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Studies in Higher Education
Vol. 31, No. 3, June 2006, pp. 299–318
ISSN 0307-5079 (print)/ISSN 1470-174X (online)/06/030299–20
© 2006 Society for Research into Higher Education
Multivoiced supervision of Master’s
students: a case study of alternative
supervision practices in higher
Olga Dysthe*, Akylina Samara and Kariane Westrheim
University of Bergen, Norway
Taylor and Francis LtdCSHE_A_168026.sgm10.1080/03075070600680562Studies in Higher Education0307-5079 (print)/1470-174X (online)Original Article2006Society for Research into Higher Education313000000June 2006OlgaDystheolga.firstname.lastname@example.org
This article describes and analyzes an alternative supervision model at the Master of Education
Programme at the University of Bergen aimed at improving research supervision. A three-pronged
approach was introduced, combining supervision groups, student colloquia and individual supervi-
sion. The supervision groups consisted of two supervisors and their Master’s students, while the
student colloquia consisted of the same students without teachers. The case study of this alternative
supervision practice is based on sociocultural perspectives on knowledge and learning, combining
theoretical concepts from Lave and Wenger and Bakhtin. The three arenas were found to supple-
ment one another: while student colloquia provided personal support, and served as a first filter for
ideas and texts, the supervision groups provided multivoiced feedback on student texts and encul-
turation into the discipline. Individual supervision provided more specific advice. Critical factors for
supervision groups were regular attendance, mutual obligation, structure and clear rules.
Supervision has been identified as an important factor (Phillips & Pugh, 1994), even
as ‘the most important variable in a successful research process’ (Economic and
Social Research Council, 1991, p. 8). Research supervision has conventionally been
conceptualized as an individual activity in the humanities and social sciences, and the
literature has to a great extent focused on the supervisor–student dyad. At the same
time several studies have revealed the vulnerability of the individualized supervisor–
student relationship (Zuber-Skerrit & Ryan, 1994; Burgess, 1994; Delamont et al.,
1998; Lee & Green, 1998; Yeatman, 1998; Dysthe & Breistein, 1999; Deem &
Brehony, 2000). Overdependence on the supervisor, lack of ownership and mismatch
*Corresponding author: Department of Education and Health Promotion, Christiesgt. 13, 5015
Bergen, Norway. Email: email@example.com
300 O. Dysthe et al.
of personalities were just some of the problems reported by both students and super-
visors. A major issue has been the difficult balance between authority and indepen-
dence. Several studies have raised the issue of authority and power, as well as what
kind of identity the writing and supervision relationship fosters in students (Conrad,
1994; Leonard, 1997; Lee, 1998; Johnson et al., 2000). Most international studies
deal with postgraduate supervision, but the issues mentioned above are the same in
Master’s programmes where there is a sizeable research component. This is
confirmed in two major Norwegian research studies of graduate supervision, one at
the University of Oslo (Lauvås & Handal, 1998) and one at the University of Bergen
(Dysthe, 2002). In this article ‘graduate’ is used to refer to the Master’s level and
‘postgraduate’ for the Ph.D. level.
The Norwegian Master’s degree takes two years to complete after a three-year
Bachelor’s degree. The Master’s has traditionally included an extensive research
project (approximately a 100 page thesis), and many students have experienced prob-
lems finishing within the expected time limit. After the Quality Reform of Higher
Education instituted by Parliamentary Proposition 27, 2002 (St. meld. 27), comple-
tion on time has become a high priority of the universities. To meet this challenge
there has been an increased focus over the last few years on improving supervision
practices both at graduate and postgraduate level. Since individual supervision has
been the main tradition at Norwegian universities, one of the measures taken has been
the adoption of contracts that more clearly define the roles and responsibilities of both
students and supervisors, together with workshops for supervisors (cf. Pearson &
Brew, 2002). This article reports on an alternative model.
It was decided to change the Master of Philosophy Education programme at the
University of Bergen from a sole reliance on one-to-one supervision by utilizing the
potential in group supervision and peer review. A previous research study (Dysthe,
2002) had documented weaknesses in individual supervision, but also recognized a
more collective supervision tradition, particularly in experimental fields, where the
Master’s students were integrated in research teams and where ongoing research was
constantly being discussed, including the Master’s students’ projects. This approach
was seen by both students and supervisors as an important supplement to individual
supervision. Since the discipline of education had no tradition of integrating Master’s
students into existing research teams, we developed a three-pronged supervision
approach consisting of:
1. supervision groups (2–3 supervisors and their Master’s students);
2. student colloquia (same students, no supervisors);
3. individual supervision.
The general aim of the alternative model was, on the one hand, to counteract the
negative effects of students having to rely on just one person for supervision, and, on
the other, to investigate the potential of group learning in the research and writing
processes. The particular aims were threefold: (1) to improve students’ academic
writing; (2) to provide support and help students solve the problems they encoun-
tered in the different phases of their research; and (3) to help students finish on time.
