Supporting Research: Postgraduate supervisor interaction

Getting Started…

This is one of a series of guides collating evidence and learning from the 23 projects within the JISC Building Capacity programme (2010/11). Each is focused on a common institutional strategic aim, describing how projects built their capacity to meet that aim and how what worked in their context, could work in yours. The guides are written to be “just enough to get started” rather than all-encompassing.

This guide addresses one aspect of the broad area of supporting research, that of supporting postgraduate research students in terms of their interaction with supervisors. At the University of Bedfordshire this has been addressed through better management of the records associated with supervisory meetings. This may sound like a simple issue, however, during their literature review, the project team found little evidence for the use of technology in engagement with research students, or of the use of an e-portfolio style approach to record their progress.

What are the takeaway ideas you could use in your context?

In common with the University of Bedfordshire, you could consider linking your student records system to an e-portfolio to plan for and then record meetings with a supervisor or mentor.

The project team investigated other JISC projects that had been studying engagement of students with online platforms. This was key to gaining a clear understanding about policies, procedures, infrastructure, resistance, barriers, successes and ‘work-arounds’; tools and technologies adopted were less important. Learning from others about which general approach (i.e. top-down or bottom-up) to adopt also helped to speed adoption. In this case getting senior management to both introduce and mandate the process has moved it from idea to implementation within a year.

What benefits can be gained by using these ideas?

Developing a process whereby meetings between research graduate students and their supervisors are recorded by automated process results in an audit trail for engagement. The UK Borders Agency requires that all HE institutions submit statistics about contact with overseas students, including details about engagement or assessment “points”. Whilst this is simple for undergraduates as multiple opportunities exist for contact, with research students the maybe only one planned meeting per year, which is inadequate. It isn’t clear how most universities are dealing with this requirement.

Implementing a systematic online process for recording supervisory meetings which is, by necessity, linked to the student record system (SITS), provides an improvement in business processes by:

  • enabling the Research Graduate School to automate the records of student engagement monthly;
  • encouraging a consistent framework for supervisory relationships across nine research institutes;
  • providing a time and space efficient archive of records.

Formalising the dialogue between student and supervisor can have a number of other added benefits, including:

  • improvement of the relationship between supervisor and student;
  • improvement of the student experience;
  • improving the quality of reflection on meetings (as recordings can be reviewed);
  • supporting the viva through a record of the research process;

Automating the process allows supervisors to maintain and develop their relationship with students and keep accurate records regarding the research process and progress. For the university there is an added benefit in terms of easily extracting information on student/ supervisor engagement from recordings for annual monitoring reports to agencies such as HESA and HEFCE.

“…(T)imely data on student engagement could be used diagnostically to fine tune the management of student learning and also to provide information for making summative judgements about such productivity.”
(Coates, H. (2005) The Value of Student Engagement for Higher Education Quality Assurance. Quality in Higher Education. 11 (1), pp. 25–36.)

How can you implement the ideas to realise the benefits?

The project has produced four guides on using PebblePad for postgraduate research supervisory meetings, covering topics from how to get started to reflecting on and recording supervisory meetings, from the student as well as the supervisor viewpoint.

Since protocols for sharing records between e-portfolios and other systems do not exist, the project team have made an important contribution to understanding how PebblePad can interact with student records systems, to the extent that Pebble Learning are now incorporating the solution developed with Bedfordshire into their next release.

Further information

  • HEA review on the research and evidence base for student engagement http://bit.ly/g9c5iV
  • JISC Briefing Paper: Enabling e-portfolio portability (Leap2A) http://bit.ly/aQHP8Y. (Note: The next evolution of Leap2A is likely to include developments to link it to a Student records Management system.)
  • The project benefited from learning from the approach adopted by the LIPID project (Wolverhampton)
  • This project has built on knowledge from the following JISC funded projects: Flourish (Cumbria), which has two animated e-portfolio guides available, Captcha (Cumbria), TAG (Lancaster), SURF WBL-Way (Staffordshire), iWoBLe (Interactive Work-Based Learning environments, Westminster)