April 13, 2009, by Teaching at Nottingham

Gina Wisker on supervising students

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Gina Wisker:  “I think about supervision as a form of teaching and teaching doesn’t mean thrusting things down people’s throats, it means bringing things out of people. Helping them develop. Enabling. And research at any level is, undergraduate, postgraduate, work based or whatever, it’s a form of learning, so when I’m supervising students at any level, what I’m thinking of them as is learners. And I’m thinking of myself as a teacher or an enabler and there comes a point where they are more of an expert at what they’re researching and writing about than me the supervisor, and that’s fine by me. That’s what we want…

“It’s a research and generic skills development opportunity, they’re not just going to come out with their dissertation or their MA dissertation or their PhD they’re also now with the post-Roberts work that we’ve all been doing with postgraduate development programmes, they’re going to come out with a range of skills. So while we’re supervising them, just keep this in your mind as a load of plates circling, while we’re supervising them, so they get through their project, their dissertation, their thesis, whatever they’re writing, we’re also thinking about them as developing people who are going to go out into the workplace and are going to have a variety of skills, not all of which we have ourselves. So, we’re making opportunities available to them.

“The dissertation, the piece of research, the piece of written-up thesis, whatever, is an end in itself, but it’s also an opportunity for student growth and expression.

“And what kind of diversity do we have? Well, undergraduates and postgraduates bring with them a diversity of learning styles and approaches. They probably don’t learn like we did. Learning backgrounds, what have they done before? And preconceptions about their learning experience, what are they expecting when they get here? They have different motivation and they intend to achieve different sorts of outcomes. A variety, any roomful of undergraduates or postgraduates like this would be filled with different sorts of learners and people who were in the room for different sorts of reasons. We remember that when we teach and we remember that when we supervise. So what are the differences? Age. Gender. Sexuality. Economic position. Ability. Disability. Ethnicity. Loads of other things that are probably coming to mind now.

“What do you really want to achieve in supervising students’ research? Some sort of quotable phrase I’m hoping for.”

Audience: “They have a positive experience of doing research.”

Gina: “That it’s a positive experience. Which means what, for you? … Sorry about that. But I did shake your hand earlier so I feel I know you. Anyone else? Go on.”

Audience: “That they have a sense of achievement when they’ve completed it. Regardless of whether it’s an A piece of work or a scraping pass, that they have a sense of achievement and that they get some enjoyment from, from completing.”

Gina: “Yes, it should be enjoyable, it should give them a sense of achievement and a sense of moving on in the world, even if it isn’t the very best Nobel Prize winning thing, I think that’s very important.

“What are the characteristics of a good supervisor? I told you about mine. What do you really want to achieve in supervising students’ research? How can you help them achieve their research goals and how do you establish ground rules?

“…Just a couple of characteristics. Anyone want to yell anything out? What’s a good supervisor? Give me a characteristic.

Audience: “Approachable. ”
Gina: “Approachable. Okay.”
Audience: “Consistent.”
Gina:  “Mm. With the way they work with you, with the feedback.”
Audience: “Enthusiastic.
Gina: “Enthusiastic.”
Audience: “Available.”
Gina: “Yes. Approachable, available.”
Audience: “Flexible.”
Gina: “Flexible, yeah.”
Audience: “Critical.”
Gina: “Critical? Yeah.”
Audience: “Honest.”
Gina: “Honest. Okay.”

Gina: “We’ve got quite a lot of value things there. People always come up with things to do with having their work respected. Being seen to matter as a learner.

“How can you actually balance different students’ demands, expectations, maybe their cultural differences, maybe their differences to do with their work pace, and your own life? I mean, I don’t want an answer but think about the ground rules as you’re thinking about being a really good supervisor. If you’re too accessible, you might be laying yourself open to too much work and not being able to be consistent, especially if you have a large group. And that’s where the ground rules come in…
“These are what some other people said:

  • Good listening skills;
  • Interested in supervising;
  • Receptive to different opinions;
  • Inspiring;
  • Knowledgeable and up to date;
  • Fostering autonomy and independent thinking so the student can go off and do it later;
  • Flexible;
  • Organised;
  • Goal-oriented;
  • Good interpersonal skills;
  • Assertive;
  • Humane;
  • Caring.