Supervision of Master’s students 301
This article presents a case study of this alternative model for the Master’s student
cohort of 2001. The students attended a full-time programme, but a majority of them
also worked part-time. The purpose of the present study was to find out how the
combination of the three arenas worked. We needed to gain a deeper insight into the
processes we had facilitated in order to get a more solid knowledge base for decisions
about what should continue and what changes needed to be made in our supervision
Sociocultural theory perspectives: Lave and Wenger
In this article we view graduate and postgraduate supervision as a vital part of the
process of enculturation into a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991;
Wenger, 1998). We endorse a social theory of learning where participation in a
community is the crucial aspect, and where identities are formed through shared
practice and mutual engagement (Wenger, 1998). Students belong to many commu-
nities of practice. They aspire to membership both in a wider academic community,
where values and practices are shared across disciplines, and in a specific disciplinary
community. One of the most critical practices to master in order to gain such
membership is writing (Lea & Street, 2000).
Students enter these communities as novices. Lave and Wenger use the term
‘legitimate peripheral participation’ to characterize the process by which newcom-
ers become included. Legitimate peripherality is a complex notion, involving rela-
tionships of power. It may be an empowering position for students when they are
given space and opportunity for more intensive participation, but disempowering if
kept from participating: ‘peripherality, when it is enabled, suggests an opening, a
way of gaining access to sources for understanding through growing involvement’
(1991, p. 36). Learning implies being able to perform new activities, tasks and
functions as well as to master new understandings, all interwoven in the social
Activities, tasks, functions, and understandings do not exist in isolation; they are part of
broader systems of relations in which they have meaning. … Learning thus implies becom-
ing a different person with respect to the possibilities enabled by these systems of relations.
… To ignore this aspect of learning is to overlook the fact that learning involves the
construction of identities. … Thus identity, knowing, and social membership entail one
another. (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 53)
From such a view of learning mastery does not reside in the supervisor, but in the way
the community of practice is organized and how the learning resources are struc-
tured. From their case studies, Lave and Wenger draw the conclusion that appren-
tices learn mostly in relation with other apprentices and that near-peer relations are
In their trajectories from novices to full members, students need enough legiti-
macy to be treated as potential members. The key issue is access, ‘access to a wide
302 O. Dysthe et al.
range of ongoing activity, oldtimers, and other members of the community; and to
information, resources, and opportunities for participation’ (1991, p. 101).
Newcomers need access to three dimensions of practice: ‘mutual engagement with
other members, to their actions and their negotiations of the enterprise, and to the
repertoire in use’ (Wenger, 1998, p. 100). Newcomers, in other words, need to get
involved in the activities of the academic community, to engage with the technologies
of everyday practice in order to get to know what counts as knowledge and how to
think, argue, write and speak within this culture. For Master’s students this includes
doing and evaluating research. Mastering the practices is an ongoing process where
productive activity, for instance, writing drafts, conducting and analyzing interviews,
discussing in groups, are dialectically related to understanding.
Lave and Wenger’s distinction between a ‘teaching curriculum’ and a ‘learning
curriculum’ (1991, pp. 97–98) is also relevant for our case. While a teaching curric-
ulum means directive teaching or supervision in the form of prescriptions about how
to do things, a learning curriculum means that situated opportunities for participation
are provided where learning is mediated by the teachers and others. The relation
between discourse and practice is crucial in understanding learning in communities
of practice. Lave and Wenger distinguish between talking about a practice from
outside and talking within a practice, and they conclude that newcomers need both:
‘For newcomers then the purpose is not to learn from talk as a substitute for legitimate
peripheral participation; it is to learn to talk as a key to legitimate peripheral partici-
pation’ (1991, p. 109).
Supervision is a communicative activity and needs to be based on theories of
language and communication. Although Lave and Wenger are concerned with the
importance of language, they have not developed any specific theory of communica-
tion, and we have therefore chosen to include dialogism in our theoretical basis.
Dialogism is not only compatible with situated learning, but is fundamental to socio-
cultural perspectives on learning, for instance, the idea that meaning is created in the
interaction between dialogue partners. We will focus specifically on two concepts
from the Russian theoretician of dialogue, Bakhtin, namely, ‘multivoicedness’ and
the ‘internally persuasive word’.
‘Dialogism’ as a term is sometimes used narrowly to refer to Bakhtin’s dialogue theo-
ries, but is more often used about a combination of theoretical and epistemological
assumptions about human action, communication and cognition (Linell, 1998).
Dialogism is often contrasted to monologism, because it represents an alternative
analytical perspective and epistemology: where monologism sees knowledge as a
given, dialogism sees knowledge as emerging from the interaction of voices (multi-
voicedness); and where monologism is concerned with transmission of knowledge,
dialogism is concerned with the construction and transformation of understanding
through the tension between multiple perspectives and opinions (Nystrand, 1992;
Linell, 1998). When learning is understood as participation in a community of
Supervision of Master’s students 303
practice, dialogic activities take place, both on an interpersonal level in specific
situations and at the level of sociocultural activities which transcend situations.
