What I find really amazing in my job is the number of students who progress through their undergraduate and postgraduate careers without ever looking up the definition of key terms . . . like . . . essay, report, dissertation, thesis, degree, etc.  After all, in a system that is all about modules and overt “learning outcomes”, it is the results of these very outputs that determine the grades and qualifications of the students.  There are, unfortunately, no marks or grades for “inputs” such as turning up for lectures, answering questions and participating in seminars and practicals, or time spent in the library.


Good students might refer to a dictionary or course textbook to explore the definitions of key terminology in the question.  They might even try to find out what the “command” words in the question mean (e.g., outline, discuss, evaluate).


However, it is a pity that they do not explore what is really meant by the words “essay”, “thesis”, etc.  It is almost as if the students feel that they implicitly know what these things are.  And that’s a real pity . . . and a real worry!


So, when a student queries why they got 57% or 63% for their essay, wouldn’t it be tempting to say “sure isn’t that good for a piece of writing . . . that you didn’t know what was expected of you – that you really didn’t understand what is really entailed in the construction of an essay answer?”


If you don’t know the difference between an essay and a report, how can you expect to score well on the written submission?


The same is true for a thesis.


As with their undergraduate counterparts, I am constantly amazed by the number of doctoral students that I encounter who do not know what a thesis is.  By and large, the common response that I get is that a thesis is the “thing” that gets submitted at the end for examination – the ”book”, the chapters, etc.


This is much more serious – and embarrassing – when you pose this question to a student in their viva voce examination.


How can you “defend” your thesis if you dont know what a thesis is?  After all, a viva voce is a spoken examination in which the thesis has been presented for examination – and importantly – involves the “public defence” of the thesis.



This begs the obvious question – what do we mean by the word “thesis”?  What do you think?



l have a similar question in relation to “degree”.  With the help of TCD, the following might be of interest to you in learning about what is meant by “degree”.  Interestingly, this information is printed on a pamphlet and left on everyone’s seat at Commencements (i.e., graduation) – probably so that family, friends, and supporters in the audience can read about what a degree and the ceremony is all about.


Wouldnt it be interesting to give this type of information to the students too . . . at the time of registration for their studies . . . and not on graduation day?



So, with the help of TCD:



In Medieval universities one of the main methods used to advance learning and understanding, especially in theology and philosophy, was disputation, which consisted in the formal debate of a proposed thesis known as the Question (“quaestio” in Latin).


The role which members of the University could perform in such disputations depended on their degree status.  Bachelors in Arts were permitted to counter an argument (“reply to the question”).  Masters in Arts could propose a question – the Latin formula for their degree includes the words “ad incipiendum” which means “to initiate”.  Only Doctors or Professors could “moderate”, i.e, chair, or preside over the debate.  The award of a degree signified a step from one level of responsibility to another in the disputation.  The recipient commenced a higher role in the search for knowledge and understanding.


So we speak of the degree-giving ceremony as Commencements and, more recently, of students being commenced.  Commencements is an ancient term which came to Dublin University through its founding scholars, most of whom were graduates of Cambridge University, in the late 16th century.  The terms “Moderatorships” for honors degrees in arts, and “Moderators” for those who receive honors degrees also derive from the Medieval disputation but were not used here until courses for honor degrees began in the 19th century.






So, there it is then!



l guess it’s important to know what small, but important, “words” are.



Conor  🙂




Posted on 2nd October, 2015.  Copyright Conor Mc Guckin