The Dissertation


The Dissertation for an MA TESL is a substantial (15 – 20,000 word) piece of academic writing in which you:

• Identify a clearly-focused topic and develop it in a coherent and rational way.
• Show a deep awareness and appreciation of other academic work done in the area, and have a point of view on it.
• Demonstrate the ability to reflect critically on the area you explore.
• Show you are able to collect, analyse and interpret data (although a theoretical study is also possible)
• Show you are aware of the implications of your findings, often but not necessarily for professional contexts.
• Say something new.

It normally involves a small-scale study but can be literature-based, written predominantly as a result of reading and thinking. Universities prefer dissertations in MA TESLs to have an applied perspective, wherever possible. Dissertations should show in-depth acquaintance with the literature of the subject area, but should also be a vehicle for the expression of personal views. The study should relate to a particular context and should draw on your professional experience; the application may be to the classroom, but this is not compulsory. For instance, a sociolinguistic investigation may have a wider application for a group of learners in a particular society. An SLA investigation could relate to a naturalistic setting, for example, a study of early child bilingualism. In each case, there may be implications for ELT. You are expected to link theory to practical implications in a manner that is appropriate to your study.


The dissertation should be written in clear, accurate language; give appropriate references to sources used whenever relevant; and contain a full Reference Section of publications cited. All universities expect that you will make every effort to submit a work that has undergone thorough proof-reading. A dissertation with a significant number of surface errors would not be accepted and would be referred back to you for re-submission.

General features of presentation

Here are the general requirements for an MA Deissertation:

• Word-length: 15-20,000 words (not including appendices and bibliography). You must stay within this word range, not less, not more.
• There must be double spacing between lines.
• Margins: each page should have a left-hand margin of at least 35mm and margins at head, foot and right-hand side, of at least 15mm.
• Pages must be numbered.
• The title page should state: The University; the name of the degree;; the title of the assignment; the date of submission; your name.
• Abstract: not more than 500 words, after the title page.
• A Table of Contents with page numbers at the beginning. It should include Chapter headings and numbered sections and sub-sections.
• References should follow the Harvard System and start on a fresh page following the end of the main text and precede any appendices.
• Each Appendix should begin on a new page.

Shape of the dissertation

Chapter 1: Introduction (there is no ‘Introduction’ before Chapter 1. Chapter 1 is the introduction!).

Length: 1,000 to 1,500 words.

This will say what the topic is, why you became interested in researching it, and discuss the nature of the issue or problem that the dissertation deals with. A brief description of the context of the study is usually appropriate. The research questions should also be introduced at this point. Finally, you outline the structure of the dissertation.

Chapter 2: Review of literature and theoretical framework.

Length: 5,000 to 6,000 Words

• Present, interpret and synthesise what has been published in the area of interest. Present the state of the art with regard to the topic.
• Review relevant material that already exists, identifying key work, key issues and key findings. This may involve an element of historical survey to show where we came from in the development of ideas and research.
• Show what areas of disagreement exist, and what we don’t know.
• Don’t write it in a way that suggests you are just listing things you have read about the topic: write it from your own point of view.
• It should lead up to your own study, such that it seems almost inevitable that your study needs to be done – because there is a gap in the literature, a problem that is still unresolved, or you suspect that previous research may not necessarily apply to the context of your study.
• So, at the end you will present a clear statement of the issues that your study needs to address. This is usually in the form of a research question or questions. In an experimental study this will take the form of one or more hypotheses and the null hypotheses.

Chapter 3: Research design, methods of data collection.

Length: up to 2,000 words.

Here you describe what data you will collect, what research tools you will use and how it will enable you to address the research question(s). There must be a match between the theory, problem or issue, research question and research design. This means you have to say why you chosen the research design you use, how it will allow you to get the data you need, how you analyse that data in order to answer the research questions, what steps you take to make sure the data is valid and reliable, or authentic and trustworthy, and how you have met ethical concerns.

Chapter 4: Presentation of findings and interpretation.

Length: 7 to 9,000 words.

In the scientific tradition associated with experimental designs it is common to simply present results first, and then interpret (discuss) them in the next chapter or section.

In qualitative research it is often preferable not to present results in a list form (for example, what the answers were to question 1,2,3.. of a questionnaire, or to questions 1,2,3.. of interviews), but to synthesise the results in your own mind first, so that what you write is a presentation of themes or patterns that have emerged from the data.

Discussion of the ‘meaning’ of the results can be done at the same time. This is essentially a ‘truth claim’: “this is what I know to be true”

Chapter 5: Implications, applications, limitations and conclusion

Length: 1,000 to 1,500 words.

