This article is a case study exploring the experiences of two international postgraduate dissertation students studying in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at Oxford Brookes University. It has been written collaboratively by two academics with experience of postgraduate dissertation supervision, and two postgraduates who were supervised by them. The discussion is based upon academic diaries produced by each of the students. These diaries were analysed thematically, and the two main issues that emerged were the students’ growing confidence as research writers, and their relationships with their supervisors. Based on these diaries, this article records the ways in which international students can benefit from their supervisors’ mentoring to become expert writers in their fields, and in some cases, to go on to provide writing development for their peers. The article also examines the potential of a Faculty Writing Group to support international students in the production of their dissertations.
There are many challenges facing supervisors of taught postgraduate students (Anderson et al., 2006; Drennan and Clarke, 2009; Pilcher, 2011). It is not uncommon for modules dedicated to dissertation writing to be a source of student dissatisfaction. This may be caused by differing expectations between students and their supervisors, (East et al., 2012; Strauss, 2012) or because feedback from supervisors is perceived by students to be unhelpful (Vehvilianen, 2009). Master’s dissertation students are increasingly diverse (Singh, 2011; Wisker, 2012; Strauss, 2012), and Master’s programmes are in growing demand, especially within the remit of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) (Drennan and Clarke, 2009).
Two international postgraduate students studying on a Master’s dissertation module were each asked to write a 600-word academic diary on their experiences of undertaking this module. Themes were generated using thematic analysis, pinpointing, examining and recording themes (or patterns) within the data (Braun and Clarke, 2005), which became the categories for analysis (Fereday and Muir-Cochrane, 2006). The limitations of a case study approach include the fact that this reflects the experiences of two students only, whereas there is much more diversity in the mix. For example, part-time Continuing Professional Development learners can be ‘home students’, whilst being physically remote a site learning. Further research seeking to capture other dissertation writers’ experiences would therefore be invaluable.
Student 1 in the study was studying on the MSc Infection Prevention and Control. These are the key themes identified from this student’s academic diary, in the student’s words:
International students appear to experience additional difficulties to domestic students. As well as the cross-cultural communication issues that may arise during supervision, they also have issues around finance, accommodation, isolation, time management and so forth.
In addition, international students experience the difference in institutional arrangements and expectations not previously encountered.
International students should be encouraged to engage with home students and other more experienced students from different research backgrounds to support them in the writing challenges they face.
International students may have less experience of research due to resource issues in country.
Students and supervisors should agree the frequency and nature of meetings, timing and length, the type of guidance, comments and feedback expected. Maintaining contact through regular meetings is key, together with an understanding of student/supervisor responsibilities.
The student/supervisor relationship, which is shaped from the first meeting, is crucial, and will set the tone of how international students view their supervisors’ comments – I considered all MW’s comments as constructive, enabling me to build a high level of self-confidence. I found that the balance of positive feedback on achievements and constructive criticism is very important.
Communities of practice
Creating a peer-group learning community for dissertation students would be beneficial…engaging both home and international students together regularly in more casual group meetings before and while they are doing their dissertations will be effective.
Informal workshops/seminars should be arranged by different supervisors to enable international students to engage with home students and other more experienced students from different research backgrounds.
Student 2 was studying on an MSc Public Health. These are the key themes identified from this student’s academic diary:
Challenges faced by learners
Postgraduate students, who are expected to be independent learners, are challenged by meeting the programme requirements together with the module learning outcomes. Working with an experienced supervisor, however, helped in overcoming many writing challenges.
Benefits of a Faculty Writing Group
Joining the Faculty Writing Group was the beginning of an unbelievable transformation in my writing ability, with members of the group providing support in the writing of a commentary, which was later accepted for publication by The Pan African Medical Journal.
I developed the confidence to assist other students facing similar writing challenges. Starting with a few close friends, I undertook proofreading and editing their coursework before submission, which progressed to advising, guiding and suggesting ideas that might help them improve their work.
The students who benefited from this were impressed with their marks and, by the next semester, I had over seven students under my tutelage, and this number continued to increase.
The supervisory relationship
I noticed the inability of students to correctly apply the advice and instructions given to them by their supervisors. Some of them left the supervisor’s office understanding what needed to be done but then became confused on how to actually apply these instructions to their work.
Meetings between the students and supervisors are often too formal. I can act as a middle man between the students and their supervisors. With the experience I acquired from the Writing Group and my supervisor, I encouraged students to take notes in every supervision and bring these to our support class.
Two key themes arise from the these two students’ narratives:
- Communities of practice.
- The supervisor’s role in the light of challenges faced by international taught postgraduates.
