Improving your supervisory practice

New supervisors

It is now an expectation for new supervisors (i.e. those who have not yet seen a student through to completion) to receive developmental feedback from colleagues, through mentoring and/ or co-supervision. See the Policy on Research Degrees.

Experienced supervisors

The QAA's Code of Practice for Postgraduate Research Programmes expresses the expectation that experienced supervisors will engage in continuing professional development and take the initiative in updating their knowledge and skills, supported by institutional arrangements that enable sharing of good practice (Precept 11).

Three approaches are commonly suggested to improve supervisory practice:

  • self-assessment
  • seeking feedback from students, and
  • discussing practices with colleagues.

A. Self-assessment

Self-reflection is something we all do in a somewhat unstructured fashion. The goal is to assess the effectiveness of supervision in supporting student progress and to generate alternate strategies when the present ones are not resulting in progress. Critical to reflection is examining the experience in some detail, for instance: What happened? Is it what was hoped for or planned? Did things happen that surprised you? Based on this analysis, the next step is generating new plans and actions to be tested out at the next opportunity, and then re-examined to begin the cycle again.

A structured approach to reflection can often be more helpful than an unstructured approach, for instance, using a procedure like A self-assessment tool.

Alternatively, it may be helpful to review your practice in particular aspects of supervision, using other pages on this site. For example:

  • The "Giving and receiving feedback" and "Supervisory styles" pages in the Supervisors section might help you consider the exchanges of feedback between you and your students and think about your supervisory style preference in the light of alternatives.
  • Use "Ensuring inclusivity" and "International students", in the Students section, to review your approach to equality and diversity.
  • In the Stages section, see "Clarifying expectations" and "Integrity and ethical practice" to help you reflect on how you deal with these areas of concern.

B. Seek formal or informal feedback from students

Ask students to provide a brief written summary of outcomes or agreements of each meeting and send it to you within an agreed timeframe. Reading over the summary allows you to gain insight into the student's perspective on the nature of the meeting and how this compares to yours. For instance, it can provide a means of checking on the clarity of communication, and whether students are gaining what you had expected from the meetings. As an alternative to a free-style report this Meeting summary template offers a more structured way of assessing the effectiveness of the meeting. Feedback of this kind will allow you to review in a concrete manner the progress the student is making in relation to your expectations – and what if anything you might want to change.

C. Discuss practices with a colleague

Co-supervision can provide an ongoing opportunity to discuss supervisory expectations, judge student progress, review departmental/ faculty practices. It might include more structured forms of peer review, such as in the following examples:

Supervision observation guide - an example from Imperial College, London.

Peer observation project - an example from the University of Nottingham.

The literature generally reports supervisors describing developing their supervisory style first by reflecting on their experience of being supervised and then through supervising, thus ‘learning by doing’. Supervisors report three primary sources of feedback, regardless of whether new to supervision or more experienced:

  • self-assessment
  • feedback from students
  • feedback from colleagues

Often, these sources of development are used in fairly implicit and ad hoc ways. The Ideas and tools above highlight the benefits of using such feedback more explicitly and systematically.

The above text is based on:

Amundsen, C., and L. McAlpine. (2009) Learning supervision: Trial by fire? Innovations in Education and Teaching International. 46(3), 331-342.

Eby, L., Allen, T., Evans, S., Ng, T. & DuBois, D. (2008) Does mentoring matter? A multidisciplinary meta-analysis comparing mentored and non-mentored individuals. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 72(2), 254-267.

Frame, I., and Allen, L. (2002) A flexible approach to PhD research trainingQuality Assurance in Education, 12(2), 98-103.

Kolb, D. (1993) "The process of experiential learning". In M. Thorpe, R. Edwards & A. Hanson (Eds) Culture and process of adult learning: A reader. London: Routledge.