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Monitoring student progress

Help where help is wanted

Supervisees themselves often have the most insight into the factors that help or hinder their progress. Supervisors can simply ask them to reflect on who has helped them and how, thereby enabling them to recognize their helpers and to seek advice independently. You are one of those helpers, and your work is easier when you know what kind of help your supervisee wants.


Because help of some kind is necessary in most research, students can also use a tool like the following to recognize their helpers and how, if possible, to become more self-sufficient.

What was my progress this week and who helped me?



Other profs

Other students

Support staff

Family and friends

Others (including myself)

Who helped me this week?


How did they help me?


Could I have done this myself, and how?


What positive steps could I take to get more help from them?



Adapted from the University of Oxford's Preparing for Academic Practice website.

For students to reflect in writing on their own research progress is an opportunity and learning experience. Whether students write associatively and without self-censorship in long form, or whether they write short responses to self-surveying questions, the experience can clarify one’s objectives, strengths, and weaknesses. The University of Oxford’s Preparing for Academic Practice website has a section on Getting through your PhD, and it includes a self-surveying tool that helps students reflect on their progress. It includes the following questions.

  • How do you feel about your research progress this week?
  • Why do you feel this way?
  • What, if anything, didn’t you do this week that you wish you had done?
  • Why didn’t you do this?
  • What can you do to ensure that you do this in the future?
  • What are your priorities for next week?

Self-assessment can be much more detailed and in depth than McGill’s progress tracking forms would suggest. Supervisors or entire departments could organize open dialogues on the wide variety of extracurricular activities that contribute directly or indirectly to research progress, academic development, and complementary skill acquisition. Evidence-based self-reflection can help too. For example, graduate students might compare their recent writing with their undergraduate essays, or they might compare their CVs with much earlier versions. They could reconsider the bibliographies of earlier research and so recognize what they have learned and how their interests have changed. Self-assessment is a way of teaching oneself that can be an important part of life in and out of academia.

Also consider using the Student profile proforma. This tool can help students to plot their progression through the experience of supervision through regular discussions with supervisors (see Aspland et al., 1999 for the source of this tool).

How broadly can we define monitoring?

You as a supervisor should encourage students to self-assess, but should also arrange other types of assessment to ensure that students get the benefit of the wide range of expertise in your department or unit. Many of a supervisee's activities in the department can be assessed, and supervisees can identify their academic strengths and weaknesses in the process.


There is ample evidence (Caffarella & Barnett, 2000; Kleuver, 1997) to suggest that students wish to receive concrete feedback on their progress, and those who do not are at risk of withdrawing from their studies or taking significantly longer than usual to complete. Monitoring is a way of enforcing timelines and giving students feedback from multiple sources.

While a supervisor or Graduate Program Director may arrange the monitoring of progress, it can also involve many other individuals such as the supervisory committee or department.

Assessment by student and supervisor or supervisory committee

Whether they happen each year or each term, review of earlier planning documents offers the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate progress. It can also help the student and supervisor(s) to identify and focus on what needs to be achieved.

Assessment by student, supervisor, supervisory committee and Graduate Program Director or equivalent

Arranging one meeting each term can provide the opportunity to encourage students to participate (students are required to hold at least one supervisory committee meeting a year). In this meeting, the student can self-assess and the supervisor can discuss his or her suggestions, perhaps to expand on written comments. Identifying any barriers to advancement may help supervisors and/or Graduate Program Directors to recognize where intervention could be brought to bear (e.g., helping student gain access to sources or resources, recommending training that will develop needed skills).

Assessment by the student and the department or other unit

Many departments and laboratories organize colloquia, seminars, or other presentations that can be informal or formal aspects of progress tracking.  When these events are organized well in advance and regularly over the years, they have many advantages.

  • Students present their work to an audience, and so develop confidence and facility in giving presentations and discussing their work.

  • Students receive feedback from a wide range of experts and fellow students.

  • Newer students can learn from the presentations of more experienced students.

  • Staff and students have an opportunity to hear about all the research interests of others in the department or lab.

  • Supervisors can get a sense of the quality of their supervision and the progress of their students.

Myth: "Monitoring is a waste of my time."

The monitoring of a student's progress is a substantive responsibility with positive effects on the student and supervisor. Through monitoring, students avoid delays, communication is formalized, and student-supervisor conflicts are reduced. The Graduate Student Research Progress Tracking Form maintains these outcomes while streamlining the process.


Research (Carson, 2007; Latona & Browne, 2001) suggests that when these reports are undertaken seriously by the student, supervisors, and the department, they can contribute substantially to research progress and reduce time to completion of the degree. They can also help to prevent conflicts between supervisors and supervisees by clarifying expectations and formalizing communication.

In the 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys at McGill, several professors remarked that the greatest benefit of research progress tracking in satisfactory cases is the formal occasion to meet and reflect on accomplishments and goals. Supervisors can encourage their students to practise regular self-assessment and to recognize how critique informs academic life. Students sometimes find it difficult to engage with the idea of progress tracking because they may not see the potential benefits it offers them, but most writers in the field suggest the following as being critical to supporting students with the progress of their project.

  • Helping students to break down a three or four year project into manageable chunks;

  • Ensuring students develop time and project management skills;

  • Checking students' self-management skills - avoiding the self-sabotaging behaviours that some students exhibit;

  • Encouraging students to write early and often; and

  • Providing a supportive intellectual and research culture.

Carey Denholm (2007) suggests that in any review session it is important to:

  • talk about the purpose of the session and the time period;

  • ensure that all parties present remain within the boundaries of the review;

  • discuss what will be recorded and to whom any report will be sent; and

  • make explicit that the review is to assist the student to achieve their tasks and goals.

Pay attention to the contact that a student makes with you, e.g., if a student fails to attend a review session or a meeting, or cancels a number in a row. A supervisor would be wise to take action sooner rather than later. There is evidence to suggest that frequent meetings with supervisors are associated with student success (Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992).


2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys. Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies: McGill University.

Asplund, T., Edwards, H., O’Leary, J., Ryan, Y. (1999). Tracking new directions in the evaluation of postgraduate supervision. Innovative Higher Education, 24(2), 127-147.

Bowen, W. G., & Rudenstine, N. L. (2014). In pursuit of the PhD. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Caffarella, R., & Barnett, B. (2000). Teaching doctoral students to become scholarly writers. Studies in Higher Education, 25(1), 39-52.

Carson, E. (2007). Helping candidates manage their candidacy. In Denholm, C. & Evans, T. (Eds.), Supervising doctorates downunder (pp. 54-61). Melbourne: ACER.

Denholm, C. (2007). Conducting reviews of candidacy. In Denholm, C. & Evans, T. (Eds.), Supervising doctorates downunder (pp. 62-70). Melbourne: ACER.

Kleuver, R. (1997). Students’ attitudes towards the responsibilities and barriers in doctoral study. New Directions for Higher Education, 99, 47-56.

Latona, K., & Browne, M. (2001). Factors associated with completion of research higher degrees (higher education series). Canberra: DETYA, Higher Education Division.

Further Reading

Taylor, S., & Beasley, N. (2005). A handbook for doctoral supervisors. London: Routledge.


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

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