Assisting University Students with Graduation Thesis Capstone Essays

David McMurray, The International University of Kagoshima

This issue’s Teaching Assistance suggests ways in which the student assistant (SA) and teaching assistant (TA) can help undergraduate students successfully write and present graduation theses.

Assisting University Students with Graduation Thesis Capstone Essays

Strong structures have foundation stones, cornerstones, and a capstone affixed on the top. Comprehensive curricula have foundation subjects, required subjects, and a capstone thesis. The graduation thesis is a multifaceted assignment in a particular field of study. In undergraduate programs at universities in Japan, a graduation thesis can be referred to as the capstone. University curricula vary, but successful completion of seminars that lead to, and include the required capstone course and thesis can represent 20 credits of a 124-credit university degree program. Formulating a hypothesis, reading related literature, designing a research instrument, and writing up results is the culminating academic and intellectual experience for students. For many degree-holders, in addition to a diploma, a well-written and well-defended 30-page thesis can represent the tangible, crowning achievement of four years of study.

In Japan, instructors in charge of seminars usually provide students with advice on the process of writing a capstone paper in the particular field of study they specialize in. Teachers in the field of English education, for example, can begin these seminars in the freshman year and continue until graduation. Capstone papers written by English language majors are predominantly penned in Japanese, but a number of papers written in English can readily be found online (Kubo, 2018).

Some universities offer report and thesis writing workshops assisted by TAs and led by qualified writing instructors. Others have curricula that include 30-week thesis writing courses led by professors. Large universities sometimes open writing centers in which students can seek assistance from SA’s and TA’s throughout the school year.

Writing instructors can lead students through the process of prewriting, organizing information, writing, evaluating, setting titles, and rewriting a graduation thesis. SAs can refer students to theses in comparable fields of research written by peers. Libraries contain style guides that TAs can emulate to help authors learn the appropriate style as well as rules of quotation, citation, and how to write references.

Capstone course books, such as that by Kluge and Taylor (2018), can include guides which provide worksheets and easy-to-fill-in templates to explain the style and formats which are essential for academic writing in English. TAs with specialization in a particular field of study can readily guide undergraduate students (Hussain, 2015).

Writing a good research paper is challenging and consumes a lot of class and extra-curricular time. There are always some students, however, who attempt to write a final paper during the closing week of the final semester. The Internet has made it easy for students with wide ranging interests and shallow knowledge to amass information and piece together a report. Kluge and Taylor (2018) suggest the following example of a good thesis statement: “The Internet of Things first showed much promise for improving daily life and health, but now disturbing problems have emerged” (p. 39). With such a topic, as an advisor of dozens of undergraduate theses, I have observed how some students can come up with a report overnight with chapters on: The history of machine communication, The way wireless connections have developed, and The means by which the government has tried to protect users of such technology from hackers. Students can draft such essays by pulling out references in Wikipedia, copy-pasting from computer journal articles, and paraphrasing recommendations from government papers. Data charts and maps can be readily downloaded and pasted into the appendices. The resulting 20 pages might look cohesive and thorough on the surface, but anyone with access to broadband can come up with a similar paper. Gratton (2014) observed similar performances by her own 15-year old before asking, “But does my son actually know anything about [it]? In a sense he does–but this is generalist knowledge created from the scraps and scrapings of information from public sources” (p.205).

An evaluation rubric (Table 1) would assist the course evaluator to assess papers, and sort passable papers from those that are too general to be of value. The capstone paper needs to be assessed on whether it contains original thoughts, well-developed points of view, and valuable insights that others don’t have, or is plagiarized. The rubric could also assist students to clearly see how they need to write a passable capstone paper. The TA could help explain the rubric during class. By doing this, students can grasp step by step what they need to do to write higher quality graduation papers. The supervisor should assess and give a final grade.

Toward the end of the capstone thesis writing process, the author should be encouraged to share their findings with seminar classmates during a group presentation. A final presentation to the whole seminar would encourage students in lower grades to possibly follow in the presenter’s footsteps.

Integrating and coordinating a capstone presentation for undergraduate theses could help universities reach their fundamental goal of equipping students who can participate in society, start on a career, and create the future. As a specific strategic effort to attain this goal, departments and faculties could promote the presentations of research papers, graduation theses, and seminar reports by students at meetings with faculty, TAs, SAs, classmates, and invited guests. This could be an improvement over most final examination systems that give instructors only two options: requiring students to submit written papers or sit for written exams. Together with those who supported them to graduate, alumni would reap the rewards of having studied in a stronger university structure that placed freshman courses at its foundation, required courses at its corners, and a deserving capstone thesis on top.


Gratton, L. (2014). The Shift. London, England: William Collins.

Hussain, Z. (2015). Teaching assistance: Learning the biochemistry of English classes in Japan. The Language Teacher, 39(6), 38-39.

Kluge, D., & Taylor, M. (2018). Basic steps to writing research papers (Second Edition). Tokyo: National Geographic Learning.

Kubo, S. (2018). Impressions of Canada held by a sampling of Japanese people. Retrieved from: