Friday, October 6, 2023

Some general advice on writing your thesis

Here is some advice I just sent a doctoral student (made anonymous and generic to protect innocent parties involved).

Somehow just about every student makes the same mistakes, so I am putting it here for everyone to save you tears.
  1. At the outset, make sure that your automatic styles, (headings, sub-headings, captions, footnotes and automatic referencing) are flawless. It may mean taking some time to learn how to use your word-processor and your referencing software properly.
  2. In citing the literature, remember to foreground your voice and not that of the authors. In other words, don't use "According to so and so..."
  3. Please watch my precis video again and make sure each paragraph has a topic sentence and then supporting sentences in descending order of importance, unless you are trying to convince, in which case the sentences build up from least to most important and end with the topic sentence. Also make sure you do ONE TOPIC per paragraph.
  4. Check for duplication. Because you sometimes put different things in the same paragraph, you tend to repeat them again somewhere else.
  5. All the diagrams and tables must be explained in full. If the examiner were to ignore the table they must still be able to understand the thesis. You may want to consider where you want to put the diagrams about research methods.
  6. Finally you need to take the reader with you. I find it quite hard to see the "golden thread" in the chapter (and in all the others for that matter). Under each heading state what is to follow. Then begin with a powerful statement that summarises the whole section. If the examiner is lazy, they can then skip the whole thing and still know what you mean.
  7. You may find it useful to drop everything for now and go and do this free online writing tutorial. It will help you avoid all the pitfalls: Effective Writing Practices Tutorial | Northern Illinois University (

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

How to structure a thesis when you must develop the theory first

Theses are usually structured in five parts: Introduction, Literature review, Research method, Findings, Conclusions & recommendations. Students often question this structure when they must develop theory first before they can do the fieldwork. In such cases they present the structure as: Introduction, Research method, Literature review… When I question this, they tell me that in their case the literature review is, in fact, a method and should therefore follow on the method section instead of preceding it. Such reasoning is based on a misunderstanding of the difference between a literature survey and a document analysis. In the introduction you therefore have to point out the dualistic nature of your research.

The purpose of a literature review is to point out the current gap in our knowledge and to suggest a point of departure of research towards filling that gap. In the case in point, the literature survey would come in two parts. The first part of the literature survey will describe the intellectual puzzle – what do we already know about the situation on the ground, and what does not quite add up. The second part will describe the current gap in theory – what has already been done, why it does not work, and where we should begin looking for answers.

Now comes the research method section. First you will explain your process: developing a framework from the literature and then using that framework to solve a research problem. Thus the research section will have two parts, but the sequence is reversed. The first part describes the Systematic Literature Review (SLR), which is not a literature survey, but an actual research procedure where the texts are treated as data, rather than sources. The second part will describe the field work. Both parts of the research method section will contain the five key elements: Logic of enquiry (quantitative or qualitative), Research setting, Data collection, Data analysis, and Ethics (Kshetrimayum, 2022).

For the systematic literature review you will describe how you searched for the sources you used, key words, databases, etc. They you will explain how you filtered them down (your criteria for inclusion and exclusion). You will describe the types of analysis you did to extract the eventual themes. You may want to consider the ethical implications of sensitive texts that you may have included or excluded and the effect that it may have on the reliability and validity of your findings. The PRISMA STATEMENT of Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (Moher et al., 2009) provides clear guidelines for a systematic literature review.  

For the fieldwork you will do the same. Is it a quantitative, qualitative, or mixed method study and why? What is the context where you did your research? What was your population, how did you sample and why? How did you collect the data and why. How did you clean and analyze the data? What were the ethical considerations. In experimental or field research this part is straightforward, while for desk-top studies are often misunderstood. For experimental and field research we ask: How did you set up the laboratory? What experimental design did you chose and how did you execute it. How did you analyze the data? How did you ensure safety for all. For field research: In what stetting did you do the research, how did you select your participants, what intervention did you make, how did you collect and analyze data and how did you protect your participants? Desk-top studies are, in fact, the same. The only difference is that the data sources are mostly text based.

