From 23-25 November, 2017, a conference titled “Quality Standards and Writing Norms for Educational Theses and Dissertations in Education-related Subjects” was held by the Faculty of Education of the Open University of China (OUC) in Kunming.

The main task of the conference was to discuss the quality standards and writing norms for dissertations in Education, and ensure their quality in all aspects. The members of the Education sub-committee, teachers from the OUC headquarters, Education teachers from the OUC branches, and thesis-writing instructors all contributed to the success of the meeting, which was also the result of a great deal of research, discussion and revision.

Quality is a Lifeline

Since the Education major at the OUC was given approval to grant Bachelor's degrees in June of 2016, the sub-committee on degree assessment in this major has reviewed dissertations from 63 students.

Based on the papers sent for review by Education students in the last three years, there are many obvious problems with their writing, the guidance given them by the instructors, and the records of their oral defenses. Papers that summarised their experiences lacked academic elements, a sound foundation in theory, a complete structure, table of contents, summary and conclusion. Although there were references to documents, annotations to them were lacking. Clearly presented research methods were absent, argumentation was imprecise, and some of the examples and data failed to be relevant to the topic. Other people's research data were not acknowledged, the prescribed format for references was not followed, and fewer than ten references were used. The thesis instructors were also members of the defense groups, which consisted of fewer than five people, and the records of the defenses were too simple and formalistic.

President Yang Zhijian and vice-president Liu Chen have repeatedly emphasised the importance of improving the educational quality of the OUC. The core of open education is quality, and the standardization of dissertations, and adherence to these standards, are essential to achieving that quality.

In June of 2017, in view of the problems stated, the OUC Faculty of Education formally started formulating quality standards and writing norms for academic dissertations produced within the faculty. Keeping in view the current level of student papers, clear requirements were formulated with the aim of improving their quality.

Balance between Standards and Reality

It is not easy to establish quality standards and writing norms for academic theses at the OUC. How can we balance academic standards against the actual situation of the students?

In search of such a balance, the work of formulating the standards has gone through a number of steps: preliminary investigations and surveys at the OUC branches, preparation of the first draft, group discussions and revisions, revisions by the degree-evaluation committee, and discussion with and feedback from the branches.

Based on what the preliminary investigations showed, the scope of the main topic, common types of paper, and current writing level of the students have been clarified. The Faculty of Education brought together several teachers who have attained academic recognition to formulate the quality standards and writing norms for academic dissertations. Based on the actual situation of the students, samples of five types of paper, including teaching reflection and design, actions and research, case study, exposition, and empirical research have been created for students to refer to.

At a conference held in Kunming in November 2017, those responsible for education training held a meeting to discuss standards for academic dissertations, types of dissertations, and writing standards, as well as the qualifications and responsibilities of instructors. The attendees unanimously affirmed the preliminary work of the Faculty of Education on the basis that the relevant documents were complete and practical. At the same time, the participants made suggestions, such as to further clarify the types of paper, standardise the model essays, and so on, based on their own work experience.

Standardisation and Process Management: a Two-pronged Approach

The performances of Education majors vary from branch to branch of the OUC. In many places, there are not enough teachers to support the large volume of students, which makes it difficult to guarantee the quality of teaching. This makes standardisation essential, not only to guide the thesis writing of the students, but also the work of the instructors. With set standards, there will be criteria that can be referred to and upheld.

Therefore, the quality standards and writing norms for academic theses in Education have been formulated with detailed examples and specific requirements for each element of a thesis, allowing students to write independently by following the standards and norms. The quality of a student's thesis is also closely related to the guidance offered by his or her teacher, and this is why the standards also give detailed requirement for the qualifications and responsibilities of instructors. For example, a requirement that an instructor must have had one or two publications was added.

The formulation of quality standards and writing norms for academic theses in Education will help to improve their quality. However, the improvement of quality does not apply only to the final papers, but to the whole teaching process. The current arrangement, from the selection of topics to the submission of the first drafts, allows for only eight weeks, a very short time for students with no theoretical foundation or experience writing academic papers. The Faculty of Education believes that emphasising process is the key to improving the quality of academic dissertations. Selection of a thesis topic should be part of the process of constructing each course, and the guiding function of the courses and subjects should be enhanced. Guidance should be given to students in each course through small homework assignments that consolidate and enrich their understanding. We believe that if a student can write 800 words on a topic, at the final step of the writing he or she will naturally be able to produce a good thesis.

By Ma Tengfei, OUC