CPD: Supervising Master’s Degree Research (Session 3)

At the end of March, was the final session of the ‘Supervising Master’s Degree Research’ course by the Centre for Enhancement and Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Birmingham City University in association with the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) (both teaching courses done now!)…one of many CPD (continuing professional development) courses that I am currently undertaking. As there were only two of us attending that day, the session was a lot shorted than usual…though I swear Wal and I, along with Jenny Eland the course coordinator, could talk forever. The main premise of the morning was to give an assessable 10-minute presentation, which aimed to critically reflect on our findings from observation sessions of MA students and supervisors, then relating this to our understanding and developing supervision practice…including a future action plan.

I presented first, speaking of my different teaching roles at different universities in the UK…which at the moment is 6 (or is it 7?) at last count or according to my P60s that are slowly coming through…specifically two MA courses to which I contribute at the University of Wolverhampton (MA Fine Art) and University of Lincoln (MA Contemporary Curatorial Practice). When observing other supervisors and students during group and one-to-one tutorials across these two courses (note – observations were done with no key criteria, more of a general critique of the situation and student/supervisor relationship), I noted six key statements then asking myself questions in relation to my professional practice as a supervisor.

Statement 1: Each university has a unique institutional dynamic and set of values, as does each course and group of students.
Q: As a supervisor, how can I be flexible and adaptable to these three-fold differences?

Statement 2: My responsibility with each university varies, therefore, my engagement with each institution and group of students.
Q: How do I acknowledge and manage this variable nature to supervision?

Statement 3: Each course has a different set of assessable outcomes(s).
Q: As a supervisor, how can I make sure that I am familiar with each model of assessment, assess objectively, and work with other supervisors to effectively inform the students of the assessment process and provide post-assessment feedback?

Statement 4: Each student is unique where their practice and research focus is different, not necessarily within my knowledge base or areas of research.
Q: How do I support them as an individual and help them to reflect upon and develop their work?

Statement 5: “Academic language… is no one’s mother tongue” (Bourdieu et al 1994:8)
Q: How do ensure each student has the required set of study skills (including English language) needed to complete the course, alongside recognising any potential learning difficulties?

Statement 6: The students are internationally diverse.
Q: How can we change course modules and curriculums to privileged this internationalism more and to assimilate cultural diversity?

Brown & Atkins (1988) suggest that postgraduate student supervision is probably the most complex and subtle form of teaching in which lecturers engage. To supervise effectively, one has to be a competent researcher, and be able to reflect on research practices and analyse the knowledge, techniques, and methods that make them effective. The supervisor must help students acquire research skills without stultifying their intellectual and personal development.

Brown and Atkins

Currently, in the final stages of PhD study, as part of which I completed a postgraduate certificate in Research Practice in Art, Design and Media, alongside working in a Research Assistant capacity at Birmingham City University’s Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CCVA), this knowledge of research, researching and being part of a research culture, I feel is reflected in my role as a supervisor, helping me to facilitate research learning in the students, meeting their expectations, and attaining academic progression.

From here, I then looked more in-depth into my personal dynamic with, and relationship to, each MA course, including how I gained the supervisory role, before looking more broadly at my role as a supervisor including the institutions values, styles of teaching such as “blended learning”, methods I’d implemented during teaching including “concept mapping”, support for international students and study skills, continuity with students,

Jenny, the course leader, mentioned the forthcoming SEDA Spring Teaching and Learning Assessment Conference may be relevant to my CPD as it is on the theme of ‘Internationalising the Curriculum: What does this mean? How can we achieve it?’ (14-15 May 2015 in Manchester)…especially as I am currently helping to put together a new MA course (watch this space as more info to come on that soon). It sounds right up my international wordgirl street…and Wal’s too as you will read later on in relation to his presentation.

“The process of internationalising HE within the context of learning, teaching and research is a sector-wide concern with far-reaching implications.” (HEA, 2014)

As SEDA states, ‘There are many definitions of internationalisation though few of these definitions acknowledge the distinctive disciplinary communities that exist within academia (Leask, 2013) and much of the discourse frames internationalisation as “more of a synonym of international education, in other words a summing up of fragmented and rather unrelated terms, than a comprehensive process and concept.” (De Wit, 2013) Is this problematic for educational developers? As Montgomery (2009) states: “the social interaction that takes place in the complex social environment of the university in the 21st century is fraught with tensions that relate to culture, social status, and educational background. As part of this complexity, there appear to remain some preconceptions or prejudices on all sides of the social interaction between international students, home students, and also staff. For example, the suggestions that international students “don’t want to mix” or “like to stay with their own nationality” are sometimes made by staff and students, and these criticisms extend into the classroom with comments such as “they don’t contribute to discussions” and “they are reserved in class.” This discourse can be seen as part of the deficit model that is applied to the social and academic experience of the international student, and this may have an influence on the social interaction of students and staff.” The conference focuses on how, as a community of academic developers, we can support our institutions and colleagues move away from this deficit model to meaningfully embed the positive benefits.’

