthly, via email, or only meet once. There is no set approach with the students,
  • Struggles
    • What degree does a senior exercise need to be original? Is it insightful to the student? Does the material seem to approach a Master’s thesis? Is it meaningful?
    • A senior thesis rarely becomes identified as Masters quality
      • One must remember that these students are undergraduates and they are still learning.
      • Most often, faculty think students should know everything and can go further in their thesis, but they may not be able to
      • Rather answering whether or not they can go further, focus on how much has the student learned themselves? How is the language and sophistication of the thesis?
    • Lessons learned
      • Don’t carry all the burden on your own shoulders
      • Students have to do the work largely by themselves
      • Do what you can with guidance, but it is all on them

2. Art Horowitz (Theatre and Dance)

  • Opening: in relation to the thesis, Art feels like Oscar Levant when he said that Leonar Bernstein is “revealing secrets of music that has already been known in the past 3000 years.”
    • Students are all different, and therefore so are the senior thesis.
    • Examples:
      • One student did a project in which she spent time in the House of Detention, teaching delinquent students the play, “Othello.” Once the students learned the story, they created their own version of the story.
        • Art met with the student who conducted the thesis, sometimes accompanied her to the House of Detention, and the rest was supporting and watching.
      • Another student wrote a play in English and Spanish, performed, managed, and produced the play
      • Another student played a role in another theatre production and did her thesis on that.
      • Some are research driven, in which one student went home to Guiana and did her thesis on theatre education and did her work at a school.
        • There are different kinds of mentoring for different kinds of projects
  • Remind students
    • For good, scholarly writing, and rigorous work on a senior thesis, the student must be proud of their work
  • Close mentoring
    • Art checks with them, and makes sure that each student checks in with him
    • Meet as often as the student likes
    • Helps when the student runs into problems, and listens when the student needs to discuss things with them, and lecture the student when it is needed.
    • But in order to closely mentor the students Art must see the work. “Show me the pages, show me the work.”

3. Cris Cheney (Biology)

  • Thesis Structure: there are two kinds of senior thesis:
    • Experimental: yearlong lab and field work
      • Molecular Biology only does the experimental thesis
    • Research grant: Semester basis, a student comes up with a question and writes and does research on it
  • Experimental thesis timeline:
    • Have students think about what they want to do for their experimental thesis and which faculty member they want as an advisor by junior year.
    • Lab base
      • Have student develop skills and work in the lab before their senior year so that the project can go into a thesis
      • Encourage students to work full time during the summer to learn techniques, establish a data set, etc.
      • By the time the student becomes a senior, the students can hit the ground running
      • During the senior year, Cris meets with the students early in the year and offer to meet twice a week, discussing techniques and thesis.
      • In the middle of the senior year, Cris “backs off” and lets the student do the work and make their own mistakes. But she stays close so that she can help if they run into trouble.
    • Deadlines
      • There are set deadlines in which they need:
        • Progress report midway through the semester
        • A draft by the end of the semester
        • Another draft by the middle of the second semester
        • Last Friday of April, Cris checks up on the student and has a discussion with the student
        • Lab discussion twice a year
        • Etc.
    • Mentoring
      • Close mentoring is very important
        • Allows you to trouble shoot, revamp, revise (similar to graduate work)
      • Each student is different, some cope with different things (lack of structure in lab, some can, etc.)
        • Mentor and help with the student as you can

4. Vin de Silva (Math)

  • Student must:
    • Learn and stude a topic that they do now know much about, but wants to learn, and produce it in a form of research, and projects for several months
    • Must write a sustained exposition, telling a good story
      • How to tell a mathematical story, stating theorems, identifying and defining theorems, etc.
    • Turn in the lab report if available, like little homework questions.
    • Spoken Oral presentation to peers
      • Addressing themselves in the beginning of the year and by the end know mores o that they can pitch it
      • They discuss it with their peers, and need to understand what is going on
  • Management:
    • Vin meets with students once a week
    • Each meeting he will have the student tell him a story. He will have the student dig deeper by challenging them and discussing different directions, or tell the student to continue with their work
      • Sometimes he will give them his own exposition, speak in “lecture mode” so that the student can go further
    • Vin will carry on these meetings throughout the year
    • Sometimes a student wants to cancel the meeting because they did not do work, but Vin keeps the meeting because you can still generate ideas and help students continue forward.
  • Skills
    • Students need to attach their own importance to learn the information.
      • It may take awhile for them to do this on their own
    • Time management:
      • Department sets deadlines
        • It is helpful to have these deadlines since it relieves the burden to police the student
        • The thesis topics, bibliography, chapters, applying thesis, etc. are all broken down in stages, and these are all due throughout the year
          • In practice, it is done well, others are “half baked.”
          • Students get penalized if they do not meet the deadlines, so it is effective to keep on track.
            • Students are penalized by their final grade. Example: one student did excellent work, but was always a month late on all the deadlines, which ultimately effected her final grade.

