CPD: Supervising Master’s Degree Research (Session 2)

Another day, another day of Continuing Professional Development (CPD)…the second session of the ‘Supervising Master’s Degree 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 have been attending the ‘Supervising Undergraduate Research’ course with Rachel during the latter months of 2014 and into this year, now alongside this course. These courses are already making me thing consciously and subconsciously about my teaching practice, which is incredibly important as this academic year I am teaching across six different Universities across the UK including Birmingham City University, University of Northampton, Coventry University, Loughborough University, University of Lincoln and University of Wolverhampton at undergraduate to research levels. Suddenly I am overwhelmed…or maybe not as teaching is a real pleasure for me…as is most of the work I do.


We began the day by asking what does the word ‘value(s)’ mean?

  • Sense of worth (seen as a non-financial value);
  • Standard to aspire to achieve…to which we attach worth;
  • Measure of usefulness;
  • Importance of something;
  • Belief;
  • Integrity, equality, excellence…the individual can align their individual values with the corporations value. If there is a tension there, this can cause problems, conflicts with integrity;
  • Underlying principles;
  • Partnership working.

A question was raised as to whether core values stay the same, or whether they change over time (from influence from the corporation?).

In 2009, BCU focussed on a shared way of working across the university, where the staff were invited to respond through a survey. They highlighted four values – excellence, people-focussed, partnership-working, fairness and integrity. This represents how BCU stands as a university, how we work with each other as colleagues and with students, in the delivery of a high quality student experience. and having a distinctive position in the market. In groups we were asked to link phrases, what was called a ‘values pack’, to the four values on an ‘Excellence through Values’ poster.

BCU Core-Values


BCU Core Values 1

BCU Core Values 2


  • Strive to be the best in all that we do
  • Seek and act on feedback to improve the quality of what we do (we’d put in a different category)
  • Learn from and share best practice in our quest to continuously improve
  • Encourage innovation, being forward thinking, creative and taking rational risks (we’d put in a different category)
  • Open to new ideas and embrace change positively


  • Value each other’s contribution and the diversity this brings
  • Celebrate success and recognise achievements at all levels (we’d put in a different category)
  • Support our students and each other to develop, learn and work together to be successful
  • Listen to each other’s point of view and give constructive feedback
  • Behave respectfully towards each other and encourage a sense of belonging

Partnership Working:

  • Put our students at the forefront of what we do, engaging with them as active partners
  • Foster effective team working and work cooperatively across departments
  • Collaborate in each other’s learning and share ideas and approaches
  • Communicate and involve others in a timely and effective way

Fairness and Integrity:

  • Uphold high professional and academic standards (we’d put in a different category)
  • Take responsibility and are accountable for our actions
  • Open and transparent in what we do
  • Use our resources wisely and behave responsibly towards the environment
  • Constructively challenge behaviour not supportive of our values

From this exercise, we realised the grey area between many of the statements and how they can fit between and overlap many of the values.

SEDA (who runs this course)  is a values-driven organisation, committed to educational development, and underpinned by the following values:

      • Developing understanding of how people learn;
      • Practising in ways that are scholarly, professional and ethical;
      • Working with and developing learning communities;
      • Valuing diversity and promoting inclusivity;
      • Continually reflecting on practice to develop ourselves, others and processes.

The next exercise asked everyone to focus on their Specific Supervisory Style…where we had to agree or disagree with a series of statements. Where would you place yourself/your supervision style? Here, the role we take on helps to place ourselves on the spectrum of answers here. Also stated a difference between undergraduate, postgraduate and research students…what you are doing with each student, what level of the programme the student is at, are you second or first supervisor. The impact of the number of students you are working with can impact your style and the time available.

Statement 1 (I marked B/C):

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 10.42.07

  • There is existing structure that you must abide by;
  • Forcing student down a certain road if there is structure?;
  • May depend on time/stage in the process;
  • When to chase a student;
  • Should you let them come to you? Set a standard of how the relationship should be. As more research initiated should it be more student-led;
  • Acknowledgement of student issues/problems.

Statement 2 (I marked D):

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 10.42.16

  • Different between commenting on a composition;
  • Interpretation of ‘writing it for whom’ (co-authoring) or support/develop their skills;
  • Happy to provide editorial remarks not to rewrite.

Statement 3 (I marked B/C):

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 10.42.25

  • Pointing the student in the right direction regardless of the issue;
  • If it is in your realm then help, if not pass on to others;
  • Discipline might be influenced by experience;
  • What is help to the student?;
  • Should you just get involved with the academic side of the student?;
  • Creative discipline – practical work based more real-life, first-hand experience that can involve emotional aspects, thus personal issues and problems easily arise;
  • Limit as to what you can do and how much you can get involved.