Accordingly, supervision practices include, on the one hand, specific dialogues
between the candidate and the supervisor, or between group participants, and, on the
other hand, dialogic activities involving, for instance, institutional routines, the use of
linguistic resources and repertoires, and ways of thinking, talking and acting. This
article deals with attempts to change both interpersonal dialogues and the situation-
At the core of Bakhtin’s use of ‘dialogue’ is the co-construction of knowledge
through multivoiced interaction (Wertsch, 1998). This is important for our under-
standing of ‘feedback’. From a dialogical point of view, feedback must involve active
participation from the student in order to foster the growth and transformation of
understandings necessary to be enculturated into a community of practice. Here we
find Bakhtin’s concepts ‘authoritative’ versus ‘internally persuasive discourse’ useful
(Bakhtin, 1981, pp. 342–348). Bakhtin’s concept pair offers a relevant distinction for
discussing supervision practices, because it combines an understanding of a person’s
dialogic appropriation of social languages and the ways outside forces assert their
influences. The authoritative word demands that the listener acknowledges it uncon-
ditionally. It binds the listener regardless of any power it may have to persuade him
or her internally; it does not demand free reflection about its content, but ‘our uncon-
ditional allegiance’ (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 343). In contrast, internally persuasive
discourse is affirmed by the power of its argument ‘as it is affirmed through assimila-
tion, tightly interwoven with ‘one’s own word’’ (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 345). Ideally
supervision provides internally persuasive discourse, but research has shown that it is
often perceived as ‘the authoritative word’. In order to make the discourse internally
persuasive, Lave and Wenger’s distinction between talking about and talking within is
important to keep in mind.
To sum up then, our three-pronged model of supervision is grounded in sociocul-
tural theories of knowledge and learning, and more specifically in Lave and Wenger’s
theories of what it takes to become full participants in disciplinary communities of
practice. Their concept of legitimate peripherality underlines the importance of how
novice Master’s students gain access through growing involvement, and the three
dimensions of such practices—mutual engagement, negotiation and practices of repertoire
in use—offer a useful lens for looking at how supervision practices are institutional-
ized. Dialogism provides us with a theoretical understanding of the importance of co-
construction of meaning in group feedback as well as in the dyadic supervisor–student
relationships; an understanding that is deepened through the way Bakhtin contrasts
authoritative and internally persuasive discourse.
The case study
The alternative supervision model in our Master of Education Programme spans
three cohorts of Master’s students. This article is based on a study of the supervision
practices during 2001–2003.
304 O. Dysthe et al.
Many of our students were initially sceptical about collective activities. A way of
creating a feeling of community among the students is to facilitate the students’
knowledge of each other’s research ideas and projects, something which develops
mutual engagement. The following measures were therefore implemented: (1)
students shared their project ideas in the writing workshops during the first semester;
(2) students wrote a theory-based article on a topic relevant for their research project
and presented it orally for everybody; and (3) students exchanged written reflections
about their project plan at several stages.
The case study is based on the experiences with Master’s students who started in
autumn 2001 (cohort 2). An external evaluation of cohort 1 (Handal & Monsen,
2003) had pointed out the need for clearer goals and more structure for students and
teachers. Based on this evaluation, in cohort 2 we established clearer rules and
routines, required more commitment from students, and included group supervision
in the Master’s programme’s teaching plan.
The number of participants in the alternative supervision model for cohort 2 was
11 students and 5 supervisors. It could be claimed that with such a student–supervi-
sor ratio, any pedagogical experiment was bound to be a success. Our intention is not,
however, to report a success story, but to explore the potentials and problems in
collective forms of supervision.
Twenty students were admitted to this cohort, but four withdrew early. Most of the
Master’s students were adults with a job in teaching, counselling or the health profes-
sions. Many of them continued working part-time while studying, even though the
Master’s programme was advertised as full-time, and this resulted in a high with-
drawal rate. Participation in the supervision arenas was voluntary for students, but
those who agreed had to sign a contract of regular attendance. Time constraints were
the reason given by the five students who chose individual supervision only.
The three supervision arenas
The student colloquia
The colloquia were organized by the students themselves from the first semester
(each year is divided into two semesters). The participant students were organized in
two colloquia groups of five and six students respectively. The groups functioned as
Table 1. Overview of the cohorts of Master’s students
1. (2000–2001) 2. (2001–2003) 3. (2003–2005)
Master’s students admitted 20 20 20
Withdrawals 3 4 3
Participants in project 12 11 16
Individual supervision only 5 5 1
Participating supervisors 5 5 7
Number of groups 2 2 3
Supervision of Master’s students 305
a weekly forum for discussion of texts and tasks connected to the courses in educa-
tional theory and research methods. In the second semester they were reorganized to
match the supervision groups, and, even though they continued to be used for discus-
sion of theory and journal articles, they gradually became more focused on the project
plan, and later on the research process and thesis writing. They met regularly once a
week during the first year, more ‘on demand’ during the second year.