In fields such as Policy studies, History or Literature the analyzed policies, historical documents or literary texts are often confused with literature sources. Paradoxically, in when you study the work of a great literary figure you are not doing a literature study. You are doing a document analysis. The policies, biographies, or anthologies that you are studying are your data sources. Thus, in your method section you will again take a stance regarding quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods, you will explain your setting (libraries, archives, or your own PC), how did you select your data sources (original manuscripts, published works, reprints), what did you look for in your analysis, and what ethical considerations are there. In policy, historical work, or literature, for instance, the principle of anonymity becomes problematic, since the political, historical or literary subject of your study may well still be alive.

Finally at the end of the research method section you will explain how you used the framework that you developed from the systematic literature review as a filter for the data that you collected in your experimental, field or desk-top research.

The findings will also come in two parts. Firstly, there will be a discussion of the Systematic Literature Review and the framework that emerged. Then you show what happened when you filtered your data through it, and finally you will present the answers to each of your research questions.

The conclusions take place in reverse. First you give the answers to your primary research questions – what your data told you once you filtered it through your framework. Then you express yourself on the value of your model in making sense of the data. Finally you present recommendations for further research of your problem, and further development of your model.

The thesis structure, therefore, remains the same: Introduction: I am going to solve this problem by first developing a framework from a systematic literature review, then I am going to use the framework tot analyze data. Literature review: This is what we don’t know about the research problem this is what we don’t know about the theory. Research method: This is how I developed a framework through a Systematic Literature Review. This is how I used the framework do solve the problem. Findings: This is what the framework looks like. This is what I found when I filtered my data through it. Conclusions and recommendations: This is the new knowledge and this is my contribution to theory. Now we need to solve the following problems and address the following theoretical shortcomings.

And then you graduate.


Kshetrimayum, M. 2022. 5 Key Elements of Methodology Section of a Research Paper. Mel Insights.

Moher, D., Liberati, A., Tetzlaff, J., Altman, D.G. & Group*, P. 2009. Preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses: the PRISMA statement. Annals of internal medicine, 151(4): 264–269.


Thursday, January 14, 2021

The three golden rules of academic success

As the new academic year starts and with it the New Year’s resolutions too I thought it would be good to share the advice that I have been giving to new students every year for the past fourteen years. Mignon Nolte Smit told me these were the three pieces of advice that her dad gave her when she first went to university.  Over the years I have been reflecting on them, and while I initially thought it quite humorous, I have come to realise that they are, in fact, the three golden rules of academic success – in the following order:

  1. Make the right friends.
  2.   Get to know your lecturers.
  3.   Do a bit of studying.

The joke lay in the fact that he put studying last; but the fact is that University is a process of growth intended in creating your future, and not acquiring a bit of knowledge and skill. Nevertheless your aim upon entering university should be to get a distinction, not to pass: The higher your grade, the better your return on investment. So many students write appeals to me asking me to let them have that one mark that will change their result from 48 to 49 so that the computer will automatically adjust it to 50%! They are missing the point. The aim is not 50%; the aim is 100%. So let’s take the three golden rules one by one and see how they can lead to that distinction.

1. Make the right friends

How many times have you heard people say of a university dropout – “S/he got involved with the wrong friends”? Your friends can make you or break you.  I remember, at school, being told not to go to the ice rink – because that’s where they sell drugs.  Believe me, the ice rink is perfectly safe.  Most addicts get their first fix from a friend. Don’t make those friends.

Your friends are the centre of your network. They are your business partners and your connections for the rest of your life. They are also the ones who will call you in the morning if you overslept after pulling an all-nighter before a final exam. They are the ones who will lend you their notes for a class you missed, and you will both end up in the dean’s office for getting the same questions incorrect in your test.

