Thinking of Research Supervision as a Form of Teaching

Historically, research supervision has been regarded as an adjunct of research; it was assumed that, as Rudd10 put it, ‘ if one can do research then one presumably can supervise it’. However, over the past two decades or so, there has been a recognition that, while being active in research is a necessary condition for effective supervision, it is not a sufficient one.

In particular, it has been acknowledged that effective supervision involves much more than just experts passively transmitting expertise to novices who observe and hopefully emulate (the so-called ‘master-apprentice’ model). Instead, supervisors need to actively teach candidates about how to research and support them to become independent researchers. So supervision has been re-conceptualised as a form of teaching and supporting learning, in fact “probably the most subtle and complex in which we engage”2.

If it is accepted that supervision is, in whole or in part, a form of teaching, the implication then is that, to be an effective supervisor, you need to be an effective teacher. That, in turn, begs the question of what constitutes effective teaching in the supervision context. One way of tackling this is to ask the same questions as we would about conventional teaching to see if this can help us to inform and illuminate our practice. 

So, in the same way as the starting point for conventional teaching is to ask about the expectations of students about their roles as learners, the starting point for research students is expectations about their roles as researchers. The literature (see for example Bills 20041, Meyer et al 20059, Meyer 20078) suggests that such expectations are often very different to the realities of modern research projects and how they are undertaken, and that this can be a cause of student difficulties. 

Of course, just as students have pre-conceptions, so do supervisors in relation to what they expect research students to do and to be capable of doing. As Kiley and Mullins5 have shown, these preconceptions are often formed on the basis of their own experience and extrapolated to research students without regard to the individuality and/or the increased diversity of the latter, leading to a potential for conflict.

Again from the conventional teaching and learning literature, we are accustomed to the notions of teaching and learning styles and to the interrelationship between them. This has been extrapolated to models of supervisory styles which, while they differ in some respects, commonly incorporate two key dimensions, namely ‘structure’ and ‘support’. These have been used by Gatfield3 to develop a typology of preferred supervisor styles as ‘laisser-faire’, ‘pastoral’ ‘directorial’ and ‘contractual’. Objectively, there is no ‘right’ style, but each of these styles makes assumptions about students’ needs. As Malfoy and Webb7 have suggested, as long as there is a congruence between the supervisor’s style and the student’s needs, there should be no difficulties; but where there is a discongruence, major problems can result.  In such cases, supervisors may have to consider adapting their style to align it better to the needs of their students.

However, even if styles are initially aligned, they can and should change over the course of the research as the student moves to becoming an autonomous researcher. But, this may not happen automatically; students can be reluctant to fly the nest and supervisors can be too protective in keeping them there or too pushy in sending them out, with the result that students are late developing independence or find themselves alone and at sea. 


Here are some questions on the topic to consider. We would welcome you leaving your response in the comments section below.

  1. Do you agree that supervision can be considered as a form of teaching and supporting learning?
  2. Do you think that it is important to reflect on what you expect your research students to do and take time to find out what they think research is about and expect of you?
  3. Do you consider that the notions of preferred supervisory styles and associated assumptions about student needs are useful concepts for supervisory practice?
  4. Do you think that it is important to monitor the changing balance of dependence and independence over the course of the research project? If so, how do you do it?


For Q2, a useful resource is the Supervisory Role Perceptions Questionnaire developed by Brown and Atkins and modified by Kiley and Cadman, which can be found at can complete it yourself or, even better, ask your research students to complete independently and then compare the results.

For Q2 and Q3, Lee6 has developed a sophisticated model of approaches to supervision and a questionnaire which can be used by supervisors to surface their assumptions and, where appropriate, develop their repertoire.

For Q4, Gurr4 has developed a useful tool for checking with students over the course of the candidature whether there is an appropriate balance in their supervision between direction and autonomy.


  1. Bills, D. (2004) Supervisors’ Conceptions of Research and the Implications for Supervisor Development. International Journal for Academic Development 9(1) 85-97.
  2. Brown, G. and Atkins, M. (1988) Effective Teaching in Higher Education. London, Methuen.
  3. Gatfield, T. (2005) An Investigation into PhD Supervisory Management Styles: Development of a dynamic conceptual model and its managerial implications.  Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 27(3): 311-25.
  4. Gurr, G. (2001) Negotiating the “Rackety Bridge” – a Dynamic Model for Aligning Supervisory Style with Research Student Development. Higher Education Research and Development, 20(1): 81-92.
  5. Kiley, M. and Mullins, G. (2005) Supervisors’ Conceptions of Research: What are they? Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 49(3): 245-62. 
  6. Lee, A. (2012) Successful Research Supervision. London, Routledge.
  7. Malfoy, J. and Webb, C. (2000) Congruent and incongruent views of postgraduate supervision. In M. Kiley & G. Mullins (eds.), Quality in Postgraduate ResearchMaking Ends Meet. Adelaide: Advisory Centre for University Education, the University of Adelaide: 155-177.
  8. Meyer, J. (2007) On the modelling of postgraduate students’ perceptions of research. South African Journal of Higher Education, 21(8):1103-1117.
  9. Meyer, J., Shanahan, M. and Laugksch, R. (2005) Students’ Conceptions of Research: A qualitative and quantitative analysis. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 49(3): 225-244.
  10. Rudd, E. (1985) A New Look at Postgraduate Failure. London: Society for Research into Higher Education and National Foundation for   Educational Research. London, Nelson.

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