Supervising honours students: A Cinderella story. Dr Madeleine M. Laming Centre for University Teaching and Learning Murdoch University Abstract For many students at Australian universities, Honours is their first introduction to research and their first experience of sustained writing for research. Murdoch University’s Graduate Research Education and Training (GREAT) Program offers students a suite of seminars and workshops to support their academic progress and development as researchers. This paper proposes a model of good practice that will assist Honours students to use writing as process that is central to their scholarly thinking, and to develop a practice of writing that will assist them to thesis completion and beyond their candidature. Introduction An Honours Degree is the Cinderella among Australian university degrees: some treat it as an undergraduate degree, while others include it in the list of “lesser” postgraduate qualifications together with graduate certificates and diplomas (Kiley, Boud, Cantwell & Manathunga, 2009). In reality, it is neither – yet like Cinderella it has a dual nature containing aspects of both roles. The ambiguity of its position makes writing an honours thesis, and supervising Honours students, challenging for all concerned (Kiley, Moyes & Clayton, 2009). This practice report describes a series of linked programs offered within Murdoch University’s Graduate Research. Education and Training (GREAT) Program that are designed to provide expert support to Honours students, particularly while they are writing up their research. Complementary workshops are also available to assist Honours supervisors develop a clear understanding of the nature of supervision and suggest ways in which they can assist students. Australian Honours Degrees According to the Australian Qualifications Framework, the “(Bachelor) Honours Degree is a qualification type that prepares graduates from the same discipline: • for a higher level qualification involving research, or • to advance the knowledge, skills and application gained in their Bachelor Degree, or • for professional practice for which higher level of learning outcomes are required for entry.” The defining difference between the Bachelor Honours degree and the Bachelor degree is the development of advanced knowledge and the requirement for research. The AQF insists that research must be evident in all Honours degrees, but the type of research and the balance between research and coursework is likely to vary depending on the purpose of the qualification. Traditionally an Australian Honours degree has been a one year program following a Bachelor degree – the 3 + 1 model, but this model is seldom encountered outside Australia. It is almost unknown in Europe as it does not fit easily into the Bologna model (Brydon & Flynn, (2014). In the US, honours programs have proliferated since the 1990s, however these are usually 1
presented as a select-entry stream within a college program (Long, 2002). Even here in Australia, the 3 + 1 model is something of an anachronism and has been losing favour to programs embedded into a Bachelor Degree for some time. Nevertheless, this model is still offered at many Australian universities including Murdoch. Students take Honours for a variety of reasons Research (Kiley, Boud, Cantwell & Manathunga, 2009; Kiley, Boud, Manathunga & Cantwell, 2011) suggests that students enroll in an Honours degree for four main reasons: as a pathway to a career in research for academic advancement/stimulation recognition as a high achiever competitive edge in the job market Traditionally, and in many cases now, an Honours degree is the pre-requisite for entry into a Higher Degree by Research, usually a PhD. This is more often the case in science degrees where a student may use their Honours dissertation to test a hypothesis or develop an idea into a much larger project to be undertaken as a PhD. Students may also relish the opportunity to study a topic or body of knowledge at a deeper level and enjoy the extrinsic reward of being recognised as a high achiever: this may be equally true for students taking embedded Honours programs as well as a 3 + 1 model. Finally, students may enroll in the expectation that it will place them at an advantage when applying for a job; and indeed it may be the entry level qualification in some occupations such as archaeology or engineering. Regardless of their reasons for enrolling, Honours students are still caught in what may be described as a transitional moment (Brydon & Flynn, 2014). One aspect of the transition relates to their academic of professional identity, something that is best addressed within the Faculties or Schools as it is highly dependent on the student’s disciplinary context; the other aspect, which is related, arises out of the process of writing a dissertation or thesis. Green (2014) describes the process of writing a Doctoral thesis as a form of literacy, “embracing the textual production of knowledge and identity, and linked therefore to a reconceptualised view of curriculum”. My contention is that this is equally true, if not more so, for Honours students, and as a consequence, they need a supportive, structured program. Honours in the GREAT Program Murdoch University’s Graduate Research Education and Training Program offers a range of short courses and workshops designed to assist Higher Degree by Research, Postgraduate and Honours students in their academic development. Murdoch University does not regards Honours as a postgraduate qualification, but the practical demands of developing and teaching workshops on research and writing skills has led to the creation of a distinct Honours stream within the GREAT Program. There are some workshops that are open to both Honours and postgraduate students, but this paper focuses on the sequence of workshops aimed at Honours students. The sequence, described in Figure 1, is explicitly designed to help Honours students to begin writing early, use writing as process that is central to their scholarly thinking and develop a practice of writing that will assist them to thesis completion and beyond their candidature. The first step is a two-hour seminar called Getting Started on your Thesis. Getting Started on Your Thesis, which is offered in March, provides an easy introduction to processes involved in completing an Honours project; discussion then moves to strategies for developing a research topic and starting to write. I introduce the concepts of “high stakes” and “low stakes” writing 2
(Elbow, 1973). High stakes writing is produced for a formal audience – i.e. for publication, for their supervisor and examiners. In contrast, low stakes writing is what you do to think through ideas, to clarify arguments and plan work. Students are encouraged to begin keeping a writing or research journal in which they record ideas and plans for their research and well as questions they wish to ask their supervisors.