The participant students were organised in two supervision groups consisting of the
same students (as in the student colloquia) and their supervisors. The first group had
five students and two supervisors, and the second six students and three supervisors.
Writing workshops based on principles of process writing were integrated in the
students’ study programme before the group supervision sessions were established.
We also included systematic training in feedback strategies. The students had chosen
their research topic, but had not formulated research questions before the supervision
groups started at the beginning of the second semester. The discussions and feedback
in supervision groups were strictly project-based, and catered primarily for the intel-
lectual side of students. The focus of the supervision groups followed the progress of
student research projects, starting with the elements of the project plan and ending
with the chapters of the thesis. The groups met every third week in the second semes-
ter, and once a month in the third and fourth semester.
During each supervision session only two or three students delivered texts for
comments (focus students). Before each meeting the focus students sent their texts
to the rest of the group with a note explaining the type of text and what they would
like feedback on. At the beginning of each session the focus students were advised not
to respond (explain or defend) to the comments made. The other group members
were advised to formulate their comments concretely and cautiously, and to refer to
positive elements in the text. Each session had a student group leader whose assign-
ment was to ensure a clear structure, and to divide the time equally between the focus
students. The supervision process ended with reflection about positive and negative
aspects of the session.
The 11 participant students received individual supervision in addition to being
involved in the aforementioned groups.
Method and design
The overarching research question in the case study was: How did the combination
of student colloquia, supervision groups and individual supervision function as
support for Master’s students’ research and writing process?
306 O. Dysthe et al.
More specific questions were:
1. What characterized each of the three supervision arenas?
2. What were the potentials, problems and special contribution of each arena?
3. What was important for good feedback in the groups?
4. What were critical factors for this model of supervision?
Data collection and analysis
The research focus of the case study is the students’ perceptions and experiences with
the alternative supervision model. The research questions as well as the theoretical
perspective adopted call for a primarily qualitative approach which aims at revealing
the way the research participants construct their reality.
The case study relies on data gathered from three sources:
1. Internet-based student questionnaire (December 2002): a questionnaire was sent
via email to the 11 participant students; 6 students responded. The questionnaire
was divided into two parts:
(i) closed-ended questions that addressed practical and organisational sides of
group supervision, with the purpose of registering the routines followed
(text form and submission, feedback rounds, leadership);
(ii) open-ended questions that addressed two main areas: (a) group supervi-
sion—the following themes were explored: context and practical organiza-
tion, student activity and feedback type, feedback content, student vs.
supervisor feedback, function and quality; (b) the three supervision arenas—
the themes investigated were differences and similarities in the arenas, the
contribution and influence of each. The answers were summarized and
grouped using the criterion of resemblance.
2. Semi-structured individual interviews (December 2002): one student from each
of the two groups was interviewed. The interview questions built on the results
of the Internet-based questionnaire, and focused on the following themes: group
relations, feedback, and contribution of group supervision and student collo-
quia. The interviews were taped, transcribed and analyzed qualitatively, drawing
on Kvale (1997). The data was first divided into parts and grouped under each
of the three themes. A meaning condensation and meaning categorisation
3. Recorded supervision group sessions from one of the two groups: four sessions
(November 2002, January, February and March 2003) were recorded, tran-
scribed and analyzed using a phenomenological method of analysis based on
Giorgi (1985). The focus of the analysis was on the main features of the group
supervision process and its influence on the students’ writing process. A sepa-
rate article based on the results of this in-depth analysis is being published
Supervision of Master’s students 307
This is a study conducted in our own culture. Dysthe was involved both in the plan-
ning and the practice of the alternative supervision strategy. Westrheim was involved
in the evaluation of the whole Master’s programme, which was done after each
academic semester, where the Master’s students evaluated the programme in an open
forum discussion. Samara, however, who made a separate investigation of the super-
vision practices, was a newcomer to the department in the autumn of 2003, and had
no stake in the approach taken. This was regarded as important in order to counteract
The case study uses multiple sources of data gathering, in an effort to triangu-
late the data. Moreover, a preliminary version of this article was circulated to all
the participating students, who commented in writing, particularly on the impor-
tance of the colloquia and how they functioned. Student comments are included in
this version. The authors also made an oral presentation of a draft version of this
article to the teacher group, in order to get feedback on interpretations and
The organization of the three arenas and what took place in each is presented in
Table 2. Table 3 provides an overview of the contribution and the feedback charac-
teristics of each arena. Student colloquia primarily provide students with a safe envi-
ronment, where the role of emotions in academic work is acknowledged. Group
supervision provides the most important arena for enculturation into the thinking
and discourse of the discipline, and individual supervision provides the necessary
Contributions of each supervision arena
Student colloquia. The students reported the colloquia as a place for exchanging
experiences, letting out frustrations and talking about both personal and research-
related problems. One of the dilemmas of the colloquia was how to balance the need
for support and the need for critical resistance that they all felt. ‘It is important to be
able to formulate your frustrations in words and put them in perspective by sharing
them’ (Informant 1).
