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Research supervisors: How to help students embrace uncertainty

Research supervisors: How to help students embrace uncertainty

  • DEC 2020
  • Tags Research

By Prof Ruth Albertyn and Dr Kathy Bennett

19 minutes to read

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Support for researchers-in-the-making
Embarking on a research project can be overwhelming for postgraduate students. The uncertainties they encounter along the way can either encourage them to pull out all the stops in the process of creating new knowledge, or they can be a stumbling block. If these uncertainties are not handled well, they could have a negative effect on the process and quality of their research.

What is the role of the research supervisor in all of this? Are they there to rescue? Or are they there to encourage students to embrace uncertainty and make brave decisions?

To find out, the two authors of this study – both of them research supervisors – undertook a collaborative auto-ethnographic study using retrospective meta-level reflections to gain insight into the ways in which they can help students. This allowed them to describe the sources and signs of students’ uncertainty, and to suggest strategies to guide these researchers-in-the-making through the research process.

What is the role of the research supervisor in all of this? Are they there to rescue? Or are they there to encourage students to embrace uncertainty and make brave decisions?

Dr Ruth Albertyn and Dr Kathy Bennett conducted this research for the journal article titled Containing and harnessing uncertainty during postgraduate research supervision.

Uncertainty can be a good thing
Experienced or personal uncertainty is a subjective, dynamic, cognitive-affective phenomenon, triggered by sources within oneself and in one’s context. The authors found that students’ uncertainty typically leads to one of three responses: not engaging with the research, adopting approaches to reduce their felt uncertainty, or using their uncertainty as a stimulus to engage with the research process.

Uncertainty can therefore be overwhelming, uncomfortable and stressful. It can also be positive when used as motivation for self-development and learning, and identity construction.

Three concepts are important in this context:

  • Professional researcher identity: Improving the capacity of researchers while improving the quality of their research can lead to the development of a professional researcher identity. This forms part of researcher development.
  • The link between uncertainty and sense-making: In general, students are uncertain when they embark on a research project. This emotional state of experienced uncertainty can foster sense-making. However, this sense-making and identity construction fostered by experienced uncertainty are also influenced by the valence and intensity of the person’s felt uncertainty, the mental frames of the person, and social processes such as validation or recognition from stakeholders in the person’s context.
  • Intellectual humility: Intellectual humility reflects a realistic appraisal of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Intellectually humble researchers will address their limitations with an incremental developmental mindset; they are not blind to their limitations and neither are they arrogant. Intellectual humility has been linked to cognitive flexibility, open-mindedness, and wisdom. Various researchers found that the higher the students’ intellectual humility the bigger these students’ growth mind-set of intelligence.

Uncertainty can therefore be overwhelming, uncomfortable and stressful. It can also be positive when used as motivation for self-development and learning, and identity construction.

How was the study conducted?
Collaborative auto-ethnography (CAE) is an approach where two or more researchers describe and systematically analyse personal experiences in order to gain a better understanding of that experience. In this study, the two researchers – Ruth and Kathy – collected data guided by four retrospective reflection questions on their personal experiences as postgraduate supervisors. To provide insider perspectives, they focused on their subjective experience of students’ uncertainty during postgraduate supervision and their relation to their own uncertainty as research supervisors. Ruth explored the topic from an education perspective and Kathy from an uncertainty perspective. The four questions that guided their reflections were:

  1. When do you sense signs of uncertainty during students’ research journey?
  2. How do you feel in the face of their uncertainty?
  3. What strategies do you employ during supervision in relation to students’ uncertainty?
  4. How do students react to these strategies and what are the effects observed?

From this journey they have learnt how important it is to acknowledge uncertainty during the research process, and what strategies they can implement to support students.

Recognising and understanding uncertainty during the research process

This study focused on the uncertainty experienced during the independent research process from problem identification to conclusion. How was the research students’ experienced uncertainty recognised? What supervision support was provided? Ruth and Kathy’s findings are discussed under four themes:

Theme 1: The triggers of uncertainty
The authors have identified two inter-related triggers of student uncertainty:

  • Triggers activated by the research process: Two triggers of student uncertainty were prevalent. The first trigger pertains to making choices in an unknown territory. The second trigger is encountering a different type of learning process compared to what the students have been used to. Ruth explained that research “is an inductive process in its very nature … and is new to many students who may never have been exposed to this type and level of learning”. Kathy said the “open-ended nature of research and the need for an enquiring mind” were challenging for many students.
  • Triggers activated by the students’ experienced uncertainty: Students have self-doubt about their ability to do research, asking themselves “Am I clever enough to pull this off?” They stress about their theoretical knowledge, ability to integrate theory and practice, and academic writing skills. According to Ruth, the research process is characterised by uncertainty, and “brings the external demands to clash with the inner beliefs and internal inadequacies of the student”.

