A pedagogy for group supervision

With ever increasing numbers of research students, research supervisors are having to look outside the square for solving research supervision problems. One such square is the models of research supervision.

Traditionally research supervision has been modelled on the Ancient Greek pedagogy model of one-on-one tuition. This model also resonates with master apprentice elements from the Medieval craft guilds. As universities moved into more contemporary operation, these ancient Greek and Medieval models gave way to notions of mentoring, but the one-on-one model was maintained. Challenged by both quality and continuity of research supervision, some contemporary universities adopted a two-on-one model with two supervisors for one research student.

As research supervisors acquire more students, and with the growth in Honours and Master’s research programs that may bring with it greater number of research students to a single supervisor, they have looked to models of group supervision to resolve these management problems.

Group supervision is not new. In fact, many supervisors have been using this in an administrative capacity, expecting research students to attend research administration meetings so that a research supervisor is not repeating the same information to a range of students. Not as many academics apply the group supervision model to the other non administrative aspects of research supervision because of a belief that with different topics and different rates of candidature it would be difficult to find common ground in a group of students.

In 2000, I was fortunate to sit in on a supervision workshop run by Professor Pam Denicolo atReadingUniversityinU.K.What impressed me about the way that she worked was how she mobilised knowledge that students further along their candidature had gained to help address questions and issues of students who were more at the novice end of the research. What she facilitated was a conversation in which she and all the participants engaged in explorations about research practice. Her knowledge of individual student’s work allowed her to invite individual students to respond to particular issues raised.

I imagine a similar model could be used for a research supervisor working with a group of honours students. While they may have different topics for their honours dissertations, they may be struggling with similar problems. In this scenario, some students may have found ways to address their particular research problems and they can be encouraged to share their solutions with other students, not as solutions for the other students but as catalysts to thinking about how to solve real research problems.

In the model I envisage, because research students are sharing their practice, there would be value in drawing on Etienne Wenger’s (1998) notion of a Community of Practice and even using some of the protocols championed by the essential schools program (www.essentialschools.org) in USA in their use of communities of practice with school teachers.

Anytime a group of practitioners come together to talk about their common practice, this constitutes a community of practice. The essential schools site adds to the aspect of practitioners sharing practice, by devising protocols or guidelines to enable sharing of practice so that people’s integrity is respected while their practices are shared.

An appropriate protocol that I have devised for a group of research students sharing their practice of undertaking research in a series of 2 hour communities of practice is as follows:

5 minutes Welcome and discussion  about how the community of practice will be run. In particular articulate the way in which each 20 minute segment operates and how five students will have a chance to share a concern.
20 minute cycle. In the course of a two hour community of practice, five participants could share individual research problems 3 minutes Invite a particular member of the community of practice to share a problem that they are having with their research. Allow no more than 3 minutes for the student to explain the problem to encourage conciseness in communication.
5 minutes Invite clarifying questions from the community to clarify elements of the problem that has been described.
5 minutes Invite probing questions from the community to help the presenter clarify, deepen and expand their thinking about the issue or question they have raised. The questions are designed to encourage the presenters to think about the way they have approached the issue and some of the assumptions they might be making about it.
5  minutes General discussion
2 minutes For the presenter to sum up and identify what they believe are next steps in addressing their research problem. Some of these next steps could be to arrange further discussions (at another time) with other members of the community of practice
15 minutes The community of practice facilitator (research supervisor) sums up the discussion and highlights some of the points that have been raised so that the whole discussion is of benefit for all participants in the community of practice not just those who raised issues.

In the first iteration of such a group supervision, some time may need to be devoted to the students getting to know each other and learning what each other’s investigations involve. It will also be necessary for the research supervisor to explain what is meant by clarifying questions and probing questions. The notion of probing questions is closely linked to criticality and is an essential element of research practice.

Explaining a research problem in three minutes can be a daunting task and it may be necessary, in the early days of the group’s supervision, to scaffold student articulation of their research problem in three minutes. This may involve the research supervisor posing several questions such as:

  • Where are you in the process of undertaking your investigation?
  • What are you working on at the moment?
  • What sorts of challenges are you finding in this particular task?

The supervisor may want to encourage them to prepare their wording ahead of the community of practice so that have had some time to think about their economy of words.

In a model with ten students, two such meetings would ensure that each of the students was given 20 minutes dedicated time as well as their being able to listen into the discussions with other students. The research supervisor as facilitator of the community of practice encourages the students to help each other rather than setting themselves up as the solver of all problems. The research supervisor gets ample time to direct in the final fifteen minutes.

Each time a research student shares a problem they not only benefit by the need to be concise about their problem, they also get practice in fielding clarifying and probing questions. This is a great opportunity to develop question answering skills  that will be useful in the oral defence.

As the face-to face meetings are not the only part of research supervision, such a model would have to work in a complementary way with the research supervisor reading student’s work and providing pertinent feedback on their academic writing. This would also build up their knowledge of the progress of each individual student to help them to encourage different students to share their solutions with others in this group supervision environment.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of practice: learning as a social system. The Systems Thinker, 9, (5).


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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