The provision of good supervision is crucial to the success of the dissertation. In many institutions facing increasing student numbers, the amount of contact between staff and students on a one-to-one basis is in decline. Indeed, it may be that the supervision of the dissertation provides the single most important opportunity for students to interact on a personal basis with a member of the academic staff. Some students may be intimidated by this, but if the relationship works, it can be mutually rewarding as an educational experience.
As in many other areas of learning and teaching, it is important to manage student expectations of the supervision process. It is helpful for students to be told clearly what they can expect from their supervisor. This may be expressed in terms of an entitlement, rather than being left open-ended. Such an entitlement could be expressed in terms of a number of meetings that each student is entitled to have with their supervisor or it could be expressed in hours. Experience with operating such a system is that although some students may request assistance above their entitlement – and this need not be prohibited within the scheme – others may choose not to avail themselves of their full entitlement. In the context of encouraging students to become independent learners, it may not be desirable to insist that all students attend for a given number of sessions. It is this that makes the entitlement system an attractive way of specifying what is the normal expectation for supervisory contact.
Such an approach has the added benefit of helping to manage the supervisors’ expectations of the process. Supervisors need to know what is expected of them in terms of reading drafts, marking, length and frequency of meetings, and so on. It is also crucial that both supervisors and students have the same expectations of what is involved. Being explicit about this is thus crucial for both groups.
Achieving consistency of supervision provision is one of the challenges, especially when large numbers of students are in need of supervision. Just as some students may need more help than others, it is also important to be aware that some supervisors may be more comfortable in the role than others, or more prepared to make themselves available.
It is also common for certain topic areas to be more popular than others – and for some supervisors to be more popular than others. If unregulated, this can lead to a situation in which some members of staff find that they have much heavier loads than their colleagues.
Some fair way of allocating supervisory responsibilities may thus be needed. One possibility is to ensure that supervisory loads are recognised as part of a workload management system, in which there is a trade-off between supervisory responsibilities and other forms of teaching contact. An alternative is to allocate loads evenly across available staff. This may require allocating students to topics that are not their first choice, or requiring supervisors to oversee topics of which they have little specialist knowledge. This needs to be monitored carefully to safeguard the student experience. However, at the undergraduate level, specialist knowledge of topic areas may be less crucial than at masters’ or doctoral level.
There may be benefits from group supervision of students following similar topics, not only in terms of economies of scale, but also because the students may be able to learn from each other. Economies of scale may arise because much of the advice given to students will be common – the central importance of economic analysis, the need for a literature review, the interpretation of evidence, how to avoid plagiarism and so on.
At my university, each supervisor is responsible for about six students. A colleague and I supervise projects in the area of development, and for the past few years we have met with our supervisees as a group. Typically, we hold four meetings.
The first meeting takes place at the end of year 2, when the students have been allocated their topics. This is a preliminary briefing meeting, at which we answer questions and concerns, highlight some key relevant readings and data sources, and explain how we propose to conduct the supervision. Some preliminary explanation of how to structure a good dissertation is also provided, together with some discussion of what is meant by academic integrity.
The second meeting takes place early in the final year. At this meeting each student is asked to talk about their topic, outline their progress to date, identify their research question (if they have formulated it) and comment on any problem areas that they have encountered.
The third meeting takes place towards the end of the first term. By this time, they will have been required to submit an interim report, in which they sketch out their proposed research, including an explanation of their research question, and the methodology that they propose to use in order to investigate their question. This is an opportunity for us to provide feedback on their progress so far, to suggest future directions and to identify potential problems.
The fourth meeting takes place towards the end of the second term. Before this meeting, each student will have been invited to submit an extract from the first chapter, including their explanation of their research question. In the meeting, we comment on writing styles and referencing, and provide an opportunity for questions. The importance of maintaining standards of academic integrity is stressed.
Students are also encouraged to meet us on a one-to-one basis if they have questions that are specific to their own research.
In some institutions, this is taken one step further, through the provision of a whole module (normally in the second year) that deals with research methods. The economies of scale in doing this are even greater, of course, as one individual (or a relatively small number of staff) can provide the generic advice that all students need in approaching the dissertation. Such dedicated modules are not always popular with students, who may see the material as being fragmented and of little relevance to them at the time. In other words, they may need to be convinced that they really will need this material at a later stage. Such modules are not always popular with the staff either. They may not be appealing to teach, but also put pressure on the curriculum. When so much other material has to be covered in the second year, there may be a reluctance to use up a whole module on research methods that could have been used to provide micro theory or econometrics.