Intellectually humble researchers will address their limitations with an incremental developmental mindset; they are not blind to their limitations and neither are they arrogant.

Theme 2: The experienced inner uncertainty
The combination of triggers results in uncertainty being felt along the students’ individual research trajectories, particularly at the start when there are many unknowns. Kathy explained that this uncertainty is uncomfortable for the students because it is “riddled with doubts and apprehension”. Key words from Ruth and Kathy’s narratives include fear, feeling overwhelmed, doubt, self-doubt, anxiety, feeling unsure, feeling inadequate or stupid, not coping and insecurity.

Theme 3: The responses to and signs of uncertainty
Ruth and Kathy’s reflections show that the students’ uncertainty comes from issues of identity, primarily self-doubt. They noticed that the intensity of students’ uncertainty “can hinder the student’s ability to engage with the research journey”. Here, students typically responded in the following ways:

  • Struggling to engage with the learning process: When students found it difficult to engage with the learning process, it often resulted in withdrawal, procrastination and poor quality of work. The authors also observed exceptions, such as certain students procrastinating due to having a more exploratory, divergent learning style.
  • Finding ways to reduce intense uncertainty: Students with intense uncertainty adopted different approaches to “get this pain of uncertainty out of the way”. The signs noticed by Ruth and Kathy included dependency (the students needed reassurance and validation), quick-fix solutions (they wanted a clear formula or recipe), and the masking of uncertainty (for example, students using grandiose writing). This uncertainty leads to students engaging with their research and supervisors in a superficial way in order to reduce the discomfort of their felt uncertainty, rather than struggling to make sense of their research.
  • Using uncertainty as a stimulus for learning: Students can also use uncertainty to their advantage as they are more motivated to make sense of their research topic. Kathy referred to these students as having “a clear sense of their research direction and topic, often related to a genuine interest aligned with their career purpose”. This self-improvement motive creates an impetus for these students to engage with an uncertain path in the interest of personal growth or developing themselves.

Students have self-doubt about their ability to do research, asking themselves “Am I clever enough to pull this off?” They stress about their theoretical knowledge, ability to integrate theory and practice, and academic writing skills.

Theme 4: A roller coaster of emotions with positive shifts along the research journey
To enhance their supervision support, Ruth and Kathy also looked at how students manifested their uncertainty along their “roller coaster” of a research journey. Both authors agreed that more intense peaks of uncertainty were experienced at the start of their journey, when all the triggers for uncertainty are prevalent. Uncertainty levels also increased when choices needed to be made, or problems resolved in the execution of their research. Kathy noticed how, at each choice point, the students’ uncertainty energised them “to make sense of their options or problems”.

In describing the major shifts that students made, the authors’ observations were informed by their different perspectives. Ruth saw the primary shift as being from “dependency and procrastination to self-directed learning and ownership”, while Kathy saw it as having “developed more of a researcher identity – feeling confident and competent in their research ability”.

Supervision support to contain and harness uncertainty – developing a researcher identity
As students make progress along the research trajectory, their uncertainty subsides as their decision-making skills grow and their researcher identity develops. Three themes related to the way supervisors can support students in developing their researcher identity are important here:

Theme 1: Creating awareness of a researcher identity: normalising uncertainty
Ruth explained that the uncertainty associated with the research process should not be seen as bad by the student or the supervisor. She said uncertainty can actually be the researcher’s best friend as it gives students a “humble and open mind to discover and create new knowledge”.

Normalising uncertainty entails focusing on the unique nature of research as distinct from other forms of learning, and on the uncertainty mindset that is required for researcher development. These negative and positive sides to uncertainty need to be contained and harnessed as students need to be aware of intellectual limitations and strengths over time,

This uncertainty leads to students engaging with their research and supervisors in a superficial way in order to reduce the discomfort of their felt uncertainty, rather than struggling to make sense of their research.

Ruth explained that students “may be used to learning as a kind of knowledge transmission process, and not as the knowledge transformation process they are embarking on”. Kathy said students should understand that the research journey is not a linear process; it is iterative.

Theme 2: Developing a researcher identity: facilitating learning processes
Students will have different experiences of uncertainty at different stages along the research trajectory. Each time, students will have to make decisions and substantiate these decisions, which calls for a mindset of ongoing development – seeing learning as growth.

Students’ experiences of uncertainty are intense during conceptualisation and development of the research proposal. Here, robust dialogue, clarity and “meaningful and specific feedback” will help to provide security. The involvement of the supervisor is vital during this stage.

Feedback is one way to facilitate student independence. According to Ruth, supervisors should facilitate this shift in power from supervisor-centred to student-centred: “Let the student know that this is their project and you as supervisor are not the expert, they are.” Kathy encourages “curiosity and exploration in the learning process, so that students learn from thinking and doing”.

