Spotlight on Remote Teaching: Developing positive supervisory relationships in online masters dissertations

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In this Spotlight on Remote Teaching post, Kelly Smith, Gill Aitken, Tim Fawns and Derek Jones, share the key findings of a study they conducted on developing positive supervisory relationships in online Masters dissertation…

Many more of us will be supervising (and possibly undertaking) dissertations online, and while this might be unsettling for some, it can be a positive and rewarding experience. Here we summarise a recent study that we undertook into the relationships that can develop during online postgraduate dissertation supervision. If you want to know more, the study has recently been published in Teaching in Higher Education.

The work came from a dissertation project that was itself carried out online. Kelly is a nurse and at the time was working in Saudi Arabia and not able to undertake a clinical dissertation. Gill supervised the project and over Kelly’s time on the MSc Clinical Education they had developed a good working relationship. Kelly was keen to look at some aspect of supervision and they decided to look at what made a good online supervisory relationship.

Five experienced online supervisors from around the university were asked to identify a recent graduate that they felt they had had a positive relationship with and the supervisors and graduates were interviewed separately about the experience. The interviews were all undertaken by Kelly online, and audio-recorded. The interview transcripts were analysed using a constructivist grounded theory methodology and, as there was a great deal of similarity between the experiences of supervisors and students, all transcripts were analysed as a single set of data.

Given the participants self-identified as having had a positive experience, it is perhaps not surprising that the supervisory relationship was felt to be a very democratic one with both parties contributing equally to it. Students brought their professional expertise and insights and the supervisors provided conceptual frameworks. Looking at the data we identified some patterns emerging with the following points standing out:

  • Initial responsibility for establishing the tone and nature of the relationship was vested in the supervisor.
  • Holding initial supervisory sessions on Skype or similar platforms where the participants could see each other was seen to be helpful in establishing the relationship.
  • Supervisors were conscious of being ‘gentle’ in their initial interactions, keeping in mind that this was likely to be the student’s first online dissertation.
  • Through a subtle process of shifting responsibility students increasingly took a lead in orchestrating supervision.
  • Online supervision was found to be compatible with forming good working relationships that were productive.

It seemed to us that what we were observing was a gradual alignment of:

  • expectations – was the goal to produce something that would be ‘good enough’, or ‘excellent’;
  • communication style – more or less formal;
  • perception of presence (or visibility) – being easy to get hold of when needed;
  • feedback – providing meaningful comments (to each other);
  • responsiveness – responding in a timely fashion;
  • personal characteristics – sense of humour, values, etc

As these features align there is established what we have called a zone of participatory alignment characterised by trust, honesty, openness, confidence, a sense of purpose, and respect that emerges out of a negotiated relationship (Figure 1). While this is represented in 2D it is conceptualised as a dynamic one that is in a constant state of flux. We settled on the term participatory alignment because participatory (both parties have an active participatory role) and alignment (as both parties have to negotiate the nature of the working relationship).

Figure 1: The zone pf participatory alignment

Reflecting on the data and the notion of alignment it seemed to us that there was a degree to which the supervisory relationship needed to respect boundaries (for example with both staff and students having many other demands on their time). While all the relationships described were positive there was thought to be a risk of losing a degree of criticality if the supervisory relationship became too cordial. Thus, there is a risk that the relationship is under or over-aligned (as shown in Figure 2) and that there is a difficult to define, but never the less real, effective degree of alignment. A bit like Goldilocks just right bowl of porridge.

Figure 2: The online supervisory relationship.

In some of our other work (Fawns et al 2019) we have argued, in the context of taught post-graduate programmes that online learning can be an embodied, socially meaningful experience. This work extends that view and suggests that online supervision of research projects can also be viewed in this way. However, just as with face to face supervision, this requires careful establishment and ‘work’ to maintain alignment between supervisors and students around a range of factors.


Fawns, T., Aitken, G. and Jones, D., 2019. Online learning as embodied, socially meaningful experience. Postdigital Science and Education1(2), pp.293-297.


Kelly Smith

Kelly was a MSC student in Clinical Education and currently works as a Nurse Manager of a Nursing Home in the West Midlands.

Gill Aitken

Gill Aitken is the Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education, Edinburgh Medical School.

Tim Fawns

Dr Tim Fawns is Deputy Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education and part-time tutor on the MSc in Digital Education. He is also the director of the international Edinburgh Summer School in Clinical Education. His main academic interests are in education, technology and memory.

Derek Jones

Dr Derek Jones is an Academic Coordinator on the MSc in Clinical Education. He is also the PhD Clinical Education (Acting) Programme Director, and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. His first degree is in Sociology and he is a Health & Care Professions Council registered Occupational Therapist. Derek’s academic interests are in research methodology and pain education.

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