Here you present the implications of the findings.
• Revisit the research question(s) you presented in chapter 1 or 2, and say how well you have been able to answer it/them. Evaluate the achievement of the dissertation.
• Say what the implications of the study outcomes are for the world outside the study, but also what you cannot claim. Say what both the personal and professional outcomes were.
• Say what you were not able to establish, and state the limits of generalisability of the findings. Say what you did wrong – or could have done better – or what went wrong, and what you wouldn’t do that way again if you had the chance. It is better to be honest and show you know what the shortcomings are, than to pretend everything is wonderful.
• Identify what work could be or needs to be done next.

Chapter 6: Conclusion.

For information about citations and references:

1. See the “Organising an MA paper” in the Articles section of this website.

2. See also the suggestions in the Links Section. The Purdue OWL website is highly recommended.

For information on the Literature Review:

1. See the 3 articles in the Articles section.

2. See the video “Writing a Literature Review” in the Video section.

For information about doing a study and research methods:

1. See the Articles sections for a number of articles in the first group.

2. See the Video section, particularly Dörnyei’s excellent talk on questionnaires Very strongly recommended.


Selecting the right direction

The Literature Review

A literature review is an examination of the research that has been conducted in a particular field of study. It should include a selection of articles and extracts from books which contain information, ideas, data and evidence relevant to your study. Your selection should be informed by the topic of your dissertation. The Review should include an evaluation of the work selected as it applies to the study that your dissertation includes.

The aim of the Literature Review is to demonstrate your knowledge of the field and to identify either the ‘gap’ in the research that your study is attempting to address, or your atempt to replicate an existing study, because you either doubt its findings or want to suppport them. The literature review should also attempt to synthesise the work discussed and to give a justification for your study.

The kicker here is to focus. While you might read very widely, when it comes to the lit. review, you need to concentrate very carefully on relevant sources and narrow down the scope of your reading.

And here’s the most important thing of all: You can’t write the lit. review until you’ve articulated your research questions. Don’t even start it until you have your research questions clearly written and approved by your tutor.

Once you’ve got your research questions, start reading articles and (parts of) books which seem relevant. Do NOT chase down blind tracks: focus! When I was doing my dissertation, I thought at one point that I’d have to go back and read Hegel. If you’ve ever picked up Hegel’s Phenomology of Spirit and read the opening page, you’ll know that it’s not just daunting, it’s baffling. So don’t go there! Avoid distractions – you can always go back and read something you discounted if it’s really necessary. Drive on: keep focused.

There are millions of ways of taking notes, but the important thing is, one way or another, to keep careful track of the articles and books you think you might use. There’s software that will help you do this like EndNote (, or you may prefer to use a notebook, stick-its, whatever.

After a while, you have to establish which literature is most pertinent to your review and start planning the review. Get some sense of the overall organisation of your literature review, maybe drawing diagrams of how the literature fits together.

Now here’s another kicker: your literature review can only be finished when your thesis is almost finished, because new research and publications might appear and anyway, your study will probably have changed. So, once you’ve got a rough draft of the lit. review, leave it and get on with othner bits of the dissertation. You will, I promise, have to come back to the review many times in order to add to and subtract from it and rewrite it a number of times.

Read the literature reviews in other theses and in published articles: see how they’re structured, see how they refer to sources and how they relate these sources to their own topic.

And then, of course there’s the structure of the lit. review where, once again, coherence and cohesion are the keys. Some models have been proposed:

* Chronological organisation: the discussion is ordered according to a historical or developmental context.

* The ‘Classic’ studies organisation: a discussion of the major writings regarded as significant in your area of study.

* Topical or thematic organisation: the discuusion is divided into sections representing the categories or conceptual subjects for your topic.

* Inverted pyramid organisation: the literature review begins with a discussion of the related literature from a broad perspective. It then deals with more and more specific or localised studies which focus increasingly on the specific question at hand.

None of these has any greater worth than any other. Do what you like, but make sure that your lit. review follows a clear, well-signalled path, that it tells a coherent and cohesive story which leads the reader easily through, and which never looses sight of the study your dissertation has at its heart.

