Advancing your research supervision by being in a community of practice

The notion of a community of practice is often credited to Etienne Wenger (1998: page 2). It involves groups of practitioners coming together to learn and share their practice. A community of practice defines itself along three dimensions:

  • What it is about—its joint enterprise as understood and continually renegotiated by its members
  • How it functions—the relationships of mutual engagement that bind members together into a social entity
  • What capability it has produced—the shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artifacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.) that members have developed over time.

Communities of practice for research supervision have been identified as one of the most successful ways of advancing research supervision (Brew and Peseta, 2004). They have all the benefits of reflective practice as well as the advantage of hearing other experiences and having these act as a foil to one’s own experience.

In that establishing a community of practice only involves an agreement between a number of research supervisors to share their practice, it is a deceptively simple way to establish professional development. The community can meet formally, with a dedicated time being set aside for discussing research supervision; or it might be an informal community that emerges from discussions at morning tea or in the staff room. The tricky part of such professional development is providing a process by which people can share their practice and critique each other’s practice. Such meetings can be problematic if a single person dominates or if the discussion reveals too many personal details about the research supervisor or their student. What can also complicate discussion is that there is no single correct way to supervise students and a community wants to avoid one person telling others how to practice.

To avoid these sorts of dilemmas, when I run communities of practice for research supervisors, I usually make explicit a set of protocols for sharing and commenting on each other’s practice to ensure that everyone is edified in the process. These protocols include:
• Respectfully listening to each other
• No put downs
• When someone is speaking giving them the space to speak.

In my role as a co-ordinator of Higher Degree Research (HDR) supervision professional development I manage two types of communities of practice.
One is a face-to-face community which meets for two hour meetings across four meetings. We explores a specific set of questions related to the practices of research supervision which are developmental such that one conversation provides a foundation for subsequent conversations. One such set of questions is:
1. What do we consider to be good research?
2. What is research supervision?
3. What is ‘good’ research supervision?
4. What are the challenges that we face in providing research supervision for our candidates.
The second is an on-line community of practice which operates across an eight week period and involves individuals sharing their responses to a series of on-line exercises. By reading and commenting on each other’s work there is the opportunity to learn from the community of practice.

Some communities of practice are on-going with participants meeting regularly over time. I find that with busy academic schedule, a defined length of time for the community of practice to operate helps people make the sort of commitment that is required for this form of professional development.

Brew, A. and Peseta, T. (2004) Changing postgraduate supervision practice: a programme to encourage learning through reflection and feedback, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 41(1): 5-22

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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2 Responses to Advancing your research supervision by being in a community of practice

  1. Christopher Wibberley says:

    I run a similar site for research students for ten weeks involving the completion of exercises; however I struggle to get involvement (either at all re traditional students, or beyond the superficial Prof doc students) any tips on this. Plus what level of involvement do you get from supervisors on that community of practice and how do you maximise such engagement – as I would be interested in trying to set up one for our Faculty (Health, Psychology and Social care) at MMU.

    • I know when I started running communities of practice, it was hard to get buy in, as many
      academics were too busy to make a commitment to four sessions in a row. I ahve been
      running face-to-face communities sicne 2008 and found taht I increased buy in last year when I enlisted the support of the Faculty Heads by selling the the idea of a faculty specific
      community of prcatice. This worked a treat and I have adopted the same model as I go into the administration for the 2012 communities of practice.
      The greatest buy in comes when participants see the value of the community for its own worth, rather than feeling obliged to attend. This has been the greatest motivator for attendance. For many reserach supervisors, they had not considered some of the questions that the community of practice was addressing and they found these discussions not only broadened their thinking about research supervision but honed their skills.

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