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Thursday, July 4 • 10:45am - 11:25am
Tracing a supervisor-student developmental journey through the tracking feedback 'conversations'

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Feedback between doctoral students and supervisors plays a significant role in the development of both the student’s knowledge and ‘voice’, and the thesis itself. The developmental role of feedback is well documented in research on assessment, although much of it focuses on feedback to undergraduate students (see, for example, Poulos & Mahony, 2008; Orsmond & Merry, 2013). Feedback to postgraduate students, and specifically at doctoral level, is less well-documented. Instead, the focus tends to be on the different styles and approaches to supervision (see Lee 2008). How supervisors’ feedback may enable the development of the student’s ‘voice’ remains on the margins.

A starting point for this study is that supervision is a pedagogical practice, in which student and supervisor are peers, the latter guiding the former to become an independent, knowledgeable scholar (Gurr, 2001). This means that supervision has a role beyond helping the student to write a thesis; it has to model different forms of scholarly engagement with knowledge. One of the primary ways in which supervisors can, and do, model scholarly thinking, writing and ‘voice’ development is through feedback to their students, both written and verbal, and moving from this to enable a feedback dialogue between themselves and their student (Lee, 2008).

Yet, supervisors, similar to undergraduate lecturers and tutors (see van Heerden, 2018), are seldom taught how to give formative feedback. Even those supervisors who understand their pedagogical role may struggle to offer feedback that both informs the student’s development adequately, and creates incrementally greater spaces for students to make their own decisions and claim autonomy. The temptation to ‘write over’ the student’s work or insert the supervisor’s own voice in the student’s text is difficult to resist, especially when supervision is narrowly understood as the process that produces a competent thesis.

This paper wishes to argue for an understanding of postgraduate feedback as a formative, developmental and incremental process, in which student and supervisor engage in dialogues about the student’s writing and thinking processes that shift over the course of the doctorate towards the student claiming their voice more fully. Analysing ‘conversations’ constructed, quite literally, in the margins of a doctoral thesis, between a supervisor and her student, we will track the development of the student’s voice primarily in two ways: in the evolving argument of the thesis, and in the ability of the student to respond to the supervisor’s feedback.

Using Semantics, the paper will analyse a series of feedback conversations across two years of the PhD, within the drafting of one of the thesis chapters. Semantic gravity (SG) is used to discuss the relative connection between the feedback and the specific writing task ahead of the student (i.e. SG- refers to knowledge and understanding related to the thesis, but in the context of wider voice and scholarly development; SG+ refers to comments about specific revisions and issues within the chapter). Semantic density (SD) is used to discuss the relative density of actions implied in the feedback in terms of responding to it (i.e. SD- implies easy to act on or simpler feedback requirements, and SD+ implies feedback that requires several steps in unpacking feedback, identifying steps and acting on these).

It is hard to capture feedback in semantic waves (see van Heerden, 2018); however, semantic gravity and semantic density can be productive in tracing, over time, the evolution of a dialogic feedback relationship between this student and her supervisor. Tracing the development of the student’s voice over time can shed light on, firstly, the kind of feedback supervisors can offer students to formatively develop their voice and thinking, and secondly, to illustrate the ways in which doctoral student growth is one side of a two-sided process. The other side, ideally, should be supervisor development and learning.

Thursday July 4, 2019 10:45am - 11:25am
Room B45

Attendees (8)