Writing Space: Writing up : Getting Started on Your Thesis: introducing the Honours project formulating a proposal preliminary literature review
(re)formulating a proposal
a structured quiet writing space aimed at encouraging students to write
mapping your thesis writing a literature review writing chapters concluding and revision
keeping a writing journal
Figure 1. The sequence of Honours workshops at Murdoch University. Writing Up, which is usually offered early in July, is the next step: this consists of a series of four workshops of 2.5 hours each. Topics include writing your introduction, the literature review, structuring your thesis and writing chapters, writing the conclusion and revising. The timing of this series of workshops is important as the dissertation or thesis is usually due in early October, but few students are likely to be in a position to write before July. For many Honours students, Semester One is taken up with data collection or field work, and in some schools, Honours students have to complete one or more taught units before commencing their dissertations or thesis. There is some overlap between Writing Up and Getting Started on your Thesis because not all the students who enrol for Writing Up will have attended this first session for a number of reasons; however the function of Writing Up is quite different. I describe these as workshops, not seminars, as the focus is on providing students with the opportunity to do some sustained writing in a supportive environment. I use a modified version of the Pomodoro time management technique (Cirillo, 2007) in the Writing Up workshops. Each begins with a brief discussion of relevant topic, a twenty-five minute period of sustained writing, discussion of the progress they have made and questions. This pattern is repeated 2-3 times depending on the issues emerging from the discussion. The students in each workshop work individually when writing, but they are encouraged to discuss their work – including questions or concerns as well as writing tips – with each other in the plenary sessions and between the workshops. Although the workshops often contain a group of students from one disciplinary background who can offer each other high levels of support, there will always be some students who are the only person from their school; nevertheless all students find it valuable to explain their proposal to a nonexpert audience. At the close of each session students set writing goals for the following week in discussion with at least one other student in the workshop and record these goals in their writing/research journals.
As its name suggests, the Writing Space is a structured quiet writing space aimed at supporting research students to get some thesis writing done in a positive environment with an expert advisor on hand. The Writing Space is open for three hours once a week and forms the final part of the sequence. Students must commit to writing for at least one hour, but they many stay for the whole period. There are no structured activities; essentially, the Writing Space is three hours of quiet writing. It is designed for later stage students who need less guidance but more dedicated time. Ideally, students have completed the Writing Up workshops, but at present this is not compulsory. Supervising Honours The ambiguity surrounding the position of Honours has led to uncertainty or tension on the part of academic staff who are supervising them. Lee and Green (2009) argue that honours students are unclear about the nature of the students’ role and their role, are they expected to teach research and writing skills or to ‘coach’ the student as they develop these skills on their own. If students experience difficulty is mastering necessary research skills, should this be interpreted as a sign that they are not really Honours material, or should they receive additional support; and if they should then who should provide it? My solution to this conundrum is to offer a seminar to the Honours supervisors in each School. The Schools decide whether they will hold a seminar for Honours supervisors and when it will be held. They also decide if the Honours students will be invited to attend with their supervisors or if it will be run as a professional development seminar for staff only. In either case, issues that have the potential to cause confusion or friction are discussed explicitly. To begin with, I ask both students and staff to reflect on their reasons for enrolling in Honours or for supervising Honours students, their motivations and aspirations and their understanding of the role that the Bachelor Honours degree plays within their discipline. For example, it is expected that the majority of students taking Honours in the sciences will proceed to a research degree relatively quickly; but Honours is still a new phenomenon in law and it appears that many students who have enrolled assume it will make them more attractive when they apply for jobs. I am very careful to avoid any suggestion that there are right or wrong answers to these questions, but students who have a well developed understanding of their actions are usually more likely to be able to plan and regulate their learning (Ben-Eliyahu & Linnenbrink-Garcia, 2015). Although students may attend this seminar, the supervisors are the real target of my questions and remarks. I ask them what are essentially the same questions: why are you taking or supervising Honours students and what do you think supervision is? In an echo of Lee and Green’s (2009) work, Kiley, Boud, Manathunga and Cantwell (2011) found that many supervisors assumed that they, and their Honours students, would work together or at least in parallel on research projects usually of the supervisors devising: Most staff think that Honours students are going to be tremendously interested in your research and you can mentor them and they’ll do a lot of the hard labour for you and it will be a wonderful relationship so they tend to think of it in terms of research independently of some social aspects of getting jobs (p 626).
