How to supervise effectively

As a supervisor, you can take on a number of different roles. Different students, different faculties and different contexts may ask for a mixture of different supervisory roles from you. This page will first outline these different roles, and subsequently, focus on how you can employ these different roles.  

Why supervision is useful

In higher education, supervision is a key element for growth, and therefore the success of (research) students (Garvis & Pendergast, 2012). However, the supervision relationship is multilayered and complex. It is therefore important to explore these different layers of supervision (i.e., the roles of a supervisor), and understand how these contribute to students' growth and success.   

Roles of the supervisor

Consensus exists amongst professionals in higher education, management and psychology on the most typical functions of a supervisor: 

  • to support,
  • to guide,
  • to reveal sources,
  • to show possibilities,
  • to provide information,
  • to protect,
  • to stimulate finding knowledge, and
  • to be a role-model (Jacobi, 1991).

From different sources, the main roles for a supervisor were distilled (Oost, 2008). 

Role categories Supervisory roles
Education Teacher, trainer, coach
Consultation Expert, advisor
Direction Guide, foreperson, 'compass'
Monitoring Manager, instructor
Assessing Commentator, examiner, gate-keeper
Motivational Counsellor, supporter
Pedagogical Wise colleague

How to employ different supervisory roles

To explain how different supervisory roles can be employed, a variety of matters have to be considered (Oost, 2008). 
Firstly, the supervisory role might depend on the type of relationship with students: is it educational, mostly pedagogical, or a professional relationship?
Other matters to be considered are:

  • the goal of the research,
  • mutual expectations of supervisor and students, and
  • the role of the faculty.

The goal of research

Research projects, such as a master thesis, could serve several different purposes for a course at the same time. 

  • Firstly, 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 his/her current performance-level regarding this skill (Millius et al., 2001). 
  • Secondly, 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): 
    1. explicitly focus on the student’s research skills, 
    2. help the student to reflect on earlier gained experiences by using theory or methodology, and 
    3. use research as a vehicle to reach other learning objectives (such as planning). 

Supervisors' expectations of students

Regarding the supervisors' expectations of students, three different aspects should be considered (Oost, 2008). 

  • Firstly, supervisors should be aware of their own implicit expectations of their students and expressly convey those.
  • Secondly, students and supervisors tend not to have aligned expectations. 
  • Thirdly, exploring, discussing and agreeing on expectations on different levels has a positive effect on the quality of research.

Student expectations of supervisors

Philips and Pugh (1987) state that students want their supervisor to be a mentor. Mentors show different behaviours which study has shown lead to student satisfaction and success. These different behaviours are listed below.

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

Role of the faculty

Supervisors and students alike need several prerequisites in order to successfully navigate a research project (Oost, 2008). 

  • Firstly, only let students start with a research project when they have met all the required conditions. 
  • Secondly, make sure the supervisors are trained in providing supervision. 
  • Lastly, make sure the communication is in order regarding procedure and protocol and to make specialist help available.

Relevant resources


  • Garvis, S., & Pendergast, D. (2012). The Importance of Supervision in Higher Education: Key Lessons Learnt from a Relational Approach. In S. Garvin & R. Dwyer (Eds.), Whisperings from the Corridors (pp. 25-34). Sense Publishers. 
  • Jacobi, M. (1991). Mentoring and Undergraduate Academic Success: A Literature Review. Review of Educational Research, 61(4), 505-532.  
  • Milius J. J., Oost H., Holleman J. W., & Admiraal W. F. (2001). Werken aan academische vorming : ideeën voor actief leren in de onderwijspraktijk. IVLOS.
  • Oost, H. (2008). Een onderzoek begeleiden. ThiemeMeulenhoff bv.
  • Philips, E. M., & Pugh, D. S. (1987). How to get a PhD. A Handbook for Students and their Supervisers. Open University Press.
  • Simons, R. J., Van der Linden, J., & Duffy, T. (2000). New learning: Three ways to learn in a new balance. In R. J. Simons, J. Van der Linden, & T. Duffy (Eds.), New Learning (pp. 1-20). Kluwer Academic Publishers.  
  • Zhao, F. (2003). Transforming Quality in Research Supervision: A knowledge-management approach, Quality in Higher Education, 9(2), 187-197.