“Lots of person things in here as well as lots of organisation things in here.

“And it’s those sorts of areas, those three areas: a kind of institutional connection; a personal engagement, friendly enough, not too friendly; and then an ability to see the learner, that I think some of the things that have come out of the research that we’ve been doing, that would answer, for me, how have I been supervised? The answer’s Well. That’s not always people’s answer though…

“There’s a group of us who’ve been researching these cohorts of PhD students for about ten years. And we’ve been looking at personal interactions, learning development and institutional systems that can support the student, or sometimes that get in the way. And we’ve been looking at different stages of their work so if you think of interactions between personal, learning, institutional, in the three stages. The starting stage, what do we do with them? establish good working relations, set up those ground rules, help them develop research questions, conceptual frameworks, theoretical perspectives, all the, you know, the superstructure, the frameworks that enable them to carry on with their work, in the beginning stage. And in the middle, we help them maintain momentum, keep going in the face of, well, data sets falling over, life crises, ontological crises, not being able to get the writing done because they’re blocked. All those things that might happen, where establishing some kind of peer group, a community of practice might help these students continue, to feel socialised into the learning process and carry on with it, work with others, you’re not the only one they’re working with. In the middle, the fact that they do have peers to work with, if you’ve helped set that up, means you can step back a bit and they’ll keep going. It’s not all on you as a supervisor, you’re a kind of networker. And at the end, writing up, though they should have been writing all the way through, and to work with them to think about (the quality) of a good thesis or a dissertation, to get through the examination process, to prepare them for what the exam might be like, a viva, a written exam, whatever they’re doing. And then whether they’re going to publish.

“So three stages of any student’s research work. And these three things to think about. The personal interaction, the learning and the institutional work.

“I work quite a lot in interaction and I believe that students learn through a dialogue, sometimes it’s a dialogue on the page between me and them. Sometimes it’s a dialogue between the students themselves, and sometimes it’s a one to one supervisory dialogue. So prompt questions. Different ways of asking questions.

“We used John Heron’s six category intervention analysis in order to have a look at a range of dialogues between supervisors and students and then turned it round and I’ve used it in supervisory development to suggest that actually, we go through a range of interactions with our students

“So we did the analysis and we found these different sorts of responses:

  • Telling them what to do: informing them.
  • Confronting: if there’s some problems, they really need to move on and up.
  • Tension-relieving: something of a laugh.
  • Encouraging critical problem-solving: conceptual work.
  • Eliciting: “How’s it going?” “What have you developed now?” “In what way do you feel you’ve moved on in terms of your plan at this point?”
  • Supporting: “That’s going really well.” “Thank you for that.” “Have you thought about this?”
  • Summarising: “We seem so far to have got to here.”
  • Clarifying.
  • And then, a kind of collegial exchange between equals.

“Do you do all of these? Any thoughts? Difficult ones.”

Audience: “Depends on the stage of the PhD, what you do, how it varies, and it can vary even within one supervision, you might have different bits that you’re talking about, that (…).”

Gina: “I think that’s dead right. It’s different stages and different stages in any supervision. And that’s true of undergraduates as well.

“So the differences are within a single supervision, over time, and in terms of the levels the students are at.

“So think about the voices in your head when you’re supervising as you shift from one kind of discourse to another, or an element of a dialogue to another, with different students, I need more of this for this one, more of this for this project.

“When working with research students and supervising them, start at the beginning of the work, to think about the end, how are they going to complete? what’s it going to look like? what will they do afterwards? what skills might they have learned? so they can see a journey with an end. And think of the research as a journey, and it’s going to not be quite as it was planned, whether they’re science, social science, humanities, at a distance, part time, whatever the sort of student they are, it’s not going to be quite as it’s planned. And if it were completely as planned, it might not have any risks, challenges, excitements, ways of unlocking the door and switching the light on.”

Dr Gina Wisker
External Consultant

Gina was the invited plenary speaker at the University’s Eleventh Learning & Teaching conference (September, 2007). This video was originally published as part of PESL’s Teaching at Nottingham collection.

Posted in Research-informed teachingStudents' academic development