This response is not surprising given that members of the same team had found few researchers outside of education faculties could articulate a coherent explanation of teaching and learning, even when they enacted these practices in their professional work (Kiley, Boud & Cantwell, 2009). It is also worth noting that many or the resources I use in the seminars for Honours supervisors have been adapted from materials designed for the supervision of Doctoral students. Many of the theories on which these resources are based have not been applied in the context of Honours supervision: the Bachelor Honours degree truly is the Cinderella of the Australian 4
Qualifications Framework uncertain about its identity and future, but largely ignored by researchers. One of the causes of the tensions identified by Brydon and Flynn (2013) is the lack of training in supervision at Honours level, and a tendency for many university departments to assume that supervising Honours is somehow easier than supervising a doctoral degree as the period of supervision and Honours thesis are much shorter. In my opinion, the very concentrated nature of an Honours “year” make it a totally different experience and one that is less forgiving of error or misjudgment on the part of the student or supervisor. In reality, the Honours ‘year’ attached to a Bachelor degree in the 3+1 model is 9 months or 40 weeks. The solution that I am hoping to achieve in this particular seminar on supervising Honours is the reconceptualisation of supervision as a learning alliance in which supervisor and student work towards a common goal (Halse & Malfroy, 2010). For most Honours students and their supervisors, that common goal is a thesis, which is successful and completed on time. Brydon and Flynn (2013) argued that the relationship between the students and supervisor should not resemble one between a master and apprentice, or priest and acolyte; but rather they should be “expert companions”. In order for this new type of relationship to develop, Honours students and supervisors need to be honest about their expectations. In most cases, the students and supervisors have already been matched by the time this seminar is held and they are beyond the stage of deciding who to choose as a student/supervisor; nevertheless there is still much to be gained from an open discussion about attitudes, goals and expectations. I get the Honours students and their supervisors to work in pairs through an exercise based on the role perception rating scale originally developed by Ingrid Moses for use with Doctoral students – this has been reproduced often in many forms, but my favourite model comes from James and Baldwin’s (1999) Eleven practices of effective postgraduate supervisors. Each one completes the questions asking who is responsible for specific tasks separately, and then they compare the results. This simple exercise is highly effective in preventing frustration and anger later in the process. The next step is a discussion of various forms of supervision – educative, supportive and administrative, when they might be used and the specific roles attached to each one (Brydon & Flynn, 2013; Drew, Subramaniam & Clowes-Doolan, 2002). Other questions that I pose for discussion between supervisors and students, or between small groups of supervisors if the honours students have not been invited to attend, are: 1. How long before meetings should the candidate’s work be submitted for review? 2. In what form should it be accepted – draft or “finished”? 3. What is the planned structure of meetings? 4. Who will be responsible for the content of meetings? 5. What are the responsibilities of the candidate and supervisors in the event that a meeting is postponed? 6. Are there any anticipated periods during which meeting frequency will be reduced due to limited availability of the supervisor or candidate? If so, what contingencies will be in place? 7. How long will the supervisor take to review work and give feedback after it has been submitted? 8. In what form will feedback be provided? Oral, written, electronic or other? 9. Have the candidate and supervisor agreed on a process of communicating feedback so there is no ambiguity on how to proceed 5
10. Has a timetable/plan for the complete thesis been created showing key dates? 11. Is the candidate aware of the importance of the university’s student email? 12. How familiar are the relevant university policies and regulations e.g. the Honours Policy, intellectual property, plagiarism? This component of the Honours program at Murdoch was introduced last year and it is too early to determine how successful it will be, however I am optimistic that a frank discussion of these questions will lead to productive partnerships based on a desire to reach that common goal described by Halse and Malfroy (2010). Effectiveness and Application The Honours sequence – Getting Started with Your Thesis, Writing Up and the Writing Space – is effective. At present, it not possible to link student evaluations of workshops in the GREAT Program to student outcomes, however there is a considerable body of evidence that indicates students benefit from attending. To begin with, students are often surprised at the outcome and amount of work they produce: I have come up with many questions which I hadn't thought about before. I have done more critical writing than I would have done without them.” (Arts student, August 2013). The [workshop on writing a] literature review led to the greatest amount of follow up work - something which I had not begun to think about; so it is great that it is now mostly done and should only need cutting down to size.” (Arts student, 13/08/2013).
