The staff to lean on

October 2, 1998

Guilty of over-mothering your students or inclined more towards healthy neglect? Can supervisors ever hope to get it right, asks Sally Brown

Essays have their place, but give students a dissertation then sit back and watch them really get stuck in to your subject. In theory dissertations encourage diversity of thinking and independent learning. They can give students the freedom to pursue their own interests while showing off their research expertise and ability to develop an argument.

But this will happen only if dissertation supervision and assessment is any good. Anecdotally at least, it is rather hit and miss.

At the University of Northumbria we are beginning to explore what students and tutors think of supervision. They have come up with the following models from nationwide research. You may recognise some of these: The Lone Ranger and Tonto

Superior, likely to say: "You, noble but lesser mortal, me, great hero." Gives access to language and interprets for you. "You follow my guidance exactly and give me unquestioning loyalty and I'll get you through this."

Florence Nightingale

Illuminating, leads the way, highly professional, unobtrusive, competent, offering silent strength but perhaps rather remote and cool.

Lord Lucan

Just not there for you.

Ground control to Major Tom

Distant, communicating only electronically, a voice from the ether, occasionally offering tantalising views of how things ought to be, unable to provide any real support because the situation is totally out of control.

The RAC patrol person

There to call on in an emergency, able to carry out remedial work on the spot, fount of expert advice on the route to be taken and how to avoid trouble-spots but essentially hands off unless called in to help.

The Godfather

Paternalistic, likely to say: "You give me respect and follow my directions unquestioningly and I will protect you and give you my patronage", although it may feel a bit dangerous at times.

The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland

Capricious, autocratic, ruthless, ultimately an unreliable guide.

Mummy knows best

Nurturing, warm, kind, highly controlling, on you at all times to get things done, very supportive, on your side.

Attila the Hun

Ruthless, a great achiever, does not suffer fools gladly, visionary, concerned with personal ambition and satisfaction of own goals rather than the good of the individual, perilous to confront.

The river pilot

Knows all the hazards and pitfalls you are likely to encounter and helps you steer a clear course to the ultimate destination; there to be picked up when needed but can be dropped once you are in clear water.

These are, of course, stereotypes. Academics who supervise students' independent learning need to combine the patience of a saint, the availability of a 24-hour on-call service, the inspiration that only heroes and heroines can provide, as well as the omniscience of an all-seeing deity and the professionalism and dedication of the best-run service industries.

Students put a great deal of time and energy into producing dissertations and we owe it to them to mark them fairly and appropriately.

Here are ten quick pointers:

* make the assessment criteria clear so that students can understand what is expected

* get students to assess a few past dissertations

* offer students guidance and support throughout

* think about what student support mechanisms are available

* be aware of your own prejudices and avoid bias

* try to suggest topics whose financial implications are manageable to all students

* question whether dissertations always have to be bound expensively

* help students to monitor their own progress

* when assessing dissertations, collect a list of questions to select from at a forthcoming viva

* use Post-it notes while assessing dissertations. They avoid you having to write directly on the pages of dissertations, especially questions that are addressed two pages later.

Our studies are at an early stage and we would welcome comments and guidance from others working in the field (or the prairie or the battle zone or whatever). Meanwhile, as a co-supervisor, it is back to the honing of swords, the lighting of lamps and the making of a nice cup of tea.

Sally Brown is head of quality enhancement, University of Northumbria

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