Teachers' Toolbox/Supervising and coaching students

This chapter describes methods you can use to supervise students and coach them through difficulties.

Different types of supervisionEdit

There are many synonyms for the different ways to supervise/teach students and the following is a rough overview, where some might use the words differently:

  • Project supervision - guiding a student through a project with maximum learning.
  • Personal coaching - mainly by asking questions and listening the supervisor helps the student to solve a problem, define a role and project, etc. and this can be both about 'professional' and 'personal' issues. Often the two will be strongly connected.
  • Study counseling - helping on finding a way in the educational system: what courses to attend, what level to choose and what future jobs etc this will lead to.
  • therapy - sometimes you will find that it is good to help people find professional help to solve the problems they are struggling with, for instance phobias.

Starting a new project for a studentEdit

Before starting any project its necessary to make a plan defining the sequence of things to do and the deadlines.

Planing a project step by stepEdit

A way to do it could be:

  • Define loosely what you think the goal of the project is going to be and discuss why it is relevant. You might want to examine some phenomena or a paradox, or test a hypothesis.
  • Make an initial brainstorm - write your ideas into a mindmap.
  • Search for information: Read articles, make a literature search, ask people you know.
  • Make an analysis of the problem so you can make a precise project definition (maybe you want to change the goal and start from the brainstorm again).
  • Structure the findings in a new and better mindmap with specific information about :
    • The questions you will have to answer
    • Definitions you will use
    • The relevance and importance of the various issues.
    • Potential conflicts and problems
  • From your mindmap, discuss the key achievements/milestones for your project and in what order they have to be done - turn it into a strategy plan.
  • Determine if some things can be done simultaneously or what to do if part of the plan fail - and when you need to make decisions about the future of the project.
  • Make sure everyone agrees on what, when, and how to do it - and how you are going to keep in contact in the group etc. A good thing is to write 'todo-lists' for everyone - bad communication and broken expectations are the main source of problems in project work.


Before starting on a project its very helpful to map out your knowledge or lack of knowledge on a large piece of paper to get an overview of the things you have to look more carefully into - Mindmaps are a very useful tool for this.

Start by writing the central concept in the middle of a piece of paper. From this you draw out branches as on a tree an put the key concepts you can think of around the central one - and continue this way with the subbranches. You can add arrows, crosslinks, colors, drawings or whatever you like that will help you convey the essential concept. Its a good idea to try and keep some kind of structure in the mindmap and have relate issues near each other - but its probably even better to try and make a new and more structured mindmap a bit later. Eventually a mindmap can slowly be restructured into a strategy for the project and a disposition for the final report.

Strategy -the project planEdit

The strategy or project plan is good to have hanging over your desk :-). This will remind you what, why, and when to do things.

Plan for investigations - Do not plan for goals, but plan for the investigations to be done leading to the goals: So do not make a plan like:

  • Build a rocket
  • Fly to the moon

But rather:

  • Thomas examines escape velocity requirements, Laura finds available engine types, etc.
  • Meet and decide the test rocket constructions
  • Milestone: Build 1 or 2 test rockets and try them out
  • Meet and determine the best type of construction
  • Build it full scale and evaluate
  • Milestone: Fly to the moon

Add some milestones to your project, that are the most important steps - its those that deserve a small party and an applause when done successfully. Its good for the team spirit to have something to celebrate -and do remember to do that!

Make detailed plans on time consumption - Though its only an estimate and we all know that all deadlines cannot be kept. Its necessary to estimate the time you have available and the time you are going to use on each part of your project. If something comes up unexpected you have to revise you plan and remember to do that together with all involved people since you depend on each other.

Avoiding problems - The above points sound time consuming and laborious, but remember they are only general suggestions! Experience tells that remembering these hints will make your life, and eventual writing of the final report, much easier and stress-free.

  • When you decide that somebody in the group have specific tasks, remember to write this down in the plan (and discuss if this will require special attention with regards to the final examination - you all need to know whats going on and why) .
  • Make sure you all agree on how you are going to keep in contact and when. Many groups end up having problems because of broken expectations, often due to misunderstandings about when and how the work should be done.
  • If you feel you're overloaded or you don't think you can meet the deadlines, call up the others and talk to them before they become disappointed that you did not do as agreed.
  • For your own sake, it might be good to write a little diary to remember what took place - a kind of informal logbook containing eg.
  • it can be a good idea to make a very very brief weekly 'Progress Report':
    • What did you accomplish this week? (add an image or graph to the points)
    • Whats your plan for the coming week?
    • Any new ideas or inventions we should think about ?
    • Any new articles we should know about ?
    • Any worries, deadlines, hurdles ?

