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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning


Guidance on planning your online supervisions, including: inclusive discussions, feedback and supervision activities.


In this section:

Supervision activities and some alternatives

Key points

  • What form do your supervisions generally take? What types of 'activities' are involved?
  • How do you think that these contribute to your students' learning?
  • What alternatives or complements to live conference calling might be practical and effective?

When you’re preparing to supervise online, it may help to identify the types of ‘activities’ that you and your students undertake and how you think these contribute to your students’ learning. Some of these activities will translate fairly easily into video conferencing, and others may be more challenging in themselves, or may pose particular challenges for some students.

For example, during supervisions you might expect some time to be spent in answering questions, explaining important concepts or methods, working collaboratively to solve problems, listening carefully to students, guiding your students in discussing ideas with each other, giving students specific feedback which helps them understand what they have done well and how to progress, encouraging students to reflect on their learning.

We have developed an overview of some of the most common supervision activities and suggested some ways of realising these online. Most obviously perhaps, group discussion between students poses some challenges on a video call, such as encouraging all students to participate or balancing contributions between students (see also Guiding inclusive discussions and interactions). Similarly, there are challenges and workarounds for supervisors who normally use pen and paper to show workings on problems, or who involve supervisees in collaborative problem solving.

We have highlighted some common supervision activities, tools and methods, along with important considerations for accessibility for disabled students and those with neurodiverse profiles: Common teaching activities and some alternatives.

Inclusive discussions

Key points

  • Fostering inclusive interaction online
  • The challenges of conducting group discussions online
  • Creating structure and clear goals for discussions to achieve equitable levels of student participation

Undergraduate supervision is often described as a flexible, personalised way of teaching, with a strong focus on discussion and feedback which helps students to consolidate and extend their understanding and to reflect on their current strengths and how to improve. One of the most important teaching skills to have in a supervision is the ability to guide students in discussion, or in shared problem solving – and to do so in a way that includes all students in contributing to and learning from the class conversation. Fostering inclusive interaction online takes forethought and planning as well as consideration of what 'inclusive teaching' look likes in an online platform.

In online settings, interactions can be slow or fragmented, as the non-verbal cues of in-person interaction are absent or altered. Delays in the transmission of sound and images can also make interactions feel stilted and you and your students may need to take a little time learn how to engage in discussion online and to become more confident in doing so. Video conferencing can also amplify challenges for students and staff for whom English is not a first language, and for many disabled students, for example those with visual and hearing impairments and neurodiverse profiles such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD or Autism.

In an online setting, it is therefore particularly helpful to work on creating structure for discussions and problem solving. This involves setting clear goals for discussion, thinking about what type of questions to use and when, and listening and responding to students thoughtfully. Using focused questioning and responding can lead to more equitable levels of contribution and increased levels of student-to-student interaction. You may find it helpful to guide discussions by directing students to speak in a certain order or to respond to each other according to a sequence. Try to word your ‘instructions’ clearly and, where appropriate, to communicate them in advance: this is likely to help you plan an effective and engaging framework for interaction. Understanding the purpose and structure of activities in an online environment can be challenging. This challenge can be addressed by sharing questions and activities in advance; doing so is particularly beneficial for students with neurodiverse profiles.

&You may find that creating more structure for online discussions yields surprisingly good results in terms of richer, more creative and inclusive discussions. Several Cambridge educators who supervised remotely in Easter Term 2020 found themselves using more "controlled moderating of discussions" in which they "direct[ed] questions to students rather than [using] open questions" or allowing interactions to simply unfold spontaneously. Others noted a marked improvement in the quality of discussions: "I’ve found that the discussions are going well and may be somewhat more balanced than in-person sessions, perhaps because there are more pauses for quieter students to jump in, or maybe because more talkative students may realise that they’re dominating the discussion".

You’ll find more detailed tips on structuring discussions in Guiding inclusive discussions and interactions.

Supervision work and feedback

Key points

  • What work do students do in advance?
  • How do you give students feedback on their work?

If your students are completing work on paper, you will need a way for them to 'hand it in' and a way for you to return the marked version. If you’re using Moodle, you can set up the 'assignment' function; see the Moodle Basic Guide for Assignments (Raven login).

Students or supervisors may have access to a scanner. However, students and supervisors can download apps such as Microsoft Lens, to tidy up photos taken using a smartphone camera and to convert images to pdfs. Similarly, notes taken during supervision can be converted into pdfs and shared with students after the supervision.

Note: it is not recommended to send images direct from smartphone cameras: it is very difficult to avoid problems with angles, light quality – and it is very difficult for supervisors to annotate work submitted in this way.

Pdfs can be annotated using tools available on your platform:

  • Microsoft Lens (integrates with Teams)
  • Drawboard (Windows 10, additional cost)
  • Word (Windows or Mac)
  • Preview (Mac)
  • Google Drive (all platforms)
  • Xournal (Linux)
  • PDF Expert (Mac, iPad, additional cost)

You could also consider recording your (spoken) feedback on supervision work, using a voice recorder on a smartphone and uploading the file to Moodle. In addition, if a session is recorded in Microsoft Teams and the live captions are turned on, a time stamped transcript is created which you can view and edit in Microsoft Stream.

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We are continuing to add to and develop these resources - we welcome your feedback, as well as your own ideas and examples of tools and practices that work for you and your students. Please get in touch. 

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