Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Supporting the self directed learning of postgraduate supervisors

Peter Kandlbinder
Institute for Teaching and Learning
University of Sydney
    A recent survey of experienced supervisors at the University of Sydney has confirmed the view that the skills and attributes needed to be an effective postgraduate supervisor go beyond being an active researcher in the field. The most important ingredient identified by successful research supervisors was not being a scholar in the field but building an effective professional relationship with the candidate. The majority of these experienced supervisors learnt the importance of the supervisory relationship by reflecting on how they were supervised themselves.

    The Postgraduate Supervisors Development Program is an online flexible learning course for postgraduate supervisors. It uses participatory modes of learning that permit academic staff to set their own goals and arrange their own progression through the program. This paper discusses how this flexible learning program creates an environment in which supervisors can reflect on their own supervision as a basis for understanding their supervisory practice.

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The Postgraduate Supervisors' Development Program is a long standing program of the University of Sydney, which has been delivered for flexible learning since 1998. The original workshop series was redesigned into three separate but inter-related elements, web based resources, workshops and supervisor case studies. Each element supports the other but can, and often is, taken separately, depending on the individual needs of the postgraduate supervisor.

Shifting to flexible learning has been an evolutionary progression best described as a move from information sharing towards scholarship in postgraduate supervision. In its earliest stages this involved collecting existing resources into an online resources library. Learning modules later supported this with activities aimed at developing supervisory skills. The modules and supporting online discussion and resources provide a range of supervision tools, such as the students and supervisors' expectations survey, which are migrating into the University's supervisory practices. Participants have reported that they make an effort to see students more regularly, offer clearer documentation of meetings with students, and listen more to what students are saying. Those in larger faculties are introducing new students to postgraduate networks, and consider the development of mentorship schemes between new and experienced supervisors to be important.

Each stage in this evolution has focused on a more complex dimension of postgraduate supervision. The first phase involved information collection and dissemination, providing an easy access point to the University's policies and codes of practice. The second phase developed learning materials with activities to encourage reflection on practice. The guiding principle of the current phase is to turn the obvious research abilities of supervisors towards researching their own practice. As the Faculties most represented in the program are the Health sciences, Medicine and Science, many participants have extensive experience in discipline based research but limited experience in researching educational practices. The case study modules of the Postgraduate Supervisors Development Program are an attempt to develop an educational solution from a process of systematic analysis, identifies the problem being solved, locates it within a broader research framework and applies a contextually appropriate educational solution.

The problem with the implicit nature of postgraduate supervision practices is we don't know why they work and they are difficult to transfer to other people, other problems or social settings. Argyris and Schoen (1974) demonstrated that there is often a gap between espoused theories and their theories in use. The use of personal experience working on insight, serendipity and trial and error creates a craft based knowledge that is useful in a particular area at any given point of time. The opportunities for supervisors to have their assumptions challenged in light of their decision making is key to developing their personal knowledge. It is their perceptual framework that lets them hear what they expect to hear, rather than what is actually being said.

In an effort to guide a more rigorous reflection of improving supervisory practice, a new learning environment has been developed to guide supervisors in adding to our understanding of postgraduate supervision pedagogy. Supervisors are asked to reflect on their journey to becoming a supervisor, drawing firstly on their own experiences of being supervised. Guided by trigger questions supervisors are encouraged to systematically construct (and reconstruct) their individual conceptual network of strategies and theories of supervision. The case studies enable participants to reflect on their supervisory practice, clarify their understanding of what constitutes effective supervision in their context and share their insights and experience with colleagues from within and across disciplines. The process is broken into four separate but related forms of inquiry starting with the descriptive research, followed by a validation in theory, which leads to describing the general principles of their supervision. In the final stage these principles are returned to their specific settings, students and tasks.

Case studies in supervision practices

The initial stage in creating this case study framework has been to collect descriptive case studies in supervision practices as the basis for describing the range of personal approaches to supervision. The Institute for Teaching and Learning drew on the pool of experienced and successful supervisors at the University of Sydney to collect case studies that are generally agreed to provide high quality postgraduate supervision. Successful supervisors were identified by Department Postgraduate Coordinators who suggested the names of academics whom they perceived to have exemplary or noteworthy supervision practice. Coordinators were then asked to write a three or four line summary of their reason for nominating each person.

