Inspirational Teaching: What does it mean?


This year I was fortunate enough to be nominated and subsequently awarded an Inspirational Research Supervisor Award by my University. What is lovely about receiving such an accolade is that your research students are the ones that nominate you. One hundred and forty six nominations were received this year from approximately 700 research degree students of which only five supervisors received the Inspirational Research Supervisors Award- and I was one of those lucky five.

After the initial shock and usual worry that they may have made a mistake and got the wrong ‘Heidi’ (there are two of us in my Faculty I often receive the other Heidi’s e-mails by mistake). I started to think:

“Well this means I’m doing something right, right?”

I know what I’m doing, but I’m not sure I know which bit of what I’m doing inspires and encourages my students.

“I’m not lost for I know where I am. But, however where I am maybe lost”
A.A. Milne Winnie-the-Poo

The thing is, being called an inspirational researcher supervisor felt somewhat alien. Mainly because most of the time after each supervisory session with a student I question:

  • Am I doing this right?
  • I’m following my instinct and my experience as a PhD student, but am I correct to do this?
  • I’m also following my instinct as a trained healthcare professional with twelve years of hard labour in the NHS, and using all my inbuilt empathy, leadership, motivational and coaching techniques, but do these work?
  • Do my students’ learn and develop from our one to one discussions?
  • Do my students feel motivated, and enthused when they leave a supervisory session? Or do they feel despondent, deflated and mentally drained?

The list of questions to self is endless.

So what does being an Inspirational teacher mean? What aspect of the relationship I have with my students is the part they find most helpful and uplifting? Or more importantly what should I be doing in the future to make sure my students always feel inspired?

Being awarded with this title comes with an invitation to attend a number of events, a faculty celebration, a University dinner for awardees and presentation at the annual graduation award ceremony, not to mention lots of photos. The best thing about attending these award ceremonies is the opportunity to listen to comments made by students about other award holders. It is a truly uplifting experience to realise the impact that tutors/teachers/educators (what ever your preference is for the title) have on the lives of their students. I felt humbled to be in the company of individuals who could inspire their students to learn, give students an opportunity to develop in their chosen professional field, and encourage them to grow as human beings. So as someone fairly new to higher degree research supervision I really started to think about the pedagogy for successful research supervision. I have completed the Institutional research supervisor’s course, I know the procedures and the regulations, but what are the successful pedagogies for research supervision? So I undertook a small search of the literature.

I was delighted when my searching led me to a report from the Department of Education, Science and Training of the Australian Government on ‘The Pedagogy of Good PhD Supervision’. Unfortunately the ‘good’ in this report relates primarily to timely PhD completions. While timely completions are advantageous to the University, as a metric they say little about the whole student experience and the knowledge development that the student has attained during their PhD journey. Surely ‘good’ supervisors want their students to complete in a timely way but to also gain positively in both knowledge and skills during the process. Nonetheless, Sinclair in this 2004 report identified a ‘hands on’ supervisory approach as a key characteristic of supervisors where students complete in a timely way. The ‘hands on’ approach (as opposed to a ‘hands off’ approach where students are left largely to their own devices) assists students to negotiate the PhD journey, by providing a structure to the PhD period. Most importantly it seems to me is that in this process of providing structure ‘hands on’ supervisors build relationships with their students. Part of this relationship building includes development of agreement of expectations between candidate and supervisor and develops trust. Where there is trust in the relationship the student feels able to approach the supervisor with confidence and the supervisor is more able to identify when it is appropriate to intervene or refer the student to others with specialist skills.

In addition, Sinclair (2004) identifies some other key strategies of the ‘hands on’ supervisor in the first year of canditure that leads to successful student progression:

• Engaging students with other students in face-to-face and online cohorts.
• Integrating the student into the supervisor’s broader research networks and research groups.
• Developing the professional development of the student via support for preparation of conference papers and publications.
• Encouraging frequent writing with rapid supervisor feedback.

These are useful strategies to employ, and I would say I employ all of these already. So in order to better understand what it means to be a good supervisor I’ve also been reading Pat Thomson’s blog ‘patter’ which I have found enormously helpful.

There are several useful posts on patter about the supervisory learning curve, particularly a guest post by Eva Bendix Petersen on ‘Learning to supervise: from training to pedagogy’. Her comments about what is generally missing from institutional supervisory courses resonate, what is missing is “conversations about pedagogy”. While Sinclair’s extensive research highlighted the importance of a ‘hands on’ approach with some specific strategies that are useful in the first year of study, the pedagogical picture presented in his report seems to be lacking a holistic element, holistic in the medical sense that is. For example, where do we consider the individual preferences and different approaches to learning of the student themselves?

In a different post in this series on supervision on ‘patter’- “supervision as an ethic of care” there is examination of care as a construct within the context of a supervisory relationship. Through theoretical examination it is proposed that supervision is seen as a caring encounter where both parties should benefit and both parties should contribute. The reciprocity is developed by 4 elements:
• Modeling- demonstrated materially.
• Dialogue- not just a statement of expectations but an explicit discussion of the care-full supervisory relationship.
• Practice- care like any other skill needs to be practiced and develops over time.
• Confirmation- supervisors like good teachers should emphasise the positive, confirming the students’ positive attributes, skills and potential.

