A little over a year ago I signed up for UCL’s Arena Two course, which consists of a series of lectures, events, and activities intended to facilitate the development of our didactic and pedagogical knowledge and abilities, with the final aim to apply for recognition as a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA) — a scheme meant to provide transferable professional recognition for teaching in higher education. After a bit of interruption to the end of that programme due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic last year, I finally managed to complete my FHEA application in November 2020 and was recognised as a Fellow in February this year.
I found the entire process really useful to me personally, though as so often it definitely is one of these things where you only get out as much as you’re willing to put in. What I found especially beneficial personally was the reflective element involved in peer discussion throughout the programme and in writing the three case studies for the fellowship application, which really helped me with both my confidence and professional development as a teacher, and a big part of that was not just sharing and reflecting upon my own practice, but seeing what other people were doing, where they felt they needed to improve, and what they were trying to do about it. This I found would often give me an impetus to think about parallels in my own practice and consequently influence how I approached or contextualised similar issues when I encountered them. In line with this, I thought it might be a nice idea to share my own three case studies here.
The first case study that I’m sharing here actually began life while I was still a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant and supervised my first BA long essay (that’s what we call BA dissertations at UCL), which was followed two years later, now as a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow, by supervising my first two MA dissertations as part of our MA Linguistics. I’d actually be quite interested to know what other people’s initial experiences with supervision were, as during my own research on this most of the information I could find seemed to come from seasoned senior academics who probably have quite a different set of experiences to draw on; plus I reckon it is quite true that, as Petre & Rugg 2010 point out, what we think good supervision looks like very heavily depends on our own previous experience as supervisees. So, how does your own early supervision experience compare to mine? And if you’ve accrued a lot more experience since, how has it continued to change?
Now just as a last point, in case you’re unfamiliar with this, the labels in square brackets (e.g. [K5]) are references to the dimensions of the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF). Hover over them to see a short description.
Case Study: From micro-management to effective supervision
This case study focuses on my development as a dissertation supervisor on our BA and MA Linguistics programmes. It demonstrates how my approach has developed from micro-management to letting students take ownership of their learning.
While there are likely as many styles of research supervision as types of students, and many of them may have particular merits when matching a particular type of student (cf. e.g. Petre & Rugg, 2010), learning to supervise productively and effectively is not easy for someone new to the role. As Petre & Rugg (2010) point out, the temptation is to simply try and supervise others the way we have been supervised, or rather, the way we experienced supervision as being effective for ourselves. As we advance ourselves and the standard of our own work rises, there is also a temptation to apply our own current expected standards to our supervisees [K2]; for me this is especially true since my experience of the standard at which students at various stages in their academic career can be expected to work at is still limited to some degree. I have been supervising three dissertations so far, one at BA level in 2016/17, and two at MA level in 2019/20 [A2, A3], two of these related to my own research on Welsh linguistics [K1, K2] and one on an area that I was less familiar with, applying a novel theory to an understudied dialect of Wu Chinese. Accordingly, I faced the problem of developing an appropriate and effective style of supervision, and learning what I can and cannot expect of a student at this stage of their academic career [K3, V2].
When I supervised my first BA project, I neither had experience of academic research supervision, nor had the syllabus of my CPD [A5] covered this at that point. I was fortunate however in that my PhD supervisor joined our initial meetings, and offered me continued guidance through ongoing peer dialogue as the project progressed [A5, V3, K5, K6]. Partially because I initially tried to apply my own standard to my student, and partially because of my experience of supervising outside academia, where my supervisees didn’t enjoy much freedom in their work, I initially tended to micro-manage my student’s experimental design and protocol. In doing so I was missing the central goal of research supervision: “enabling [the student] to work independently: they have to make choices, get organised and produce a longer piece of writing” (Morss & Murray, 2006:148; my emphasis) [K2, K3, V4].
What was very useful to me was that my own supervisor would occasionally advise me about when he would normally take the back seat, and where he would try and be more hands-on. However, the true realisation that taking the back seat is important became apparent to me only once I could see directly that micro-management wasn’t conducive to enabling independence. When we ran the pilot study, I initially guided and double-checked everything on the protocol, but against my expectation the student couldn’t repeat the protocol after two sessions. However, when during the next session I let the student set up everything and only said something when there were major deviations or when they asked me, I could see that the student learned from mistakes and didn’t usually repeat them. To let my student develop I had to actually let them gain their own experience [V1].
At this stage, I found that peer dialogue became especially important, since it gave me the reassurance that it was appropriate—necessary even—to do this, and that it would ultimately lead to growth. Despite intellectually knowing this from reading and my own experience, I would still have struggled to put this into practice without this external validation [V3].
When I supervised two MA dissertations last year, I was able to capitalise on my experience from supervising the BA project before and avoid the tempting trap of micro-managing their projects. To avoid this, I followed James & Baldwin’s (1999:13ff) [V3] suggestion of beginning the supervisory relationship by exploring mutual expectations, and establishing checkpoints to revisit them, and giving feedback on drafts [A3, K3]. I also made sure to go over the relevant core knowledge that the students had in relation to their proposed topic (cf. James & Baldwin 1999:9f) [K1], as this allowed me to integrate a further checkpoint where they had to acquire further skills/knowledge which then reassured me that things would go to plan [V1]. This turned out to allow for a much more effective supervisory relationship, where I could let the student propose solutions to any problems we encountered, and then give feedback on the options or help delineate the space of possibilities in addressing them.
Handing the principal lead to the student while clearly telling them what I thought they should be able to achieve given their knowledge, resources and ability, had the effect of motivating them to take ownership and deliver the best work they could, and one student even told me that this feeling of trust was instrumental in allowing him to overcome his fears to contact another research group to talk about his ideas, which ended up having a significant positive impact on his work [A4, K5, V2]. Both students ended up achieving a distinction for their projects and have been in touch subsequently to seek advice on developing their ideas further, showing that this approach has clearly been received well by these students [V3].
James, R. & Baldwin, G. (1999) Eleven practices of effective postgraduate supervisors. Parkville, Victoria: The Centre for the Study of Higher Education and the School of Graduate Studies, University of Melbourne.
Petre, M. & Rugg, G. (2010) The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Morss, K. & Murray, R. (2006) Teaching at University: A Guide for Postgraduates and Researchers. London: Sage.