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Motivational Emails and PG Dissertations: By now you should have written 1000 words!. Kathy Boxall Department of Sociological Studies Motivational Emails and PG Dissertations: By now you should have written 1000 words!. Session abstract:

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Motivational emails and pg dissertations by now you should have written 1000 words

Motivational Emails and PG Dissertations: By now you should have written 1000 words!

Kathy Boxall

Department of Sociological Studies

Motivational emails and pg dissertations by now you should have written 1000 words1
Motivational Emails and PG Dissertations: By now you should have written 1000 words!

Session abstract:

In 2010-11, ‘motivational emails’ were introduced as part of the MA Social Work (MASW) with a view to providing information for students and colleagues regarding new requirements for the dissertation and motivating students to make regular progress in completing work for their dissertations. Emails were sent on a regular basis to all MASW students registered for the dissertation module and to all staff supervising MASW dissertations. This presentation will describe the content of some of the emails, the process of their introduction, advantages and disadvantages of the approach and feedback from students and staff. It will also raise questions about the ‘distance’ between student and supervisor when electronic means of supervision are employed and the risks and opportunities of such approaches. The presentation will conclude by arguing that although whole group motivational emails can provide a supportive framework for both students and supervisors they are no substitute for individual supervision.

Why will colleagues be interested in this session? How could they adapt the ideas?

Dissertation supervisors, library staff and programme administrators may wish to adapt these ideas to their area of work. IT staff may be able to ‘automate’ the emails or arrange for them to be sent as text messages! I also hope there will be some discussion and ideas from the audience.

Motivational emails and pg dissertations by now you should have written 1000 words2
Motivational Emails and PG Dissertations: By now you should have written 1000 words!

  • My motivation

  • Background

  • Method

  • Content

  • Feedback

  • Risks and opportunities

  • Face-to-face supervision

  • Conclusions, questions and ideas

  • References

My motivation
My motivation

  • I was aware that MASW students’ confidence was sometimes eroded by the task of researching and writing a 15,000 word document;

  • I was already writing emails to individual students – to reinforce what we had discussed in face-to-face supervision;

  • Information by email sometimes seemed to get messages across more clearly than face-to-face discussions;

  • I have found email reminders helpful.


  • ‘Motivational emails’ introduced in 2010-11 and continued this year;

  • MA Social Work numbers increased from 35 to 65 students over last few years;

  • Supervisors now have up to 10 students each;

  • Some new supervisors unfamiliar with the Sheffield SW dissertation;

  • Revised requirements for the dissertation – confusing for ‘old staff’

  • Dissertation Handbook is 34 pages long.

  • Aim was to provide the same information to everyone involved, in small doses, at around the time they would need this, rather than all at once.

  • And to encourage and motivate students to submit their dissertations on time!


  • The MA Social Work is a two year full time programme of study;

  • The MASW dissertation takes place over a 12 month period – from February in the first year to February in the second year.

  • Students have six dissertation workshops during this period.

  • At the September workshop (beginning of second year) I asked if students would like me to send ‘motivational emails’

  • Both last year’s and this year’s students responded enthusiastically to this suggestion.

  • Emails sent on a regular basis to all supervisors and MASW students from September to February of their second year.

My aim
My Aim

My aim for each email was to:

  • Have an easily identifiable format, so emails would stand out;

  • Include a clear message about requirements and deadlines;

  • Provide encouragement and motivation for students who would be at a range of different stages;

  • Ensure that supervisors and students received the same information at around the time they would need it.

Dissertation motivational email no 1
DISSERTATION – Motivational Email No.1

4th October 2011

Dear MASW2 Student 

I hope you’ve enjoyed the recent good weather and you're making good progress with your dissertation.  By now you should definitely have started writing and have your first draft chapter underway. Working on your dissertation two or three full days per week, you should aim to write approximately 1000 words per week ….

Dissertation motivational email no 3
DISSERTATION – Motivational Email No.3

1st November 2011

Dear MASW2 StudentI hope you’re getting on OK with writing your dissertation.  If you’re anything like me, you will have good writing days and bad writing days; and absolutely awful writing days!  The important thing is to keep your spirits up and keep on writing.Carol Smart, a professor at Manchester University who's written loads of papers and books, has made a really helpful video about her experiences of writing. If your writing isn’t going so well at the moment, you may find it helpful to watch Carol’s video:

Dissertation motivational email no 6
DISSERTATION – Motivational Email No.6

2nd December 2011

Dear MASW2 Student

I hope you are making good progress with your dissertation. Now is the time to really focus on dissertation writing and try and pull everything together for Part A. Having a spurt of writing activity before the holiday will mean that you enjoy the holiday break and festivities that bit more, knowing that you have done your best to write as much as you can beforehand.

If you don’t feel you are making enough progress, try not to worry, but do get in touch with your supervisor and ask them for advice (I’ve copied all the supervisors into this message, so they won’t be surprised to hear from you, even if you haven’t been in touch for a while).

Dissertation motivational email no 7
DISSERTATION – Motivational Email No.7

21st December 2011

[….]if you are feeling overwhelmed by the dissertation task, the best thing you can do is take a few days rest and try and relax over Christmas. … As I said in the dissertation workshop, it really won’t be the end of the world if you are unable to complete your dissertation by the deadline (Tuesday 7th February 2012) – there are other options (an extension, or just submitting what you have been able to do, even though it may not be complete).

