Pillars of Support: Six Tips for Faculty Advising Undergraduate Honors Theses

Jessica Candela, MPA Student, California State University, Chico jcandela@mail.csuchico.edu

Faculty at the university I attend have expressed interest in a guide to the undergraduate honors thesis (UHT), a high‐ impact practice (“Engagement Indicators & High‐Impact Practices” 2015). In this piece, I intertwine my reflections on the UHT with tips for faculty advisors to successfully navigate the process alongside their undergraduate students.

Personal Experience with the UHT

In May 2017, I completed an UHT on civic engagement curriculum that combined my two fields of study: multicultural and gender studies, and political science. I was fortunate to have two advisors – one from each academic field – to provide feedback on my work. To receive credit for my UHT through the “honors in the major” (HITM) award, I enrolled in six units of honors thesis credit, and presented findings at my college’s annual student research and scholarly work symposium.

University and Department Logistics

At California State University, Chico (CSUC), 60 out of 3,500 students – under two percent – graduated with HITM in the 2016/2017 academic year (Gebb 2017; “One Hundred Twenty‐Seventh Annual Commencement” 2017). The HITM achievement is recognized on students’ diplomas and transcripts, and students receive a medallion to wear at

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

commencement. Participating departments administer their own HITM programs, yet some departments offer no honors in the major. Student requirements include securing a faculty advisor, and department approval of the UHT project. Moreover, students must have a 3.5 grade point average on a 4.0 scale, both cumulatively and within the major (“Honors in the Major” 2016).

Here are six tips and ten questions for advisors to consider when assisting their students in navigating the UHT process.

 

  1. Student preparation in research methods: The first institutional step before advising students on their UHT is to require a sufficiently rigorous research methods course. Indeed, studies have found benefits of research methods courses to include competence in reading literature, demystification of the research process, increased perceived knowledge, and increased research self‐efficacy (Boswell 2013, 54; Peachey and Baller 2015, 439). A question to consider: What research tools do students require to successfully complete an UHT?
  2. Advisor expertise in research area: One of my advisors has published in the same research area as my UHT: civic engagement curriculum. My advisor’s experience was helpful in determining my UHT’s direction. Advisors’ resources in specific research areas may be vital to the success of the UHT. Questions to consider: If you do not have expertise in specific fields, do your colleagues? Or could students alter their proposed research topics to better fit your expertise?
  3. Time commitment: Perhaps the most important aspect of the advisor‐student relationship is mutual understanding of the time and dedication necessary to complete an UHT. I sought vital advice regularly from my faculty advisors. Being an UHT advisor is a significant time commitment. Remember, this is all brand new to students. Students are excited and daunted by their UHT. They will require extensive guidance during the research process. A question to consider: Are you able to dedicate time to students’ UHT projects?
  4. Application process: At CSUC, it is expected that students apply to the HITM program by the second semester of their junior year (“Honors in the Major” 2016). In my program, applications require a description of the proposed research topic, recruitment of a faculty mentor, and approval by the department chair. The completion of this process before the end of junior year is imperative to the success of the senior UHT. Further, planning in advance may help to produce a higher‐ quality UHT. Questions to consider: Can you assist in identifying potential HITM students early in their academic careers? How can you help these identified students through the application process?
  5. Data collection and analysis: Students may be familiar with research methods, but may not know how to properly conduct their own research. This could be a vital mentoring moment for advisors. Questions to consider: Do students know which research method is most feasible or how to collect data? Are consent forms or Institutional Review Board approval required? Do students need access to specialized software or data sets?
  6. Public presentation: An UHT is a good opportunity for advisors to encourage students’ professional skill development. Further, public dialog assists students in expanding their awareness of active citizenship and the value of their studies (Wolf et al. 2016, 6). A highlight of the HITM process was sharing my UHT findings with the campus‐community. Next steps for advisors may include helping students apply to academic conferences or undergraduate journals. A question to consider: How can you assist students to best utilize their UHT academically or professionally?

The UHT is a key opportunity for undergraduate students to develop research skills. Moreover, the UHT, and the support of faculty advisors a student receives during the process, can be instrumental to students envisioning themselves as future educators, graduate students, professionals or researchers.

References

Boswell, Stefanie S. 2013. “Undergraduates’ Perceived Knowledge, Self‐Efficacy, and Interest in Social Science Research.” Journal Of Effective Teaching 13, no. 2: 48‐57.

“Engagement Indicators & High‐Impact Practices.” National Survey of Student Engagement. Last modified July 23, 2015.

Gebb, Ashley. “CSU, Chico Will Hold 127th Commencement Exercises,” CSU, Chico News. May 12, 2017. http://www.csuchico.edu/news/current‐news/5‐12‐commencement.shtml

“Honors in the Major.” Honors Program, California State University, Chico. Last modified 2016. https://www.csuchico.edu/honors/programs/honors‐major.shtml

“One Hundred Twenty‐Seventh Annual Commencement.” Commencement Program for California State University, Chico, Chico, CA, 2017.

Peachey, Andrew A., and Stephanie L. Baller. 2015. “Ideas and Approaches for Teaching Undergraduate Research Methods in the Health Sciences.” International Journal Of Teaching And Learning In Higher Education 27, no. 3: 434‐ 442.

Wolf, Thia, William M. Loker, Ellie Ertle, Zach Justus, and April Kelly. 2016. “Being and Becoming a College Student: Pedagogy as Rite of Passage.” Change: The Magazine Of Higher Learning 48, no. 3: 6‐12.

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