How to supervise effectively

As a supervisor, you can take on a number of different roles. Some situations may require specific roles, or a mixture of roles. This page gives guidance on which roles you can take as a supervisor and how to employ them.

Supervision as a form of education

A lot of teachers concur on the proposition that supervision should be considered a form of education.

Bob Connell (1985), professor of educational science, states that it is the highest and most advanced form of education and very much focussed on didactics. Others (e.g. Green & Lee, 1995) are more reluctant and state that supervision is more related to nurturing personal growth: it is about showing a novice the ways of thinking, the doctrine of a field, and thus focussed on the pedagogy. A third group (Knowles, 1999) sees supervision as a form of critically conversing between the junior professional and the experienced supervisor, emphasising the professional role.

Roles of the supervisor

Whichever (combination of) supervision a teacher may lean towards, different students, different faculty and different context may ask for a mixture of different supervisory roles from the teacher. Jacobi (1991) stated that consensus exists amongst professionals in higher education, management and psychology on the most typical functions of a supervisor: to support, guide, reveal sources, showing possibilities, to provide information, to protect, to stimulate finding knowledge and to be a role-model. Oost (2008) distilled several main roles for a supervisor from different sources.

Role categories Supervisory roles
Education Teacher, trainer, coach
Consultation Expert, advisor


Guide, foreperson, ‘compass’
Monitoring Manager, instructor
Assessing Commentator, examiner, gate-keeper
Motivational Counsellor, supporter
Pedagogical Wise colleague


How to employ different supervisory roles

The big question is: how do I, as a supervisor, employ these roles? The answer to this question is based on a variety of matters (Oost, 2008). The first one is the topic that is mentioned earlier: is supervision a form of educational, mostly pedagogical or a professional relationship? The others are the following.

The goal of research

Research projects, such as a master thesis, could serve several different purposes for a course at the same time. First, it could function as an examination or evaluation of a skill-level. In this case, the supervisor is expected to mainly inform the student (via feedback) of its current performance-level regarding this skill (Millius et al., 2001). Second, if the research project primarily serves as an educational form, the supervisor should take on three primary responsibilities (Zhao, 2003; Milius et al., 2001, Simons et al., 2001)

  • Explicitly focus on the student’s research skills
  • Help the student to reflect on earlier gained experiences by using theory or methodology
  • Use research as a vehicle to reach other learning objectives (such as planning)

Supervisor expectations of students

Three different aspects should be considered here (Oost, 2008): First, supervisors should be aware of their own implicit expectations of their students and expressly convey those. Second, students and supervisors tend not to have aligned expectations. Third, exploring, discussing and agreeing on expectations on different levels has a positive effect on the quality of research.

Student expectations of supervisors

Philips & Pugh, 1987 state that students want their supervisor to be a mentor. This, because mentors show different behaviours which study has shown lead to student satisfaction and success.

Provide guidance, support Be knowledgeable
Read the students work Keep the student's career perspective in mind
Be available Be friendly, open
Provide constructive feedback Provide opportunities to exchange ideas
Don't phone during meetings Be proactive and interested by suggesting materials


Faculty’s role

Supervisors and students alike need several prerequisites in order to successfully navigate a research project (Oost, 2008): First, only let students start with a research project when they have met all the required conditions. Second, make sure the supervisors are trained in providing supervision. Last, make sure the communication is in order regarding procedure and protocol and to make specialist help available.


  • Connell, R. W. (1985). How to Supervise a PhD. Vestes, 28, 38-42.
  • Green, B., & Lee, A. (1995). Theorising Postgraduate Pedagogy. Australian Universities' Review, 38(2), 40-45.
  • Jacobi, M. (1991). Mentoring and undergraduate academic success: A literature review. Review of educational research, 61(4), 505-532.
  • Knowles, S. (1999). Feedback on writing in postgraduate supervision: Echoes in response–context, continuity and resonance. Supervision of postgraduate research in education, 113-128.
  • Milius, J. J., Holleman, W., & Oost, H. (2001). Werken aan academische vorming: ideeën voor actief leren in de onderwijspraktijk.
  • Oost, H. (2008). Een onderzoek begeleiden.
  • Philips, E. M., & Pugh, D. S. (1987). How to get a PhD. A Handbook for Students and their Supervisers.
  • Simons, R. J., Van der Linden, J., & Duffy, T. (2000). New learning: Three ways to learn in a new balance, New learning, 1-20.
  • Zhao, F. (2003). Transforming quality in research supervision: A knowledge-management approach, Quality in Higher Education, 9(2), 187-197.