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Supervision entails supporting students in preparing a long piece of written work at undergraduate or postgraduate level (master’s or doctorate).

Supervision involves taking students through a complex process of research and writing. Students often have difficulty identifying a topic and focused research question and are also often at a loss as to how to organise their time. They need different kinds of support at different levels of study (UG, PG) and at different stages of the process, and of course any one student is likely to have their own set of individual challenges. Research itself can often be a difficult process to come to terms with; many students will at times momentarily go down a blind alley, but it’s always good to remember this is a key part of the learning process. Support may involve areas which, to you, seem obvious but which are new to students when facing a big projects such as a dissertation.

Best Practice Tips

  • Set the expectations for the supervisions. Explain what your role will be and what they will need to do. For many students, this may be their first experience of supervision, so make no assumptions about what they understand the activity to be.
  • Depending on the type of study and the type of student, supervisions may need to take place with a different periodicity, may need to be chosen by the supervisor or may be chosen by the student. Establish this at the beginning and who will initiate the contact.
  • Find out if the student prefers to meet online or in person. If they choose entirely online, this may be because they are not UK-based, so establish which timezone are they in and which times would work best for them.
  • It may be obvious, but check the module guide for all the things the student needs to do. Deadlines for presentations on work, confirmation of studies panels, submission of ethical approval and other milestones all need to be clarified. Run through the rubric for the dissertation and break down what this means.
  • Work with the student to establish a timeline and deadlines.
  • In masters’ supervisions, you may have more than one student working to a similar schedule and within the same discipline. It is often a good idea to ask if they would like to be put in contact to support each other.
  • Cover what is permissible and what isn’t with respect to using AI. Normally this would be limited to initially summarising papers when putting together a literature review and in the final stages to improve writing.
  • Share information on student support services, skills training, counselling, etc. Students may need support in finding accommodation for specific skills support.
  • Explain the rules around plagiarism and referencing. Even at PhD level, some students may not be clear on how to quote references and the distinction between that and plagiarism. Assume nothing.
During supervision
  • Unfortunately, much of the specific advice about inclusion in supervisions draws on pseudoscientific frameworks like personality profiles. Specific frameworks or checklists may not be that helpful. The inclusion we’d suggest is to withhold judgment of students’ capabilities or commitment. Neurodiverse students (e.g. those with ASD or ADHD) may struggle with executive functions such as planning or timekeeping. Students with anxiety may have difficulty expressing themselves in supervisions. Online or asynchronous supervisions may support these students more effectively. Students with caring responsibilities (or jobs) may need more flexibility in the times they can meet.
  • One area in which the literature agrees is in creating a space in which views can be freely shared, listened to and responded to from supervisor to student and vice versa (Wilson et al. 2019). Active listening, acknowledging one’s own limitations, and considering all voices will help create this space.
  • Elicit ideas from students wherever possible, but also be ready to make suggestions to students. When making suggestions, consider offering a range of options which seem a logical next step, based on what the student has said and/or done and encourage the student to make choices as to the direction of further reading and research, where possible. It is all too easy to focus on an element amongst all those the student has raised which captures your interest, but as much as possible allow the student to guide their research trajectory.
  • Create an online shared document to which you can both add items to discuss in meetings. As soon as possible after the supervision, add your own reflections on what was agreed. Encourage your student to respond to these and add their own.
  • Provide clear, constructive feedback about areas in which the student is struggling with regards to their studying process. Direct them to university support to address these, e.g. academic writing, information skills. Ask for the same from your students with respect to your supervisions.
Towards the end
  • Establish expectations around providing formative feedback. When is the deadline for submitting a draft? How long will it take for you to give feedback?
  • Reiterate guidelines on plagiarism.
  • Be observant for signs that your student is experiencing anxiety and direct them to support services if needed. Try not to add additional stressors.
  • Go through rubrics again and what the different pass and fail criteria are. While not preparing them for failure, explain about the resubmission process to ensure they are aware of timescales and what is expected of them.
  • Students may not be aware of what resubmission entails; for example, they may not realise that they do not have to do a different study, but instead just rewrite their current study. Again, assume nothing.

Resources and Further Reading

Bitchener J (2017). A Guide to Supervising Non-Native English Writers of Theses and Dissertations: Focusing on the Writing Process. Routledge. 

Eley A and Murray R (2009). How to be an Effective Supervisor. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill. 

Kamler B, Thomson P (2014). Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision. London: Routledge. 

Wilson, AB, McCallum, CM and Shupp, MR (2019). Inclusive Supervision in Student Affairs: A Model for Professional Practice, New York: Routledge.

Wisker G (2012). The Good Supervisor. (2nd ed). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.