#LTHEchat 103 Enhancing the supervision experience of undergraduate students on major project/dissertation modules with Adam Longcroft and Simon-Pratt-Adams

Adam 30 Aug Piccie (1)

Adam Longcroft

The #LTHE Chat on Wednesday 7th February 2018 will be jointly led by @adamL50 and @simonprattadams from Anglia Learning and Teaching (@AngliaLTA) at Anglia Ruskin University (@AngliaRuskin). Adam and Simon have been leading the development and delivery of an educational development programme for academic staff who supervise undergraduate major projects, so their chosen topic for our chat is: “Enhancing the supervision experience of undergraduate students on major project/dissertation modules”. The questions will explore this topic and we hope you will be able to join in the fun. Simon and Adam are keen not only to see academic staff responding to their questions, but students too – who will probably have some valuable ideas to share based on their own experiences. Colleagues interested in the topic may be interested to read a blog by Adam on the same theme on the SEDA website.

Enhancing the supervision experience of undergraduate students on major project/dissertation modules

At this time of year many university academics will be conducting supervisions with undergraduate students who are undertaking major projects or dissertations of various kinds.  In a sense, the previous two years of study (or in some cases three) have led up to this moment – the major project or dissertation component requires undergraduate students need to marshal their accumulated learning, knowledge and skills and apply them within a single, extended piece of work. In some cases the project or dissertation may occupy a single term or semester, but often spans the entire final year of degree study.

For many undergraduate students this is the element they have been looking forward to most; for others it may be the bit of the course they have been dreading. For both, completing a project or dissertation is likely to pose a considerable challenge. Supervisors need to support students so that they can overcome these challenges. But how?

In this LTHE Chat session, we would like to encourage colleagues to reflect on what they think their primary role is as a supervisor, how they help students to understand the value of undertaking a project, how they clarify mutual responsibilities, how they maximise the usefulness of supervision sessions (either face-to-face or at a distance), and what ‘personal qualities’ or ‘skills’ they think are most important as a supervisor. Finally, we’d like to look to the future and prompt reflection amongst colleagues on how we can use projects & dissertations to drive the development of key graduate skills.

Like other forms of teaching, research suggests that the effectiveness of supervision is a key factor in student success. How we supervise our undergraduate students is therefore very important.  Our role as a supervisors is likely to be a vital element in the complex and often bumpy road to a project’s completion, but how do we promote effective learning and progress? It has been argued that supervision requires academics not only to adopt different pedagogical techniques (i.e. a different approach to teaching) but also to induct students into a new way of learning. This poses challenges for both parties. So what works? Simon and Adam want to know how YOU approach the supervision process, and how you support your students to transition into a different kind of learner – and ideally one who is increasingly able to demonstrate autonomy and independence.

What is clear when one talks to academics is that there is no single or agreed view on the key role or purpose of the supervisor. One often finds little consensus on the purpose of a project or dissertation. Views on both are often subject to difference driven by personal experiences, institutional contexts, and by disciplinary/subject traditions. Process often varies too.

Supervision is often characterised as a two-way dialogue founded upon a series of exploratory discussions between student and supervisor, but this one-to-one model is often complemented by small group and online supervisions conducted at a distance. Much teaching is focused on ‘delivery’ of content, but the supervision process is rather different. The pedagogies required are often those of ‘facilitation’ instead. Some have described the role as that of ‘guide’ rather than the ‘master’. But this means, surely, that a different set of personal qualities and/or skills are required since the academic is no longer required to act as ‘sage on the stage’ but, rather, as ‘academic mentor’ or ‘critical friend’? But what qualities or skills are most important in a great supervisor? Are those we value as academics the same as those our students value? Hearing the views of students will be very enlightening!

Previous discussions with colleagues suggests that supervision not only requires a different set of qualities and skills, but the development, also, of a different kind of relationship. But just as with other kinds of teaching, it is important to clarify the rules of this relationship – by, for example, clarifying mutual responsibilities and obligations. But how can this is achieved most quickly and effectively? How do you clarify the rules that govern the student/supervisor relationship?

Moreover, what kind of relationship are we aiming to build? Is the ‘ideal’ a more equal relationship where each party simply has a different role in joint process of discovery – a bit like the driver and navigator on a rally stage? Or something different? And just how important is subject-specific knowledge? Is this the key to successful supervision, or are the more ‘generic’ skills of an experienced supervision of greater importance in ensuring successful outcomes for project students?

Finally, how do you impress upon students the value they will gain from undertaking a project or dissertation? One colleague described projects as ‘a multi-faceted, complex problem-solving exercise’ – the kind of language which many would recognise from the kind of dialogue that one encounters in job interviews. But what other capacities or skills do your students develop? And how can we ensure that we maximise the development of the kinds of distinctly human capacities that are less likely to be made redundant in 10-20 years by computers or other forms of artificial intelligence? Adam and Simon would like to invite you all to comment on how YOU work with your students to develop the Top 10 graduate skills for 2020 identified by the World Economic Forum in 2016:

Top 10 WEF Skills for 2020:

  • Complex problem solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • People management
  • Coordinating with others
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Decision-making
  • Service orientation
  • Negotiation
  • Cognitive flexibility


World Economic Forum (WEF), The 10 Skills you need to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution (19 January 2016). See: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-10-skills-you-need-to-thrive-in-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/

Healey et al, (2013) Developing & Enhancing Final Year Undergraduate Projects and Dissertation, Higher Education Academy. See:  https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/developing-and-enhancing-undergraduate-final-year-projects-and-dissertations

The storify from the chat will be added here #LTHEchat103

About kshjensen

Anthropologist. Ethnographic research and user experience. I craft, bake, like real ale and stacking stones. Currently working on developing research impact.
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