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Thesis Generation

Recommended for early to mid-semester
Adapted from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas.


Students respond to a problem or question that demands a thesis answer. Give them background, data, and context, then sum up in a one-sentence “focusing question.” Students must be able to produce a one-sentence answer to the question.

  • Write an essay of no more than two double-spaced pages answering the following question: Is a skilled trout fisherman on a variable interval or a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement? Imagine that you are writing to a classmate who has missed the last week of lectures and finds the textbook explanations of “variable interval” and “variable ratio” confusing.
  • Gauss’s law relates the field at the surface to the charge inside the surface. But surely the field at the surface is affected by the charges outside the surface. How do you resolve this difficulty?
  • Choose a question that Plato answers in one way and Aristotle answers in a different way (for example, “How do things change?”). Then, in the first part of your paper, explain to your reader the differences in these two theories. In the second part of your paper, evaluate the two positions, arguing that one position is stronger than the other. In this section, specifically answer the following question: What situation or thing does one theory explain well that the other cannot explain adequately?

What Not To Do

Do not provide a series of interrelated questions; it’s confusing, and doesn’t promote thesis formation.

  • In the graveyard scene of Hamlet, Shakespeare alters his sources by adding the clownish gravediggers. How does the presence of the gravediggers influence your interpretation of the scene? Do you think they are funny? Absurd? Blasphemous? How does Hamlet’s attitude toward the gravediggers affect the scene? Do you think it is appropriate to sing while digging a grave? What about the jokes they tell? Do you think Yorick was more like the gravediggers or more like Hamlet? Do you think it is appropriate to have a lighthearted moment like this in the middle of a tragedy? Is the scene really lighthearted?

Instead, give students a single question, forcing them to frame a single answer as a thesis statement:

  • In the graveyard scene of Hamlet, Shakespeare alters his sources by adding the clownish gravediggers. How does the presence of the
    gravediggers influence your interpretation of the scene?

Average length: 2-5 pages, depending on complexity of topic and depth of analysis

Providing Feedback and Guidance

Students will perform better on this assignment if you have them submit a draft of the essay for you to read and comment on. Either orally or in writing, alert students to the weak and strong areas of their drafts:

  • Is the thesis sufficiently focused? Is the evidence being used appropriate and sufficient?
  • Are the arguments logical? Is the essay easy to read?

You can create a short checklist covering the main areas of the assignment to speed up your response time. After returning the drafts, give students another week or so to revise the papers before they submit them for a final grade.


In addition to clarity of writing, grading criteria for this assignment should address the strength of the argument with which students support their answer. Better responses will generally

  • provide more, and more accurate, information
  • display more subtle reasoning; draw sounder logical conclusions
  • demonstrate an appreciation of ethical or moral dimensions to the issue.

Grading criteria for the Hamlet example above might look something like this:

  • Does the essay accurately summarize the gravediggers’ contribution to the scene?
  • Is there a thoughtful and detailed exploration of what the scene would be like without the gravediggers?
  • Does the writer select appropriate textual evidence to support his or her points?
  • Is the writer’s interpretation of the scene likely to change the way others think about this part of the play?

You can also adapt one of the rubrics available on the Grading Rubrics page, such as this rubric that examines the primary traits of a thesis-driven essay.