The Nemesis of Thesis Statements

August 20, 2019
Lesley Chapel, Adjunct Professor of History

One of the most difficult concepts for students to master is the writing of thesis statements. I regularly teach a class called Applied History. In this course, students have to write a paper on a chosen topic in history, and the paper must include an introductory paragraph that culminates with a thesis statement. Although my students work on their papers in stages and submit rough drafts and get feedback from me every week, I find that I am often able to make little headway in helping them understand how to craft a thesis. It is frustrating for me because it leaves me feeling inadequate as an instructor as I read thesis-lacking paper after thesis-lacking paper, and it is frustrating for the students, as they end up with low grades.

How, as educators, can we help our students overcome this nemesis of thesis statements that is plaguing them (and our gradebooks)?

First, let us outline the most common problems with thesis generation. At worst, there are students who simply write an intro paragraph that includes a broad overview of their chosen historical topic, and such paragraph contains no semblance of an historical argument whatsoever. These are perhaps the hardest cases. Then there are students who pose their thesis in the form of a question. They ask their historical question, but do not supply their answer to it. I am glad they are asking historical questions—that’s a key part of the research process! However, as I explain to them, the thesis statement is the answer to their historical question, and it must be phrased as just that: a statement.

There are also students who state something like, “In this paper, I will discuss witchcraft in colonial America.” That is getting closer to a thesis statement. As I explain to my students, it isn’t enough to simply say what you are going to be talking about in your paper. In other words, what about witchcraft will you be discussing? What is your historical argument about it?

Some students misunderstand what a main historical argument is, and conflate it with a moral argument. For example, they might say, “Denying people the right to vote is wrong.” Well, no kidding! But that is a moral argument, not an historical one.

And finally, there are students who simply state historical facts as their thesis: “The Civil War started with the battle at Fort Sumter.” I stress to them that we already know that, so it is necessary to take those historical facts and figure out their significance and craft an argument based on what the sources are telling them.

These are the most common thesis-writing problems that I encounter in my students’ papers semester after semester. That said, there are techniques that can be used to get students thinking more critically about how to craft effective thesis statements. The two strategies that I use most frequently are the “So-What Test” and peer reviews.

The So-What Test is not something I came up with. This is something I’ve borrowed from a colleague. This “test” consists of having students read over their thesis statement and then ask, “So what?” The idea is that to pass the “test,” the thesis needs to present an historical argument that has significance, rather than simply state a fact. Asking this question helps students consider whether their thesis statements are compelling. In other words, what are they presenting or arguing that the reader should care about?

Another technique that can be helpful in guiding students toward producing thesis statements of better quality is engaging them in peer review. Students can read each other’s thesis statements and provide constructive criticism. Assisting others with writing often allows them to see areas in their own thesis statements that could use improvement.

Lesley Chapel

Lesley Chapel earned her master’s degree in history from Oakland University in 2011. She has been teaching history at the college level since 2012. She is currently an adjunct professor at Southern New Hampshire University and Nevada State College, and she resides in Auburn Hills, Michigan. 

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