The colloquia are described as a first filter or sorting arena for ideas and texts, which
later on might be presented in the supervision groups in revised versions. A quotation
from one of the student interviews illustrates this:
When I feel very uncertain, I prefer to bring the issue or the text up in my student group
first. This is a very safe place as we have got to know each other well on a personal level,
as well as our projects, and they will tell me if I am way out. I then feel confident presenting
another version in group supervision, where I know I will get many comments. (Informant 1)
308 O. Dysthe et al.
Table 2. Overview of the three supervision arenas
Student colloquia Supervision groups Individual supervision
Participants 4–6 master students 2–3 supervisors and their Master’s
students (4–6 in each group)
Once a week in semester 1 and 2; later ‘on
Every third week in semester 2, once a
month in semesters 3 and 4
Varies with stage of project; typically
once a month
Topics/content Theoretical and methodological concepts
First stage of written drafts: free-writes,
think texts, first drafts.
Personal problems and frustrations
Written drafts, maximum 3 pages
1. semester: project plan
2. semester: data collection, methods
3. & 4. semester: chapter by chapter
Late versions of drafts.
Longer texts (drafts of chapters in
Specific problems relating to
research methods, theory, writing.
All students could ask to present problems
or submit text.
Text from 2–3 students each time.
Texts distributed 3 days ahead
Typically written feedback,
discussed face to face.
Structure of session Loose, informal structure
Gradually more structure
Clear rules and routines
Purpose Personal and disciplinary support Project progress, help with specific,
common problems, inspiration
Progress, advice, quality assurance
Supervision of Master’s students 309
The student colloquia provided a structured space where the students shared their
fears of failure and their desires to succeed, their frustrations and their joys. It can
be argued that the colloquia had an important function in forming the students’
academic identities, because in this safe and nurturing environment they learnt that
the mixture of fear and desire, of failure and success that each of them thought was
particular to them, was a common denominator instead of an individual problem.
Learning to handle conflicting emotions, and to turn potentially debilitating fear
and ambitions into working energy, seems to have been very important for the
progress of the students, just as Lee and Boud (2003) have shown in another
academic setting. The emotional side of carrying out a research project and writing
a thesis is usually privatized and often under-communicated, but the colloquia
clearly changed this.
In the interviews students said that the atmosphere felt safer than in the supervision
groups, and they emphasized that the mutual trust students developed among them-
selves in the colloquia was also an important prerequisite for the good functioning of
the group supervision. The informality, openness and personal commitment to one
another that developed in the student colloquia, over time, turned out to be invalu-
able to the students themselves. They emphasized that only by being participants in
both types of group were they able to get to know one another well enough to develop
the close ties and commitments needed to combine criticism with support.
Table 3. Overview of contributions of the three supervision arenas
Student colloquia: ‘safe
Contribution Fellow students provide:
●a place to share
●a place for emotions
Supervisors and peers
●mutual engagement and
●ways of thinking and
●negotiation of divergent
●criteria and progress
●Low threshold (easy
●Real readers: ‘I don’t
●Peers are good at:
●High threshold (anxiety
of sharing unfinished
●Many suggestions and
●Models for peer
●Focus on overall
structure and on all
levels in text
●Focus on revision:
multiple versions of
●When is the text
310 O. Dysthe et al.
Supervision groups. Multiple and divergent voices were the feature of these groups
that was highlighted by the students, and it seems to be the very basis of the power of
the group. According to the students, supervisors and students contributed in differ-
ent ways; the first by providing solid academic knowledge and the latter, for instance,
by discovering new sides to established knowledge:
The difference between teachers and students is that the teachers possess deeper subject
knowledge. But on the other hand students come up with new thoughts … we can read
a book and ask new questions that those who have been reading it [book] for the past
10 years do not ask. (Informant 2)
The combination of these two types of contribution, as well the exchange of ideas and
perspectives, makes group supervision an arena for discussion and creation of new
understandings: ‘It is the interaction itself that is most productive, the sparks that are
produced, the discussion that initiates new thoughts neither of us had before. It is
some kind of magic that happens there’ (Informant 2).
The supervision groups served many functions, but we have chosen to highlight
multivoicedness and disciplinary enculturation as the most central. There is clearly a
connection between the two. The students were newcomers in the discipline, but
their voices were heard alongside those of the full members. Because there were two
or three supervisors present who commented on a great variety of student texts, and
took part in discussions ranging from methodology and theory to discourse practices,
students were constantly exposed to how representatives of the discipline reasoned,
argued and gave feedback on academic writing. Students appreciated this: ‘Actually
I prefer when there is disagreement among the supervisors; this helps me think better
and more critically’ (Informant 2). Another student’s suggestion for improvement of
the supervision groups was: ‘Teachers should disagree more often’. We think this
indicates that group supervision helped students see disagreement as productive
instead of threatening. With just one supervisor, the students are exposed to fewer
intellectual challenges, and they do not experience first hand the heterogeneity of a
disciplinary community, which is also an important part of enculturation.
