Behind-the Scenes: How is a Thesis / Dissertation Assessed?

This week we’re talking about assessment. These blog posts are written to help you understand the thesis and dissertation assessment process at AUT. However, please consult the AUT Postgraduate Handbook for official information on assessment policies and procedures and discuss with your supervisor(s). Editor’s note: this article, published in 2018, makes reference to a previous edition of the AUT Postgraduate Handbook that is now out of date. The most recent edition can be downloaded here (student login required).

I spent years dreading the moment my thesis would be examined.

The assessment process seemed to me to be very subjective. I wondered: what if one examiner loves the thesis, and another hates it? Are they going to evaluate my hard work based on their own personal perspectives and methodological or theoretical preferences? How the heck am I supposed to navigate that, especially when I don’t know who my examiners will be?

I lived in fear of this subjectivity throughout my entire postgraduate career. Throughout my Honours, Masters, and PhD, I was constantly frightened of ending up with an examiner who might be my epistemological opposite; who would judge my work to be worthless with a swipe of their evil red pen. There are so many experienced academics out there who disagree with each other, that hoping for a friendly examiner felt a bit like banking on a lottery win.

But here’s what I’ve learned: just because assessment is subjective, doesn’t mean it’s random.

Subjectivity means that your examiners will bring their own perspectives to the process, and those perspectives may or may not agree with yours. But they can’t just fling around random judgements about your work according to their own biases. They are constrained by the standards and processes set by the university.

At AUT, the assessment process for postgraduate theses and dissertations contains a number of safeguards to ensure that your results are as fair and robust as possible.

Here’s how it works.

Possible grades & outcomes

A Masters thesis or dissertation, or Honours dissertation, will either pass with a letter grade (A, B, or C, with pluses and minuses) or fail. A doctoral thesis is assessed on a pass/fail basis. In either case,  you will receive one of five possible ‘outcomes’ depending on whether various types of revisions are required.

At AUT, we work on a standards-based assessment model. That means that you are assessed on the basis of your standard of understanding and learning, as evidenced by your thesis or dissertation. There is no ‘grading curve,’ and your results are not benchmarked against anyone else’s.* There is no quota for the numbers of passes or fails, and there is no prescribed number of A / B / C grades. Your results are about your work.

Selecting examiners

You will always have multiple examiners (usually two), and you have the right to provide input on who they should be. In the months leading up to submission, you and your supervisors should talk about potential examiners. Make a list of academics you respect in your field, and note down any who should not be considered as examiners (i.e. because their positions are opposed to yours; or you have critiqued their work in your thesis).

While your input will not determine the selection of examiners, it will be taken into account. The actual nominations will be made by your supervisors, and they should know your work well enough to represent your interests in their nominations. You won’t know who is nominated, because examiners remain anonymous.

Examiners’ assessment

Once you’ve submitted your thesis or dissertation, it will go out to the examiners. Each examiner is sent a pack of documentation from the university, which includes assessment guidelines and criteria, plus information about your programme. Depending on your programme, examiners may receive a marking template; however, they write their reports in their own words, usually as a page or more of comments. They are expected to comment on the specific points laid out in their examiners’ pack.

Examiners must prepare their reports independently, so that they don’t influence each other. If their reports show a disparity in opinion, a third examiner can be brought in to provide another point of view. The examiners’ reports are sent to an examination board, which has the final decision on your thesis result. All of this means that no one person has the power to judge your work on their own.

Assessment criteria

The assessment criteria depend on your programme, and we’ll cover those in more detail in future posts. In the case of a Masters thesis or dissertation, or an Honours dissertation, examiners receive specific criteria describing exactly what characterises an A, B, or C level thesis. Because doctoral theses don’t receive a letter grade, the criteria for assessing a doctoral thesis don’t specify grade levels; but they guide examiners’ comments and evaluations. The grading criteria are all totally transparent; they’re available in the AUT Postgraduate Handbook (p.116 for doctoral; p.134-137 for Masters & Honours).

Getting your results

If you’re a doctoral student, you’ll get your examiners’ reports at a pre-meeting about one week before your oral exam. You’ll find out who your examiners are, but you won’t know which examiner wrote which report. You also won’t know what their recommendations are as to your outcome. At the conclusion of your oral exam, the Examination Panel will take a private moment to try to jointly decide on a recommended outcome. You would typically find out their recommendation before you leave the oral. If it is unanimous, that recommendation will then be confirmed by the University Postgraduate Board (UPB) at their next meeting. In the rare case that the recommendation is not unanimous, the UPB will accept a majority recommendation (if external examiners are within the majority) or they will accept the recommendation of external examiners.

If you’re a Masters or Honours student, your examiners’ reports will go to an examination board in your faculty. The board will approve your final grade and outcome. If there are significant differences between the examiners’ reports, the board will determine the best course of action to resolve them (see p.139-140 in the Postgraduate Handbook for details). You will receive your examiners’ reports, but they will remain anonymous, and they won’t include the examiners’ individual recommendations.

Find out more

Supervisors are a font of knowledge on thesis and dissertation assessment, and they can answer any questions you may have. You can also read detailed information on assessment processes in the Postgraduate Handbook.

Check back later this week on Thesislink for details on the specific grading criteria used to evaluate doctoral theses and Masters & Honours theses/dissertations. We’re going to examine the criteria and interpret them so that you know – in as much detail as possible – how your efforts will be judged.

*The only exception to this is one criteria for doctoral theses about performance “in relation to peers” – we’ll write more about that in a future post.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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