Statement 4 (I marked C):

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 10.42.32

  • Based on your course discipline. Theory versus practice, education versus technology…often working across different disciplines;
  • Positive and negative aspects of this, can provide confusion…different opinions can often hinder the progression of a student where they have to make the decision. Hierarchical supervision when joint;
  • Confidence for the student…encouraging a criticality for the work and student’s perspectives through joint supervision.

The next exercise focussed on specific approaches to supervising postgraduate students where key thoughts from the groups included that during supervision/role of supervisor:

  • Where you start from is the most important part…initial learning agreement and set of rules/expectations;
  • “Strong fences make strong supervisors”;
  • Students always wanting to please (whether a home or international student);
  • Supervisor not a good definition or title for what we actually do referencing “Doctor Father” or “Doctor Mother” – watching over to see the process completed;
  • Striking a balance, often outlined in a learning agreement;
  • Personalised and discipline specific…each student different (some from different cultural backgrounds who do not have an understand of critique, or from other universities where study skills have been taught differently)…boundaries tailored to meet the students;
  • All outcome driven.

Different Stages of Supervision

‘Becoming a supervisor is a two-way process. Openness in the initial discussions may prevent years of frustration for you and the student if your personality and learning styles are mismatched and no common style or ground is found. Openness about your own and the student’s competence may prevent the student from with drawing or failing.’ – Moses (1989:10) cited in Wisker (2012)

There are stages in the supervision process, the early phase, the middle phase and the final stage. At these different stages of the process the supervisor can support the student in various ways.

Stages in supervision

Group 1 

Discuss what supervisors should be expected to do at the beginning of supervision. 

  • Demarkation and clarification of roles, a firm foundation laid down;
  • Re-emphasise institutions expectations/supervisor expectations and student expectations;
  • What we won’t do as well as what we will do;
  • How much notice for a meeting/send work etc;
  • Conventions and expected structures – setting out what is the norm e.g. methodology;
  • “Strong fences make a strong supervisor”;
  • Agree logistics – how to communicate, work together, deadlines;
  • Move away from following perceived supervisors approach;
  • Set up safe uncertainty – there is an opportunity for them to do something and fail…better for them do acknowledge this;
  • Aligning learning styles.

Group 2

Discuss what supervisors should be expected to do in the middle stages of supervision. 

  • Thought initially from student perspective – most vulnerable part of the process as student can get overwhelmed, can deviate from what initially set out, lethargy, motivation, frustration, lose confidence, over-research;
  • Acknowledge all of the above;
  • Keep fluid, open communication;
  • Breaking-down issues;
  • Progress management;
  • Critique, challenge, feedback on work in progress;
  • Expertise;
  • Appropriately challenge and steer – how do you foster the student to move forward? How do you reflect upon what was outlined at the beginning;
  • Be a reminder – signpost including for study skills.

Group 3

Discuss what supervisors should be expected to do in the final stages of supervision.

  • Checking complete draft – 10%;
  • Checking versus marking criteria – confidence to us and the student;
  • Not challenging content? Plagiarism?;
  • What can you achieve in final two weeks?;
  • Dependent on rules of individual schools and departments;
  • “This is looking really good” or “You need to re-write Chapter 3”;
  • Coping withe the logistics (binding and final feedback when graded).

The afternoon began with an exercise looking into the identification of some common criteria when assessing Master’s student work (particularly dissertations and major projects). These criteria were then placed into a ‘master chart’.

  1. Methodology and conventions (More Important and Essential);
  2. Scope of research (Essential);
  3. Intellectual rigour – critique, reflection, analysis, challenges, engagements, academic approach (More Important and Desirable);
  4. Creativity and vision – significance, contribution to new knowledge (Desirable);
  5. Keeping to brief – institutional aspects (More Important and Essential);
  6. Expression – clarity, style, structure, presentation. (Desirable)

master chart

More Important and Essential:

  • Methodology and conventions;
  • Good valid research question;
  • Answer to research question;
  • Critical skepticism;
  • Clarity;
  • Evidence of knowledge of the field;
  • Scope of research;
  • Clear logical focus structure;
  • Structure process;
  • Keeping to the brief;
  • Robust;
  • Referencing;
  • Originality.

More Important and Desirable:

  • Aesthetic presentation;
  • Challenge, critic, arguments;
  • Intellectual rigour.

Desirable & Less Important:

  • Focus;
  • Clarity;
  • Creativity and Vision;
  • Bibliography;
  • Executive summary.

Giving Constructive criticism in student feedback: A role play exercise

Each small group was allocated a scenario to role play for the rest of the group for comment and response, reflection on alternative ideas and suggestions. It was also an opportunity to share similar stories.

