CPD: Supervising Undergraduate Research (Session 1)

This academic year, I have up-ed my focus on Continuing Professional Development (CPD) as I come to the end of my PhD…and as I take on more and more Visiting Lecturing and University Teacher positions at Higher Education institutions across the UK. A couple of weeks ago, I started the three-day course ‘Supervising Undergraduate Research’ run by Rachel Curzon from the Centre for Enhancement and Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Birmingham City University in association with the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA). I will also be completing the Supervising Master’s Degree Research course later in the year too. These courses will allow me to upgrade from being an Associate Fellow to a Fellow of the Higher Education Association (HEA), an accredited teaching standard known nationwide…I feel very proud of this!

Rachel Curzon

I have attended one of these courses before in 2010 – ‘Preparing Postgraduate Researchers to teach in Higher Education: Supporting Learning’ –  within the first year of my PhD studies as I began to undertake odd bits of visiting lecturing. The ‘Supervising Undergraduate Research’ course aims to look at what is supervision, identify supervisor skills, role audit, academic vs. pastoral support; the beginning of the supervision process: student and supervisor expectations, establishing relationships, getting students started; the learner’s perspective, exploring different models/styles supervision, different practices; useful information: introduction to quality assurance, understanding and embedding the SEDA professional development framework and values, assessments requirements.

Here are some of my thoughts from the first day of the course and a few of my reflections…

Preparing to Supervise

In the wider context – What do we mean by ‘level 6’?; What is undergraduate research?; What is this research called (dissertation, final year project, research paper, portfolio etc.)?; Are there any differences between discipline?

What do we mean by ‘level 6’?

Using language that a ‘level 6’ student could understand. From Bloom’s Taxonomy, the development of intellectual skills through analysis, synthesis, evaluation – “productive” – the student develops ‘thinking’ skills by problem solving.

blooms_taxonomy_staircase BloomsTaxonomySized   Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 19.14.21

From ‘The framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (August 2008)’: systematic understanding key aspects/principles in their field ; application of these principles more widely; conceptual understanding; devise or sustain arguments; describe and comment upon current research or advanced scholarship; appreciate of the ambiguity and limits of knowledge; ability to manage own learning – “personal responsibility” – with constant self-evaluation and self-reflection through noting successes and failures; evaluate appropriateness of different approaches to problem solving; apply methods and techniques, learned and critically evaluate arguments, assumptions and abstract concepts; communicate information and ideas and solutions to problems, taking their work for review from their peers and colleagues, looking for “real world” perspectives; initiative and decision-making.

From the ‘National Qualifications Framework (NQF)’ replaced in 2010 with the ‘Qualifications and Credit Framework’. It has nine levels covering all levels from secondary through to higher education. Recognises a specialist high level knowledge of an area of work or study to enable the use of an individual’s own ideas and research in response to complex problems and situations. Learning at this level involves the achievement of a high level of professional knowledge and is appropriate for people working as knowledge-based professionals or in professional management positions. Often, registered professionals such as nurses, pharmacists, social workers, teachers and doctors, enter their profession with a level 6 qualifications. Level 6 qualifications are a  level equivalent to Bachelor’s degrees with honours, graduate certificates and graduate diplomas.

National Qualifications Framework What do we mean by ‘level 6’?:

I was part of Group 1, where we came up with the shortlist:

  • Application and evaluation
  • Decision-making and problem solving
  • Self reflection and peer reflection
  • Critically evaluate
  • Independent study

Group 2 made a series of statements:

Explore knowledge already out there. Why are you doing this? (The purpose of your research); How are you going to do it? (method and technique); Demonstrating an in-depth understanding of the theory and issues; ability to apply learning; critical analysis; seek out strengths and weaknesses in arguments; problem solving.

What is a dissertation?

