Assessment of Postgraduate Studies: Are we missing the mark?



Design Education Strategy


  • postgraduate studies, benchmarking, assessment


The first author had the privilege to examine master’s dissertations, as well as doctoral theses on design and design-related topics presented at six universities in South Africa. He furthermore supervised postgraduate students at four universities and served on a variety of postgraduate and ethics committees. This exposure and access to various examination reports and postgraduate assessment criteria provide an informed perspective of the scope, depth and outcomes of, as well as the assessment practices surrounding postgraduate studies in South Africa. Examination reports from examiners outside South Africa are, in general, more favourable with mark allocation than the examination reports issued by South African examiners. The marked difference between local and foreign examination reports served as a catalyst for a small benchmark study.

The resultant benchmarking study considered a sample of theses and dissertations from leading tertiary institutions that offer postgraduate programmes in design and art. The question that guided this benchmarking exercise was “Is the scope and content of South African postgraduate work appropriate when compared to our international peers?”

This paper reflects on the scope, the content, and the direction of a selection of dissertations and theses submitted at leading institutions abroad. As such, a small sample of theses and dissertations from leading institutions in the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong, and the United States provided the basis for the benchmarking exercise. An analysis of the scope and content of the dissertations and theses has shown that some of our peers may have a different focus than we do here in South Africa. Some postgraduate work is primarily practice-based, while the candidates’ written component provides the context for their practice. Some dissertations and theses appear as a designed book, richly illustrated with practice-based artefacts. Not all the studies follow the IMRAD model (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion). Also, some works are notably more concise and condensed than what is customary in South Africa and seem to deliberately avoid unnecessary wordiness.

Should we move from the traditional dissertation and thesis towards a practice-based approach, and do we have the required supervisors and examiners with the necessary academic and practical expertise to do so? If so, then the next step for us would be to develop a framework and standards to adapt to the ever-changing, ever-evolving academic environment.

Keywords: postgraduate studies, benchmarking, assessment

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