Feedback from supervisees

Ask for feedback through surveys or formative evaluations

Although there are limitations to getting direct feedback from supervisees compared to getting it from a class, supervisors who are perceived as open to constructive criticism may ask for direct feedback from their supervisees. One simple method adaptable from the classroom is the Start-Stop-Continue strategy for formative evaluation, which simply asks students what they think you should start, stop, and continue doing.

 

Elsewhere on this page you will find explanations of the limitations to getting direct feedback on supervision (e.g., validity of the data), but under some conditions there are methods for getting such feedback.

Start Stop Continue

Strobino (1997) described a formative (as opposed to summative) evaluation strategy called the Start-Stop-Continue, which is widely used in classroom teaching and which is most effective when a positive learning environment already exists. It can also improve the learning environment when undertaken openly. It simply requires the teacher to ask students to divide a blank page into three sections and label them as follows:

  1. Please start...

  2. Please stop...

  3. Please continue...

The student then lists activities in each section. For example: "Please start responding to my emails sooner," or "Please start identifying the major texts in the field," or "Please stop scheduling social events with the other students at 5 p.m." The tendency for students to add items to the "Continue" column helps to create encouragement and to define what the teacher is doing well.

Tips for asking and receiving oral feedback

  • Be clear that you want honest feedback so that you can improve

  • Focus on the future and what you can do better moving forward

  • Ask for feedback often

  • Ask for feedback on specific situations or interactions

  • Listen intently without interruptions, but ask follow up questions as necessary

  • Write down what you hear to remember it later

Adapted from Bregman (2005).

How can a supervisor get feedback indirectly from supervisees?

Attention to subtle cues that emerge over time is one way, and another is to ask for feedback not about yourself as a supervisor but about what the student is learning. Although you cannot rely on inference as a method in many cases, it can lead you to examine communication, hypothesize about the areas for potential improvement of the supervisory practice, and experiment with different approaches.

 

Below is a table containing examples of implicit feedback and potential explanations. Consider the different scenarios in the left column and what they might mean in the right column. The right column is certainly not an exhaustive list but it covers some reasons that you as a supervisor can address. You should also consider other explanations not already listed; what aspects of the student’s personal life, cultural background, or other obligations might be causing the behaviours listed in the left column?

If you notice...

It may mean...

Your supervisee is not improving in their writing, lab skills, or another aspect

  • They aren’t receiving enough feedback from you as their supervisor or their peers

  • They don’t understand the feedback, or don’t know how to put the feedback into action

  • They need support in the form of workshops or writing courses

  • They aren’t dedicating enough time to improving their skills

Your supervisee’s body language indicates stress, discomfort, or uncertainty

  • They are not confident in their work

  • They are intimidated

  • They need a break or to take some time for self-care

Your supervisee does not respond to your emails

  • They are overwhelmed with work at the moment

  • You need to be more clear about your expectations regarding prompt communication

  • They don’t value the communication

 

More obvious forms of feedback come through emails of thanks, and acknowledgements in students' theses or publications. It is less common to ask students explicitly for feedback, because students might feel embarrassed or threatened about giving feedback. Similarly, supervisors may feel embarrassed to ask, or might be anxious about potential responses. To reduce awkwardness, it can be useful to describe the feedback sought as a reflection on a process of student learning, rather than a critique of the supervisor; you can then infer the feedback, which is of course not fully reliable but might be indicative and revelatory.

Communication as an indirect form of feedback

With graduate students in particular, you may ask your supervisee to provide a brief written report of each meeting so that you can verify that you have both communicated clearly. Reading over the summary also allows you to gain insight into the student's perspective on the nature of the meeting.

An alternative to a free-style student report is a structured meeting summary outline that addresses the following questions.

  • What are the main point(s) that you want to remember from today’s meeting?

  • What will the next steps in your research and other activities be?

  • Do you have any remaining questions, issues or concerns?

Students could be asked to complete this outline from time to time, or even after every formal supervisory meeting. Such forms of feedback quickly become routine and also enable you to stay in better touch with your students' development, and they can improve your self-awareness and thereby help you to avoid problems and meet your own standards.

Factors that affect the validity and detail of feedback

Supervisees are more likely to provide feedback if the questions ask for qualitative answers, but the validity of feedback is limited in part by the hierarchy of the supervisory relationship and the supervisee's fear of being somehow punished for giving an honest response. Aggregated surveys therefore tend to be better instruments; nevertheless, individual feedback can be valid if the relationship is open.

 

Pearson and Kayrooz (2004) note that getting valid individual feedback from students is difficult because of the power differentials and the closeness of the supervisory relationship. Additionally, in some cases students may limit or falsify their feedback if they believe their feedback is identifiable and perceive their supervisors to be unapproachable or punitive. Lee and McKenzie (2011) share this concern but find that surveys of at least five students tend to be surprisingly anonymous and thereby protective of the respondents. We can also speculate that supervisees might provide valid feedback if supervisors demonstrate openness to constructive criticism.

Pearson and Kayrooz claim that supervisors benefit only to a small degree from learning about the rare disastrous experiences of other supervisors, and that they would benefit to a greater degree from feedback about the nuances of their supervision. Therefore, they developed a survey for collecting aggregated data rather than individual feedback, but they suggest that its criteria may be used by a supervisor to request one-to-one feedback from a supervisee. Pearson and Kayrooz's Reflective Supervisor Questionnaire gives supervisors five valid criteria for self-assessment or feedback from others.

  1. Expert coaching: e.g., providing intellectual challenges, advice, and feedback on research

  2. Facilitating: e.g., offering guidance through the timelines of supervision and degree completion

  3. Mentoring: e.g., being approachable, affirming, encouraging, and having other positive affective qualities

  4. Reflective practice: e.g., openness to different methods of research and supervision, and to reviewing them

  5. Sponsoring: e.g., helping students gain access to the resources needed for professionalization

Lee and McKenzie (2011; reprinted by permission of the publisher (Taylor & Francis Ltd.)) suggest that the opportunity to give qualitative feedback on supervision is motivational for students. They developed another survey, the Research Student Feedback Survey, and based it on four general questions that prompt free-style and often detailed responses.

  1. How would you describe your work with your principal supervisor in developing, refining, designing and conducting your research?

  2. How would you describe the role of your supervisor in managing the stages of the research and your candidature?

  3. How would you describe the role of your supervisor in assisting you to build the intellectual communities relevant for your research? This might include other students in your faculty, within the university or elsewhere, as well as academic and professional networks of people working in the area of your research.

  4. How would you describe the role of your principal supervisor in assisting you to develop your capabilities as a person who graduates with this level (Master's or PhD) of qualification?

References

Bregman, P. (December 5, 2014). How to ask for feedback that will actually help you. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/12/how-to-ask-for-feedback-that-will-actually-help-you

Lee, A., & McKenzie, J. (2011). Evaluating doctoral supervision: Tensions in eliciting students’ perspectives, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 48(1), 69-78.

Pearson, M., & Kayrooz, C. (2004). Enabling critical reflection on research supervisory practice. International Journal for Academic Development, 9(1), 99-116.

Strobino, J. (1997). Building a better mousetrap. The Teaching Professor (p. 6).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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