The supervision groups emphasized mutual obligation and regularity. Our groups
consisted in principle of two supervisors and all their Master’s students, but partici-
pation was voluntary for students. There was, however, a strong contractual obliga-
tion of regular attendance once they did sign up. Students unanimously reported that
the strong obligation to attend and to participate actively, both in the form of giving
constructive feedback to peers and in the discussion, were important success factors
for the supervision groups. The organization, the structure and the leadership made
it impossible for ‘free riders’ to survive. We found mutual obligation, regularity, strat-
egies and routines and clear leadership to be essential factors in the functioning of the
Individual supervision. Even though we have not focused specifically on the individ-
ual supervisory relations, we will nevertheless highlight some tendencies. There is no
doubt that individual supervision played a central role. An important function of the
Supervision of Master’s students 311
individual supervisor was to secure the quality of the thesis. As reported in the
questionnaire, the students particularly appreciated that their supervisor: (1) had a
particular engagement in their project; (2) shared the responsibility for progress; (3)
pushed them to work; (4) gave feedback on long texts, often drafts of chapters and
the structure of the thesis as a whole; (5) highlighted quality criteria; and (6) told
them when the text was ‘good enough’.
The students felt that the supervision groups and colloquia took the onus off the
individual supervision meeting. Our findings indicate that: (1) less time was spent on
individual supervision; (2) it was not so critical if the chemistry between student and
supervisor was not perfect; and (3) controversies were less threatening. It can be
argued that students were less vulnerable if the individual relationship did not func-
tion since they had two other supervision arenas.
Characteristics of feedback in groups. Feedback on written text was the central activity
of the supervision groups. Most of our Master’s students have worked for some years
in a profession, most in teaching, special education and the health services. Their
strength is practical workplace experience, while their weakness is often in academic
writing and in giving feedback. Students argued that ‘Training in response strategies
was necessary in order to break old feedback patterns and help us find a balance
between free dialogue and systematic and prepared feedback’ (Informant 1).
The students in our study have the advantage of being forced into sharing early
draft versions, and of being in a group context where peers do the same. In the ques-
tionnaire we asked the students to list the factors for good response in group contexts.
Table 4 presents a summary of the results.
It is interesting that trust, safety, sensitivity and respect top the list. This tells us
that feedback has a very strong relational component that cannot be disregarded in
any supervision context, particularly in groups. All the students also underlined the
importance of good preparation for the group sessions, and their annoyance with
fellow students and supervisors who just improvised feedback. Because of increasing
Table 4. Master’s students’ list of crucial factors for good feedback/response in groups
Trust and safety Important in order to dare to reveal problems and accept suggestions
Sensitivity Equally important for teachers and peers. Sensitivity towards other
students, particularly the one in focus
Respect (a) Mutual respect, regardless of intellectual capacity
(b) Respect for the dynamics of the group process
Preparations (a) Good knowledge of the text. Preparation is a key factor
(b) Understand the needs of the writer
Structure and strategies Agreed upon routines and strategies avoid wasting time
Dialogue Dialogical response ideal in a group setting, but time consuming
Engagement Characteristics of engagement needed in response-giving: personal;
312 O. Dysthe et al.
student expertise, peer feedback became just as important as that from the supervi-
sors. The conclusion is that both are indispensable:
We have learnt so much about giving feedback and today I carry this with me as tacit
knowledge—I don’t have to think about it … The teacher may offer deeper feedback
because of his long experience and knowledge. But I miss a fellow student who is absent
just as much as a teacher—both kinds of feedback seem equally important. (Informant 2)
But, in spite of increasing expertise, the students reported that basic elements in good
feedback are easily forgotten, particularly foregrounding also the good qualities in a
text. The quotation below is from one of the student interviews, but was supported
in informal conversations with other students:
Our biggest mistake has been to forget the importance of positive feedback … We do not
have a culture of praise, and we become so focused on what needs to be changed in a text;
we need to make a mental note: Remember the positive feedback … without praise I lack
the motor which gives me energy to do the work ahead. (Informant 2)
In our discussion we will look at our findings in light of the perspectives and concepts
outlined in the theoretical section.
