Supporting the supporters: An investigation into effective supervision of Masters level work based projects and dissertations

Sandra Nicol, Sarah Catharine Cornelius

Research output: Contribution to conferenceUnpublished paperpeer-review


Postgraduate study has become progressively more important in professional life, particularly in the education sector, and Schools of Education within the university sector are looking for ways to improve provision. A key component of many Masters degrees is a work-based project or dissertation. It has been acknowledged that supervision of these projects has been under-researched (e.g. Anderson et al., 2006), although challenges associated with the supervision of international students (Brown, 2007) and those faced by new supervisors (McMichael, 1993) have been considered. In the light of renewed interest in taught postgraduate provision by the professions, along with an expansion of distance and online engagement, it is timely to re-consider the experiences of supervisors supporting Masters level research as part of taught programmes, and to review how best to support them. Increased access to study through online provision allows students to look globally for the most appropriate programme of study to suit their needs and therefore their supervisors must consider cultural aspects, time differences and diverse work and study contexts in order to provide effective support.
Schools of Education need to be creative and innovative in the ways in which support is given to Masters students and it is essential that supervisors are academically and technologically confident in order to address issues of culture and geography. Other challenges, such as increasing numbers of students, the need for flexibility to accommodate diversity, and the preparation of new supervisors also need to be addressed. In our own context, a Scottish School of Education, as the number and range of taught postgraduate courses has increased to meet market demand, so too have the demands on staff supporting Masters level students. From an initial, relatively small, group of supervisors, the team has grown rapidly to include members of staff who have recently obtained their own postgraduate qualifications, as well as new research active personnel joining the School. As numbers of students and supervisors grow there is a need to be increasingly proactive to ensure a worthwhile supervisory experience and a good outcome for their students.
This paper will report on research currently being undertaken to explore the experiences of supervisors in our School of Education, who work with over one hundred part-time off-campus postgraduate students undertaking dissertations and work-based projects each year. It is underpinned by a systematic review of international supervisors’ experiences. The project aims to understand the experiences of supervisors supporting students and investigate how provision should be given so they can provide appropriate supervision. The research questions are:
- What prior experiences do supervisors have and how do they understand their role?
- How can support be provided for a diverse group of supervisors managing an equally diverse set of student projects?
- Can online support using a blog approach be effective?

Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used
The project takes an action research approach and will draw on qualitative and quantitative data in a way that allows iterative development and response to findings. At the time of writing the experiences of supervisors have been explored through a focus group, reflective conversations, and a review of minutes of supervisors’ support meetings and other relevant artefacts. The focus group addressed the motivation of individuals to become supervisors, positive and challenging experiences of supervision, and individual and collective support needs. Analysis of the data obtained is underway and will inform the development of a blog to support supervisors. A review of literature is also being conducted. By the time of the conference it is anticipated that the use of the blog will have been fully evaluated and recommendations for further development drafted.

Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings
Analysis of data from focus groups, reflective conversations and other artefacts is currently underway. Issues emerging include: challenges associated with supporting students at different stages in their projects; understanding course processes; balancing competing demands and responsibilities; identifying supervisee prior knowledge and skills; the dual role of supervisor as mentor and assessor; and developing relationships with distant students where interaction is entirely technology mediated. These will be explored in the paper presented at the conference along with the evaluation of the blog as a support approach. Other approaches to providing support to supervisors will also be discussed and emerging recommendations for the effective support of work-based and international Masters students. The findings may be relevant to other supervisors supporting postgraduate researchers as well as individuals with strategic responsibility or staff development roles.

Anderson C., Day K. & McLaughlin P (2006) Mastering the
dissertation: lecturers’ representations of the purposes and processes of Master’s level dissertation
supervision, Studies in Higher Education, 31:2, 149-168

Brown L. (2007) A consideration of the challenges involved in supervising international masters students Journal of Further and Higher Education, 31:3, 239-248
Brydon-Miller, M. and Maguire, P. (2009) Participatory action research: contributions to the
development of practitioner inquiry in education, Educational Action Research, 17:1, 79-93

McMichael, P. (1993) Starting up as supervisors: The perceptions of newcomers in postgraduate supervision in Australia and Sri Lanka Studies in Higher Education, 18:1, 15-26
Todd M. J., Smith K. & Bannister P.(2006): Supervising a social
science undergraduate dissertation: staff experiences and perceptions, Teaching in Higher
Education, 11:2, 161-173

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2013
EventThe European Conference on Educational Research - Turkey, Istanbul, United Kingdom
Duration: 10 Sept 201313 Sept 2013


ConferenceThe European Conference on Educational Research
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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