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By Susan Carter

Last week’s post and its comments provide an entry point to this one. Last week I drew on Peter Arthur’s thoughts on how to teach metacognition, which takes the teacher further than just teaching material, to teaching students how to manage their own learning. Reflection on this topic took me to the fact that, in practice, supervisors are learners too when it comes to the cycles of feedback and revision in doctoral writing.

To stay with theories of teaching and learning for just a moment, I was grateful for the comments on last week’s post comparing ‘metacognition’ to ‘reflective practice’ and ‘executive function.’ Both terms resonate, show useful parallels and show that workerly self-management is hugely important.

This post asks whether there is a meta-metacognition term. We could use it when two people in an emotion-prone process like writing-and-feedback engage in attending to how they work together. Does anyone know any suitable jargon from relevant theorising?

Somehow we supervisors and doctoral candidates ought to grow more consciously aware of how to learn together. Peter recommended in his seminar that supervisors explain to students that they are giving feedback comments because they have very high expectations and know their students can reach them. Carefully worded statements prevent feedback from being harsh, transforming it into development. Supervisors do sometimes have to give critical feedback to protect their students, even when they know that students hate receiving this. It seems sensible to try to turn awkward writing feedback conversations into  meta-cognitive development for the student, enabling them to grow beyond the emotions, by explicitly talking about how learning works.

It takes supervisory metacognition to know to take care, though. I wonder how many supervisors have much insight into how their comments and actions are interpreted by others. Data from doctoral students [n 80] in a research project showed that a few students were aware of the need for a two-way joint learning project about doctoral writing feedback. One pointed out that, as much as supervisors could explain feedback protocol to students, “It would be good if my supervisors asked me how I was finding their feedback  and then I could them feedback on how to give feedback. I do not think it is possible to script an ideal two-way conversation in a guide for practice, but you can point out that doctoral writing feedback is a learning cycle, with reflection required from both partners.

One of my favourite metaphors for supervision comes from Gina Wisker, who compares it to

…a dance, matching different behaviours, learning approaches, and stages of the project, where each person needs to be sensitive to differences and changes, some of those conditioned by… the culture shock of moving into a range of new cultures of levels of work, kind of project, and kind of supervisory relationships, and increasingly, differences in cultural background (2012, p. 52).

This can be extended—I stretched it recently to note from a supervisor’s perspective how you might think you have learned this ‘dance’, but it varies with each student—the tempo and step-work may change substantially (Carter, 2016). The need to find ways to avoid crunching toes during supervision has long interested me.

So after drawing on Peter Arthur and Gina Wisker, and sharing a snippet of data, this post closes after a balcony view of the dance floor (see Heifetz & Linsky, 2012) of student and supervisor around writing. I’m curious as to whether others can add more to how a good relationship can be maintained when writing feedback is challenging.


Carter, S., Laurs, D., Chant, L., Wolfgramm-Foliaki, ’E., Martin, J., Teaiwa, T., & Higgins, R. (March 2016). Research Report Supporting Doctoral Writing: He ara tika mā ngā kaiārahi. Funded by Ako Aotearoa (National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence) Northern Hub. Available, with accompanying guide for practice, at https://akoaotearoa.ac.nz/doctoral-writing-feedback

Carter, S. (2016). Supervision learning as threshold crossing: When supervision gets ‘medieval.’ Higher Education Research Development. Available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07294360.2016.1160875?journalCode=cher20

Heifetz, R., and Linsky, M. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

Wisker, G. (2012). The Good Supervisor. 2nd Ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.