Sunday, September 02, 2012

Effective feedback for research students

East, Bitchener, and Basturkmen (2012) start the report of their survey of what feedback research students get and want from supervisors, with the assertion that "... at the heart of supervision is pedagogy". This is a contested point, but one I agree with: supervision of research is a form of education and many of the same techniques which can improve coursework can be applied to supervision. They argue that the larger number of students and the diversity of international students calls for more greater priority for research into the supervision process.

The study by East, Bitchener, and Basturkmen (2012) is of research students in six New Zealand universities and so should be broadly applicable to Australia. They emphasize the long term nature of postgraduate research supervision, in comparison to coursework degrees made up of self-contained semester courses. However, by charactering courses as "mono-directional" (lecture-focused) and "didactic" (teacher-led), in contrast to the more open and equal research supervision, they may be overstating the case. Current pedagogical practice at the postgraduate level (at least the practice I was taught and teach by) has largely dispensed with conventional lectures and encourages students to learn in teams from each other, with the tutor as a "guide on the side".

The relationship between supervisor and student is central to research degree programs, but East, Bitchener, and Basturkmen (2012) may also be overstating this case. Other research has shown prospective employers want graduates with teamwork skills and there is value to students in working in teams. So the emphasis on the individual student/supervisor relationship may be unhealthy and unproductive.

The students in the survey by East, Bitchener, and Basturkmen (2012) indicated that the usual method of feedback written followed by a face-to-face meeting. Students with a English linguistic background supported this approach, for proving help with structure of their written work. Students with English as a second language wanted more detailed feedback on their use of language, but were worried about the interpretation of the feedback. While not stated in the paper, I assume that the language of instruction in the universities surveyed is English, although Maori is also an official language in New Zealand.

A summary of students suggestions for supervisors, in reverse order of priority were:

  1. Give written and oral feedback with a view to feed forward
  2. Make positive and constructive comments alongside critique
  3. Understand the project
  4. Give suggestions but do not be too directive

These appear in line with conventional wisdom from pedagogy.

As with other surveys of research students, this suffers from a very small sample size. Also, as with other authors, East, Bitchener, and Basturkmen (2012) do not question the logic of expanding university research programs to accommodate more students. I suggest it would benefit the students and the community more to direct these students to coursework programs, not research. It makes little sense to have students undertake programs they are not suited to, especially when there are few jobs for such researchers on graduation.


East, Martin; Bitchener, John; and Basturkmen, Helen, What constitutes effective feedback to
postgraduate research students? The students’ perspective, Journal of University Teaching & Learning
Practice, 9(2), 2012.
Available at:

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