Communities of practice
Taking part in a Writing Group helped these students to appreciate their own potential for supporting other international students on their postgraduate dissertation journey. This may be because the Group modeled collaborative writing and peer support, which appealed to these international researchers. It could also be because the Group boosted their confidence, and provided techniques for managing the writing process. Whilst the impact of these students’ support for their peers has not yet been studied, Wisker‘s action research concerning research supervision (2012) reveals that creating a context for a student peer-review promotes emotional resilience, critical friendship and reduces over-dependence on a supervisor.
Drennan and Clarke (2009) observe as they explore students’ experiences of a Continuing Professional Development Master’s dissertation, that this experience can be low on ‘social climate,’ namely, relationships between supervisor and supervisee, relationships between students and the subject studied and disciplinary methods of learning. At Oxford Brookes University, by setting up a staff and student Writing Group in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences we have begun to counteract some of these challenges, admittedly for a small minority of students. Nevertheless, the impact is growing as these researchers share their new insights and enthusiasms with their peers.
Both students in this study raise our awareness of the difficulties inherent in international students’ experiences of dissertation supervision within UK academia. In particular, they highlight areas which could be addressed to enhance their experiences. These include a focus of the context of the individual international student by the supervisor in order to identify joint expectations, target support on the writing of a dissertation, and explore opportunities to engage with home students from diverse research backgrounds. To tackle this, supervisors might facilitate an active peer community, as well as reviewing the syllabus for research methods teaching to provide more seminar time for the discussion of proposed research projects. These students’ experiences are congruent with evidence within the literature (Severinnson, 2011; Strauss, 2012; East et al., 2012; Wisker, 2012), especially concerning the need for supervisory support that is diaglogic, and interactions containing a balance of constructive response with suggested tasks to undertake.
The extracts from the students’ academic diaries shared here provide positive examples of supervisory relationships (Wisker, 2012). Also highlighted by these diaries, is the importance of the formation of a community of practice for postgraduate dissertation students. In summary, three recommendations are made:
- More targeted staff development sessions could be run for dissertation supervisors, which take into account diverse students’ experiences and learning styles.
- The formation of a community of practice for postgraduate dissertation students could be beneficial.
- Further research should be conducted, in particular involving bigger numbers of participants, to further investigate strategies for supervision support involving peer-led initiatives.
Drennan and Clarke (2009) find that within the context of the Continuing Professional Development postgraduate dissertation support, the strongest predictors for a positive outcome are support and effective supervision. The students represented here both state that these factors were in place, and this enabled them not only to pass their dissertations with distinction, but also to utilise their skills to support others in gaining academic success.
The purpose of this case study has been to undertake an in-depth exploration of the experiences of two postgraduates in order to inform future supervisory practice. Whilst not being representative of the varied groups studying at this level in the UK, the findings suggest that strategies to engage students in the dissertation process could be focused upon creating a peer-led community of practice. The case study will influence ongoing work in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at Oxford Brookes University, for example the implementation of the recommendations for practice, and attempts to capture more evidence about students’ experiences of dissertation research supervision.
Anderson, C., Day, K. and McLaughlin, P. (2006) ‘Mastering the dissertation: lecturers’ representations of the purposes and processes of Master’s level dissertation supervision.’ Studies in Higher Education, 31 (2): 149–168.
Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2006) ‘Using thematic analysis in psychology.’ Qualitative Research in Psychology 3 (2): 83.
Drennan, J. and Clarke, M., (2009) ‘Coursework master’s programmes: the student’s experience of research and research supervision.’ Studies in Higher Education 34 (5): 483–500.
East, M., Bitchener, J. and Basturkmen, H. (2012) ‘What constitutes effective feedback to postgraduate research students: The students’ perspective.’ Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice 9 (2): 1–16.
Fereday, J. and Muir-Cochrane, E. (2006) ‘Demonstrating rigor using thematic analysis: A hybrid approach of inductive and deductive coding and theme development.’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods 5 (1): 4.
Pilcher, N. (2011) ‘The UK postgraduate Masters dissertation: an “elusive chameleon”? Teaching in Higher Education 16 (1): 29–40.
Severrinson, E. (2011) ‘Research supervision, supervisory style, research-related tasks, importance and quality- part 1.’ Journal of Nursing Management 20: 215–223.
Singh, S., (2011). An intervention to assist students with writing their dissertations and theses.South African Journal of Higher Education, 25 (5): 1020–1030.
Strauss, P. (2012) “The English is not the same”: challenges in thesis writing for second language speakers of English.’ Teaching in Higher Education 17 (3): 283–293.
Vehvilainen, S. (2009) ‘Problems in the research problem: critical feedback and resistance in academic supervision.’ Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 53 (2): 185–201.
Wisker, G. (2012) The Good Supervisor (2nd ed)., Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.