Developing a pedagogical space for novice supervisors

This is a guest post by Dr Matthew Sillence, Lecturer in Postgraduate Education and Training, Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of East Anglia. Matthew teaches on the Masters in Higher Education Practice.

The University of East Anglia has run a Masters in Higher Education Practice (MA HEP) for many years. This provides a route through probation for new academic colleagues, normally at postgraduate certificate level; some opt to continue onto a diploma, or full Masters degree.

A classroom full of adult learners. There are books, notepads and coffees on the tables. A woman in a grey jumper takes copious notes.
Photo by Anna Earl on Unsplash

In 2018-19, a new module on postgraduate research supervision and examination was piloted with staff from the Faculties of Social Science and Arts and Humanities. The decision to create this module was driven by the increasing attention in the higher education sector and within wider educational research around supervision as a form of advanced pedagogy. We intentionally aligned this initiative with the ethos of learning and teaching practice rather than training, because continuing professional development was already available for supervisors around the key policies and procedures for supervising in their Faculties.

Reflective practice is a core principle of the course as a whole.  With this in mind, we devised five learning outcomes for our pilot module, which responded to the work of Stan Taylor (2016) on relating the UK Professional Standards Framework to supervisory practice. As the MA HEP was already an accredited programme of the Higher Education Academy, its modules allowed colleagues to evidence Fellowship using the same professional standards framework.

Learning Outcome 1: An understanding of the variety of supervisory relationships and roles and behaviours that may be adopted by supervisors

Gatfield (2005), Lee (2012) and most recently Taylor et al. (2018) have stressed the different styles or modes adopted by supervisors. Supervisory styles vary, we wanted to explore these in detail, and how roles and behaviours need to alter over time with student progression.

Learning Outcome 2: An awareness of how the cultural background, language and wider lifestyle and study choices of postgraduate research students may affect the supervisory relationship 

We are now in the second year of our new module, and have recruited colleagues from the physical and health sciences, so the sharing of experiences of diversity has been highly productive. Discussions in our seminars and closed discussion boards touches on different educational backgrounds, as well as gender, ethnicity, race, nationality, social class, sexuality, disability and age. The realisation that the postgraduate researcher is an individual with different facets allows supervisors to better appreciate the unique combination of values and priorities that their supervisees bring to their studies. 

Learning Outcome 3: An ability to identify and reflect on strategies for improving student progress and competency over time 

Although many supervisors have an intuitive sense of what makes a competent postgraduate researcher, developing a strategic view means articulating these qualities. Surprisingly few novice supervisors are aware of the QAA characteristics statement on research degrees, or even what their own institution expects. Exploring these qualities as a group provides a more nuanced sense of what progress looks like in a specific discipline. 

Learning Outcome 4: An awareness of academic literacies and different opportunities and practices for effective postgraduate writing 

The pedagogical concept of ‘academic literacies’ has tended to be applied to taught programmes, where regular assessment may reveal misconceptions around the form and purpose of academic communication. At our University, we have benefitted greatly from the research interests of senior colleagues in education who encourage postgraduate researchers to think about the genres, conventions and power dynamics that are manifested through academic writing (Magyar and Robinson-Pant 2011).

Learning Outcome 5: The ability to identify and critically evaluate the different methods of providing feedback to students on the progress, examination and publication of their work 

Despite the lack of regular formal assessment in the research degree, there is always opportunity for formative work. Feedback to supervisees has raised many questions in our seminars; namely around how much and how frequently to provide it, and what exactly the focus should be. In considering our own institution’s probationary assessment criteria (normally around 9 months into the first year of full-time study), and the criteria available to examiners, we have explored how supervisors can assess writing for different purposes. 

Programme Structure and Assessment 

The structure of our new module had to take account of the fact that colleagues would likely be taking other modules on the MA HEP in the same academic year. We arrived at four key themes that were delivered in seminars forming the taught element of the module:

  • Student and Supervisor Expectations and Motivations 
  • Transition and Support 
  • Developing Writing 
  • Feedback and Examination 

On this blog, there are alternative models for postgraduate research supervision; for example Cross and Prescott (2019) who identified 6 distinct phases, beginning with goals and expectations. Our programme begins with recruitment and the expectations and motivations of both the supervisor and student, although arguably our interest in how feedback spans every stage of the research degree process, means we have interwoven it from the outset. In this sense, iteration is central to learning progression, and reflective practice. We want our academic colleagues to revisit some of the doctoral characteristics at the end of the programme that they encountered less confidently earlier.

Reflective practice is also embedded in the assessment. We expected academic colleagues to be able to reflect on their practice, and to be able to evaluate it based on their growing knowledge of doctoral education. A formative ‘patchwork text’ approach was adopted that allows the submission of a variety of objects that they can integrate for their summative assignment. These might take the form of a learning contract, a fictional diary entry from the perspective of a supervisor or supervisee, or a review of a blog post on an aspect of doctoral education. We also require supervisors in their seminar groups to post a contribution to our module discussion board on an aspect of the transition and support of postgraduate researchers. The summative assignment integrates these ‘patches’ through a reflective text. In short, we are modelling the kind of reflective writing since advocated by Taylor in the new UKCGE supervision recognition scheme.  

Next Steps

Over the last two years, we have been mindful that our module on postgraduate research and supervision provided a much-needed pedagogical space for supervisors, and that it is fit for purpose. It is vital that the module was integrated with our institution’s core route for academic practice and professional recognition. The next phase will be to investigate how our existing continuing professional development responds to new national schemes, which would allow senior colleagues who may not undertake the MA HEP to evidence their practice productively, supporting not only UKCGE applications, but also Senior Fellowship applications for the HEA.


I am grateful to colleagues at the University of East Anglia for their support over the last two years: Dr Stephanie Aspin, our course director, for encouraging this new module, Professor Anna Robinson-Pant, Professor Kenda Crozier, Dr Rosemary Bass and Dr Ben Marshall for their expertise in education, health and physical sciences, careers and employability, and mental health and wellbeing.

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