The Writing Space is particularly helpful for students who struggle with motivation or time management; part time students with work and family commitments find it particularly useful: I enjoyed having a relaxing, but motivating chunk of time in my week to get cracking on my thesis! (Veterinary and Life Sciences student, September 2014).
Occasionally the Writing Up workshops reveal significant omissions or weaknesses in a thesis while there is still time for the student to make revisions: What I learned in his session is that I really have not done enough background research to establish the context of my project. I got so caught up in working on my data and analysing my research that I stopped reading and it’s only by working through this stuff on writing literature reviews that I have realised how much is missing ((Veterinary and Life Sciences student, April 2015).
Many universities offer seminars or workshops for Honours and postgraduate students; what is innovative in the approach taken at Murdoch University is the scaffolded, sequential structure. It would appear that it is the combination of approaches that improves student motivation and productivity. The philosophical principles underlying this program are that people learn by doing, not by being told things; the primary role of the teacher is to be supportive, enthusiastic, and positive. Nevertheless there are very specific practices and techniques that can be taught and modelled (Elbow, 1973; Goldberg, 1986; Goldberg, 1990) to help students develop a practice of writing that will assist them to thesis completion and beyond their candidature, should they pursue an academic career. Students develop valuable social support networks of peers through attending the workshops, but the interdisciplinary nature of the workshop also raises students’ awareness of other perspectives or worldviews. The inclusion of a seminar for honours supervisors is also an innovative feature, but one which has the capacity to improve the quality of the supervision experience for both students and supervisors. At a time when governments worldwide are concerned with the training of research students (OECD, 2012), making an early start on the fundamental skills involved; in particular critical 6
thinking and writing, must be seen as a positive step. Instilling good writing habits and a sound knowledge of techniques allow Honours students (and postgraduates if they should choose to proceed further) to focus on finding a project that will allow them to engage with what they truly think (Cameron, 1995; Boice, 1994) and encourage them to balance the learning aspects of writing an Honours dissertation with the associated, and very necessary, process of becoming a new person. References Ben-Eliyahu, A. & Linnenbrink-Garcia, L. (2015). Integrating the regulation of affect, behavior, and cognition into self-regulated learning paradigms among secondary and post-secondary students. Metacognition and Learning. Springer Online. Doi: 10.1007/s11409-014-9129-8 Boice, R. (1994). How writers journey to comfort and fluency: A psychological adventure. London: Praeger. Brydon, K. & Flynn, C. (2014). Expert companions? Constructing a pedagogy for supervising honours students. Social Work Education, 33 (3) 365-380. Cameron, J. (1995). The Artist’s Way. London: Pan Books. Cirillo, F. (2007). The Pomodoro Technique. San Francisco: The Creative Commons. Drew, M. E., Subramaniam, N. & Clowes-Doolan, K. (2002). Students’ experience of the Honours’ supervisory relationship: A preliminary investigation. Discussion Paper No. 113, June 2002. St Lucia: School of Economics and Finance. QUT. Elbow, P. (1973). Writing Without Teachers. London: Oxford University Press. Goldberg, N. (1986). Writing Down the Bones. Boston: Shambhala. Goldberg, N. (1990). Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life. London: Bantam Books. Green, B. (2014). Research, writing, rhetoric: On doctoral education as literacy. Keynote presentation at the Association of Academic language and Learning Symposium on Higher Degree Research Student Writing. Sydney. Halse, C. & Malfroy, J. (2010). Retheorizing doctoral supervision as professional work. Studies in Higher Education, 35 79-92. James, R. & Baldwin, G. (1999). Eleven practices of effective postgraduate supervisors. Melbourne: Centre for the Study of Higher Education, The University of Melbourne. Kiley, M., Moyes, T. & Clayton, P. (2009). ‘To develop research skills’: Honours programmes for the changing research agenda in Australian universities. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46 (1) 15-25. Kiley, M. Boud, D., Manathunga, C. & Cantwell, R. (2011). Honouring the incomparable: Honours in Australian universities. Higher Education, 62, 619-633 Kiley, M. Boud, D., Cantwell, R. & Manathunga, C. (2009). The role of honours in Australian universities. Strawberry Hills, NSW: Australian Teaching and Learning Council. Lee, A., & Green, B. (2009). Supervision as metaphor. Studies in Higher Education, 34 615– 630. Long, B. T. (2002). Attracting the best: The use of honors programs to compete for students. Chicago, Il. Spencer Foundation. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 465 355) OECD (2012). Transferable Skills Training for Researchers: Supporting Career Development and Research. OECD Publishing. Doi: 10.1787/9789264179721-en