At this time of year many university lecturers and tutors will be meeting with students who are undertaking major projects or dissertations of various kinds. Whilst some university and college departments have withdrawn major project or dissertation modules from their undergraduate courses in recent years (and some may never have had them), they are still one of the most common features of the undergraduate experience in the UK higher education sector, and it is most often the case that students undertake them in their final year of study. This is an appropriate time, therefore, to consider what ‘student-centred teaching’ might mean when considered in the context of undergraduate project supervision.
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 provides a form of assessment in which undergraduate students need to marshal their accumulated learning, knowledge and skills and apply it 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 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. Regardless of how your students ‘feel’ about engaging with this aspect of their degree course, you will need to keep a few key issues in mind if your approach is to be a student-centred one.
Firstly – and perhaps most importantly – the successful completion of your students’ projects and dissertations, like their previous successful completion of previous modules, will depend largely on the way you support their learning and their progress. Your role as a supervisor will be, for most of your students, a vital element in the complex and often bumpy road to completion. As on those earlier modules where you introduced key concepts, ideas, theories and issues to your students, along with key study resources that supported their development, your role in supervising their project will be a key factor in how successfully they transition into and adapt to the demands of this new type of assessment. Experience suggests that it is the students who fail to engage with their supervisors, and who therefore fail to benefit from the technical guidance, study advice and support available, who are most likely to struggle in navigating this transition. It is these students who are more likely to subsequently either fail to submit their dissertation by the deadline, or fail to achieve the standard required of a ‘pass’. So remember that the things you do as a supervisor, and the quality of support you provide, are likely to ‘make a big difference’. But this means understanding what their needs are, so getting to know them takes on a whole new importance.
Secondly, supervising major project students requires a different kind of pedagogy. The pedagogical strategies you may have relied upon to deliver previous modules and to support student learning on them – things like lectures, seminars, workshops, field-based study etc – are mostly not those that underpin successful supervision of project-based assessments. These traditional forms of higher education teaching are, of course, extremely important in building the knowledge, capacities and skills students need to engage with project-based research, but supporting students to complete their projects requires you to fulfil the rather different role of the ‘supervisor’. This role requires a different set of pedagogical strategies. Supervision is essentially a two-way dialogue founded upon a series of exploratory discussions where active listening skills and an ability to employ probing questions are just as important as disciplinary knowledge. Its very much a one-to-one relationship in which academic and pastoral dimensions can often overlap, and in which robust approaches are required to the process of monitoring individual progress. Feedback often takes a different format – in terms of constructive critical comments on ‘drafts’ as opposed to the finished product. Regular oral feedback also takes on a much greater emphasis. In short, the pedagogies required are not those traditional ones associated with ‘delivery’ but, instead, are those of ‘facilitation’. Your pedagogies are those of the ‘guide’ rather than the ‘master’ – supporting the student through what will probably be a tricky and challenging personal journey of discovery, and one beset by frequent blind allies, setbacks, moments of despair as well as wonderful ‘eureka’ moments. This role as ‘guide’ also requires a different set of personal qualities or attributes – with aspects of what we might term ‘emotional intelligence’ taking on a greater importance – including self-awareness, empathy, and an ability to understand when its important to listen rather than talk. Peer learning can work well on project or dissertation modules – which means there is likely to be value in providing opportunities for students to give peer feedback on aspects of their projects, and to share their experiences of the research process. Indeed, group supervisions can also work very effectively, though probably have most value when combined with one-to-one meetings.
