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Teaching About Thesis Statements

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Thesis statements can be tricky for students. Typically, the thesis statement comes at the end of the introduction to an essay and is one or two sentences. It makes a claim that a reasonable person could disagree with—it is not a statement of fact. This means that a thesis statement is arguable and must be supported with evidence from the text. Thesis statements will evolve throughout the drafting process. Students should have a rough idea in mind about what they are doing with a paper and attempt to capture their focus in a thesis statement, understanding that their thesis will evolve over time. Forming thesis statements is a recursive process—the deeper that students go into a draft, the more they will be able to refine their thesis statement. Let them know that it’s important to draft a thesis in the early stages of an essay, but that this statement will (and should) evolve through multiple drafts.

Rosenwasser and Stephen (2006) offer some guidelines for refining thesis statements:

  1. Formulate an idea about your subject—a working thesis.
  2. See how far you can make this thesis go in accounting for (confirming) evidence.
  3. Locate complicating evidence that is not adequately accounted for by the thesis.
  4. Make explicit the apparent mismatch between the thesis and selected evidence, asking and answering So what?
  5. Reshape your claim to accommodate the evidence that hasn’t fit.
  6. Repeat steps 2, 3, 4, and 5 several times.

The authors illustrate this process with an example of an analysis about the film Educating Rita:

Working thesis: Educating Rita celebrates the liberating potential of education.

This is a good start, but evidence in the film complicates this idea, as one character struggles with personal issues despite (or maybe because of) his education. So what to do? Importantly, a thesis statement should not be abandoned when evidence from the text complicates the idea—it should be revised to account for this evidence.

Revised: Educating Rita celebrates the liberating potential of enabling—in contrast to stultifying—education.

Revised again: Educating Rita celebrates the liberating potential of enabling education, defined as that which remains open to healthy doses of working-class, real-world infusions.

Final version: Educating Rita celebrates the liberating potential of enabling education (kept open to real-world, working-class energy) but also acknowledges its potential costs to loneliness and alienation.

Rosenwasser and Stephen offer the following guidelines for developing a thesis statement:

  1. A thesis is an idea that you formulate and reformulate about your subject. It should offer a theory about the meaning of evidence that would not have been immediately obvious to your readers.
  2. Look for a thesis by focusing on an area of your subject that is open to opposing viewpoints or multiple interpretations. Rather than trying to locate a single right answer, search for something that raises questions.
  3. Treat your thesis as a hypothesis to be tested rather than an obvious truth.
  4. Most effective theses contain tension, the balance of this against that, this degree with that qualification. They are conceptually complex, and that is reflected in their grammatical shape—often they begin with although or incorporate however.
  5. The body of your paper should serve not only to substantiate the thesis by demonstrating its value in selecting and explaining evidence, but also to bring the opening version of the thesis into better focus.
  6. Evolve your thesis—move it forward—by seeing the questions that each new formulation of it prompts you to ask.
  7. Develop the implications of your evidence and of your observations as fully as you can by repeatedly asking, So what?
  8. When you encounter potentially conflicting evidence (or interpretations of that evidence), don’t simply abandon your thesis. Take advantage of the complications to expand, qualify, and refine your thesis until you arrive at the most accurate explanation of the evidence that you can manage.
  9. Arrive at the final version of your thesis by returning to your initial formulation—the position you set out to explore—and restating it in the more carefully qualified way you have arrived at through the body of your paper.
  10. To check that you thesis has evolved, locate and compare the various versions of it throughout the draft. Have you done more than demonstrate the general validity of an unqualified claim?

For a more detailed discussion about evolving thesis statements, please see Chapter 6
Rosenwasser, D. and Stephen, J. (2006). Writing Analytically. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth.