Feedback in doctoral supervision: a qualitative synthesis of the literature

Year: 2019

Author: Tai, Joanna, Bearman, Margaret, Esterhazy, Rachelle, Henderson, Michael, Molloy, Elizabeth

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Feedback allows university students to gauge how their work is progressing, direct their efforts and negotiate the social structures of the university. It has been reported as a critical ingredient in successful doctorate completion and positive student experiences. However, while feedback is frequently studied in the higher education literature, reports on its role and enactment within the doctoral experience are less prominent. While many studies focus on the experience of supervision overall, few focus specifically on feedback. Further investigation is likely to help institutions, supervisors and candidates promote positive outcomes from their PhD programs. Moreover, understanding how feedback contributes to successful PhD candidature provides insights for feedback research in higher education more generally.

We aimed to describe what is known about supervisor-candidate feedback practices as reported within the literature through a qualitative synthesis. We systematically searched ERIC, Academic Search Complete, Education Source, Scopus and ProQuest Central databases for relevant papers containing rich qualitative data. Fifty-six papers were included in the final synthesis. Taking a sociomaterial framing of feedback, we developed a framework for synthesis, which was then applied to the papers. Primary authors were from 14 countries, predominantly the United Kingdom (17), Australia (15), New Zealand (8), USA (4) and Hong Kong (3). They investigated a broad range of disciplines.

Five themes were interpreted from the synthesis: 1) the contexts of feedback practices; 2) how feedback is enacted; 3) the dynamics of feedback relationships; 4) what the supervisors and candidates bring to feedback enactments; and 5) feedback as a temporal practices. Key findings were that feedback was integral to doctoral supervision, and enactments of feedback were situated within geopolitical, disciplinary and institutional contexts. The relationship between supervisor and candidate permeated feedback practices; inappropriate exertions of power resulted in unhelpful and destructive feedback practices.

These findings support some contemporary institutional efforts to reform doctoral candidature, including the nomination of multiple supervisors, centralised support for candidates, and progress reviews to encourage regular feedback opportunities and development of longitudinal relationships for feedback. The research has also identified novel insights: that feedback talk itself is generative; that withholding feedback through neglect is an abuse of power; and that feedback can lead the candidate to learn about placating and conforming to supervisors’ ideals rather than to learn about and how to research. Stakeholders within higher education must be aware of and take steps to mitigate the negative and promote the positive impacts of feedback practices.