Advancing your research supervision through rigorous investigation

In these blogs about advancing research supervision practice I have emphasised the importance of reflecting on practice. Another way to make use of the process of reflecting on one’s professional practice is to formalise it into what I describe as investigative practice. Some would use the term research to apply to the concepts I will describe, but as the term research is often associated with a particular type of scientific research, and as the methods I am going to raise here are all classified as post positivist research methods or inquiry methods, it seems easier to use the umbrella term of investigation rather than research.
By investigating, I mean observing your practice in such a way as to make tacit knowledge about your practice explicit. This can involve making explicit some of the key terms of your practice and acknowledging the dissonance surrounding those terms. For example: recognising that the term research means different things to different people and making it explicit what meaning you ascribe to the term. It can involve rigorously reflecting on your practice and making explicit the often taken for granted knowledge that relates to this practice. For example: a supervisor often assumes that a student understands what it means to do a doctoral degree and may class this as taken for granted knowledge. Making this explicit through a discussion about the student’s understanding of doctoral research brings this knowledge to the surface and leaves a space for addressing any misconceptions. A third aspect of investigating one’s research supervision might involve making explicit the decision making that operates behind the delivery of your practice. For example: Whenever, as a supervisor you make a particular intervention in your relationship with the student, there is usually a rationale behind that decision. Bringing this rationale to the surface may promote rethinking about whether that intervention is the most appropriate at that time.

Investigative practice not only involves making tacit knowledge explicit. By definition it requires that the knowledge is made public so that it benefits from peer review. When you pursue this line of advancing your research supervision, you not only improve your own knowledge about research supervision, but through an agenda of publishing your findings as a way of authenticating the investigation outcomes, you share your knowledge and findings with other people. Even with as few as a single research student, articulating the interventions you make in the pursuit of helping your research student to complete their degree, adds to the body of knowledge about this often private academic practice.

It helps with investigating one’s practice if the process by which you intend to make the practices explicit, is also made explicit. This is part of the rigour of investigation, that the process of investigating is also explicit and transparent. This is not so much to try to replicate the process but to make it easier for a reader to understand how you have gone about investigating your practice.

I want to draw attention to four specific approaches under a banner of practice-related investigation.

The first of these is describing your practice in the form of a Case study. The detail of description enables other practitioners to review your description and through this advance their own understanding of the practice. The descriptor ‘telling the practitioner stories’ is often used to describe this particular approach and, as such, this approach has been part of the literature on research supervision for some time.

A second approach is Action research. This (Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988) involves reflecting on your supervisory practice, identifying an area of potential growth or improvement, implementing that initiative and then reviewing the impact of the intervention in a subsequent process of reflection.

The process is iterative and can also be expressed as a cycle of observing events within your practice and by making explicit the window by which you observe these events you can begin to provide maps of operation. (Bawden, 1991)

Another similar approach is Practice-based research (Anderson and Herr, 1999). With practice-based research there is an emphasis on comparing identified practice to the literature available about that practice rather than focussing on iterations of improvement.

Finally, Practice-led research (Gray, 1996) invites deconstruction of the research supervision and identification of the sorts of decisions being made by the supervisor in their undertaking of practice. In this regard it invites critical reflection as it seeks to articulate the rationale behind the decision making and thus the belief systems operating in the delivery of the supervisory practice.

Which ever approach you adopt to reflect on your research supervision, you will find that it expands your knowledge of that practice. Knowledge is at the heart of investigative practice. The purpose of investigation, whether it be research or inquiry, is to expand our knowledge, and these processes will all lead to an increase in your own knowledge of this aspect of your professional practice and the knowledge available for the broader community of research supervisors.

Anderson, G. and K. Herr (1999). The New Paradigm Wars: Is there room for rigorous practitioner knowledge in Schools and Universities? Educational Researcher 28 (5): 12-21.

Bawden, R. (1991). Towards action research systems. in Zuber-Skerrit, O. (Ed) Action Research for Change and Development. Griffith University. Brisbane, Australia

Gray, C. (1996) Inquiry through practice: developing appropriate research strategies. No Guru, No Method. UIAH Helsinki

Kemmis, S and Mctaggart, R (1981) The Action Research Planner. Deakin University. Geelong, Aust.


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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