The second exercise was based on a handout that outlined six different perspectives as to the meaning of a dissertation. ‘How far do you agree with these opinions of students?’:

  1. It is a long essay; four times as long as usual ones, but more formal.

  1. It is not just a long essay. It takes many weeks or months of work, both researching and writing. It includes areas not in essays such as literature reviews. When complete it looks much like, in structure and style, a book.
  1. It is lots of hard work. I’d say it is about choosing a topic that you are interested in, doing lots of reading and in my case empirical work, and then doing lots of writing in a complicated academic style.
  1. I don’t see it as a ‘finished product. It is a piece of ‘ourselves’, creative, work of our hands and minds.
  1. It has been a process of self-discovery, as well as a discovery of other things, people, and ideas. It is learning process which although painful at some stages, it pays off in the end.
  1. It is not just academic learning and knowledge – it’s everything! It’s not only what you learn from the academic point of view. It’s also about using computers, not being isolated, learning to work with other people – it’s everything together.

We were then asked to, in groups, discuss the meaning of “dissertation” and noted how its understanding varies from course to course, faculty to faculty.

Sue: We call it an honours research project – from the learning outcomes what would be beneficial for the students? This year I changed it round as to what the physical artefact should look like at the end. The word has an association to the social sciences. Achieve the same learning outcomes through different outcomes.

Me: The word is somewhat archaic. Most courses still see say dissertation. As part of art courses, it is used more as a theoretical counterpart to the practice-based research, a tool to learn about how to talk about art practice.

Emma N: We had a choice of a dissertation or additional models.

Emma S: We didn’t have a choice, it was a dissertation or research project. You had gone out there and create your own research.

Group 1 stated their definition of “dissertation” as – ‘Evidence the ability to put your prior learning into practice, demonstrate research techniques and show you can apply them to new and alternative contexts, evaluating and reviewing the outcomes.’

Group 2 stated – ‘A dissertation is an explorative piece of work consisting of an agreed number of words, demonstrating and involvement of a research process, including methods, analysis and reflection.’

After talking through each group’s responses, a discussion opened up into the meaning and implication of the word “academic” and “academia”…how it needs to be reframed and demystified as students often find it a negative word, a standard that they think they have to achieve, or that is unachievable. It is telling students in a language that they understand what is expected of them…what is a “dissertation”?

Role Audit (exploring who you are, what role you play and what impact you might have…)

In this exercise, we were given a chart listing different roles that make up the role of the supervisor, where we were asked, in groups, to define each word. Words listed included:

  • Manager – the who/what/where/when/why person, based on logistics and knowing all. A “go to” person with knowledge;
  • Doctor – An academic? Someone who diagnoses and solves problems. Also a researcher. This is a technical term, in what context?;
  • Facilitator – Guides questioning through teaching;
  • Mentor – Credible…credible research, knowledge and experience. You can gain experience from them. Continued professional development (CDP);
  • Advocate – Speaking in defence of student research, second marker as part of your viva questioning your research;
  • Friend – Inappropriate. Be aware of boundaries;
  • Role Model – Credible;
  • Examiner – Assessor and progress tracker;
  • Coordinator – Logistics and info provider;
  • Academic – Expert in their field with appropriate qualifications and research output;
  • Parent – Pastoral support and guidance. Empathy and linked to the role of the counsellor;
  • Advisor – Keeping the student on track;
  • Counsellor – Pastoral support, empathy, there to listen not to give advice;
  • Leader – Visionary, responsible, finger on the pulse;
  • Information Provider – Purely about process, process driven – more about facts and clarity of interest;
  • Planner – Organiser, time-keeper and learning structure, progress tracking;
  • Resource Developer – Practical, methodological skills;
  • Coach – Motivator, encourager, visionary, driven.

A couple of words that were not on that list that I and the groups added were:

  • Researcher
  • Practitioner
  • Font of knowledge

From this list we were then asked to identify the words that you adopt when you are supervising undergraduate students. From the list I chose: Doctor, Academic, Researcher, Practitioner, Resource developer, Coordinator/Advisor and Examiner. We were then asked to explain the words by answering the questions below:

  • In what situation would you adopt this role?;
  • Advantages of this role;
  • Any disadvantages;
  • What impact does this role have on others?