5. Questions

   i. How many theses do you mentor per year, and how do you manage the time?

  • Mary:
    • Manages first and second readers
    • Right now: 2 as a second reader, and 4 others
      • Second reader is not as intense, but it depends on the student and how they work to manage the time
      • Sometimes works all day yesterday, today, and tomorrow, bringing thesis home
      • Sometimes it is intense, sometimes it is not. It has it’s up and down moments, but that is “part of the gig.”
  • Art:
    • Average 4 first readers per year
    • It’s like keeping 4 balls in the air
    • Manages time by applying pressure here, and sometimes there, depending on the student.
      • One can “get used to it.”
  • Cris:
    • 3-6 theses, 1 library, and maybe a second reader on 1
    • Management: time commitment with the students at the beginning of the year, and new students
    • Meeting on a continual bases
    • More time spent advising on lab, and being a constant contact, but reading the thesis is not that big of a time factor. Most of the management is being there for the student and being close by at the lab.
  • Vin:
    • 3 students per year on average, but this year working on 4.
    • Difficulty fitting the students close to their research, and the pace slows down when they are trying to mimic something you know so well.
    • What helps manage the thesis is to distribute theses into topics away from your own expertise (with the student’s consent)
      • This technique keeps it fresh and rewarding
      • Otherwise if the topic is too close to what you are doing, it can “suck your energy”.

  ii. How do you improve oral presentation? How much credit do you give for the oral presentation on a student’s thesis? Example: if a student fails during the oral presentation, but has a great written thesis, what grade do you give them?

  • Cris:
    • Normally the students do well on both
    • There is no formal rubric, but the effort counts for part of the thesis
    • They do formal practices and practice with the students
  • Mary:
    • Last decade so far: she has offered to arrange, informally, to meet a couple nights before the oral presentation, practicing with students and each other. They help and critique on the speaking, presentation, time frame, etc.
    • Communicate and practice:
      • Faculty is training their students to do what they hope they will do, but ultimately, it is the student’s responsibility.
  • Art:
    • Students are great in the oral presentation.
  • Vin
    • Practice
    • If a student isn’t doing well on a presentation, an advisor will take the student aside to work on the presentation again.

  iii. Process of choosing a senior topic: By junior year, the student comes up with a topic, but sometimes they go abroad and find that their original topic is not feasible. How do you deal with this?

  • Mary:
    • This can be problematic for foreign languages
    • At this time, one must say, “This topic is not appropriate for the discipline.”
    • Some departments play with it or allow anything for the topic
    • This is just part of the negotiation and part of the communication
  • Oral presentations: College wide oral presentation day
    • Suggestion from the audience: have a presentation day before the string of senior talks, so that the students can learn to present to multiple audiences, even those that are not familiar with the topic.

  iv. Advice for students coming from Scripps, CMC, etc? Not much experience with a student from another school, how do you work with this, especially with an inorganic relationship?

  • Mary:
    • Prefers to not advise students without prior contact
    • The institution should be the first to step up and the first to support the student.
    • The problem: different schools, different stuff, different outlines, etc.
      • Suggest contacting the Associate Dean’s office if this arises.
  • Vin
    • Works with students in other schools already in the math department

  v. Library and Research Specifics:

  • Bring outside guests and highlight research disciplines for the students
  • Integrating library work with students since student’s don’t visit the library until later when it is often too late.
  • Research practice:
    • Include a librarian to work with each student
      • The skills can range from great research to none at all
    • Each courses are different, with different isuees, talking to someone (a librarian) about the process would be helpful
    • There are many librarians who would be delighted to help work on the research aspect with the students
    • Even top level students benefit from library help
  • All students have the option to turn their thesis in to the Library depository
    • This helps since it makes their thesis available for others to see, and the student will think about the quality of their work.
  • Faculty members who are interested in library and research specifics should contact their librarians or Gale Burrow and Char Booth.