And now, the most important bit of advice of them all: your lit. review must critically examine the articles and books that it refers to: it must not be just a summary or list of the sources you cite. One of the biggest faults that markers draw attention to in a poor paper is that the literature review is “too descriptive”. You are expected to comment on much of what youi cite, pointing out its strengths, weaknesses and omissions. Furthermore, everything you refer to must have a connection to your research topic and show how it relates to that topic. I’m being pretty fierce here; you can dally along the way a bit if it’s interesting enough, but the rules are strict! If you read anything by Kevin Gregg (just Google him) you’ll see that he often flouts all the rules, but he’s as near to a genius as we’ve got in AL, and he can do what he likes. Even so, you won’t find a more eloquent, coherent, cohesive, scholarly writer in the field. Every article he’s written is a jewel, including the one where he makes mincemeat of me (Gregg, K. (2005) A Response to Jordan…. Applied Linguistics, 26, 1, pp 121-124*).

Finally, tell the reader where you’re coming from. Make your own theoretical position clear from the start, and make your critical evaluations of the literature you discuss an integral part of this.

* Actually, while Kevin is right about my failure to deal properly with “explanation”, he’s wrong about theory construction. I’m trying to correct what I’ve said to date about explanation: see Jordan, G. Re-visiting Inference to the Best Explanation, in press. Well, in my head still, but I’ve signed a contract with Benjamins. 😦

For information on the Literature Review:

1. See the 3 articles in the Articles section.

2. See the video “Writing a Literature Review” in the Video section.



Doing a study for an MA in Applied Linguistics

1. Look at examples of good dissertations. All universities offer these, and don’t just stick to your own university’s examples. Look also at aticles published in the area you’re interested in and note how they are organised. Read the articles on research methods in the uni. course materials and those in the Articles sections here.

2. Choose a topic you’re really interested in, and good at. Look back at all you’ve done in previous modules and see if you can find a good topic. You can’t use material you’ve already used, but you can develop an area you’ve already covered.

3. Articulate 2 or 3 research questions that will inform your study. These research questions are vital and will inform your whole study. Do this as fast as you can. You can always go back and modify them, but they’re a necessary starting point. Make the research questions as focused and specific as possible.

Bad: How do different cultural norms affect the success of business meetings?
Good: How do German export managers feel about being asked personal questions in business meetings?

Bad: How does motivation affect language learning?
Good: How does Dörnyei’s construct of the “Ideal Self” contribute to an undertanding of L2 learners’ success rate in compulsory in-company language training programmes in the Santander bank?

3. Decide on your research tools. The most popular are questionnaires and interviews. Other good tools are templates for classroom observation, and personal journals.

4. Design your tools. If you’re doing a questionnaire see Dörnyei’s great talk in the Video section. Also see the articles on Likert scale questionnaires in the Articles section. If you do interviews, record them. See the article on Recording Interviews for ethnographic Research in the Articles section. If you keep a journal, make sure to write down all quotes and references.

5. Find your participants. If you’re doing a questionnaire, Surveymonkey is a great resource.

6. Check to see how many participants you need. This is a good site:

6. Write your questionnaire, plan your interviews, schedule your class observations.

7. Pilot your tools. This doesn’t have to be a big deal, but especially if you’re doing a questionnnaire, you need to weed out the “bad” bits – those that either invite a certain answer or aren’t clear.

8. Do it!


General Comments

In a study I commented on in a post about marking, the authors came to the “overwhelming conclusion” that what counted most were examiners’ first impressions. The initial impressions of the quality of the thesis are usually formed by the end of the second or third chapter of the thesis—often by the end of the literature review.

Characteristics of a poor thesis were:
• sloppiness;
• lack of coherence and cohesion;
• lack of understanding of the theory;
• mixed or confused theoretical and methodological perspectives;
• work that is not original;
• not being able to explain at the end of the thesis what had actually been argued in the thesis.

When asked to comment on what they thought set apart a ‘good’ thesis from the rest, a unifying responses was the use of the artistic metaphor. The use of the artistic metaphor extended to such terms as ‘elan’, ‘passion’, ‘excitement’ and ‘sparkle’. Clearly, these experienced examiners believed there was a level of ‘art’ involved in producing a particularly good thesis. For example, words and phrases such as the following were used to describe a good thesis:

• an artistic endeavour where the student is designing the work and there is elegance of design, of the synthesis, and executions;
• creativity;
• design—where it all fts together;
• elegant;
• a well-sculpted piece of work.

So, in brief, the authors’ research suggests the following:

Positive indicators:
• ‘sparkle, elan and sense of confidence with the material;
• cohesiveness and clarity;
• a student who makes the ideas his/her own, with some originality of presentation;
• professionalism—as demonstrated by mature comments, and the accuracy of the logic;
• style and sophistication;
• scholarship;
• the development of a well-structured argument.

Negative indicators
• sloppiness. Irritating things in the thesis such as typos and other careless textual mistakes that indicate a lack of attention to detail. Sloppiness in the text indicates sloppy research.
• poor references (“This is usually a sign of a poor thesis—the two go hand in hand”).