Students will have different experiences of uncertainty at different stages along the research trajectory. Each time, students will have to make decisions and substantiate these decisions, which calls for a mindset of ongoing development – seeing learning as growth.

The following collective strategies for facilitating learning were synthesised from Kathy and Ruth’s reflections:

  • Provide enabling information: Supervisors can facilitate learning by referring to resources and skills that students can use to solve their own problems. This will increase the students’ sense of security.
  • Provide customised scaffolded learning: Where students are struggling with knowledge, confidence and their level of uncertainty, support from supervisors may include mind-mapping tools and drawing conceptual frameworks, and referrals to authoritative sources so they can manage their own learning (releasing supervisor power).
  • Communicate decisions: Supervisors should encourage students to justify their research decisions.
  • Encourage responsible freedom – emancipation: Supervisors should encourage responsible freedom in choices to align with intrinsic motivation. Also, supervisors should encourage the development of lateral insights and provide decision-making tools.

Theme 3: Affirmation of a researcher identity: empowerment through interaction
Researcher identity is shaped by interactions in relationships during postgraduate research. As a qualified coach, Kathy provided insights into relationship principles that could help to curb uncertainty and encourage empowerment. In this context, she mentioned being empathetic, getting students to share how their research is going, listening to the emotional cues, reciprocity and treating the student with respect. Kathy said she encourages her students to think of themselves as “collaborative partners” in the postgraduate relationship.

Students’ experiences of uncertainty are intense during conceptualisation and development of the research proposal. Here, robust dialogue, clarity and “meaningful and specific feedback” will help to provide security. The involvement of the supervisor is vital during this stage.

A strategy of “weaning” the student or shifting the power through empowerment is important. Ruth encourages students to take ownership of their projects. She believes that the students’ own authorial voice must emerge through the course of the research process. Ruth recommends unstructured time and lateral activities – such as walking in nature, free writing and listening to music – to allow the higher-level connections to happen for novel insights during the final phase of the research.

Important supervisor skills
Reflecting on the ways in which supervisors can support their students, Ruth and Kathy summarised the insights they have gained through this collaborative auto-ethnographic approach as follows:

Supervisor skill Strategies
Encouragement Showing interest, intrigue and fascination with the students’ learning
Positive feedback Giving credit where this is due
Engagement Building self-esteem by reinforcing the emerging researcher’s identity
Regular contact Showing curiosity and excitement at what emerges during research
Stimulation Challenging the student
Careful listening Socratic questioning to move students forward/take ownership
Support Providing a safe space

Ruth and Kathy brought different perspectives to the table. Kathy’s perspective of identity construction fostered by student uncertainty was merged with Ruth’s perspective of researcher development through intellectual humility and transformative learning. Ruth used the Socratic approach by asking questions to facilitate learning while Kathy used a coaching approach.

The outcome is a core supervision support strategy that facilitates researcher identity development.

Supervisors should encourage responsible freedom in choices to align with intrinsic motivation. Also, supervisors should encourage the development of lateral insights and provide decision-making tools.

As novice supervisors, they often “rescued the students” (Kathy) and tried “to take away their uncertainty so they could think more clearly” (Ruth). But this is no longer the case.

Although Ruth and Kathy have different theoretical underpinnings, they rely on certain common perspectives and skills to adopt a non-directive supervisory approach. Intellectual humility, a relatively new concept in the literature, resonated with both of them as a perspective for research supervision. They also see the value in embracing this concept as part of being lifelong learners/researchers.

It all starts with uncertainty
The findings from this collaborative auto-ethnographic study suggest that research supervisors can help to contain and harness their students’ experienced uncertainty in the following ways in order to improve research confidence and competence:

  • Acknowledge and recognise positive and negative dimensions of uncertainty as an integral part of the research process.
  • Develop a set of non-directive skills to facilitate development of students towards an independent researcher identity.
  • Understand the implications of intellectual humility in both supervision and continuing problem solving along the lifelong learning and research trajectory.

… unstructured time and lateral activities – such as walking in nature, free writing and listening to music – can allow the higher-level connections to happen.

Thomas F. Crum’s quote – “In an uncertain world instead of seeing the rug being pulled from under us we learn to dance on a shifting carpet” – comes to mind. Maybe this is the overarching role of research supervisors – showing postgraduate students how to embrace uncertainty and how to soldier on in the important process of creating new knowledge.

  • Find the original article here: Albertyn, R., & Bennett, K. (2020). Containing and harnessing uncertainty during postgraduate research supervision. Higher Education Research & Development. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07294360.2020.1775559
  • Prof Ruth Albertyn teaches Research Methodology at USB.
  • Dr Kathy Bennett is a leadership coach and organisational development consultant who lectures part-time at USB.

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