a transdisciplinary, experiential approach to development for new research supervisors

This is a guest post by Sarah Moore, Professional Development Manager for Learning and Teaching, The University of Sheffield.

Research supervision in universities occurs in a variety of different contexts. There is PhD supervision of course, but this is not the only way that students engage in research activity. When thinking about the different manifestations of research in the curriculum, I find Jenkins and Healey’s (2005: p22) model helpful in emphasising that the research-teaching nexus is not confined to talking about your research in lectures:

Research projects are a useful way of supporting undergraduate or postgraduate taught students to develop skills related to research processes and problems, and in some cases can be a starting point for co-created forms of knowledge between students and staff.  They can also be incorporated into the curriculum at different stages with different levels of complexity depending on the discipline and student experience and expertise.

Often, those supervising such projects are new to supervision themselves, so it is important that they are supported with their supervisory role. One way (but by no means the only way) is through initial professional development activity such as the Sheffield Teaching Assistant (STA).

The Sheffield Teaching Assistant (STA)

The STA is a series of three hour workshops aimed at those new to teaching, one of which is around the topic of research supervision. Each workshop focuses on a particular aspect of teaching, providing an introduction to key principles and encouraging participants to consider how they might apply concepts to their own practice. The principles introduced in the session around Research Supervision are relevant for PhD supervision, however,  the main audience is Graduate Teaching Assistants (most of whom are teaching alongside doing their own PhDs) so the session primarily focuses on supervision in the context of structured projects in the undergraduate and postgraduate taught curriculum.

Transdisciplinary, experiential approaches

Although concepts of supervision are important, without being supported by actual experience, what it looks and feels like on the ground, they run the risk of being meaningless. Critically reflecting on our own concrete experiences helps us to learn – this notion of experiential learning is defined by Kolb as ‘[t]he process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience’ (p.49). It is through our experiences of supervising, and being supervised, that we can gain an understanding the ways in which we can support the flourishing of our own students.

When I first began teaching this session, my main concern was around credibility as I don’t have a PhD myself, although I had experience leading research projects in a previous organisation and providing one-to-one tuition at the start of my career. Interestingly, since I started teaching this workshop I have begun a Doctorate in Education, so as I move into the research part of the programme in the next few months I will begin to experience supervision from a student perspective.

However, as a teacher I can only authentically bring my own experiences and examples of supervision into the classroom – I cannot speak for others (see Brookfield, 1995 for further exploration of concepts of authenticity and credibility in teaching). Indeed, this is often the case for research projects in general where our experiences of supervision are situated in the context of a particular project. While important, our personal experiences can therefore only ever provide a limited, partial and incomplete picture of supervision.

One of the ways in which we try to address this is to draw on the experiences of participants within the workshop to create knowledge as a group about what good (and not-so-good) supervision looks like. Space is provided within the session for participants to reflect on their own supervision experience, share as much of these experiences as they wish with others (this is not compulsory – it is entirely up to them what they share) and to critically analyse the ideas raised.

For example, if you have had a bad experience with an overly-critical supervisor, you might understandably be keen to avoid exposing your own students to criticism. With that comes a risk however that you don’t challenge your students enough. How could you ensure a balance between the two extremes in your practice?

The great advantage we have in these workshops is that participants come from across the whole institution. There are a wide variety of disciplines, departments and experiences represented in each session, far more than one individual could encapsulate. The workshops are designed to be transdisciplinary, combining general concepts with opportunities for participants to consider how they might apply the ideas to their own supervisory practice.

This transdisciplinary approach might seem counter-intuitive given the situated nature of individual research projects, but in fact if harnessed appropriately the exchange of experiences across disciplines allows for the social construction of knowledge around what works (and what doesn’t) in supervision. The transdisciplinary nature of the STA allows participants to share and respond to experiences from those in disciplines other than their own, identifying common ground but also acknowledging areas that are unique to their disciplines.

Bearing in mind many of those attending are also in supervisor/supervisee relationships themselves, it also enables them to recognise that theirs is an individual experience that may not be shared by others. Bringing together these partial experiences helps them to reflect on supervision from different perspectives, and constructing their own knowledge of what effective supervision entails.

  • Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
  • Jenkins, A. and Healey, M. (2005) Institutional Strategies to Link Teaching and Research (York: Higher Education Academy).
  • Kolb, D. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Author: predoctorbility

I design researcher mentoring and coaching programmes, partnering researchers at all career stages with academic and non-academic mentors. I use research data to ensure programmes are aligned to the researcher voice, are situated in academic development, and fit with the current researcher career landscape.

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