Make sure you curate your friends properly.  You need those who will push you, challenge you, criticize you and support you.  You need to have some friends who are much cleverer than you, so that they can help you with things you don’t understand.  You need some who struggle so that you can help them, and get to know the work much better as you teach it to others.

Above all, though, remember the old truism that if you are the brightest person in your group, you are in the wrong group.

2. Get to know your lecturers

Your lecturers are the stand-ins for your future clients and bosses. They are there to challenge you, to support you and to help you grow. They are not there to remind you of deadlines and dry your tears. One of the complaints that cross my desk most about lecturers, is that they are inconsistent.  What Lecturer A will give a distinction for, Lecturer B will fail.  Now what? The point is – you have to get to know very quickly what they want. The obvious place to look, of course, is in the assessment rubric. If there is no rubric, ask for one – it is your right.  In academic life there should be no surprises – neither good ones, nor bad ones.  If you did better than expected, or worse than expected, then the outcomes were not properly explained. If the rubric doesn’t tell you, then ask.  First ask your friends, then ask your class rep, and then ask your lecturer.

Do not be afraid of approaching a lecturer directly. Remember – your fees pay their salary. And when I say ask your lecturer, I really mean ask anything.  Ask for an explanation of where you went wrong. Ask if you may fix and re-submit. Ask for an extension if you have to. Why you can even ask for a bonus mark. The worst they can do is say no. The best that can happen is that they get to know you. Don’t worry if they get to know you for the wrong reasons entirely.  Six months down the line they will remember you and not the incident, and when an opportunity comes up and they are asked to nominate someone, they will nominate someone they know. And ten years down the line when you are rich and famous, they will tell their grandchildren “I taught them in first-year you know.”

3 Do a bit of studying

One of the most common mistakes that students make is not setting priorities. You need not learn everything. You need to learn the underlying principles. You must learn to learn. Any assessment is designed in such a way that any student should be able to get 50%.  Then it gets progressively more difficult to get higher grades. So, the way to approach a written examination is to provide a tentative answer to every question.  Then go back and do the ones that you know you can do well.

Do not leave a single question unanswered.  If you don’t know the answer at all, then paraphrase the question and write that down as the first sentence of your answer. Then guess a second sentence.  Then go on to the next question.  That way if the lecturer needs to find that one mark to get you to 49% so that the computer can give you 50%, they can put a one next to your nonsensical answer. Nobody will know, but if you write nothing, we can give you no mark. Here is a simple case study.  You get 45%.  Unbeknownst to you, the whole class does poorly and we decide to increase the grades by five percent. Now you get 47,25% and you qualify for a re-assessment.  Or better still, we decide to increase the grades by 10% - now you get 49,5% and the computer gives you 50%!  If you got 0, then 0 x 10% remains 0.

The same goes for assignments.  Never miss a deadline, ever in your life. Ever. Just don’t. A non-submission is a zero.  Submit your rough work. Submit an outline of what you would have done if you had the time. Submit a picture of your granny if you must, but submit something. It is much easier to ask for an opportunity to improve on work that you submitted than to ask for a late submission. Better still: Be the first to submit.  In my experience the students who submit first are also the ones who do best.  Think of it, the best runner of a race is the one who finishes first.Besides, if you keep on submitting first, your lecturers will get to know you.

Finally, don’t be scared. The biggest reason students have for dropping out of university is that they are scared of dropping out of university. You open the book and you see how much work it is. Now you are so scared that you close the book again and go and do something to take your mind off it. Tomorrow when you open it again, the work has not grown less, but the time has.  And your panic increases. So what do you do?

My friend Dr Kobus van Wyk once asked us “How do you eat an elephant” – and we gave the standard answer – “One bite at a time”.  To which he responded: “If you do that it will rot long before you have finished”. Then he shows a picture of a few lions and a few vultures around an elephant’s carcass and he gives his answer: “You invite your friends!”

Which is the reason for the first rule.