This proposition of a caring relationship along with a framework of strategies such as those identified in the work of Sinclair (2004), feels like a more appropriate pedagogy to positively enhance the likelihood of a timely completion while maximising a student’s capabilities and fostering the opportunity for self-actualisation (Maslow 1971)

Now What?

While there is some research and some theorising about what makes a more successful or positive PhD experience for students I still felt like I needed to understand what my students want, what they like about my supervisory approach and what they feel they aren’t getting? So I asked my students to complete an anonymous survey; the results are unlikely to be generalizable, but here’s the crux of what they thought.
They agreed they had:
1. Sufficient contact to enable progression.
2. Sufficient support to allow goals to be met.
3. Enough feedback received to allow progression and
4. Rapid turnaround of feedback.
Interestingly here are some of their thoughts on what they feel helps:
5. Having a structured plan helps them keep to timescales, with regular prompts from the supervisor encouraging the student to keep to the plan.
6. Having a supervisor that is readily available.
7. Feedback given in a positive way that doesn’t overwhelm them.
8. Knowing the supervisor cares about their project.
9. Being challenged.
10. A supervisor that instils confidence.
11. Encouragement.
12. Confirmation that they may not get it right to start with but that very few students do.
13. Permission to fail and
14. Sometimes a kick up the bum!
Some of the comments made by my students in many ways replicate some of the statements made by intrapreneurs in a small study we conducted a few years ago (The 2INSPIRE project). An intrapreneur is someone who innovates within an existing organisation, developing and implementing novel solutions to organisational problems. Intrapreneurs that we interviewed also talked about failure, about confidence (or more specifically about self-efficacy) and about constantly being challenged in order to learn and grow. This makes total sense when you consider that research, specifically at PhD level is about innovating albeit at the apprenticeship level; PhD students maybe viewed as intrapreneurs/entrepreneurs in training. Hence it maybe appropriate to implement an intrapreneurial enhanced pedagogy for research supervision that I already adopt to help develop intrapreneurial behaviours in a traditional taught Masters module.

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
Maya Angelou

Moving forward
Is there pedagogy for research supervision that enables the student to complete in a timely fashion but that also meets the individual student’s needs for personal growth and fulfillment? Based on the discussion above I propose the following 3-point plan as a starting point in formulating pedagogy for research supervision:

1. A structured ‘hands on’ approach specifically in the first year (with an opportunity for the student to develop writing skills early on with constructive, rapid feedback).
2. Building a care-full relationship with the student in order to nurture student potential and the opportunity for growth. A supervisor that cares about the student’s project, is encouraging and supportive, makes themself available for the students, and helps build self-efficacy.
3. If you consider doctoral research as an apprenticeship for entrepreneurialism/intrapreneurialism then the student should experience challenge, should be given permission to fail (with opportunities to learn from failure in a supportive environment), have opportunities to build resilience, opportunities to learn from mentors and role models and be exposed to collaborative research to develop key skills relevant to post-doctoral career pathways.

In another blog (Mobile Learning: 7 key benefits of the MyKnowledgeMap mobile app and why you should consider using it) a colleague and I discuss a method to provide structure for students developing a research proposal through the platform of mobile technology. This short programme maybe easily adapted for use in the first year of a research degree, providing appropriate structure and the opportunity for rapid feedback beyond the confines of the supervisory session. Building opportunities within the PhD tenure for the student to develop entrepreneurial/intrapreneurial skills will enhance the possibility of the candidate surviving within a research career beyond the completion of the PhD. Utilising opportunities for learning from mistakes, learning from role models, peers and mentors and continually setting challenging tasks to take the student outside their comfort zone, may enable entrepreneurial skill development alongside the PhD. Providing an environment where the student can model resilient behaviours needed by long-term researchers (and by successful intra/entrepreneurs) may additionally prepare the student for post-doc research and beyond.

The hardest aspect of the three-point plan above I suspect is getting the right balance of care in the PhD student-tutor relationship this quote from Gwen Boyle struck me:

“The ideal supervisor has infinite time and unparalleled knowledge. She is patient and always available; she is understanding and constantly supportive.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t exist.”
Gwen Boyle

This is true, academics have many other competing priorities (funded research, teaching, team leader responsibilities to name a few) hence as supervisors we need to balance the needs of the student with the need (and requirement) to keep abreast of our own research and teaching commitments. While we don’t have infinite time as supervisors we can provide structure for our PhD students (especially in the first year), we can enter into a care-full relationship with the student, and ensure the student is exposed to experiences that may enhance entrepreneurial/intrapreneurial skills, maybe this will allows us to be inspirational research supervisors more of the time.


The one disadvantage of being given the award of Inspirational Research Supervisor is the photographs; there are lots of them. For those of us that are camera shy this is an appreciated but painful chore. In particular, it took the poor photographer an hour to capture a decent image for this board that is displayed at the entrance to the main building of the University. I think it was a hard day at the office for him and each time I pass this board I do cringe somewhat. However, the quote beneath the image from one of my students, well that always makes me smile.

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