The final, substantive judgement is determined by:
• the student’s confidence and independence;
• a creative view of the topic;
• the structure of the argument;
• the coherence of theoretical and methodological perspectives; and
• evidence of critical self-assessment by the student.

Some tips for students:

* Check the guidebook or handbook to your course and find the section that deals with evaluation. Read it carefully and ask your tutor for clarification if necessary. The question is: What do the markers see as the difference between an “A” and a “C”?

* Markers of postgrad. papers are particularly fussed about citations and reference lists. Make sure your papers use the system expected in your university. Make the OWL site a Favorite and constantly check.

* Pay special attention to coherence and cohesion. Make use of numbered sections and sub-sections and of cohesive advices which tell the reader where you’re going. Always include an overview in the Introduction. Tell a story. I know this is all very postmodern talk, but try to see your paper as a narrative which leads the reader through a tell-me-more beginning, a really meaty main argument, and a good resolution. If you like music, see your paper as a sonata: statement; development; recapitulation.

* Demonstrate enthusiasm.

* Avoid generalisations and make limited use of anecdotes. Support any claims you make with references. Don’t use too many secondary references.

* Focus. Don’t take on too much in one paper. A single main argument, supported by a lit. review and 4 main points is ideal for a normal MA paper. And focus is even more important in dissertations: it’s just so easy to wander down tempting blind alleys.

* Don’t limit your paper to description – there must be evidence of a critical evaluation of the matters you describe.

* Proofread your paper carefully and ask a friend or expert colleague to read it before you submit it.

Finally, here’s a good website with very good, more detailed help (thanks to David Tiley for recommending this):

10 thoughts on “The Dissertation

  1. Thanks for this! We have just submitted our last assignments and are now starting our dissertations, so I’ve shared this page with our entire cohort. Might leave a more detailed comment once I’ve consulted it a few times 🙂


  2. Thanks for the great summary. What is a theoretical study? Questionnaires won’t do very well in working with children. I’m looking for an alternative type of study. Thanks!


    • All studies are theoretical to some extent – unless you make absolutely no attempts to explain or interpret any of the data you collect. Do you mean a dissertation where you discuss the theory or work of others and don’t actually do a study yourself? That’s an option in most masters, although over 90% of students do a study.

      Lots of studies have been done in the field of applied linguistics on children – how they learn languages is obviously a huge field, including all sorts of theories and hypotheses about the putative critical period.

      For your dissertation you need to begin with a research question or 2, and that will probably help you to decide what tools to use. You could observe them in an ethnographic embedded sort of way, doing things with them and keeping a diary, or you could record them with video or audio equipment and then look closely at the data collected that way, You can ask the children to do things, and also, of course you can ask them questions unless they’re VERY young – you could develop a questionnaire and then read the.questions to them, for example.

      But start with a problem, something you’re curious to find out the answer to.


      Geoff .


    • Hi Somoye,

      What information about triangulation do you need? Essentially, triangulation just means using more than 1 tool for doing a study (doing 1 questionnaire,with teachers, another one with their students, then doing follow-up interviews, for example) so as not to rely only on one set of data. If you Google the term, you’ll get thousands of hits, and there should be stuff on it in your course materials.




  3. Thank you very much. I am on my fourth module and all things go according to plan I will be looking forward to start my dissertation. This will certainly be of great help.


  4. This entry made for good reading but I am going to be doing an MA dissertation (in March) on a topic that goes something like this: Alternative Womanhood in the writings of Simmoms-McDonald (and someone else which I have not narrowed it down too)… I do not see myself being able to use the format that you write about above….any ideas?


    • Hi Lucabella,

      While most students base their dissertation on a study, some decide to do a critique (like the one you mention), create a programme or IT application, or put forward a new theory or hypothesis.

      If no study is involved, then the outline of the paper will obviously be different. The diss. will begin with an Introduction: why you’re interested, how it fits modern concerns about blah blah blah, and an overview. Chapter 2 should put forward a summary of your main arguments: What is the central thesis of your paper? Maybe you will have a couple of research questions, or hypotheses, and, if not, you must have some very clear, interesting, well-focused argument that informs your discussion of these writers. The diss. cannot be “merely” an extended book review. Chapter 3 should be the literature review, and the rest of the dissertation will consist, in your case, of a description of the writing of Simmoms-McDonald and A.N. Other, followed by a critical evaluation of the writing. All of this (including Chapter 2) must be clearly linked to your main thesis. You finish with the usual chapters, Reference Section and Appendices.

      I hope this helps a bit.




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