Vol.8, No.1 April 2002
Quality Postgraduate Research Programs and Student Experience
Mr Lindsay Smith
This paper will analyse the factors that impact on the quality of the postgraduate research program in nursing, the supervisor-student relationship and the postgraduate research students experience. In this discussion, the concept of quality in Higher Education and in the supervisor-student relationship will be discussed. Factors influencing the development of a quality program and student completion rates will be outlined. These factors, all influencing the outcomes achieved by the postgraduate research student, are grouped under a framework that explores the relationship the student develops with themself, their department, their supervisor and their peers. Increase in Postgraduate Education in Health and Nursing
The global move towards mass higher education has resulted in large increases in both student numbers and institutions offering postgraduate education. In Australia, from 1991 to 2000 there was a 54% increase in higher degree research enrolments (Kemp 2001). With this expansion, changes in the delivery method of postgraduate courses along with changes in enrolment criteria have resulted in increased access to higher education for many people (Higher Education Division 2000). In the field of health and in particular nurse education, this explosion of postgraduate education is very evident. There has been a three fold increase in PhD commencements and large increases in Masters degrees by research in health during this period (Kemp, 2001). Completion rate of postgraduate nursing research students however is not high with completion rates being below 40% on average compared to other health postgraduate student completion rates greater than 50% in 1992 (Kemp, 2001).
Factors influencing Postgraduate Education
Despite no single factor being the key to ensuring successful completion of the postgraduate research student, quality is a common theme across all factors. Many authors and studies have identified various factors that influence and impact on the postgraduate experience (Cullen et al, 1994; Delamont et al, 1997; James & Baldwin, 1999; Parry & Hayden, 1994; Phillips & Pugh, 2000). This multitude of factors have been summarised by Latona & Browne (2001) into three groups:
Quality Postgraduate Education
In this climate of increased postgraduate research education, the concept of maintaining and achieving quality has become a significant issue. Quality is a central theme that all institutions and schools of nurse education must address. The Higher Education report for the 2001 2003 Triennium, identifies one of the five key objectives of the Australian Government for Higher Education is to "assure quality" (Kemp 2001). In discussions pertaining to quality, many concepts that constitute evidence of achieving quality in Higher Education are proposed. Quality can viewed as being evidenced by:
As part of the governmental quality assurance program, Australian Universities have been encouraged to identify "goals, outline strategies and report on outcomes" that they believe are suitable for their institution (Higher Education Division 2000). This process has result in schools or faculties often identifying their own goals for research and postgraduate studies. This may lead to:
These self-identified goals can also fail to identify how achievements are to be advanced in future activities or if improvements are to be considered at all. Nightingale and ONeil (1994) believe that schools and programs aiming to fulfil the goal of higher education will ensure that they strive for improved achievements and consistent bettering of attained outcomes. This goal of Higher Education is seen to be universal and has been expressed in various ways. Nightingale and ONeil (1994) state
" regardless of the many variations possible within the diverse systems of higher education developing throughout the world, there is one overarching purpose they all share fostering higher order intellectual capabilities in their students" evidenced by " graduates (who) are able to form and substantiate independent thought and action in a coherent and articulate fashion" (pg 11).
The Australian government has concurred with this definition by identifying similar purposes for Australian higher education to achieve (Kemp 2001). When identifying the goal of the postgraduate research and education, the emphasis on the development of the students ability to significantly produce original and major contributions to scholarship is added (Delamont, Atkinson & Parry 1997). Cullen et al (1994) identifies that undergraduate education has a focus on reproduction and analysis of knowledge compared to postgraduate education that has a focus on "speculation- the essence of originality" (pg 93). This goal should form the basis of any evaluation of postgraduate research education.
Evaluating for Quality
Evaluation of quality postgraduate education requires a multifaceted and holistic approach. Evidence of achievement of student scholarship through successful thesis assessment is only one important evaluation criteria. Holistic evaluation of the quality of postgraduate evaluation has a broad focus on the achievement of the goal of postgraduate education and includes the evaluation of all other aspects that influence this achievement.
Evaluation of postgraduate programs that emphasise the achievement of internally set standards, the process of candidature or outcomes are common. Evaluations review enrolment intakes, student progress and completion rates. Departmental evaluations can determine benchmarks of efficient and effective policy and procedures and the achievement of stated goals. Such evaluations are important however tend to focus on process rather than quality, emphasising regularity of contact, fulfilment of predetermined time lines and student achievement of grades. All these factors of evaluation of the postgraduate program reflect some of the many factors that contribute to the quality of the postgraduate experience of students, impact on the supervisor-student relationship and influence completion rates (Ferer de Valero 2001). Nonetheless, evaluation focused on department or program standards and narrow outcomes of the supervisor-teaching process only fail to reflect the complexity of the supervisor-student relationship and other vital factors impacting on the quality and the students experience. Valuable insights into the quality of the supervisor-student relationship and the fulfilment of the goal of postgraduate education can be lost.
