Stating Your Case: a Reflection on Teaching and Encountering Thesis Statements

As an English teacher, I strive to implement lessons that will teach my students how to write clear and focused pieces of writing. In academia, focused writing becomes more difficult as writing prompts become longer and the required number of pages becomes greater. From the beginning of the writing process, which is the brainstorming, we are faced with endless opportunities; from the topics we choose, to the research we analyze. Thesis statements, which are basically required in any academic level paper seem to be the toughest feat I have come by. In order to crack the thesis code, I thought to myself:

  • What is the definition of thesis?
  • Are students being taught what a thesis statement is?
  • Why does a thesis help focus a paper?
  • How can tutors and teachers help students know and understand what a thesis is and how to use it in their own writing?

First things first, what is the definition of thesis? As defined by Webster’s Dictionary, a thesis (noun) is “a statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved.” In other words, a thesis is the central idea of a piece of writing that you back up with evidence. As I pondered on this definition, I thought back to high school and tried to recall my English courses. I do not remember thesis statements, but I do remember topic sentences. Isn’t a thesis statement just one big topic sentence? As a high school teacher, of course I teach my students thesis statements but that does not mean that the students we have in college have actually engaged in creating thesis statements.

So why do these students need to know what a thesis statement is? In order to maintain a focused piece of writing, you must have some direction. In my own experience as a writing tutor at Marshall I have seen that many students have a clear, concise introductory paragraph that includes a very direct thesis. I get excited and continue reading, only to find that by the time I reach the conclusion, the entirety of the content has nothing to do with what they stated in their thesis.

Thus, I have found a few things that I try with my students (of all levels) that helps aid in thesis-writing:


  1. Turn the writing prompt into a question.
    • By revising the writing prompt or assignment into a question form, the students feel like they are answering a specific question, which keeps them on topic. The term “thesis question” is sometimes used in Composition courses and works wonders for students struggling with writing thesis statements. They will be able to answer the question, making the process of writing a thesis statement seem much easier.
  2. Have a “Thesis Statement Mini-Lesson”
    • My love for mini-lesson has grown exponentially since I began helping students with writing. Since the average attention span of 20 year olds is only about 15 minutes, mini-lessons are a great way to define, practice, and apply certain writing techniques in a short period of time.
    • For a thesis mini-lesson, I give the students a list of about 5-6 thesis statements. The students will identify which statements sound weak or strong. Together, we will talk about the reasons the statements sound weak or strong while comparing them to each other. Next, the student will revise all of the statements they labeled as “weak” to make them strong. After this, they will be able to reflect on their own thesis statement with a new mindset.
  3. Start with the End
    • Have the students look at their conclusion paragraph (if you are working with a complete rough draft). Has the piece of writing wandered off topic? This happens a lot. Frequently, students get carried away in their own writing that subject seems to change midway through the paper. After the students write their introductory paragraph, have them write their conclusion directly after. Since one is introducing the paper and the other is wrapping it up, the two should have similar components. If these two paragraphs are not parallel to each other, maybe the student has gone off topic.
    • I have found that some students feel like their writing process goes more smooth if they write the introduction (with thesis statement), then conclusion, and finally fill in the middle.


Although these are just a couple of the many techniques I have used while teaching and tutoring, they are very helpful to students who are struggling with writing thesis statements. Implementing one, or all of these strategies will help us better understand the level that our students are at, and more importantly, what we need to do to help them get to a level they are expected to be at in academia.

-Chelsea A.


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