Role Play Topic: Size of Thesis

The student is producing too many pages and if he/she continues in this way the dissertation will be over words and may be penalised. The supervisor wants to impress on the student the importance of eliminating material through the process of careful editing which can be done by focusing down, cutting out repetitions, tightening up writing style, etc. However, it is clear that the student believes that every word is a pearl and cannot see how to cut down without diminishing the work and making it appear that far less effort has been put in than is actually the case.

  • Students don’t always understand the assignment and marking criteria. Understanding their expectancy;
  • Go back tot he students objectives to see if they have achieved what they want to achieve;
  • People padding work out with information that is not completely relevant to the study…helping the student to understand and critique this;
  • Get the student to look at how to write efficiently…to write clearly…to write academically…relate to study skills;
  • Get other people to read, proof and respond to their work and then give them feedback.

Role Play Topic: ‘I don’t know where I am going’

This follows several meetings in which the supervisor has been satisfied with the student’s progress although no hint of this has been conveyed to the student. The student has been working steadily, seeing the supervisor at regular intervals and hoping for some indication as to progress. The supervisor thinks that such a confident and capable student does not need to be given firm direction or instruction, rather approbation and support to continue on as he or she is doing – ‘so far so good.’ The student feels lost in limbo, has no yardstick by which to measure progress, or lack of it, and thinks that the supervisor is not interested in him/her or the work.

  • Communication – assumption made by supervisor that there is no problem with the student. The student has not be challenged with their work, supervisor not probed enough, no critique, as much as they have not been asked as to if they are having any problems…implied student has raised this. Laissez-faire supervision style…a supervisor reluctant to give direction and instruction;
  • Supervisor needs to give solid and constructive feedback – what is good, how it can be better, what can be challenged;
  • Once student has voiced that they ‘don’t know where I am going’, the supervisor must find out why and help the student move forward. A complete review of work so far/time plan/progress made needs to be done. Get back on track.

Case Studies

In small groups, we were asked to consider the following cases and prepare an answer or answers to the given question.

A. John has specifically chosen the University he wants to study at because the Professor is well-known in his field. You have agreed to be part of the supervisory team consisting of the Professor, you as a supervisor with some supervisory experience, and a new member of staff who is supervising for the first time. John is one of four students to be supervised by this team. After one term of supervision the Professor goes on study leave and the remainder of the team is left to supervise the group. John is very disappointed by this change in supervisors, even though he has done very little work so far, and starts to miss supervision sessions. You email John asking him to attend for a supervision session with you and your colleague. How would you plan for this session?

  • Giving the person a criticism sandwich…positivity of Professor going on leave and for what reason, what is good about change and that life must go on, highlight the lack of work completed and ask why, then saying this could be a positive;
  • Arrange a meeting and ask them to send work to look at before hand…progress status to work from;
  • Look at whether the student is missing other sessions/classes. Take a step back to see how engaged they are with their work and course. Talk to other members of staff and supervisors;
  • This should be looked at in hindsight. Pre-planning as it was known he was going on leave. Introduction to other people, potential supervisors, who will provide support.

B. Sophia came to Britain on a government scholarship from a country that has little tradition of empirical research. You are her supervisor and you believe that it is the supervisor’s job to challenge students, encourage original thought and offer them new ideas. After a while Sophia stops coming to supervision sessions, she says she feels overwhelmed and cannot cope and is considering giving up her studies. What could you do to keep her enrolled?

  • Challenging is not the best response to start with;
  • Understanding her culture, what she has come from and already knows in terms of her study skills and criticality skills. Direction to people who can help;
  • Confidence…build confidence;
  • Lack of balance – the student has not been given balanced feedback. Pitching criticism. Do not bombard;
  • What are her expectations?;
  • Find out what she would feel comfortable in achieving, and working towards. Acknowledge a false start…walk before you can run. Create a new strategy;
  • To get the full picture…there might be bigger issues in her life;
  • Important that the supervisor can recognise and acknowledge their mistake…inappropriate approach.

C. James is a journalist specialising in economics. He has enrolled as a student on a Master’s degree and he has been allocated a supervisor. He wants an academic career and has started his Masters dissertation on a current political ‘hot potato’. He has continued to write articles to supplement his money as a student. He produces these articles as his research proposal. You are his supervisor and you tell him during the supervision session that he needs to adhere to the research proposal requirements, but he responds by nodding in acquiescence, repeating comments about his articles and showing you a questionnaire that he has produced for a group of managers. How do you respond?