In terms of impact on others, most roles I chose contributed to new knowledge in the wider world, greater impact on students as practical knowledge is taught creating a tangible outcome and it opens up the faculty to new ways of working. In terms of disadvantages, there was often a worry that many of the roles might involve a personal bias as with the role of a Doctor (limited personal research), Academic (specific research remit as with Doctor)…and time-consuming as you take on new roles on behalf of, and with the student. Advantages ranged from specialist research knowledge, a greater understanding of students practice and work, learning by practice, developing new ways of working and a greater understanding of students’ practice and work. This exercise helped me to gain a real sense of my working methods and roles that I will further reflect on during my forthcoming teaching.

Supervision Skills

In groups we were asked to answer the questions:

What are the tasks of a research supervisor? What does a supervisor do? 

  • Assess and track/monitor progress (marking and grading);
  • Support, encourage, give guidance, motivation;
  • Provide formative feedback (forward);
  • Different ways of seeing;
  • Sign-posting;
  • Being reliable, responsible, credible;
  • Explain the process and repeating instructions;
  • Meeting at regular intervals;
  • Challenge and develop;
  • Provide pastoral support/care – are you appropriate or do you need to guide them to who can help?;
  • Being objective, first line audience;
  • Understanding student nuances, unpick what is happening.

What skills does supervisors need?

  • Organisational skills;
  • Professional boundaries;
  • Patience;
  • Good communication;
  • Empathy/pastoral;
  • Flexibility – student needs and learning methods;
  • Time keeping;
  • Being reliable and credible;
  • Being objective;
  • Discernment;
  • Experience and knowledge;
  • Cultural and interpersonal skills;
  • Problem solving.

We were then asked to fill in an inventory of the skills for supervision based on our skills set noting any gaps in specific areas that we can build on and undertake further training in….which for me was in the area of pastoral care as I have never had specific training. I felt as though I already had cultural and interpersonal skills, reliability and credibility, patience, good communication, time-keeping and discernment. IMG_20141109_193503

SEDA course

What role do we play as supervisors? (Exercise)

In this session, we discussed the beginning of the supervision process and how the role of the “supervisor” is interpreted from student perspective and what we as supervisors expect from ‘level 6’ students.


What do students expect of their supervisors? 

  • To be supervised;
  • Expectation is to structure supervision;
  • Supervisors to read their work;
  • To be friendly, open and supportive – to listen;
  • To be constructively critical;
  • To have good knowledge of their subject;
  • Expect supervisors to know how to draw out good ideas/provide different perspectives;
  • To give information and help about resources;
  • To structure the tutorial – develop a learning contract;
  • To provide feedback;
  • To tell them what they have to do – to direct them;
  • Help them understand how to pass;
  • An understanding of your relationship and commitment – how accessible/available you will be.

What do supervisors expect of ‘level 6’ students?

  • To take responsibility of their learning;
  • To meet formative and summative deadlines;
  • To take what they do seriously;
  • To be motivated;
  • To manage their time;
  • To be honest – “I don’t understand” etc;
  • To use the support outside/available to you;
  • Skills development – look outside and inside self (reflection, critical, research, communication, time management);
  • To be professional;
  • To be open to ideas and concepts. Sue mentioned an example about a student saying “books are always right”;
  • An understanding of your role and commitments – your contract as such with the HEI – and the time you can give.


Initial Contact (Exercise)

The afternoon session began with being given examples of e-mails from students, initial contact as such, asking how we would respond to them. They varied greatly in language usage and structure from informal text-speak to open and professional talk…and also from content being vague and brief, to naive and uninformed, and educated and enthusiastic. Our responses included:

Jack – Thank him for his enthusiasm/keenness and obvious research, manage his expectations during a meeting to discuss the scale and size of the project…what is possible to deliver in 8 months, what does he need to do, structure for his work.