SEDA SPRING TEACHING LEARNING AND ASSESSMENT CONFERENCE: Internationalising the Curriculum: What does this mean? How can we achieve it? (14-15 May 2015)
SEDA SPRING TEACHING LEARNING AND ASSESSMENT CONFERENCE: Internationalising the Curriculum: What does this mean? How can we achieve it? (14-15 May 2015)

Wal spoke of his role as within learning support. Seeking affirmation…looking for the good in each student in order to progress. He cited a recent research project ‘Skating on Thin Ice: Academic writing tutors supporting international dissertation students’ (shown below) created in partnership with a BCU colleague, presented at the ‘Discourse Power Resistance 13’ conference…in part a poster-type model interpreting learning support and how to support international students, focussing on the issues and axis of giving support and measuring progress without creating a dependency from the student…that it is a productive systematic relationship represented through the analogy of “dance coaches”.

Image courtesy Wal Warmington
Image courtesy Wal Warmington
Image courtesy Wal Warmington
Image courtesy Wal Warmington
Image courtesy Wal Warmington
Image courtesy Wal Warmington

He referenced my notion of being detached from many of the institutions I work with as I am there so rarely, in relation to his role of providing learning support…that a “detachment gives power”…a leverage to understand the student and their needs more, and more objectively. For him, he is one side of a triangle in a “triangulated supervisory relationship”. It doesn’t often get acknowledged as this…where I felt, as we enter a time in education when we teach more and more international students, that this will more often than not be the case for and in supervision. Wal questioned:

  • How can you be “human” about this process?
  • How does this relate to learning development/develop a student voice?
  • The role of learning support stands outside of the student-supervisor relationship…how do you define and unravel this role?
  • The student is clearly on his or her own in a wider social context…what is the student doing? How many hours are they working? How long does it take them to complete a task such as reading or writing?
  • Who takes responsibility for what in this triangulated supervisory relationship”?
  • Is there enough time to work with the student and time to feedback to the main supervisor as to progress and development?
Image courtesy Wal Warmington
Image courtesy Wal Warmington

He acknowledged a difference between research methodologies and research methods and how this influenced his understanding of how students learn. He focussed specifically on the supervisor (or his role) as a coach whilst focussing on the distinctive style and uniqueness of the student. International students…must acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses where Wal cited case studies to highlight variations. Wal’s presentation gave me an insight into learning support, how when we work with international students it must begin with a discussion…we must read their work and then read for meaning, help them to recognise the rhythm in language, breathing in language, how to develop sentence and writing structure and identify concepts and meaning.

Wal also mentioned ethical issues…the responsibility of the student and progress. Who is responsible for what? Is the student qualified to do what they do? Within this it is important to display academic confidence. He also mentioned the influence of governmental policing…governmental standards that infiltrate the learning process. There is a satisfaction in progress…of being able to talk on a conceptual level with a student once they have progressed. He highlighted that we need to acknowledge different assessment styles – having a humanistic sense of power one feels when you’ve done it. He valued DISCUSSION as:

  1. Value and importance of dissertations: lifelong skills for students; maintaining academic standards for universities;
  2. Dance becomes harmonious: tutor affirmation of student’s increased fluency and confidence (Schreiner and Anderson 2005);
  3. Current HE climate: increased pressure on students and supervisors; multi-faceted supportive roles of writing tutors;
  4. Individualised approaches of writing tutors: no one right way of tutoring (Lee, 2007); often perceived by students as neutral, more genuine and approachable.

It is often the case that learning support becomes more effective that the main supervisor…as it is a process of instilling belief in the student rather than more logistical parameters. We want students to be honest so that issues can be addressed…relational building. He concluded by questioning whether we need to change contexts to qualify and re-contest terminologies…terminologies that define the culture, class, race, the students, the learning process, the supervisory relationship and more…and I completely agree. This needs to be done not just in education but in our everyday language. Every single day.

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