  • He is not very sympathetic to your suggestions;
  • Discuss how the articles can be used to meet the academic outcomes/assessment criteria;
  • Needs to acknowledge that he needs to write in a different way…academic to journalistic styles;
  • Challenge to turn this into an academic thesis could be interesting…a challenge. Carrot at the end of it is that if he wants to be an academic he has to do it…understanding what this means and perhaps re-think this.

D. Manjit is coming to the end of the supervision period and has not yet produced any written work, although you have requested some and encouraged her to do so. She has attended every supervision session and made notes each time and has appeared to go away quite happy and motivated. She does submit a draft which is disappointing in its content, analysis and in the presentation of the work. She comes to the next supervision session to get some feedback from you on the written work. How will you plan for this session?

  •  Need to use marking criteria to focus on short-term goals to pass, then creating a timeline to adhere to, to complete work;
  • Structuring and presentation of the thesis;
  • Explore whether there are extenuating circumstances that have affected her…underlying access or well-being issue. Redirect to additional support.

Quality Assurance/Issues/Standards/Procedures

We were then asked to take a look at other institutions post-graduate supervision outlines/supervision guidance to see what was and wasn’t successful in terms of a document to give to students.

  • Good examples: University of Reading, University of Wales, Aberystwyth University, University of Oxford’s conclusion – they were short and to the point, bullet points, easy to read, more succinct, use of language, minimal ambiguity, clarity, focus on the essentials…lost in longer texts…responsibilities of all people involved at different levels, useful (contact) information, guiding narrative giving students a sense of progression (as shown in the University of Reading’s example);
  • Things to avoid: Too much or too little information, jargon, information written/set for different levels…lack of differentiation in different information…seems contractual…not clear on what the document is for – to inform the student or to inform regulation? To not be negative.

At this point, I managed to bring up the University of Lincoln’s MA Contemporary Curatorial Practice Subject Handbook for 2013-14. Within the document it stated no specific supervisor-student/supervision outline but rather an Appendix stating ‘Tips for achieving and enjoying the MA’ as shown below. Successful or unsuccessful? Question as to whether the students need a supervision outline, and/or are aware of this list. It is innovative and accessible nonetheless.

Tips for achieving and enjoying the MA University of Lincoln


Supervising Masters Degree Research

Postgraduate Supervisory Groups or Networks 

The final exercise of the day asked each group to discuss four examples of Postgraduate Supervisory Groups or Networks. We were asked to consider the advantages and disadvantages of the models of the supervisory group whilst thinking about which model of supervisory group or network might be appropriate to your own Departmental or School context and why. Another eye-opening exercise as to how different disciplines and courses implement different supervision styles…not one method works for all.

Model 1: Collegiate supervision

The supervisor has 8-10 postgraduates at various levels, taught Master’s, Master’s by research and PhD students. They are all working in the same special area within a subfield of a discipline. The supervisor invites all these students, regardless of their level of research and regardless of the stage of the process to meet together with the supervisor 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. As students leave the group after completion, other students replace them.

  • Encourages research sharing however, could be overwhelming for the shy, less confident and quieter students;
  • Additional work, how to keep track of conversations, exchanges, progress;
  • Stimulating;
  • Feedback from other experts;
  • Co-learning…developing a learning community;
  • Covered for illness or absence;
  • Not enough common subject;
  • Could be boring;
  • Distracting;
  • No personal advice;
  • If it is for a specific sub-field it might narrow perspectives – “follow my leader”.

Model 2: Joint 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.

  • Not good for he shy, less confident and quieter student;
  • Danger in terms of copying/assimilating each others research – influenced;
  • Why do they want to be supervised together? How do they end up with equal conversations? Equity. Try not to cause unnecessary influence;
  • Lack of opportunity to join in;
  • Easier to manage, encourage participation;
  • Motivate each other – but could go the other way;
  • Offers a specific critical/subject exposure.

Model 3: Research Seminars

A department establishes a postgraduate seminar series, requiring all research students, including Master’s students, to present a paper related to their work. Postgraduate 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.

  • Opportunity for it to be student-led, student-organised, develop confidence and moral support as ‘social’;
  • A rehearsal;
  • Useful if have to do a viva;
  • Encourages collaboration in turn encouraging different viewpoints;
  • Ownership of the work – not balanced, need to set boundaries;
  • Varied subject areas;
  • If session missed might not want to go.

Model 4: Supervisory team

Three supervisors sharing similar research interests band together, inviting their postgraduate 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.

  •  Amount of planning needed for this to take place, is it cost-effective for the outcome?;
  • How to ensure learning?;
  • Need a good chair?;
  • Overcomplicated?;
  • Different supervisors have different strengths;
  • As a supervisor less work to do(?);
  • Worry that students might be unclear as to where to go next from here. Potential lack of clarity?;
  • Potential that the situation is too intimidating.


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