Emmanuel – look up his student background/support statement to see if there is any information that outlines why he communicates in the way he does, such as learning difficulties or English as a second language. Arrange a meeting to then discuss this, the expectations of ‘level 6’, appropriateness of language and boundaries, professionalism.

Caitlin – Shows enthusiasm, independent  learning and research ready to discuss, shows they are proactive, and interest to see what you’d contribute. A positive first contact. Ask to put down her ideas first by email, then arrange a meeting to further discuss.

Nina – Written before the start of term. Favourite lecturer idea, wanted to be supervised by them for various reasons. Need to manage her expectations, might not be research specific to them or able to supervise, time might not be available, explain the process of allocating supervisors. The request will be passed onto the person that allocates supervision…also state that other colleagues will support her. Encourage her to form initial research ideas.

Where does it go wrong?

Cook (1980) identifies a number of problem areas related to assessment:

  • Difference in attitude to supervision;
  • Topic difficulty;
  • Student dependence;
  • Time allocation for supervisory duties.

The tension between structure and direction on the one hand and autonomy and independence of the other – balancing these to provide “well-supported” autonomy. Identifying an appropriate research question was considered a major challenge for both students and supervisors. A key point at which the autonomy/structure conflict is played out – a potential framework structure.

Formulating a research question (what are the common problems?)

  • Want to establish clear “cause-effect” relations within complex issues;
  • Too broad or vague;
  • Unoriginal;
  • Descriptive.

How would you respond to the following initial ideas? (Exercise)

“I have a brief idea for a study, for which I would require multicultural participants. They would be presented with visual stimuli consisting of pictures of members of the opposite sex, who you would vary widely in social status, age and race. They would be asked to rank them in order of preference.”

Both of these statements are very difficult ethically. A face-to-face chat is needed. No clear purpose of the research or what it would achieve. Why do they need multicultural participants? Where would the participants come from? What do they mean by multicultural? Where are the photos going to come from? Who is going to select the photos? Is the student aware of subconscious bias…what is the impact of the researcher on the research and have they understood that? What is it they are actually interested in? What is the aim of the research? What is the student’s background – the importance of student nuances. Limited understanding of what they are doing.

“I am currently in my second year and I am very interested in body dismorphia (specifically anorexia nervosa). I want to do this as my dissertation topic in my final year. What can I do over the summer to get started?”

Is there an inherent personal interest or issue? Look at the background of the student. The student states that body dysmorphia and anorexia nervosa are the same issue, when they are two different diagnosis, therefore, not enough research done to know this. Also to broad and wide a subject, this needs to be narrowed down. If they wanted to research and work first hand with anorexia nervosa they would not get ethical approval from the NHS during the 8 month final year time frame. No research question there, therefore their understanding is quite simplistic. Other thought that they might have had a lecture on abnormal psychology and have an initial interest in that…from which a research interest came. A need to get them more focussed, has to be through a face-to-face meeting. If they went ahead with this, is there an issue with student safety and the impact on the student…would this affect or influence them? Importance of understanding the student nuance. Put counselling in place to help with this process. Complexity of the issue not understood. If not spoken to early, this student could get into trouble ethically and professionally for the University.

The learner’s perspective

How are they are feeling, what do they expect, what do they learn? At this point in the day we were shown a series of short films that would help to inform our supervision practice:

SEDA course videos

The first meeting

  • Undertake a background check on the student;
  • Get them to introduce themselves including their motivations, strengths and weaknesses;
  • Send an email introducing yourself to the student, your skills and research background as a supervisor;
  • Establish a plan for the first meeting by email – what are we going to talk about? Ask for initial ideas;
  • Give them an opportunity to ask questions about the process and ideas;
  • Discuss the limitations in terms of time and resources;
  • Find out the student’s nuances, ask their external pressures;
  • Agree boundaries (expectations), and ways in which they’d like to communicate;
  • Set expectations through an informational handout;
  • Reiterate timescales – again strengths and weaknesses;
  • Task setting (for the next meeting);
  • Resilience, how do they build it and any strategies;
  • Try not overwhelm;
  • Reassure them.

