Why universities ought to prioritise development programs for experienced supervisors

This is a guest post by Gitte Wichmann-Hansen, Associate Professor and Educational Developer at Aarhus University in Denmark. She recently published an article on the challenges and value of development programs for experienced doctoral supervisors. The article was co-published with her Danish colleague Mirjam Godskesen (Independent Consultant) and international collaborator Margaret Kiley (Australian National University). You can find the whole article entitled ‘Successful development programs for experienced doctoral supervisors – What does it take? here.

A photo of a group of supervisors sitting in a circle, learning in a classroom. They appear engaged, they are listening and some have raised their hands to ask questions.

I’m standing next to the coffee in the crowded room and discussing this morning’s session at a workshop on how to enhance the professional development of research supervisors. I talk about how we support the continuing development of senior academic staff in my Faculty. “Excuse me, would you please repeat what you just said?” One of the participants almost spills his coffee! “Mandatory, comprehensive and long-term development programs for senior supervisors? Is that possible at all?”  

I often get that question when I present the story of supervisor development at my faculty. So, let me share the story with you, highlight some experiences, and advise. 

Why professional development for experienced supervisors? 

My point of departure as an educational developer is that continuous professional development for experienced supervisors is relevant and necessary, because:

  1. Experience as a supervisor is not necessarily equivalent to quality;
  2. Seniority is often proportional to increased responsibility and supervisor workload, which needs recognition by the institution;
  3. Senior academics are the culture-bearers at a university and thus, they should be the main target group of professional development programs to create cultural change at an institutional level.

Many readers might agree with the arguments. However, the salient point is how to encourage experienced supervisors to attend development programs. I do not hold a universally valid solution to this puzzle, but I have gained some powerful experiences from running a mandatory supervisor development program for professors in our Faculty for more than ten years. I will invite you into some of my reflections and experiences below.

How to encourage experienced supervisors to attend development programs? An example

My program is located in the School of Business and Social Sciences, which is one of four Faculties at Aarhus University, a research-intensive university in Denmark. It is a semester length program focused on research supervision, and it combines 4 seminar days with approx. 30 hours of homework. The teaching format is highly interactive and mainly based on the participants’ own materials to make discussions and group work practice-related and authentic. For example, participants are asked to: 1. share excerpts of their students’ text drafts including their supervisor feedback; 2. share concrete cases about current, unsolved challenges in their supervision; and 3. do peer observations in groups. The latter is an essential and demanding task. In groups of three, the participants observe, video-record and provide feedback on each other’s’ supervision meetings in situ.

The program was implemented on the initiative of the then Dean. To enforce mandatory participation, he employed a strong incentive structure: 

  1. Completion of the program is part of a professor’s job description and thus, a prerequisite for being eligible to supervise doctoral students.
  2. Each department is guaranteed three course seats per semester. If the Head of Department does not make use of his/her three course seats, the Dean withholds around 6,500 Euro from the department’s budget.
  3. Each participant is awarded a bonus of around 1,500 Euro for completion.

The program has been running regularly since 2009, and more than 250 supervisors have completed the program, which corresponds to more than 70 % of all potential supervisors at the Faculty. The participants evaluate the program very positively, and the evident effect of reaching the majority of senior staff members is cultural changes rather than (only) individual upskilling. For instance, in one department, all supervisors now use MoUs (Memorandum of Understanding, or Learning Contract) as a tool for early matching of expectations with new doctoral students.  

No easy solutions. The long haul and merging of three streams 

So, this all sounds impressive, but what about resistance from the participants? Has it not been an issue, you might wonder. Yes, it has! During the initial years, the seminar days were characterised by a generally high level of resistance among participants. However, the resistance decreased as the program had been running steadily for about 6-7 years, because good rumours had spread, and the program had become an unquestioned part of the institution. It bears witness to the importance of the long haul and the merging of at least three streams, if the ambition is to reach senior supervisors, including those who are unlikely to choose to attend development programs: 

  1. A strong incentive structure initiated by the top management;
  2. Teaching principles that are aligned with the group of senior academics; and 
  3. A well-evaluated program that, in the long term, encourages supervisors to participate due to their inner motivation.  

It points to the crucial role of the institution and the resources invested by the institution towards the advancement of supervision. While not all universities will be in the financial position to provide economic incentives, other forms of recognition from the management might work. The extent to which management value and reward supervision is of vital importance to motivate academics to prioritise professional learning in their busy work life.

Finally, you might wonder: why did I make it so difficult for myself by designing a long-term, comprehensive program that includes demanding tasks such as peer observations?  

Well, first of all the evaluation shows that participants stress the gains of sharing authentic materials and in particular, doing peer-observations. The interesting point here is that they were most critical of this part when they began the program, but in hindsight, they found it surprisingly rewarding. It indicates that supervisors might know what they wantbut not what they need.

Secondly, my example illustrates the potential benefits of an intervention extended over time. To give, receive, observe, and practice supervision in authentic settings with peers call for a trustful atmosphere, which is not just given in a hasty few hours. In other words: “To minimise the duration of programs and to accommodate spontaneous resistance from experienced supervisors might be to shoot oneself in the foot as an educational developer.”(Wichmann-Hansen et al, 2019). 

What I have learned so far is the importance of prioritising the senior staff who are crucial bearers of culture as well as quality. It might seem as an easier solution to target junior staff. They tend to offer less resistance compared to their more senior colleagues. However, associate and full professors are more likely to stay in the organisation and conduct on-the-job-training to younger colleagues. Thus, universities ought to prioritise development programs for experienced supervisors.

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