Monitoring student progress

Supervisors are required to provide brief termly supervision reports on students' progress to their Academic Board. In these reports, supervisors are asked to indicate the nature and extent of their contact with the student over the previous term, and whether each student is making satisfactory progress. Online reporting (through the Graduate Student System – GSS) is now established across the whole university.

Supervisors are asked to give strong encouragement to students to participate in the termly self-assessment cycle and to discuss their own comments with students as part of the process. Students sometimes find it difficult to engage with the idea of completing the report as they may not see the potential benefits it offers them. See Ideas and tools (below) for suggestions on how to help students take advantage of the potential benefits.

Supervisors are also expected, and in some departments and/or programmes required, to engage with their students in an annual review of training needs.

Doctoral students also need to meet two formal progress milestones during their doctorate:

  1. transfer of status within four terms; and
  2. confirmation of status (usually within nine terms)

The regulations governing transfer of status from Probationer Research Student to Doctoral Student may vary between subject areas, and are set out for each subject within the Examination Decrees or in departmental/faculty literature. The requirements for confirmation of status may also vary between subjects, and the relevant Director of Graduate Studies or Graduate Studies Assistant can clarify department/faculty procedures.

In addition to the above, some departments have introduced their own formal mechanisms or activities to monitor and affirm student progress as the following example shows.

So the stages we have [are] ...in the first year, as part of the transfer, there’s the report they have to write where they have to clearly set the background to their project and also have to come up with a little Gant chart of the 3.5 years to see how things are going to map out….and there’s a […] 10 minute or 15 minute oral examination. They give a five minute presentation, and then they can be questioned by another academic, who then offers useful feedback about whether [...] they feel this is feasible within the time, because one of the problems is you’ve got to find a project that will fit into the 3.5 years, yeah. So that’s the first year. And then also, over the summer, they have to write a…rather large, 7,000 word, literature review on the literature forming the basis for their particular area, and that also gets read by another Faculty member. That really forms [...] the sort of literature review part of their thesis when they get to write-up. In the second year…in the second year I think it is…that’s right – they have to do an oral presentation to the entire Department, so they give a presentation. Then, in the third year, there’s a poster – they have to do a poster presentation to the Department. So these are sort of the…it’s like the sort of formal things the Department sets (New supervisor, MPLS).

One of the major responsibilities of a research supervisor is monitoring the progress of her or his DPhil students. There is ample evidence to suggest that students wish to receive concrete feedback on their progress and those who do not are at risk of withdrawing from their studies or taking significantly longer than usual to complete.

In any progress review session it can be helpful to:

  • review the purpose of the session (usually to assist the students to achieve goals);
  • agree the time period covered;
  • discuss what will be recorded; and 
  • remain within the boundaries of the review – unless those present agree otherwise.

The monitoring of progress can involve different individuals:

  • The student alone
  • The student and his or her supervisor or supervisory panel
  • The student, his or her supervisor or supervisory panel, the Director of Graduate Studies or equivalent, and the Department/Faculty

Student self-assessment

For students to carry out an assessment of their own progress is seen as being useful by the University and is definitely helpful for students' development as independent researchers. A termly opportunity is offered to DPhil students by means of the GSS reports. However, sometimes students find it difficult to know what it is appropriate to include in a self-assessment report.

Some students may find the Time management planning tools, available on the Apprise website, to be useful.

One idea which has been carried out successfully at Oxford is for a department to organise a ‘brainstorming session’ on self-assessment for graduate students, designed to bring to light and discuss ideas on what it might be legitimate to include.

This GSS Self-assessment guidance for graduate students is based on those discussions and could be used to help students consider essential aspects of their progress. NB: this tool was developed in a 'science' department so might need changing for your particular department/ faculty. Creating a guidance document of this kind through discussion with students (as in the original case) may enable you to come up with more helpful, specific guidelines.

Student and supervisor or supervisory panel

Termly or annual reviews of progress offer the opportunity to review earlier planning documents and acknowledge, even celebrate, progress. Such reviews can also help the student and supervisors to identify and focus on what needs to be achieved. Divisions, departments/faculties often provide documents to use during initial induction and then in follow-up meetings to monitor progress. For example:

In addition, regular supervisory meetings can be used to review progress, particularly in agreed targeted areas.

Student, supervisor/supervisory panel, Director of Graduate Studies or equivalent and the Department or Faculty

While some supervisors may suggest to students that university-required reviews of progress are an 'administrative burden' only, research suggests that where these reviews are undertaken seriously by the student, supervisors, and the faculty/ department, they can contribute substantially to progress. Arranging one meeting each term at a time to fit in with the GSS reporting schedule (well before the student reporting deadline) can provide the opportunity to encourage students to participate. In this meeting, the student can self-assess progress and the supervisor can discuss proposed comments. It can be helpful to articulate the purpose of the report since students may be unclear about this. Further, if there are potential personal issues the supervisor should raise these and create the potential for the student to do so, since the evidence suggests that students are unlikely to raise such issues independently. Identifying any barriers to advancement may help supervisors and/or Directors of Graduate Studies to recognize where intervention could be brought to bear (e.g. helping student gain access to sources, recommending training that will develop needed skills).

Additionally, mid-candidature reviews, e.g. transfer and confirmation, can be powerful opportunities for both the student and supervisor to gain outside perspectives on research progress and potential. In fact, the research suggests that they can contribute substantially to student learning, development and progress, particularly if used as the basis for in-depth supervisory conversations to make adjustments to research plans and timelines – with the student asked to create a written summary of the decisions and actions.

Lastly, there is evidence to suggest that more frequent meetings with supervisors are strongly correlated with timely and successful completion. In this regard, keep an eye on the contact that a student makes with you, e.g. when a student fails to make meetings, or cancels a number in a row, a supervisor would be wise to take action sooner rather than later. 

Most writers in the field suggest the following as being critical in supporting students with the progress of their project:

  • Helping students to break down a three or four year project into manageable chunks
  • Ensuring students develop time and project management skills
  • Checking students' self-management skills - avoiding the self-sabotaging behaviours that some students exhibit
  • Encouraging students to write early and often
  • Providing a supportive intellectual and research culture

With regard specifically to reporting on progress, the evidence suggests many students are confused about the purpose of progress reports and how one should be done. They tend to theorize about the purpose and then respond in ways they think appropriate for the imagined audience. This can lead to inequitable outcomes (with some evidence suggesting this variability is influenced by gender). Notably, students appear reluctant to use the reporting mechanisms to address personal problems.

The above text is based on:

Carson, E. (2007) "Helping candidates manage their candidacy". In Denholm, C. & Evans, T. (Eds), Supervising Doctorates Downunder (pp54-61). Melbourne: ACER.

Denholm, C. (2007) "Conducting reviews of candidacy". In Denholm, C. & Evans, T. (Eds), Supervising Doctorates Downunder (pp62-70). Melbourne: ACER.

Latona, K. & Browne, M. (2001) Factors associated with completion of research higher degrees (Higher Education Series). Canberra: DETYA, Higher Education Division.

Mewburn, I., Cuthbert, D., & Tokareva, E. (2014). Experiencing the progress report: An analysis of gender and administration in doctoral candidatureJournal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 36(2), 155-171.

Taylor, S. & Beasley, N. (2005) A handbook for doctoral supervisors. London: Routledge.