Thesis Supervision 101
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! You probably noticed quite a long gap since the last issue- as some of you may know, in the past two weeks I moved to the US to start my Fulbright Schuman Scholarship at Yale University. I am very excited to be working at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning and I’m looking forward to sharing with you what I learn and what inspires me here in the next six months. In the meantime, this week I want to address a topic that I myself had to plunge into this year: thesis supervision. Luckily, I benefitted a lot from the valuable advice of my colleague, Therese Grohnert and that is why I asked her to share her tips and resources here, which she kindly accepted. We hope you find them useful and we look forward to your comments, experiences and ideas. Happy reading and have a nice week!
If you are currently involved in a taught Master’s programme, then you are most likely a Master thesis supervisor, guiding students in completing an extended research project from planning to finished thesis or dissertation. When you think back to how you got started in this role, did you receive formal support for developing your dissertation skills, did you have access to best practices and advice outside of your own network? In fact, many thesis supervisors receive little to no guidance when getting started, having to rely on their own experiences as a student, or their colleagues’ experiences. This can create quite some uncertainty, when thesis supervision is a wonderful opportunity to work closely with students individually or in small groups, to get students excited about research, and to build their research and project management skills.
In my role as a faculty developer, I often get asked for advice on getting started as a beginning supervisor, on maintaining students’ motivation throughout the process, and on using your limited supervision time effectively. So, I went to work and collected best practices and advice for my colleagues. Let’s walk through the supervision process step by step, from preparing your first supervision to assessing a master’s thesis.
Step 0: Preparing
Before you are assigned your first thesis students, you can already take steps to set yourself and your student up for success:
Check the expectations of the programme regarding the timeline, the final thesis, and what you as a supervisor are expected to do, check the code of practice or contact your thesis coordinator for this information;
Set up ground rules: make explicit how you want to work together with your student, think of how and when you want to be contacted, when and how often you will provide the student with feedback, when you expect the student to speak up and ask for help, etc. More experienced colleagues can share what is common in the programme;
If you are new at your current institution, find out what the support network is like for students, including academic advising, workshops, library support etc. so you can direct the student when needed, and can share the load.
Depending on your programme, you may already formulate tentative topics and you might consider whether you will supervise students individually or in small groups; this will depend on the size of the programme and the autonomy given to students when it comes to choosing a topic.
Step 1: The First Meeting
Once you have the first meeting scheduled with your thesis student, use the following agenda points to prepare with motivation, safety, and effectiveness of the process in mind:
Make time to get to know each other, connect over common interests, background, or goals to build trust and a comfortable atmosphere; encourage the student to speak up when needed and to let you know how they are doing;
Ask your student about their learning goals (not their grade goals!): which skill would they like to learn through the thesis, what are their plans after graduation, and how can the thesis trajectory help them prepare?
Ask the student to share why they are interested in their topic, what they hope to find out and who would benefit from the insights of their thesis before helping them formulate two or three concrete steps to get started.
In this first meeting, be sure to discuss your ground rules and to ask the student how they like to collaborate so you can make specific agreements and manage expectations on all sides.
Step 2: Managing the Process
Throughout the supervision process, it is important that the student takes responsibility for their own their process, and that you support the student in managing the thesis process. My colleagues have shared the following tips for fostering student independence and project management skills:
Ask your student to send in a document or questions in time, to prepare an agenda, and to start each meeting with a short recap of their current project status;
Check in to reflect on the student’s skill development towards their learning goals, as well as any struggles that the student cannot overcome by themselves yet;
At the end of each meeting, ask your student to formulate specific next steps for their work an a clear guidance for when to contact you again for the next meeting (forgetful students can also be encouraged to send you an email with these steps in writing).
In case you are supervising many students, you can create a tracker with key milestones and room for notes for a quick overview, and you can pair up students with a similar topic, method or challenge so they can support each other and you can provide support for these students as a group.
Step 3: Providing Feedback
When and how you provide feedback to your student will depend on the programme guidelines as well as on what your fellow supervisors are offering to their students. In some programmes, students will receive feedback at least once on each chapter of their thesis, while in others, supervisors will focus on a complete draft only. In either case, there are some ways in which you can use your time and energy in an efficient and effective way:
Ask students to submit feedback questions along with their work: which sections did students struggle with, where are they unsure of their work, which element are they not yet happy with and why? This will allow you to focus on these issues first, adding 2-3 additional points when needed to challenge but not overwhelm the student and connect to their current level of learning;
Consider the level of feedback needed: when sections are messy and ineffective, avoid editing your student’s work, but offer to create an outline together before the student reorganises their own work; if paragraphs are not well-organised, edit one paragraph together and ask the student to apply your feedback to the remainder of the section;
Don’t forget to let the student know what they are already doing well and where to apply these good points in future sections – make these comments as specific as you can.
Finally, whether we are experienced supervisors or not, every student is different and may benefit from different ways of providing feedback. Ask you student what works for them and plan together how you will give and how they will process feedback. This is an essential learning skill they will benefit from regardless of their plans after graduation.
Step 4: Assessment
Let’s assume everything has gone well and your student is getting ready to submit their thesis. At some universities, students complete a defense (or viva) in which they discuss their thesis with the supervisor and maybe an independent reader. This part can be daunting for a beginning supervisor, but here are some tips to get started:
Check whether there are any rubrics or assessment criteria available for your programme, who is required to assess a thesis, where to send the final grade, and what happens if the student fails;
If possible, ask experienced colleagues to share a good, an average, and an insufficient thesis with you, along with their assessment and feedback for the student; these documents can help you benchmark your own grading;
Think how you will communicate your grade and feedback to the student, in writing or during a defense; keep the student’s learning goals in mind and make explicit how the student can continue their learning journey based on what they have achieved throughout the thesis trajectory.
If you are unsure, ask a colleague to provide a second opinion and their best practices for the defense/viva and/or providing written feedback. As with any skill, becoming a good thesis supervisor takes experience, reflection, and feedback. I am curious to hear your experiences and best practices, and am happy to discuss our faculty development activities on thesis supervision with anyone interested – looking forward to connecting with you!
“Understanding the up, back, and forward-component in master's thesis supervision with adaptivity”, by Renske A.M. de Kleijn, Larike H. Bronkhorst, Paulien C. Meijer, Albert Pilot & Mieke Brekelmans- a qualitative study for framing and fostering goals in the supervision process;
The UM Library Thesis Bookshelf - helpful resources for supervisors and students on academic writing and literature reviews;
Tips and resources for supervising remotely- University of Edinburg’s best practices for remote supervision;
Master thesis supervision: resources on preparing, managing and assessing theses- resources from our own SBE Learning Academy, including videos for supervisors and resources that can be shared with students;
The LDO Troubleshooting Guide to Academic Writing- an interactive tool we use in our programme that helps students process feedback on the thesis or to deal with various writing struggles;
A Practical Guide to Projects and Dissertations- an online course developed by the Centre for Distance Education, University of London, that has both resources dedicated to students and an Instructor Tool Kit.
Dr. Therese Grohnert is an educational developer, educator, and assistant professor at Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics in The Netherlands. She supports staff in effectively supervising master theses, managing group dynamics in a PBL context and designing courses with constructive alignment and student motivation in mind. She is also studying how professionals learn and develop in the workplace for better judgments and decision-making. Find her on Twitter: @grohnerttherese.