Master’s students’ legitimate peripheral participation
Students are on the periphery of the disciplinary communities of practice. They are
not expected to gain full membership during their two-year Master’s programme, but
certainly to gain a more central position. One of the major problems for students,
however, is ‘gaining access to sources for understanding through growing involve-
ment’ (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 36). The supervision groups gave our Master’s
students regular opportunities to participate in a forum where theoretical perspec-
tives, methodological questions and practical know-how of the craft of research were
being discussed at a level where they felt comfortable to contribute. They thus
became involved in activities and tasks that are central in the discipline. Giving and
receiving feedback in public, in particular, seems to have been an empowering and
identity-forming experience. With two or three supervisors present, they had access
to authoritative, but sometimes divergent, voices of the community. It was important
for the students’ involvement, however, that they had their own colloquia and that
they were in the majority in the supervision groups. The varied participation oppor-
tunities provided by the three supervision arenas together can thus be seen as an
enculturation process into the discipline’s community of practice, through mutual
engagement, negotiation in the joint enterprise and shared repertoires (Wenger, 1998).
Mutual engagement in peer projects and thesis writing as a joint enterprise
The joint enterprise for our students was the common goal of doing a qualitative
research project and writing a thesis. Mutual engagement presupposes knowledge of
Supervision of Master’s students 313
each others’ project. In an individualistic research tradition the autonomy of the
researcher has been held in high esteem. The training for independence started with
the Master’s project (Lee, 1998), and the accepted truth has been that Master’s
students needed to concentrate all their time and effort on their own project. Our
supervision approach challenged this view by asking students to invest time in reading
and discussing peer projects from the very beginning, and gradually the students
developed mutual engagement and genuine interest. One of our clearest findings was
that students benefited from involvement in fellow students’ projects. Many students were
surprised to find that reading and discussing peer projects was so useful for their own.
Engaging in peer projects turned out to be a bonus, not a waste of time, but the point
we want to make is that, when the goal is the production of individual theses, such
mutual engagement does not happen by itself.
Research work and academic writing at Master’s level are not isolated activities but
deeply embedded in the disciplinary culture. Learning the craft is therefore not
primarily dependent on skills training, but on enculturation and appropriation of the
thinking and discourse in the discipline (Pearson & Brew, 2002). The colloquia
groups set the premises for the joint enterprise by functioning as an arena for the
students to get to know each other, create a safe environment and try out their texts.
The response the students received on their texts, especially in the supervision
groups, gave them access to what a Master’s thesis in the particular discipline should
be like. This goal was common for all; the text genre the students had to master, the
way of thinking, doing and analyzing research, and the language used became the
students’ shared repertoires. The students became active participants in these reper-
toires, through alternating between the role of the supervisee and the supervisor by
giving feedback to texts following clear rules and routines.
The importance of repertoires
Repertoires, interpreted as shared rules and routines, are another aspect of commu-
nities of practice, according to Wenger (1998), and our study has confirmed their
importance for successful supervision practices. On the one hand, they were neces-
sary for the effectiveness of the work in the groups, primarily in the supervision
groups, but also to a certain extent in the colloquia. On the other hand, the repertoires
functioned as identity markers, and helped create a feeling of belonging to a commu-
nity. According to Saugstad (2004), a recent trend in supervision in higher education
is the informalisation and deritualisation of group functions. Our emphasis on struc-
ture and rituals goes against this trend, and we draw the conclusion from our case
study that this is necessary to make social forms of learning function well.
Multivoicedness, dialogue and co-construction of knowledge
The dialogic co-construction of knowledge is a strong, though sometimes underrated,
element in academic knowledge production (Rommetveit, 1996, 2004). Our Master’s
students’ surprise at discovering the learning potential of discussion and dialogue in
314 O. Dysthe et al.
the supervision groups tells us that there is a need to develop new forms of academic
practice where there is room for multiple voices. According to Bakhtin (1986), the
juxtaposition of voices is not enough; it is the tension between diverging voices that
creates the potential for new understandings. This seemed to be confirmed by the way
students talked about their experience in the groups. In both the colloquia and super-
vision groups, the students received response on their texts which came from various
perspectives, at times conflicting. This interaction of voices enabled students to crit-
ically reflect on the various perspectives and appropriate the discipline’s languages
and practices. The supervisors provided the norms of the discipline and expert posi-
tions that were not always in agreement. When students see that teachers disagree,
they feel more confident to do so themselves, and they learn this by participating in
the community of practice, not by being told. This fosters internally persuasive
Individual supervision moving from ‘the authoritative’ to ‘the inner persuasive word’
An indirect effect of the supervision groups was that dialogue became firmly estab-
lished as the communicative mode between supervisors and students in the groups.
We do not have sufficient empirical material to conclude that this influenced individ-
ual supervision in the direction of dialogical supervision practices, but it seems likely.
In a previous study of supervision the monological model seemed to be the default
model, not necessarily because the supervisor was authoritarian, but often because
the student lacked self-confidence and sought authoritative answers (Dysthe, 2002).