These points would also be good to discuss at the group meeting or with your groupmembers/ supervisor.

Links to resources about project planningEdit

Starting supervision of a new studentEdit

The first meetings are important, because the define your relationship and expectations to each other.

Its important the supervisor evaluates the students level and realize what expectations the student has to the supervisor so they can agree on how the supervision should be done and minimize misunderstandings.

The more independent the student can work the more the supervisor can leave the teacher-role and become a counselor, move focus to asking how the student would solve a problem rather than telling them what to do and what needs to be done. In all projects this kind of development will hopefully take place naturally and stimulated by the teacher.

The supervisor should make the framework for the project clear - what is expected from the student and what methods would be suitable. Its also important to make agreements clear and follow up on them.

The student will make mistakes - and so will the supervisor probably - since we're all learning. Its important to keep the spirit positive and look at what can be learnt from the mistakes as well as finding solutions to make the mistakes as useful as possible.

The supervisor should emphasize asking questions to the student to formulate why one method or conclusion was chosen over another and to consider alternatives (that might not be good alternatives, but simply suggest alternatives to force a deeper thinking method of solving the tasks)

Its important to let the student 'own' their project. Its their responsibility and its in the end them that will be graded. As a project evolves and the student gain insight, they should be increasingly allowed to make decisions themselves.

The supervisor meetingEdit

For the meeting you should both be prepared. One way to do this is to have a little check list of possible things to discuss that you quickly run through before and during the meeting - not necessarily discussing each point, but keeping the list to remind you of possible issues to discuss.

EXAMPLE: An agenda for the supervisor meetingEdit

A list of discussion points

  • Previous meeting
    • What was decided?
    • How did it go?
  • Time plan
    • Are you on time?
    • Should there be made some changes?
    • What can be done to catch up on delays?
  • Next week and last week
    • What happened last week?
    • Whats the plan for next week?
  • Planning experiments and review of results
    • Has the investigation been done systematically?
    • Are the conditions relevant and well controlled?
    • What did you expect to see?
    • How does you results compare with literature?
    • Whats the comparison between theory and practice/experiment?
    • Are the results presented in a clear and understandable way?
    • How could it be improved?
    • Whats your interpretation of the results?
  • Strategy and long term goals
    • How is the progress compared to the plan?
    • Whats the status of the final product of your work (Thesis, report...)?
    • Any other products coming out of your work?
  • Studies
    • Are there things you feel you need to know more about?
    • Are there courses you follow we should talk about?
    • Do you have a job besides your studies and do you have time for both? Can your work or another job be fitted into you project work?
  • Issues/Bottlenecks/Logistics
    • Is anything hindering you progress or looking like it will at some point?
    • what can be done to avoid the problems?
    • Who is doing what to avoid the potential problems?
  • Feedback (person, team)
    • Do you need feedback on something specific you have made or something general?
    • Do you have feedback for the supervisor or team?
  • Cooperation
    • Is the team working well?
    • Hows your relation with the rest of the people in the class/department...?
  • Workload/environment
    • Is the workload acceptable?
    • Do you need something (instruments, support)?
  • Competence development (from an individual point of view)
    • Do you need to develop personal competences (projectmanagement, presentation skills, etc.)?
    • Do you need to develop your professional competences (techniques, knowledge, training etc.)?
  • Agreements
    • What should we agree on for next meeting?
    • What should we agree on in a longer perspective?

Some typical problems and hints to solutionsEdit

There are some general problems the students will likely experience, and various ways to help them through these.

After seeing a case a couple of times, its often natural to simply tell the student what to do when they're stuck. And given a list of problems and solutions as below its a pitfall thats easy to end up in -but remember to ask the student and find out what the reasons are in the individual case. Usually coaching a person to realize themselves what is causing their unwanted behaviour is the best way for a lasting solution rather than giving an order to do this or that, which only solves the problems symptom but not the underlying cause (but sometimes a quick trick for removing the symptom will make it easier to deal with the causes)

Where am I headingEdit

When working very intensely on a specific problem, people tend to forget the overall goal and loose their sense of time and direction. Its essential to remind them of this and the project plan is a very useful tool to use from the overall to the detailed daily planning.

