Community Acuity (18) Learning to supervise – a two-way conversation

This is a guest post by Dr Rob Pilling, Thesis Mentor and Associate Supervisor, Chemical and Biological Engineering.

As I waited to meet my first actual Thesis Mentee, I was conscious that they were expecting to meet an actual mentor. The question in my mind was whether I could be one. I had attended a workshop on coaching thesis writers and it sounded fun. I had also convinced myself that various conversations with friends and colleagues over the years ‘kind of amounted to the same thing.’ However, none of this would be the same as the actual ‘doing’ of mentoring a real person. As happens so often, the anticipation was more worrying that the reality. I survived the first session and have progressed steadily since. 

Thesis Mentoring at The University of Sheffield offers mentors training and experience of delivering coaching support for PhD Researchers. The Associate SuperVisionaries Framework builds on this offering a professional development pathway for supervisory practice. It piloted in autumn 2018, and will launch again in 2019. I’ve been involved on the Thesis Mentoring side for a couple of years and also recently completed the pilot. These initiatives target primarily early career researchers (Research Associates, Fellows, New Lecturers), so my own path is atypical. I work in research management, having previously operated outside of higher education and I gained my PhD back in the mists of time. None the less, I found a warm welcome onto the schemes and have benefited greatly.

I myself find motivation for thesis mentoring in the quality of the conversations. The opportunity to spend an unhurried hour with an intelligent, thoughtful researcher chatting about a piece of work, to which they are intellectually and emotionally committed. The mentoring space is defined loosely enough so that conversation can be flexible and responsive. At the same time it is tethered: both by its attention to the present and also by its contingency (reflective of two people talking as equals). The conversations are flavoured by the nature of the project, the personality of the researcher, and also their main supervisory relationship. There is more than enough to keep things interesting and, equally, common themes to provide familiarity. 

This is not to reduce thesis mentoring to idle conversation. The process draws bite from its focus and intent. There is a thesis to write and deadlines to meet. I have seen mentees express a full range of emotions, not least uncertainty, distress and anger, and also impressive transformations in mood over a few sessions or even a few minutes. Less immediate, but no less striking, has been their gentle edging towards greater independence and awareness, driven as much by associated experimentation and practice as the conversation itself. Overall, and particularly inspiring, is the vicarious excitement for the mentor, in the making of plans and sharing in the ups and downs as they unfold.

In writing this note, I considered talking about theories of coaching, experiences of putting them to practice and examples of value to the mentee. Or perhaps considering the structure of the university scheme, the workshops, colleague observations and reflective writing – all of which were brilliant and have made the steps I’ve taken possible. 

With only a few words, I tried instead to describe three valuable things that I have gained from being involved: confidence, motivation and inspiration; and also to reflect on the fact that good conversation leaves neither participant unchanged.

Community Acuity (13): experiences in structuring & recording doctoral supervision meetings.

This is a guest post from Dr Peter Gossman, Principal Lecturer in Education at the University of Worcester.

Over ten years ago I worked in New Zealand and attended the Improving University Teaching Conference in Dunedin were Tom Angelo (of Angelo and Cross – Classroom Assessment Techniquesfame) was presenting. The theme of the conference was ‘assessing and grading as if learning matters most’. Perhaps not the snappiest of conference focus statements but it allowed him to present some key ideas in relation to feedback. 

I have a page from the day that contains i) why give feedback, ii) how students might use feedback and iii) a suggested order for feedback. It is this last element that I have adapted from my own supervision practice. Universities, at least in my limited experience (two English, one Welsh and one Kiwi) have some format for recording supervision meetings. This form tends to have a space on it for the recording the substance of the meeting. It is to this and with a certain approach I have applied Angelo’s feedback ideas.

Angelo suggests that feedback is provided in the following sequence:

  • First – good news (what was done well)
  • Second – bad news (what still needs improvement)
  • Third – options (what can be done to improve it)
  • Fourth – plans (what the learner intends to do)
  • Fifth – commitments (what both parties agree to do, to what standard and by when)

It is a seemly simple list. My take is that it is provided to the doctoral student as the structure against which they write up the meeting notes and identified actions. This in turn is submitted for sign off and agreement and then formalised as the supervision meeting record. The key adaptation here is that the student identifies the good and bad news, the options and the plan for themselves, they are learning to self-evaluate and problem solve.

  • First – good news (what has gone well for you since our last meeting?)

“I have read the articles we discussed since our last meeting. I have made notes on them and I have found a range of other literature.”

  • Second – bad news (what has not gone so well, or that you are still working on?)

“The cat was ill for a week and kept me up at night setting back my progress on constructing my questionnaire.”

  • Third – options (what can be done to address the issues in ‘bad news’?)

“I aim to catch up with the questionnaire construction by focusing on it for the next two weeks.”

  • Fourth – plans (what the learner intends to do between now and the next meeting – this can if the student wishes be a timeline or simple Gantt chart)
  • Fifth – commitments (what both parties agree to do, to what standard and by when)

“Read the first draft of chapter X. This will be submitted on dd/mm/yy and supervisor feedback will be provided by dd/mm/yy.”

The nature of what is contained in each section and the degree of detail will depend on the stage that the student is at and a wide range other factors like the discipline being studied,  the required frequency of meetings and so on.

I have applied this technique on form submission I can add to or amend it as required. The biggest issue is acculturating students into including enough specific detail. However, once a common understanding of the requirement to submit a detailed form is established the process starts to take care of itself.

building and breaking professional trust in doctoral student-supervisor relationships

I am delighted that the Trust Me! research report is now available here on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education web pages!

This report presents findings from a research study looking at perceptions of trust in doctoral supervision relationships. It views academic supervisors in the context of their role as leaders and enablers of trust within their research environments and higher education institutions. It aims to take a broad exploratory view of the specific behaviours that are important in trust building in supervisory relationships.

Supervisory leadership is characterised by tensions and balances. To build trust a supervisor must respond to the student’s individual needs and circumstances and develop a discipline-appropriate professional practice in supervision. This study contributes insight into the nature of that supervisory trust. It deepens our understanding of what constitutes a ‘good quality’ student-supervisor relationship, and signals the presence or absence of trust as a component of quality.

Recommendations are offered that draw on the presented evidence and make suggestions for how supervisors could be supported to establish and sustain trusting supervision relationships. The practical recommendations avoid the language of supervision ‘skills’, preferring instead to describe contextual and demonstrable trust-building behaviours within the social worlds of research environments and relationships.

There is an online open access and free workshop with learning resources for supervisors here, that I have created from the research findings.

The primary aim of this report is to assist higher education institutions to enhance supervisory practice, specifically through focusing on relationship tensions. I am sure that supervisors themselves will also find it very interesting.

This report is available to LFHE member institutions. Downloading the publication requires you to have, or make, an account using your university email address. If you have any problems gaining access, please let @AdvanceHE know.

 

disrupting the passive approach to learning doctoral writing

Re-blog, from my writing over at the Think Ahead blog, see the original post hereThis post is for PhD supervisors wondering how to get their students to write their thesis. It addresses some of the ‘in theory’ points that outline the supervisor’s role in developing doctoral writing. Part 2 (here) covers some ‘in practice’ ideas.