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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning

 
Students gathered round a table for a supervision

Research question

How do experiences and challenges of supervisions and supervision work differ between students with and without mental health problems?

 

Project team

  • Imogen Arden-Jones, undergraduate student reading Medicine
  • Eleanor Dunstone, postgraduate student studying Bioscience
  • Anna Freed, undergraduate student reading Archaeology

 

Project report

Report: Supervision Project (PDF); Mental Health Perspective

 

Abstract

This project investigated the undergraduate supervision system, which our team identified as one of the most important educational interactions experienced by undergraduate students at the University of Cambridge. We were particularly keen to explore the impact of supervisions on the mental health and wellbeing of students, and to identify the supervisory practices that most effectively supported students to enable them to achieve their full academic potential. We collected quantitative and qualitative data from our student peers through on online survey distributed within the team's three Colleges and the Disabled Student Campaign's social media network.

The strongest themes that emerged related to workload and work-related pressure, with students noting that they felt burnt out by pressure to manage their supervisions and that this had the most negative impact on their wellbeing. Students reported that they experienced uneven amounts of work across the Term, that their workload expectations differed per supervisor even with students studying the same course within the same College, and that it was difficult to negotiate flexibility or adjustments to this work, as the processes to address this were opaque and relied on students' self-advocacy which took time and had a negative impact on mental health.

Our recommendations focused on providing specific guidance and training for supervisors for them to support their students more effectively. While we argue that this is particularly important for the wellbeing and academic performance of students with mental health conditions, more inclusive supervisory experiences will improve the educational experiences for all students. We also found that a more coordinated student-supervisor feedback system would alleviate stress and confusion about expectations, including workload, deadlines and learning outcomes, while providing students with an opportunity to contribute to planning around supervisions.