Survey finds ‘impersonal’ supervisors struggle to remember their students

The survey also suggested joint honour students would benefit more from the system if they had multiple supervisors to represent all of their subjects

A survey conducted by Nouse has suggested the University’s supervision system should be more tailored to each individual student.

Image: Nouse

Image: Nouse

A common complaint was that supervision meetings are too “impersonal” and “brief”. One respondent said: “I have supervisions once a term. I sit down and he asks ‘Is everything going well?’ and I tell him it is, and he tells me ‘Great, see you next term.’”

Another student who completed the survey told Nouse: “My supervisor meetings happen termly and have always lasted less than five minutes and are generic and not personal to me. It is apparent he tells the same person exactly the same thing in each meeting.”

A third respondent said: “My supervisor never seems to remember who I am and our previous meetings. I don’t feel as though it is as personal as it ought to be and I would be more likely to approach a friendly tutor with issues, rather than my supervisor.”

A dyslexic student who completed the survey said: “My supervisor, no matter how many times I introduced myself, would not remember my name or what year I am in.” The student went onto to call their supervisor “useless”, adding that they were “no help on anything and as a dyslexic would not give me any help in finding out about extra time.”

Another student with dyslexia said: “ I was struggling with a deadline last year to the point that I was only working on it every day. I could have got extra time being dyslexic but I did not know this and she did not let me know about it when I told her I was having difficulties with the deadline.”

Several other students complained about their supervisor’s lack of communication, with one commenting: “I feel like [my supervisor’s] too busy to really commit to being a supervisor. I sent her an email last year asking if she could help me a little by discussing my module choices for this year.

“She replied offering to meet me a month after the deadline when my choices had to be in. She seemed to care very little for the meetings we do have and seemingly tries to make them as quick as possible.”

However, students were generally satisfied with the amount of contact they had with their supervisor, with 83 per cent saying their supervisor responded to them in a reasonable time frame.

The survey suggested that students are more inclined to talk to their supervisors about academic issues, with 91 per cent of respondents saying were comfortable talking to their supervisors about academic queries and 89 percent about academic problems.

In contrast, only 54 per cent said they would feel comfortable discussing their personal development with their supervisor.

Respondents also seemed reluctant to talk about issues relating to their health, with only 39 per cent saying they would discuss problems with their physical health and 30 per cent saying they would would feel comfortable talking about their mental health with their supervisors.

However, the University’s website states that a student’s academic supervisor “should be one of the people within the University that you can turn to for advice or help in relation to academic, developmental or personal matters”.

The results of the survey also suggested flaws in the way joint honours students are assigned supervisors. Eighty-seven per cent of joint honours students who responded to the survey agreed that it was important to be supervised by an academic with knowledge of all the subjects they study or have multiple supervisors to represent each discipline.

However, over half of joint honours students at the University said their supervisor did not teach or have an adequate knowledge of the subjects they studied.

One respondent to the survey said: “As much as I like my supervisor she has no idea what goes on in one half of my degree – often she is unable to access my exam results for the assessments not taken in her department.”

They suggested that the supervision experience for joint honours students could be improved by “having two supervisors (one in each department) or at least some sort of departmental contact”.

The number of joint honours students who said they are ‘very satisfied’ with their supervisor was almost half the number of single honours students who said are.

Thirty-five per cent of single honours students said they were ‘very satisfied’ compared with 19 per cent of joint honours students, although when the number of people who said they were “very satisfied” is added to the number of people who said they were “satisfied”, satisfaction levels appear roughly the same for single and joint honour students.

In total, only 14 per cent of respondents reported being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their supervisor, compared to 66 per cent who said they were satisfied or very satisfied.

One student said: “I do not have the superlatives to describe my supervisor – totally knowledgeable and always happy to help, he’s been utterly brilliant.”

Suggestions for improvements to the supervision system improvements ranged from “more structured feedback and meetings” to “more guidance given to supervisors about what they should be looking out for”.

Just over a quarter of respondents said their supervisor had gone on research leave before. Some students noted that it had little effect, while others were left annoyed by inconveniences such as lack of contact with their replacement supervisors and “unanswered questions”.

One student who diagnosed with depression while their supervisor was on research leave said “[I] felt I had no one to talk to.

“The supervisor I have spent a month building a [rapport] with was suddenly gone and in the state I was in it was extremely difficult to build a similar [rapport] with the replacing supervisor.”

George Offer, Academic Officer told Nouse: “Personal Supervisors are fantastic and can really make your university experience, embedding students as part of the academic community.

“It’s great to see many people are happy but it’s also clear this is an area of ongoing work.

“This year Jemima and I have been working with students and Student Support Services to re-develop supervisor resource‌s to ensure a consistent level of quality in supervision and a more personal student centered approach across campus.”

In response to the survey, a University spokesperson told Nouse: “The University welcomes the survey’s findings that students are generally satisfied with their supervisors.

“Nevertheless, we are continuing to address various areas of supervision improvement to ensure consistency across the institution.”

The survey collected data from over two hundred and fifty students across a range of departments.

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