Some Interesting Research on Young Minds

By Thomas Moore (posted 5/10/11)

In the March issue of Discover magazine, biology writer Carl Zimmer discusses several studies about adolescent behavior that I think might have some interesting implications for college teaching, particularly for our youngest students. Fundamentally, Zimmer argues that a mismatch in the development rate of certain cognitive abilities makes teenagers’ brains unusually sensitive to rewards but insensitive to risks when compared to adults. If true, this opens an interesting question: might we as adult teachers miss opportunities for effectively engaging our students because we unconsciously design feedback and grading systems for adult minds (like ours) instead of theirs? Continue reading

The Meaning of a Liberal Arts Education

by Fernando Lozano (posted 4/19/11)

This is my sixth year at Pomona College. Now tenured, I am happy to think that I am likely to spend the rest of my career being a professor at a liberal arts college. My understanding of the “liberal arts” is similar to my understanding of religion: it is something I deeply believe in and that I witness everyday in my students and colleagues. Yet, just as in the case of religion, describing what a “liberal arts education” is is not an easy task. A liberal arts education must include a multidimensional array of experiences, and a liberal arts professor must foster these experiences. I cannot here detail all the dimensions in which a liberally educated student learns (indeed I doubt I am aware of them all), yet I will highlight three that to me are essential: (1) the ability to cross disciplinary boundaries in inquiry, yet still remain competitively trained in an ever-specializing world; (2) the need for a diverse and respectful community of learning, composed of professors and students; and (3) the importance of good writing and active engagement not only as a tool for communication, but as a tool of inquiry used to gather and synthesize students’ learning.

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A First Exercise in Assessment

by Fernando Lozano (posted 3/29/11)

Last year I did an assessment exercise in my ID1 Poverty in America course. The very first day of class, I assigned my students a response to an economics paper that explored whether we had lost the war on poverty or not. This paper was written in 1998, a very different economic time than 2009.

My students’ responses were all very interesting. The reflected my students’ political biases and concern for the increase in poverty in the United States due to the recession that started in 2007. Yet they made no use of publicly available data, nor did they support their beliefs using the published literature. I saved these responses during the rest of the semester.

At the end of the semester, I assigned the same exercise: same question, same paper. My goal was to compare both responses and see whether the second submission was better written, whether it used sources more efficiently, and whether their claims were based on data and on the literature we discussed in class. This exercise was not part of the students’ final grade, but I wanted to see whether after a semester-long course, the added value from my class was evident in my students’ written work.

I like to think that my students’ writing and knowledge improved during the semester, and the evidence lies in these two papers. They did sustain their opinions, or some of them, with data or with the literature. The difference between submissions also reflected a better handle on the material. Next time, I am thinking of having the students evaluate their own work: I will give them their two submitted responses, and make them grade themselves. This time the grade will be part of their course grade.

What Does Being a “Liberal Arts College” Mean?

by David Menefee-Libey (posted 2/1/11)

I’m grateful that Teaching and Learning Committee has re-started a valuable conversation at Pomona, asking people what they think it means for us to be a “liberal arts college.” I personally have different answers, depending on the context.

For the individual student or teacher, it’s about habits of mind. I try to encourage students to develop liberal arts habits of mind, simultaneously pursuing what I’ll call “small,” “big” and “middle-sized” knowledge and understanding.

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Are We Doing Right by Our Students?

by David Menefee-Libey (posted 1/20/11)

I start from the premise that the core mission of Pomona College – and my work here – is to educate undergraduates.  Most days, I think we and I stay relatively focused on that mission, and that we do reasonably good work.

But I have to say that I’m rattled by Richard Arum’s and Josipa Roska’s just-published Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press).

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Better than Clickers?

Thomas Moore, 1/17/11

During 2010, members of our department experimented with a novel classroom response system: small whiteboards. We had been using “clickers” in a number of classes for a while, but a visit by educational innovators Corinne Manogue and Tevian Dray (Oregon State University) prompted us to think in a new direction. Here’s why.

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Plans for Econ 52

Fernando Lozano, 07.29.2010

This is one of my favorite times of the summer. I feel well rested as the Spring semester is long gone, and the Fall semester is so far away that I do not yet have nightmares about showing up to my first class without a syllabus. I start thinking about my new classes and my new students. This Fall I am scheduled to teach two sections of Econ 52: Principles of Microeconomics. I have taught this course before, and to explain some economic principles I use classroom experiments that simulate real markets. In the past, the majority of my students enjoy this approach, yet each class is completely different: will my students like the course, will they enjoy and participate in the experiments?
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