If you think you may need to go for one of these options, please email your dissertation supervisor and ask for an appointment to discuss this in the New Year.

Staff feedback
Staff feedback

  • Every time I see a motivational e-mail in my Inbox, I sigh a little as I know I can expect a flurry of activity and I’ll receive an influx of draft chapters to read and comment on in the next day or two!

  • The emails are amusing and written in a lively style. The students that are behind don’t seem to have taken them as ‘this has to happen now’, they’ve taken them as guidelines rather than something you need to be frightened about.

  • The only thing I would perhaps question is the title and whether some may find it patronising or ‘cheesy’.  

  • Although I am sure that not all students will find these useful, they are a resource. They are also useful in terms of knowing the general messages students are getting and how this should influence our supervision eg points they should be at, what workshops they have had etc. On a negative note it is another email to have to read!

  • The emails help to keep students on track, and provide some helpful tips.  I would have liked to have received these when I was a student. 

Feedback from students 2010 11
Feedback from students 2010-11

  • Although I found the module very difficult and did not get much enjoyment from it the support available was great […] The emails sent out regularly made me feel that I was not alone and kept me feeling like I was involved with the department.

  • I think the dissertation handbook could be improved to make things clearer, especially re: the layout of the work, I tended to use the information from Kathy's emails where applicable as this seemed to be more up to date.

Feedback from students 2011 12 still writing dissertations
Feedback from students 2011-12(still writing dissertations)

  • On 21 October 2011 14:14, X Bloggs wrote:Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Dissertation!: )

Feedback from students 2011 12 still writing dissertations1
Feedback from students 2011-12(still writing dissertations)

I think it depends on the type of person you are, but for me the anonymity of the motivational emails gives me no incentive to read them, whereas if I received a personal email from my supervisor I would feel much more motivated because it would relate specifically to my work and I would feel obliged to respond. 

The information overload we receive through junk mail, adverts popping up on screen demanding our attention and the internet in general means that I will only bother to read something which is relevant to me specifically, particularly if it is more than a sentence long.

Feedback from students 2011 12 still writing dissertations2
Feedback from students 2011-12(still writing dissertations)

Speaking as someone who has been struggling with my dissertation, I have to say that since one of your first emails stating that we "should" have a draft by December and a certain number of words by a certain date, I have not opened any of your emails apart from this one (partly because it had request for help in the title!). Rather than motivational, I found the email to be quite scary and created panic and stress for me at a time that was already quite stressful. I'm sure this is not everyone's experience of these emails, but I do think thought needs to be given to those people who may not be progressing (with their dissertation) at the same rate as everyone else and I don't think these emails are for everyone...

Feedback from students 2011 12 still writing dissertations3
Feedback from students 2011-12(still writing dissertations)

I often didn't read their full contents because I felt that I was meeting my own targets for where I was up to with my dissertations. This was fine, in that an email is a non-intrusive way of prodding us - i.e. you can just move/ignore/delete it if you're not interested. 

Occasionally when I did read it though there was actually some information that was helpful, not motivationally but practically - I wonder if there's a way to ensure that students who are not reading the emails (either because they are feeling self-motivated or because they can't face seeing how behind they are) DO read the important information that they sometimes contain. 

Feedback from students 2011 12 still writing dissertations4
Feedback from students 2011-12(still writing dissertations)

I'll admit that one or two I never opened as I was scared about what they were going to say and as they say ignorance is bliss! You need not have written anything in these emails at all...a blank email merely titled 'Motivational Email' was enough to panic me into writing!

However it was a pleasant surprise to read your emails and find them A. not as scary as I thought they might be and B. actually helpful and reminded me that all the worries, anxieties, procrastination and ''writers block'' that I was experiencing are all common to people undertaking this sort of academic challenge, which made me feel not so alone. So thank you for that.

Risks and opportunities
Risks and opportunities

  • Scope for misunderstandings – writing the emails can’t be rushed – need to think carefully about the content and possible misinterpretations;

  • I tend to write the emails with my own students in mind – but students have very different needs and rates of progress;

  • Writing a dissertation is, for most students, a stressful experience – but for some the stress levels may be intolerable;

  • Whole group emails lack a ‘personal touch’;

  • But they may help students realise that they are not alone and others are ‘in the same boat’;

  • They have generated discussion and interest (motivation?) from a range of different quarters – students, supervisors, secretaries – which suggests that (at least some) people are reading the emails.

F ace to face supervision
Face-to-face supervision

  • Whole group motivational emails can provide a supportive framework for both students and supervisors but they are no substitute for individual supervision;

  • In module feedback students rated individual support from supervisors very highly;

  • But not all students and supervisors have positive experiences of supervision;

  • In these situations, motivational emails may provide an additional ‘safety net’.

Conclusions questions and ideas
Conclusions, questions and ideas

  • Although many students appear to find these emails useful, for some they are an additional and unwelcome source of stress;

  • Some students are not opening the emails, so are not accessing the content or potential sources of support;

  • Need think about how to encourage students to actually open the emails before they decide they are not for them.

  • Any questions?

  • Ideas?


  • Simpson, Ormond (2010) Supporting Learning Motivation by email – suggestions for helping students ‘switch on their learning motivation’ by using email messaging

  • Simpson, Ormond (2012) Supporting students at a distance: Articles on distance education,