Postgraduate Student Relationship
In undertaking a postgraduate research program, the student commences on a pathway that initiates many relationships. Relationships the student develops included with themself, the department, their supervisor and their peers. These relationships are central to the quality of the supervisor-student relationship and the outcomes achieved by the student. They have been shown to influence both the progression and completion rates of students in their postgraduate program (Phillips 1993). Evaluation of quality within postgraduate programs must consider all these relationships and the many factors that impact on them.
Student Personal Relationships
Perhaps the most important relationships influencing the outcomes of the postgraduate experience is that the student has with themselves and with others around them socially. Brown, Bull and Pendlebury (1997) identify that research shows students perception of themselves influences their motivation and their performance in higher education. Cryer (1996) acknowledge that without adequate preparation and sufficiently strong reasons for undertaking postgraduate research, many students fail to complete. Ferer de Valero, (2001) believe that the potential for students to successfully complete a doctoral degrees depends on characteristics related to demographics, financial support, personal motivation and ability. Phillips and Pugh (2000) state that soon after commencement of candidature, it is not uncommon for students to lose their initial confidence and begin to question their own self-image" (pg 4) and that successfully managing this personal challenge is a part of the personal life changing development experienced by the postgraduate student. Phillips and Pugh (2000) also advise candidates to ensure they discuss possible life style changes with family and other personal relations to gain support prior to commencing. Arguably, without adequate preparation, sustaining personal motivation and maintaining inter-personal support strategies, the prospect for quality to develop within the supervisor-student relationship and for students timely successful completion diminish.
Another important relationship is between the student and the research department. In this relationship, the department influences many factors that have a significant impact on the postgraduate student and the quality of the supervisor-student relationship. The department regulates admission criteria, degree requirements, policies and practices that all affect progression rate and completion (Ferer de Valero 2001). One common departmental practice of allocation of the student to the supervisor has many potential negative consequences. Phillips and Pugh (2000) recommend that this practice should be avoided; rather supervisors and students should participate in the selection process through interviews and consultation. Other aspects that the department control include resources and facilities available to the student. Office space, computer and printer access and financial support and reimbursement for cost associated with candidature are all important aspects that form the context of the relationship. Prosser and Trigwell (1999) outlines how this context of the learning experience is related to the quality of learning outcomes and conclude that good teaching considers the learning context from the students perspective.
The supervisor-student relationship is unique amongst all other relationships the student may have during their candidature. Studies identifying factors of the supervisor-student relationship related to and significantly directed towards producing highly advanced graduate independence and originality are many. Ferer de Valero (2001) states, "the style of advising (supervision) is another important factor for graduate success" (pg 343). Young and Shaw (1999) identified the five most significant characteristics effective university teachers and supervisors displayed to students were "valuing of the course, motivating students to do their best, effective communication, course organisation and genuine respect for the student" (pg 678). Parry and Hayden (1994) identifies that the supervisor acts "as a mentor, guide, or adviser" (pg3). Phillips and Pugh (2000) identify that "it seems rapport and good communication between students and their supervisor are the most important elements of supervision" (pg12). James and Baldwin (1999) recognising that no single guide or formula would generate good supervisors, outlines five principles of good supervision and eleven practices of effective postgraduate supervisors. Underpinning all these reports is the premise that all supervisor-student relationships are unique and must be built by effective communication and the development of a personal relationship that is effective for that particular combination of supervisor and student.
Relationships students develop with other peers and academics of the department are also significant to the students successes. Phillips and Pough (2000) recognise that intellectual and social isolation is a major factor in poor progression and low completion rates of postgraduate students. Support and encouragement from a wide range of academics and other candidates within the department provides a significant contribution to alleviating these common feelings of isolation. Phillips (1993) identifies peer researchers and support from academics, including but not exclusively the supervisor, are two of the resources a department should ensure to encourage quality in the postgraduate student experience. Support from peers and a wide range of academics provides the student with a sounding board for ideas and a means of challenging or testing their developing thesis.
In efforts to ensure that the supervisor- student relationship is a quality relationship that results in the outcome of highly advanced graduate independence and originality, a holistic approach needs to be taken. This approach should consider all the factors that impact on the relationship the student has with themselves, their department, their supervisor and with their peers. The supervisor-student relationship is unique amongst all other relationships yet cannot function effectively in isolation from the other important relationships the student develops and the factors associated with them.
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