The supervisor role also requires the development of a different kind of working relationship with your supervisees. Many supervisors value the fact that they get to know their supervisees on a totally new level – and the relationships forged in the fires of supervision often endure long after students graduate. The relationship becomes one that is less defined by traditional power imbalances between lecturers and students, and often develops into 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! Your role in providing subject-specialist advice will be important, but so too will your role as a coach, a nurturing ‘mentor’, and a sounding-board. But being student-centred as a supervisor isn’t just about the ‘nurturing’ aspects of the role – it sometimes means being a critical friend, and the occasional teller of hard truths. This is sometimes necessary in cases where students place their own success at risk by choosing not to engage in an appropriate way with the supervisory process. Your role in building the confidence of your supervisees, and empowering them to take ownership of their research and their projects will be just as important as your role as an ‘expert’. Establishing clear expectations and ground rules, and communicating these effectively will also be important in avoiding a breakdown in the relationship. Students like to know where they stand and what they can reasonably expect by way of support or feedback, so take the opportunity early on to develop a consistent approach to clarifying expectations with the other supervisors working on the same module. Establishing clear professional boundaries is also important, as is establishing clear goals and deadlines. But so too are those simple and quick e mails where you might ask ‘How are you getting on?’ These remind your supervisees that you care about their progress, and that their wellbeing is important to you.
So, if I have ‘10 top tips’ to offer colleagues that are likely to contribute towards a successful supervision experience, they could be summarised as follows:
- Be excited and enthusiastic about your supervisees’ projects – this sense of enthusiasm and positivity will quickly enthuse and motivate your students.
- Develop pedagogical strategies that enable you to fulfil the role of ‘guide’ and ‘facilitator’ – your expertise in the subject will be valued by your supervisees, but so too will your support as a mentor, role model, confidant and critical friend.
- Coordinate with the other supervisors on the same module – this is crucial in establishing a consistent approach across the ‘team’, which is important in ensuring a consistent experience for students.
- Communicate clear mutual expectations – this includes what you expect of your supervisees, and what they can reasonably expect of you.
- Remember that you are inducting your supervisees into a new pedagogy and a new way of learning – some will take longer to adapt to this than others. Think about how you can encourage students to reflect on the importance of independent learning, and the strategies that might help them to become more successful independent learners.
- Articulate how the ‘processes’ associated with the supervision process will work – this includes stages in the process, how often supervisions will occur, how these will be recorded, deadlines, milestones, how they can request a change of supervisor, how progress will be monitored, and how (and how often) feedback on progress will be provided.
- Adopt robust systems for monitoring progress towards project completion – this may be done via a shared progress monitoring tool like a project plan update report, or a project Gantt Chart which is regularly reviewed.
- Develop a simple but robust ‘checklist’ of topics or issues to be covered in the first supervision (and perhaps also subsequent ones) – if adopted by the supervision ‘team’ tools of this kind can, again, help to ensure a more consistent approach.
- Explore opportunities for students to share their experiences of the research process, and to provide peer feedback – this takes some of the pressure off you and your fellow supervisors, and encourages students to take ownership of their work, and learn from each other.
- Access the continuing professional development focused on project supervision provided by your college or university – experience suggests this is an effective way of keeping abreast of new and creative approaches to supervision practice.
Sources and links:
There are a limited number of really good guides to being an effective supervisor of undergraduate student projects and dissertations. One of the best recent publications, and one that highlights a range of effective tools that can be used to enhance the experience of students on undergraduate final year projects and dissertations is:
15 Top Tips for Student-Centred Teaching
Dr Adam Longcroft spent more than 20 years teaching undergraduate and post-graduate students at the University of East Anglia in the fields of landscape archaeology, history, education and professional studies before joining Anglia Ruskin University as the new Deputy Head of Anglia Learning & Teaching in August this year. He served as UEA’s Academic Director for Taught Programmes for 5 years – a role in which he had a major influence over the University’s approach to teaching and learning and enhancing the student experience. In his new role Adam is focused on enhancing the provision of continuing professional development for academic colleagues at ARU. Adam won an individual award for teaching excellence in history from the HEA in 2005, and is both a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2015).
We invite you to join the discussion using the comment box below in response to Adam’s questions.
- What do you think are the qualities or capacities that make a great undergraduate project supervisor?
- What ‘tools’ do you routinely employ to help students understand the supervision process, to run supervisory sessions, or to monitor progress?
- How different are the professional challenges of undergraduate supervision compared to ‘delivery’ of a normal module?
- What are the most common challenges your students experience in completing their projects or dissertations and how do you help them to overcome them?