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Achieving transparency in dissertation supervision

Anosh Butt - Jan 17, 2022

The Problem

Malcolm (2020) identified that the undergraduate honour-level dissertation and the postgraduate final project are pivotal stages of many UK undergraduate and postgraduate programs in relation to the long-term intellectual and career development of future professional researchers and academics. The research requires an understanding of how dissertation supervisors balance and deliver on these expectations. The author reviewed the literature and presented; that there is less direct research attention given to the overall characteristics and dynamics of supervision of the undergraduate dissertation (Drennan and Clarke, 2009, Stelma and Fay 2014). The study problematizes that UK undergraduate dissertation is often conducted in a tight time-constrained process either as a final requirement or in parallel with other compulsory studies and modules to cause questions to rise related to purpose development and immediate outcome. The research highlighted that numerous researchers agreed regarding the undergraduate dissertation being a curriculum item of a specific value in a highly complex and unstable knowledge environment in which the assumptions and uncertainties related to its process and source of knowledge change substantially (Malcolm, 2020).

The Solution

To examine these issues in more detail; twenty individual interviews were conducted with honours dissertation supervisors with at least three years of supervisory experience. The interview aimed to identify the approach to supervising, variation in approaches, changes in approaches in each supervisory relationship, challenges of supervision, and the reasons for choosing a particular approach. The analysis of interviews determined patterns of supervision decisions and observable actions such as supervisor perceptions of research and undergraduate dissertation and managing ethical risk due to distancing (Malcolm, 2020).

Regarding supervisor perception and undergraduate dissertation, several sub-themes emerged after the initial coding and screening, reflecting its priority for the individual supervisors of the product and dissertation process. In relation to this theme, some supervisors expressed that the supervisory process is an unconstrained process driven by student interest and cannot be rigid (Malcolm, 2020). Other academics and supervisors suggested that a more prescribed approach is necessary, and students should learn to adjust their aspirations and methods to the requirements that are requisite to the disciplinary methodology and its practical application. A distinction emerges between supervisors who conceptualize the dissertation process as an integrated task of research and document production; and those who identify research and production of a final written outcome as tasks presenting different and sometimes conflicting priorities (Malcolm, 2020). The study further explained this contrast through an example, that the ‘‘student should be an expert in the department apart from their supervisor’’ usually runs collaterally with progress requirements against a timescale to deliver 2000 words before a particular date. Another interviewee mentioned overly ambitious student ideas, and the awareness of formal requirements remains, such as the parameters of an institution and their stages to scrutinize students at the usual stages of supervisory practice: preliminary, in-process, and final (Malcolm, 2020). The differences highlighted above do not appear due to subject areas or level of supervisory experience but do appear in supervisor expectations and finalized dissertation structure and its stages.

The second theme discussed distancing as a means of managing ethical risk. The research shows that supervisors dissociate themselves and reduce the level of detail in their comments at an identified final stage in the dissertation process. The study identifies that supervisors may need to intervene at specific points and teach some aspects of the overall requirements. The conclusive finding of this theme was that supervisors may construct the boundary at different stages within the process and at various points within the overall dissertation timeframe, especially at the identifiable final stage before formal assessment and grading.

Measurable impact

The research presents substantial evidence regarding a series of definable stages and supervisory approaches to managing conflicting aspects and the complex supervisory roles regarding the undergraduate dissertation project. Malcolm (2020) declared that none of the supervisors mentioned a shift in the supervisory dynamic or their operational authority within it that enables self-direction and prolonged engagement due to which the student achieves and maintains personal ownership of the novel research task.

Challenges in supervisory practice arise from the weight of expectations around the undergraduate dissertation that remains unacknowledged and unresolved. The research identifies various questions for potential further research, such as (1) how to resolve tensions between the role of undergraduate dissertation as both capstone (undergraduate dissertation) and milestone (research independence); and (2) the capability of securing the parameters of supervisory practice.

The study highlighted significant differences between the doctoral and undergraduate supervision processes and identified the limit to potential implementation at the undergraduate level arising from research related to doctoral supervision. The most notable findings from this study include identifiable features in supervising undergraduate dissertations that point to supervisors’ exercise to varying levels of direction at the control of different stages. Further studies are needed using more granular categorizations of research activity and supervisory experience within the supervisory profiles to refine these findings further.

References

  1. Malcolm, M., 2020. The challenge of achieving transparency in undergraduate honours-level dissertation supervision. Teaching in Higher Education, pp.1-17.

  2. Drennan, J., and M. Clarke. 2009. “Coursework Master’s Programmes: The Student’s Experience of Research and Research Supervision.” Studies in Higher Education 34 (5): 483–500.

  3. Stelma, J., and R. Fay. 2014. “Intentionality and Developing Researcher Competence on a UK Master’s Course: An Ecological Perspective on Research Education.” Studies in Higher Education 39 (4): 517–533.