Here is a comment from Mignon Nolte Smith, posted on my Facebook Page soon after I posted this. Amazing to learn more of the man who originated my talk!

My dad is 81 this year... he still gives me amazing advice. Hendrik Nolte has a M.Sc in Biology, was a lecturer at the University of Pretoria. He was the builder of the Merensky Library on Campus. He raised 5 children, still married to his highschool sweetheart. In his life he was a farmer, still is, a headmaster of an agricultural school in Perderkop. He wrote debating speeches for many national winners - including myself that won Tuks redenaars in 1990. He wrote two books, one on stories of the people he knows and one on research of the Nolte Family. His other books are academic, textbooks... i will have to look it up! He is a cabinet maker, an now spends his time making oxwagons on scale - to the Johanna van der Merwe - that was standing at Tuks at the Merensky for many years.

He was the Tuks lecturer who threw a student out through the class window for blowing smoke into a microscope. He was in the Rapport Newspaper and the Landbou weekblad for succeeding with a business venture in times when everyone was failing. He had the right friends... but he never had many friends.

If you are in the Mpumalanga area visit his amazing historic Anglo Boer War museum which he has collected over 20 years.

I have never seen my father depressed, down or even moedeloos... he is the only person on earth I know who has mastered the magic authors like Victor Frankl writes about.

Always a brighter day ahead, always something more to love for, something to do, someone to help.

Thank you prof Johannes for this amazing memory I really appreciate it!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Learning incomes and learning subjectives

I am sitting in a deep and meaningful conversation with Prof Liezl Nel of the University of the Freestate and our joint doctoral student, Fred Mudavanhu, and Fred has introduced two new words that emerged from his research.  These are learning "Incomes" (as opposed to outcomes) and learning"Subjectives" instead of learning objectives.
Now well this resonates with my concept of collectionism...
Learning "Incomes" are those items that are added to the collection.
Learning "Subjectives" are the choices made by curators of their collection of learning assets.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Advice for an unsuccessful prospective student

This morning I received yet another desperate email from a student looking for placement (or a job).
He has been struggling for four years since matric to gain entrance to a university or to get a job.
I am dumbfounded by how bad his attempt was.  Do students get NO life skills advice at school?

Here follows his email (censored to protect innocent people involved) and my reply.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 25 Jan 2017 22:43:51 +0200
Subject: Fwd: my file

to. whom it may concern

my name is Paul XXXXXX  and I would to be considered to study at cput for space in any faculty please resume my certificate.. i'm in desperate need for school

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 24 Jan 2017 11:43:55 +0200
Subject: my file

please find attaches file of my certificate

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 17 Nov 2016 19:08:10 +0200
Subject: My application for a job vacancy at webhelp sa

To whom it may concern

Please find here with attaced file of my resume for a job vacancy with webhelp SA

I would love if my application would be successful and expect a call or email from you soon..

Kind Regards

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 3 Nov 2016 09:32:22 +0200
Subject: my cv...

Please here with attached file of my CV...


And my reply

Dear Paul

Thank you for your email requesting a place to study.  Unfortunately my Faculty cannot accommodate you at this stage and neither can we appoint you in a position.  However, since I sense your desperation and frustration, and since I care, may I offer you some "fatherly" advice - since my age allows it.

Always address an email seeking a position as a student or an employee to a specific person.  You know that I am Prof Cronje, so address me as such, and not as "to whom it may concern".  If you don’t show enough care to name the person you are addressing, then why should that person care to give you a position?

Always use appropriate capital letters.  You probably sent this email from your cell phone. That is no excuse for careless writing.  If your email is careless, how will the receiver know that the rest of your attitude is not also careless?

Use full stops after full sentences.  Once again - if you cannot even write a full sentence, how would I know you can write an essay?

