What do master’s dissertation supervisors do? Learning from the tacit knowledge of supervisors

Ann Macfadyen

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


Undertaking a master’s level dissertation can be a challenging experience for students, during which they learn to question the existing evidence base for their discipline and apply it in a new and meaningful way. The guidance of an interested, supportive academic can be invaluable, and the alternative; an unengaged or elusive supervisor, can result in student isolation, frustration and lack of progress. The role is acknowledged to be a key one within higher education, however preparation for this responsibility is variable and there is relatively little research into this aspect of academic practice (Bamber, 2015; Bruce and Stoodley, 2013).
This presentation will report on a project which involved collaboration with 25 master’s dissertation supervisors from health and education departments who identified that it is one of the aspects of the job that academics feel least prepared for and worry about.
The initial phase of the project identified that there was a great deal of untapped expertise on this area, but that supervisors sometimes felt a sense of ill-preparedness, under confidence, and being slightly unsure about their supervisory role. During a series of interviews and collaborative workshops 13 supervisors shared their experiences, and reflected with one another on the nature of supervision. It became apparent that while there were certain techniques or activities which academic staff had found effective in expanding students’ understanding or to encourage the development of supervisees’ skills, their use of these was embedded within complex practices of assessment of students’ needs and progress, and could not be described in a simplistic ‘recipe’ of strategies which could be relied upon to promote learning.
This notion that supervisory expertise is not a definable body of knowledge, but an understanding of students’ expectations, abilities, challenges, beliefs and skills; the experience to recognise some of the possible contributory issues and an awareness of possible appropriate actions which might be helpful, is comparable to situational judgement or ‘phronesis’, which has been described as the ability to see the right thing to do in the circumstances (Carr, 2006; Elliot, 2009).
The outcome of this project was the articulation of the complexities involved in the supervisor’s role and the construction of a new three sided model, which conceptualises the process of supervision.
The new model explains the way in which these supervisors practice. The core element is the supervisor’s on-going assessment of a student’s readiness, motivation and individual situation. In response to this assessment, supervisors balance three functions in promoting student growth: Facilitating, Nurturing and Maintaining Standards. Facilitating encourages student growth through challenge or stimulation. Nurturing involves the provision of support and reassurance within a safe space in which this growth can occur. Maintaining standards ensures that academic and professional rigor are preserved.
The findings contribute to the established knowledge within supervisory pedagogy and will be of benefit future staff development of this academic practice.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNursing education and professional development: The global perspective RCN Education Forum International Conference
PublisherRoyal College of Nursing
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017
EventNursing education and professional development: the global perspective - Cardiff City Hall, Cardiff, United Kingdom
Duration: 21 Mar 201722 Mar 2017


ConferenceNursing education and professional development: the global perspective
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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