Different supervision practices

The final exercise of the day got us to all look at four different examples of supervisory practices and discuss them, their advantages and disadvantages then referencing which would be appropriate in your own department or school context and why.

Model 1: Collegiate supervision

The supervisor has 8 students all working in the same special area within a subfield of a discipline. The supervisor invites all these students to meet together with him regularly (about once a month) reporting on their progress to each other, questioning each other and providing support for each other. After their meeting they all go for lunch where an informal discussion continues.

  • Practical as information is communicated en masse rather than repeated – good when supervising lots of students, good use of time;
  • Confidence and knowledge that it is regularly scheduled and organised session;
  • Peer support, didn’t feel alone;
  • Shared resources;
  • Potential to encourage new exchange;
  • Not all students don’t participate…conscious of different learning styles, student comparisons, students become disillusioned or resent other students;
  • Boundaries are being crossed – too “friendly” over lunch. Should be arranged by students not to include supervisors.

Model 2: Shared supervision

Two students in the same programme and at similar stages of progress ask their supervisor if the two of them can meet together with the supervisor rather than individually for their regular consultations. The supervisor agrees and they meet regularly.

  • Student-led approach;
  • Good use of time;
  • Created an environment for peer learning;
  • Share ideas and resources;
  • Encourage each other;
  • Won’t get the chance to discuss what they want;
  • Change of needs over time.

Model 3: Research Seminars

A department establishes a research seminar series, requiring all research students exploring related topics, including Undergraduate and Postgraduate students, to present a paper related to their work. Students are expected to question one another rigorously and defend themselves against staff and students’ questions. Staff feel that this activity will prepare students for debate that takes place in academic settings, discourage students who are not fully committed to their research, and develop camaraderie as a result of shared experiences of emotional as well as intellectual significance.

  • Brings in a critical perspective;
  • Builds confidence;
  • Teaches them how to deal with “constructive criticism”;
  • Lack of rigour as so much information to process and document, how do you set future targets and outcomes?;
  • Responsibility of the student to record outcomes, loss of information?;
  • Could be a threatening situation but a confidence builder.

Model 4: Supervisory team

Three supervisors sharing similar research interests band together, inviting their students to join the same group. One supervisor pays attention to methodological issues, another to content issues and the third to group process. Each member is to report on progress to the other members of the group and offer advice and support. From time to time supervisors report on their own research. Discussion is intended to assist participants in completing their research on time with products of high quality.

  • Getting free expertise and perspective however, is the group is too small it could seem supervisor heavy;
  • High quality;
  • Difficult to manage perspectives.

From this, we were then asked to choose on of the practices that would be appropriate to your Department or school context. I chose Research Seminars as they:

  • Build theoretical contexts into their art practice;
  • Encourage/force peer-review;
  • Introduces students to the work of their peers, and their associated research and contextual interests;
  • Develops their “constructive criticism” skills and how to deal with it/respond to it;
  • Encourage peer exchange after the seminars have taken place;
  • Develops research skills.

Following this day, we were asked to start a research and reflection diary to record our thoughts and progress in relation to what we are learning on the course, and also to arrange shadowing session of ‘level 6’ dissertation meetings. At the end of last week, I sent out emails to a few of the universities where I teach, to get a reply straight away from the University of Wolverhampton where I will shadow the MA and BA courses in Fine Art (I think Fine Art)…just trying to schedule when. I’ve also asked my Mom a million and one questions as she assesses people for learning difficulties such as dyslexia and has many teaching reference books, whilst sourcing other texts from the library and online…these are for the next SEDA blog post! Watch this space…


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