Making plans take time, and in the beginning, making plans takes much more time. As you get used to it, planning becomes a natural process you don't think much about, and having a long term goal clearly in mind is very motivating.

The long term goals you make in your project plan will very likely change as you learn during the project and find smarter ways or planned things that turn out to be impossible - this happens in all projects and our lives all the time. The key point is continuously adjusting the long term goal :-)

The writers blockEdit

Everybody experiences the writers block. There a lot of ideas roaming you head and they are just not getting down on that blank piece of paper as they should.

A mind map is a very useful tool to structure the roaming thoughts and bring a system in the chaos.

One trick the supervisor can do is a 'deadline by surprise'. On the day you have arranged a meeting about something, find out if the student has some time before, and then demand that they in the meeting which is just in a few hours present you with the best they can for the thing they are stuck on -its should not be perfect in any way, but its should be all they can do in the time available, and they should not work on anything else than that. This immediate surprise deadline often makes them write something quite useful, and you have the meeting to discuss it, after which they have a starting point and precise things to improve in the draft based on your discussion. Its often works surprisingly well.

The dispositionEdit

If they have to deliver a final report, its a good idea to demand a disposition and introductory chapter at the very beginning of the project. This will make the student think about the task and write it down.

Whats going to happen after my studyEdit

Often students get disillusioned by not knowing what they are going to do after their study. Ask them about their plans and hopes - and find out if theres a problem in this that makes them loose focus from the present project they are in.

The self-imposed high-achiever blockEdit

A lot of students meet the self-imposed high-achiever block (well, most people writing on anything seem to meet it at some point). Wanting to do well, they set unrealistic hopes for what their project and report should encompass. A 1 year masters project will never be able to deliver as much material as a 4 year PhD project and it should not. Trying to extend the masters project beyond the natural length of it by various dispensations simply to gain time to 'make it perfect' is often not a good idea. The aim must largely be to complete the project in the designated time, and the supervisor should emphasize that and make sure the student understand the expectations the institution and teachers have to them!

A typical course of a student projectEdit

The typical planned steps the typical activity the typical problem and the hard solution

A typical course in a longer student project
Planned steps Activity Problem Solution?
Introduction, getting an overview What am I doing here - wheres the bottles, the pens, the paper, the toilet and why doesn't my PC work? Often unnecessary long time is spent on settling in because a proper introduction is not given Of course we must learn to stand on our own legs, but suitable support will increase the learning
Starting the planned activities and studies Often actions are made with little theoretical foundation Its a kind of catch 22 - you need to have practical experience to know what you're dealing with and you need to have theoretical knowledge to deal with it well. Often people end up making a lot of results that later are useless because some important factor was not under control. Take a simple test case and go all the way through it to ensure everything is under control and well understood
Start writing report The supervisor asks for disposition, the student find lots of other things to do This can last very long and without the disposition, the student does not know what it is that will have to be delivered in the end and is likely to use time non-optimally. Sometimes its needed to trick the student to make it - 'deadline by surprise' works well :-)
Writing report At some point the deadline comes close enough for the student to start writing -all depending on individual personality. This is the hard time where the student realizes the many things that were overlooked during the investigation, because now they are building up an overview of the project and background. Often further studies are needed to bring the results home and a lot of literature studies to see how others deal with it. Emphasize this to the student in the beginning of the project and help them to do the literature study during the project!
Finalizing the report Late night work and just before or slightly after deadline submission. This is where overviews are built and conclusions made, hard work and tough decisions, probably some final investigations to check up if it really holds etc. The best results are normally made at the very end and in a rush. Make sure there is time in their project plan to catch up on things. If the supervisor sets what seems to be unfair early deadlines for a draft version of the report to a preview and feedback session, chances are much higher that the student will have time to both learn from the feedback and do the suggested changes and also have time to improve on analysis and even do further investigations if required to bring the results home.


To help students, a supervisor or teacher can often find many useful techniques that are normally used for w:Coaching. To do personal coaching is not mentoring because you are not really giving advice. Personal coaching is focused on listening to the person and asking exploring questions that help the person to formulate and explain their situation. Just as making students take ownership of their own projects is very healthy for their learning process and motivation, the importance of asking questions until people make their own explanation and realization of what it is they want, seem to give more satisfying results than simply playing the role of mentor who knows better and tells them what to do with their life.

The tricky part of being a personal coach is to avoid imposing your own point of view on the person in front of you - and you will often fell that when you try to do so, the person will object to it somehow.