As our students moved between the three supervision arenas, they were able to try out
Our student informants clearly stated that they gained self-confidence from taking
part in colloquia and supervision groups, and that this helped them voice their own
opinions. A supervisor–student relationship is necessarily asymmetrical, because of
the difference in knowledge and experience. It could be argued that providing three
supervision arenas instead of one makes the student less dependent on his or her
supervisor, and shifts the power in favour of the student. In the Norwegian system,
however, the supervisor does not determine the grade of the thesis, as the examination
commission consists of an external as well as an internal assessor. This reduces the
power of the supervisor and also makes a partnership model of supervision more
One important function of the individual supervisor was to secure the quality of the
thesis. This presupposes an expert, authoritative position. But the criteria need to be
appropriated and become internally persuasive. The two other supervision arenas
provided spaces for this appropriation process, particularly because the student alter-
nated between the role of supervisee and taking a supervisor role as a peer reviewer.
The findings indicate that the three arenas supplement one another, as there was a
strong connection among them. In our view this warrants an integrated approach
instead of just individual supervisors, an approach where research and writing are
closely connected throughout the whole process, where the interaction of writing and
Supervision of Master’s students 315
talk is a systematic part in group settings. Multiple readers and discussion partners
provide critical opposition and thus help develop the students’ ability to handle differ-
ent perspectives in their text, and to appropriate the words of others, instead of just
relying on authoritative thinkers. This can be provided in different ways within a
programme. Our three-pronged supervision approach has proved one possible way of
doing this. One question that remains to be discussed is whether this approach is
worth the time for students and supervisors.
Time and other critical factors
There is often an element of idealism involved in experiments and development work
that makes the participants willing to accept increased workloads. When the develop-
ment phase is over this may become a problem unless the benefits are so obvious that
it warrants the extra time. In our case neither the outcomes nor the time spent can be
measured accurately, but based on interviews and informal talks with students and
supervisors, it seems clear that those who were involved thought it was worth their
time. Being active in three supervision arenas was more time consuming for students
than just engaging in individual supervision. They still preferred this model and
argued that: (1) it saved time in the long run; (2) it fostered a sense of community
among students and between students and teachers; (3) they learnt more; and (4)
receiving feedback from multiple perspectives helped them write more effectively.
For the supervisors, however, the benefits were not as obvious. In some cases the
supervisors reported spending considerably less time on individual supervision,
because their Master’s students were able to utilize group feedback, and developed
both independence and increased ability to self-assess. Some students with low self-
confidence, however, seemed to demand just as much individual attention from their
supervisors in spite of the other arenas. When the supervisors discussed the time
factor of our supervision model, the following elements were brought up as time
savers. First, a number of issues were now taken care of in the group sessions, which
otherwise would have taken time during the individual sessions, particularly the
‘teaching’ aspects of supervision: theoretical issues, research methods, writing
formats, genre demands and quality criteria. Second, because the student colloquia
and the supervision groups functioned as a first filter for texts, the texts handed in to
the supervisor were often more finished drafts. Third, because another supervisor was
familiar with the student project, it was easy to discuss problems, while sorting them
out alone might take more time. All the supervisors involved in our study were posi-
tive to continuing this multi-strategy model, but were equally clear about the critical
Critical factors and implication for practice
1. Motivation. As the students have little or no previous experience with group
supervision, motivation is particularly important. It is necessary to demonstrate
for them the value of participating in all the three supervision arenas.
316 O. Dysthe et al.
2. Engagement in peer projects. There has to be in place some systematic way of devel-
oping mutual knowledge and interest among students for each others’ research
3. Training in feedback strategies. It is vital to give students the tools they need to
succeed, particularly how to comment on each other’s texts. This also involves
teaching and training students in specific feedback strategies and skills and how
to use feedback in revision.
4. Commitment. Especially in supervision groups, mutual obligation and personal
commitment are essential. Regular attendance and thorough preparation need to
be built in from day one.
5. Clear routines. Supervision groups require a strict framework regarding the
frequency of meetings, text delivery, type and length of texts, feedback rounds,
6. Multiple perspectives. The advantage of having supervisors who belong to different
research traditions in the same group needs to be recognized. In that way diver-
gent voices, multiple perspectives and critical thinking are more likely to occur.
Students should be helped to see disagreements as productive and not threaten-
7. Realistic time allocation. To avoid overloading students and supervisors, the use of
time should be constantly monitored and discussed, the purpose of each arena
clearly defined, and texts for discussion carefully selected to provide common
points of interest for all.
Systematic use of supervision groups at Master’s level has been rare in humanities and
social sciences until recently, particularly in Europe. This is understandable in the
light of the individualistic research tradition. The autonomy of the researcher has
been held in high esteem, and training for independence started with the Master’s
project. The accepted truth has been that Master’s students needed to concentrate all
their time and effort on their own project. Our supervision approach challenges this
view, as it is built on the premise that joint activity will improve research training.
Because we think that learning to think and talk and write in the discipline is vital
to Master’s students’ success, this may very well be one of the major gains of our
supervision model. This is the closest students come to participating in the negotia-
tions of the academic communities of practice, as long as they are not members of
research groups. For the individual student, however, it is also vital to be directly
confronted with the norms of disciplinary discourse, and this happened primarily in
individual supervision, which thus provided the necessary quality assurance.
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