Trust grows when supervisors take the lead in online supervision

This is a guest post by Dr Michele Jacobsen, Dr Sharon Friesen, and Dr Sandra Becker, higher education specialists at the University of Calgary.

Graphic reads: 'effective online doctoral supervisors engage in student focused responsive and tailored mentoring.'

The rapid and widespread pivot to online teaching and supervision in the pandemic has created a pressing need to improve understanding of effective online supervisory relationships. Our case study research with five supervisors and five doctoral graduates yielded five enabling factors for effective online supervisory relationships:

  1. Establish trust early in relationship,
  2. Engage intentionally in mentorship and scaffolding,
  3. Provide multiple levels and layers of support,
  4. Give timely formative feedback, and
  5. Cultivate a collaborative community of support for doctoral student writing.

We hope our research ideas readily translate into actions and strategies that supervisors, programs and institutions can leverage to improve doctoral supervision pedagogy and increase student success.

Supervisors and doctoral graduates told us that establishing a trusting relationship early, and then cultivating ongoing relational trust throughout the supervisory relationship, is essential for student progress, success, and satisfaction. Effective supervisors, for example, seek to establish regular meeting times with their doctoral students and help them to organise deadlines for milestones early in the program.

They also told us that effective online doctoral supervisors engage in student focused, responsive, and tailored mentoring that evolves and changes in response to where the student is at in their program. Regular, timely, and purposeful communication between students and supervisors, along with multiple rounds of productive feedback using a range of technologies, is necessary for effective online supervisory relationships.

Supervisors emphasize that mentoring doctoral students as they develop disciplinary knowledge and engage in different forms of scholarly writing is a community experience rather than an individual endeavour. Supervisors emphasize the value of the supervisory committee in supporting students to work through multiple drafts of the research proposal, chapters in the dissertation, and to bring diverse perspectives to their academic writing and research-based learning. It is also important for supervisors and programs to understand and leverage the academic and social support provided by peer relationships in doctoral cohorts.

Doctoral graduates emphasised that trust and knowing that their supervisor had their best interests at heart was key as they engaged in mentored academic writing. For students, trusting, and knowing that their supervisor and committee members support their work and will provide ongoing, formative feedback and sound advice through multiple drafts and continual review is key to their writing and research progress.

The power asymmetry in supervisor-student relationships and student-program interactions means that the supervisor must lead and initiate actions to reduce students’ sense and experiences of vulnerability in the relationship and in the program. The supervisor is key in advocating for well-designed programs, funding, in addition to academic and wellness supports for doctoral students.  

However, institutions and programs must acknowledge and understand that “supervisors cannot bear the sole burden for effective graduate education” (p. 10). Institutions must ensure doctoral program designs and technological infrastructure provides fertile ground for students and their supervisors to develop effective online supervisory relationships.

Too many supervisors learn how to supervise on the job versus through active and intentional mentoring and instruction. We hope that more universities invest in and provide access to high quality online faculty development for professors to build capacity, join networks of support and create learning alliances across disciplines for effective supervision. One example of online faculty development that provides a community of practice for supervisors to learn from peers across disciplines at several universities in Canada is the Quality Graduate Supervision MOOC.

The authors are grateful to the supervisors and doctoral graduates who shared their experiences and insights to inform key findings in our case study of online doctoral supervision.

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