If you apply to a university you need to apply to a specific course.  We cannot simply put you in any "space". We need to know what your interests and aptitudes are.  I suggest you visit a public library and use their public access computers to do a free online aptitude test to see what kind of area would suit you best. You can find one at this link:

Delete all previous emails in a chain. The receiver of a message should at least think that he or she is the only recipient.  Why would I want to give you a position if I can see that three other people would not?

Go back to night school and re-do Mathematics and Physical Sciences to obtain at least 50%. I know it is hard, but there are many NGOs out there who will help you get that result and with Maths and Science being such scarce skills even a 50% will be a way into a better life.

Learn to spell and to use the correct words:  "um" is not a word.  You mean "I'm", and you should write "I am".  Resume means "to start again" you mean "receive" or "review".

You can find some good advice about how to start seeking for a job here:

Finally, I include in this email Mr XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX an excellent doctoral student of mine.  If you need good advice about how to get to the top, contact him directly and if you are ever in Cape Town, buy him a coffee and talk to him about how to do it.

I wish you success in your future.

Best wishes

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Collectionism as an approach to Instructional Design

It was the emergence and rapid growth of Pokémon Go, and a number of “Badge Breakfasts” in Johannesburg and Cape Town that first sparked the idea with me.  I want to coin a new word for the phenomenon of micro-credentials in the world of learning and teaching. Pokémon Go muscled in on the phenomenon that people like to collect things.  The same way we collect souvenirs on our travels, pick up shells on the beach, or collect credits towards the next free coffee at our local coffee shop, we like collecting. In the field of elearning this phenomenon has also been recognised both by the open badges community and by the rise of SCORM and Experience API.
So I was looking for a term that would cover the phenomenon of collecting bits of learning and stringing them together to form a portfolio, or maybe even a qualification.  I was looking for a word that would resonate with Seymour Papert’s Constructionism. So, I looked first at collectivism, which describes the fact that knowledge rests in the collective – and I like it, because it resonates with Rhizome theory. But collectivism is about people working as a collective, it does not describe the act of collecting.  Then I found a word that had no definition in Google’s online dictionary – “Collectionism”.  I found one use of the word as hoarding. So I want to propose the use of the word Collectionism in the design of teaching and learning as a way of leveraging our natural tendency to collect things, and using that as a basis of developing a knowledge base.
Collectionism would then form the basis of what I want to call asset-based teaching and learning – where the learner is seen as someone collecting assets to construct an own skill-set, rather than as an “empty vessel” with a deficit that needs to be filled or corrected. The concept of collectionism will resonate with librarians, who are, by definition, builders of collections. So from the librarians one might borrow the act of classifying and categorising assets.  Of course in dealing with assets one is already borrowing from economists, and thus it would be necessary to find some way of classifying the assets that are collected.  This definition of assets can already be seen in the way that metadata is imbedded into badges. One could define assets by their size – in other words the amount of knowledge that is contained in a unit, or by their duration – in other words, whether they are permanent assets, such as degrees, or whether they have expiry dates – such as drivers’ licences.  .  Are they cardinal or ordinal assets – did you get them for achieving a stated learning objective, or did you win them in a contest? One could also define assets in terms of their tangibility or otherwise in other words, can the asset be “traded” in the form of a course and certification.  I could be trained as a life coach and based on that asset, I could coach, or even train other life coaches.  On the other hand, in intangible asset would be the fact that I was voted the best life-coach in the district, and thus could charge more for my services that someone else.

So that is my opening gambit.  How can we develop a system of assets and recognise them so that they can form the building blocks of all our learning? 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Outline of a Masters or Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation

Ok, so two days ago I posted Chapter 4.  I didn't think of posting the others, because they have been on my website for years.
But then again, not everybody visits my website, which is at , and there may even be people who still don't know about my "Free online doctoral programme" which is at

For all of you then, here are the links, first to the "Logic of a thesis" and then a brief sketch of what goes into every chapter.

The logic of a thesis

So there you have it.  Now spend the weekend and just populate it.  Then you can submit on Monday.