Spotlight on Remote Teaching: Supervising Arts and Humanities Masters’ dissertations online

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash CC0

In this Spotlight on Remote Teaching post, Suilin Lavelle, lecturer in Philosophy of the Mind, contributes to yesterday’s conversation on developing a positive supervisory relationship online by sharing practical tips on how to best support students in completing their Masters dissertation remotely…

For many Masters students writing their dissertation is one of the most exciting and daunting challenges of their degree. After honing their writing and analysis skills through taught courses, they can finally immerse themselves in a research project of their choice, working closely with an expert supervisor and spending hours reading in the library. But this year our Masters students will be tackling their dissertations from their homes. How should we adjust our supervision style and expectations to help them write the best dissertation that they can?

I have been supervising philosophy MSc dissertations online for over five years (and on-campus for a decade) and have run the gamut of students from the supremely focussed and organised to the completely laissez-faire last-minute thinkers. Although many aspects of supervision remain the same, there are persistent differences which I have noticed, and I thought I would take this blog opportunity to share some of these observations.

1. Short email = long-lasting benefits

You never bump into your online students around campus, at seminars or reading groups, or in the shared kitchen. Every meeting you have with them is scheduled. Consequently, you never see them when they are not expecting to talk to you about their project. But we all know that informal chats can give us more insight into how a project is going and how engaged the student is, than a carefully prepared meeting.

That’s why it can be helpful for your online students to send a short email each week, outlining what they’ve read or written, and how they are feeling about their progress. While this is still a scheduled check-in, rather than an informal chat in the corridor, it will go some way to helping you gauge how well they are doing, and to nip problems in the bud.

2. Set expectations

We all work with our students to set a schedule for completing their dissertation, with dates for when work will be submitted and comments returned. When supervising online, though, such expectations become even more important for the student. Being away from campus means students can feel psychologically distant from support for their project, so knowing in advance exactly when they can expect to meet with you about it helps enormously. It also helps if your students know how long it will take you to respond to emails: if a student is on campus they can go to their supervisor’s office if an email gets no response; if the student is in another country then they feel less control over this. The issue here is managing the student’s sense of control of the project: it doesn’t matter if you’re the kind of person who can never be found in your on-campus office anyway; the point is that, given their physical distance from campus, students will feel more control over, and thus confident about their project if they know what kind of contact to expect from you.

3. Organise some peer feedback

Graduate students learn as much from each other than they do from you. It is all too easy to disappear into a rabbit-warren of reading and to forget why you’ve gone down a particular route: a quick chat with a peer about you’ve read or written can serve as a useful check about whether the research you are doing is useful. Make sure your student is talking to others in their cohort,  and help them make connections if you can (e.g. if you’re supervising someone working on a similar topic, put them in touch). Just as you won’t bump into your student on-campus, nor will they be bumping into each other.

4. Make sure they know who their academic librarian is

I am constantly surprised by students telling me ‘I wanted to read that article, but I didn’t want to pay £50 to access it’. It turns out many of our students still, by dissertation stage, don’t understand how to access library resources.  Find out who your academic librarian is, and make sure your student knows to contact them when they can’t get hold of a paper.

As I wrote at the start of this post: Many aspects of dissertation supervision will be the same for on-campus and online learning. But our MSc students started the year expecting one experience for their dissertation, and will now be facing something quite different. Setting expectations and regular check-ins will help ameliorate the anxiety many of them will be feeling, giving them the best possible chance to shine in their biggest research project.


Suilin Lavelle

Suilin Lavelle is a lecturer in philosophy of mind and cognition in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences. She helped develop, and is programme director of, the Epistemology, Ethics and Mind MSc by online learning.

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