Flipping PhD Supervision

First up this is not just about PhD supervision, but supervision of research degrees, whether Masters, PhD, Professional Doctorates etc. PhD in the title is just a convenient shorthand.

One of the interesting things that has been going on where I work is ‘Learning2014’. This is UTS’ approach to changing teaching and learning across all our campuses (including the online ones) and disciplines. One of the features of this concerns ‘New Approaches’ to pedagogy, and within this, a key idea is ‘flipped learning’.

Flipped learning is gaining currency as a way to describe certain ideas about what might happen before a key pedagogical interaction, such as a lecture or tutorial. While the term feels relatively new, it builds on key ideas that have informed teaching and learning for a long time.

Admittedly, I was initially a little cynical (as I tend to be about most things), but as I began planning classes in the coursework masters program, I found the idea of flipped learning was giving me a really important nudge in my thinking. Why was I asking students to read texts, or watch videos, before class? Could I explain this better to them? Could I scaffold them in doing so? How could I use this to improve what happens when we meet? I then started feeding the idea into workshops and masterclasses, and the feedback has been very encouraging. We’re able to get straight into meaningful discussion about key ideas, building on what students took from engaging with material, the questions that came up, and the issues that remain unclear. I’ve posted a short video that explains my approach to flipped active learning in classes and workshops.

Can flipped learning help with research supervision?

I began asking myself whether supervising doctoral and masters students might also benefit from some of the ideas of flipped learning. Here’s where I’ve got to so far.

Supervision is nearly always flipped in some way, anyway

Insofar as flipping means that students engage with some ideas or content in advance of a structured teaching moment, then many, if not the vast majority, of meetings between students and supervisors already have some flipped quality. Students might often write something, or be asked to explore particular areas of literature or methods, or do some fieldwork or experiments in a laboratory before meeting with a supervisor. This sense of flipping is widespread and really nothing new at all (it’s been going on in the Oxbridge tutorial system for centuries). Of course just because it’s not new doesn’t mean it’s bad or broken (that’s how I experienced all my supervision as a masters and PhD student and I did fine!). But as I’ve been working with the idea, I think there’s more to it…

In some ways supervision isn’t flipped

The more I thought about it, the more I could see some elements of the ‘student writes-supervisor reads-both discuss’ model potentially missed some of the benefits that I was seeing from other kinds of flipped learning in the classes and workshops. I realised that when a student arrives for a supervision, they often don’t know what I’m going to be saying about their draft, or what I’m going to be asking them. My comments and questions are being encountered for the first time, in the moment of supervision. At times this can be a very productive form of interaction, for many reasons, but it can also be experienced as quite challenging, even confronting. And I’m not convinced it always leads to the best discussion…

Flipping supervision

So I’ve been experimenting with two practices.

  1. Providing written feedback on students’ drafts (usually by hand), with a typed summary of key points and questions I will ask. I send this to students a few days before our scheduled meeting.
  2. Making a short (10 minutes or less) audio recording in which I talk through my responses to a piece of writing, and explain the questions I’d like to ask, and issues I think we should discuss when we meet. Again this is sent to students a few days before the meeting.

I think there’s potentially some value in these. What they do is give students a chance to think about the issues and questions before we meet. This changes it from an on-the-spot Q&A, to one where students have had time to digest the points, perhaps even read a bit, think of ways to defend their ideas, consider alternatives etc. The written version takes me a lot more time, but gives students a very concrete and detailed set of things to look at, and a nice shared reference point for us in meetings, as well as a clear audit trail. The spoken version is much quicker, and I like it because I can use my tone of voice to provide extra encouragement, and to soften the potential negative feeling when a draft needs yet more work!

So the potential benefits seem to be:

  1. It moves the discussion on a step when we actually meet, because I’m not introducing the points or questions for the first time, but rather can start with ‘so what did you think about my feedback?’. It becomes less about my response to the student, and more about her response to the issues and questions.
  2. It might make it less confronting for students, and make it feel less like a test in supervision. It might also help make supervisions feel more focused on positive aspects and next steps, rather than what is wrong with the latest draft.
  3. It could also foster independence in students, so they have time to explore resources and their own initiative in coming up with responses to issues and questions raised. I wonder how many times, in the past, a student has found it hard to ‘come up with an answer’ on the spot. What if she had had a few days to work on it?


But this is no panacea and some things I’m sensing a need to be careful about include:

  1. Making sure there isn’t increased risk of students feeling vulnerable or under-performing, because in the flipped mode, they read or hear the feedback when they are on their own, not in the meeting. So if it’s hitting them hard, I’m not going to be there to see that.
  2. Making sure students feel comfortable in saying ‘I’ve no idea!’, or ‘Yes that seems an important issue, but I really don’t know how to respond at the moment’. That is fine. What the flipped approach would allow us to explore is what a student tried out in the intervening few days, so we can think about why that wasn’t found to be so helpful, and explore alternatives.

In conclusion

It has been interesting to think through what flipped learning might mean in a research supervision context. I’ve tried these ideas out softly, and step by step at first, consulting with students as I go along, and trying to monitor what aspects appear to work well, why, and for whom. I can’t see that it would make sense for all supervisions with all students to use this approach, but it might offer some helpful variation in the rhythm and sequence of supervision pedagogy from time to time.

I’d love to hear from any other students or supervisors who are doing something similar. Maybe I’m way behind everyone else and have done nothing more then reinvent the wheel…


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