To accept the nominations supervisors completed a reflective statement and indicated a time for an interview. The reflective statement was designed to prepare the supervisors for the interview by prompting them to reflect on the general aims of effective supervision in their own area and many commented it was the first time they had to describe the characteristics of a good supervisor. Upon receipt of their statement, all supervisors were interviewed regarding their supervisory practice. Questions in this interview focused on issues identified in the reflective statement, with additional questions designed to enable the participants to tell their stories in their own ways and to draw out their understanding of the practice viewed in terms of their personal and professional development.

Interviews were transcribed verbatim and then sorted into subsections according to themes. Open ended questionnaires are distributed to students, to obtain a glimpse of the process from the student's perspective. Students were asked what they remember about the supervision, how it compared with other teaching they had experienced at university and what they saw as the strengths and weaknesses of their supervisor's approach.

Interviewees own words are preserved wherever possible and a deliberate effort was made to maintain the informal style established in the interview situation. Relevant excerpts from the students responses were interspersed with the stories produced from interviews in order to illustrate, reinforce or provide a different perspective on particular topics. Draft stories are returned to the interviewee for final correction.

Supervision practices

When asked about their aims for supervision, experienced supervisors expressed the desire to develop the students ability to think critically and well as describing the pragmatic issues such as analysing a problem, planning a task and working independently. They described postgraduate research as an opportunity for students to broaden their experiences, develop a sense of responsibility and self assurance. Scratching beneath the surface of how supervisors did this revealed that they did little on the mechanics of developing the thesis and concentrated on building a robust relationship with their student. Even supervisors with a reputation as effective project manager focused on the dynamics of the social processes.

The students were described as having to get on and do the research. Some supervisors described postgraduate research as a journey that had to be endured and students needed to survive. For many supervisors' successful students demonstrated maturity often demonstrated through their openness. The supervisor's role in this process was to provide emotional support and encouragement. This may be by helping students come in contact with others in similar situations. It involved seeing the signs and monitoring the student's progress, being attentive to the reasons why students may not hand in work or fail to attend a meeting. Critical to monitoring students' progress was having clear expectations and guiding students towards sharing the same goals as the supervisor. It was only through this close contact that many supervisors felt they were able to build the relationship they felt necessary to provide adequate supervision.

Many supervisors talked about learning to strike an appropriate balance of intervening in the student's work. Often they were overly interventionist in their early experiences as a supervisor and now feel they need to let students find their own way of completing the thesis. Many said this balance could only be determined by understanding the student's circumstances, something that increasing part time work and professional degrees are making more complex. Most supervisors agreed that providing the structure that gives opportunities for feedback, through regular meetings and email contact, help with specific issues and assisting students to critique their work, are all important to the supervisors role. But that in the end, it is the students' responsibility to work it out for themselves.


In learning to supervise, it was the supervisor's own supervision and reflecting on these experiences that taught the successful supervisors what to do. The paths to this realisation varied from trial and error with honours students to working through professional development activities similar to the Postgraduate Supervisors Develop program. Understanding how supervisors came to be effective has resulted in a change in emphasis for our own program. It is no longer solely about developing techniques and methods for effective supervision. It is also about an awareness of the variation in supervisory practice, where supervisors are involved in a process of theorising postgraduate supervision pedagogy and applying these principles into practice.

This program has demonstrated that flexible delivery of supervision training can provide opportunities for supervisors to think about issues in a sustained manner, at a time convenient to them. Focussing on the information resources misses out on the educational possibilities of the web. The majority of supervision takes place behind closed doors and it has been difficult to gain access to high quality resources. The inclusion of academics with a strong record of research on supervision will give the program added depth by making the implicit, craft based knowledge of supervisors more accessible. The next hurdle will be encouraging critical reflection on these practices and help supervisors to adapt the material to their own situations.


Argyris, C. and Schoen, D. (1974). Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Please cite as: Kandlbinder, P. (2000). Supporting the self directed learning of postgraduate supervisors. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/kandlbinder1.html

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