Giving voice to doctoral candidate responses to examiner feedback

Year: 2021

Author: Holbrook, Allyson

Type of paper: Symposium

Research into doctoral examination accounts for a relatively small component of a rapidly growing field of literature in doctoral and researcher development.  Various studies have identified the characteristics of written feedback in doctoral examination and what examiners intend or expect will happen after their feedback has been received. The role supervisors play in the final stages is less directly explored, although research has shown that the level of support supervisors provide is proportional to the skills of the candidate, with supervisor guidance generally decreasing as the candidate acquires mastery and independence. Our own research is directed to Australian examination processes including the role of examination committees and supervisors in calibrating examiners’ summative judgements and interpreting and responding to examiner feedback, and how candidates react to and learn from feedback. The research is directed toward informing supervisor training, examination, and feedback practices. In general terms both supervisors and doctoral graduates express satisfaction with examination process, however many candidates experience mixed if not entirely negative emotions about examiner comment. Some authors have suggested that once the thesis is submitted, candidates draw a line under it, and essentially want to see thesis examination as wholly summative. This paper examines cases of candidate experience of receiving and working with examiner reports and what they felt during the process. Participants were identified during the questionnaire phase of the project. The 32 selected for interview were chosen to reflect a range of candidate outcomes and examination circumstances.  Although none of the participants failed outright, a small number were required to revise and resubmit, and a small number passed outright. Candidates told their story from time of submission to graduation. This narrative was probed to identify the type of information and communication they received from their institutions, supervisors and possibly others. The transcripts were examined initially as narratives and transformed into vignettes to capture sequence, process, and key feelings and reactions They were additionally analysed for content and themes.Candidate reactions to examiner reports and the time they take to respond to them relate to individual and institutional factors.  Individual factors include perception of readiness and confidence at time of submission; relationship with supervisors during the examination period, and experience in receiving and dealing with critique and peer review. Institution factors include organisation and supports, sequence and style of communication, and degree of direction and connectedness between committees, supervisors, and candidate. The findings presented illuminate candidate anxieties in relation to expectations and realities of examination and about the supervisor’s role in relation to decisions and action. They also offer insights into candidate receptivity to feedback and opportunity to act autonomously in the process of correction and revision. Given that it can take some months to receive reports candidates can feel disconnected from their thesis. This phenomenon of disconnection warrants further attention in connection to fairness of process and usefulness of feedback.