Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Supervising Independent Student Projects

Have you ever been asked to supervise a(n) independent reading, independent study, honors thesis, senior thesis, or SURG/iSURG project? These types of student-initiated, faculty-supervised projects allow students to explore areas of interest in depth, gain independence working in a scholarly or artistic area, and work closely with an expert in the field (i.e., you). They can be deeply fulfilling for both students and faculty. However, without appropriate thought, structure, and supervision, they can also go badly, leading to frustration on both sides.

To ensure a positive outcome, consider these questions before you begin:

Before agreeing to supervise a student project, think about whether the student’s background skills, maturity, workload, timeframe, and attitude lend themselves to a productive experience, for example...
  • Does the student have the necessary metacognitive skills? Can she accurately assess her own skills? Does she seem to reflect on how she works and learns? Does she make adjustments where appropriate?
  • Does the student have the necessary information literacy skills? Can she do library and Internet research effectively, finding relevant sources and evaluating them according to appropriate criteria?
  • Does the student have good time management skills? Is she organized? Does she remember appointments? Meet deadlines? Seem on top of the various demands on her time?
  • Can the student incorporate feedback effectively? Does she seem eager to learn? Does her work improve on the basis of feedback given?
  • Is the student independent? Does she seem capable of working well on her own? Can she function well with minimal supervision, accomplishing significant work between meetings with you?
  • Does the student’s schedule make the project reasonable? Has she factored the time required for this project into her schedule? Is the timeframe realistic?

If you had the student in one of your courses, think about the student’s behavior in class (e.g., her attendance, ability to meet deadlines, receptivity to feedback.) You may already know enough to answer these questions. If not, consider asking the student to fill out a short questionnaire (.docx) to assess some of the issues above.
Supervising a student project is a time commitment, so it is important to have a positive relationship with the student. Consider whether the student is someone you’d enjoy working with over an extended period. Ask yourself:
  • Does the student have a good attitude? Does he seem open-minded, flexible, and hardworking? Are any attitude issues causing you concern?
  • What are the student’s motivations? Does he seem genuinely interested in the project – or is he primarily interested in adding a line to his resume? Does se really want to work with you, or would any faculty supervisor do?
Problems can crop up if a student is missing critical pre-requisite knowledge. For example, one instructor agreed to supervise an ethnographic research project only to realize – after his student was already in "the field" – that the student had never read a full-length ethnography and had no mental picture of what ethnographic analysis involved. At that point, it was a difficult problem to rectify. To avoid such predicaments, ask yourself:
  • What domain-specific skills and knowledge should the student have going into the project? E.g., specific methodological skills, experience in a particular artistic medium, knowledge of the relevant literature.
  • What domain-general knowledge and skills should the student have? E.g., experience with research, writing, and oral communication.
If you find that the student lacks skills that are critical to the successful completion of the project, what will you do? Some options include...
  • Declining the project
  • Deferring the project until the student has taken a course or two in the area.
  • Directing the student to outside resources (readings, an on-line tutorial) to fill some or all the gaps.
  • Working with the student to get him or her ready.
  • Modifying the scope or objectives of the project.
Supervising a student project is a serious responsibility. Before you take it on, ask yourself...
  • Am I the right faculty member to supervise, or is there someone else with more applicable expertise?
  • What time do I reasonably have to give? Is that time sufficient given what this particular student needs?
  • Can I really commit to this, given the other demands on my time?
If you do not have the time to commit to the project or if you feel that you lack the necessary expertise, be upfront with the student and help him find another faculty supervisor who would be appropriate.
Half the battle in research is figuring out the right question to investigate. This is challenging for anyone, but especially difficult for undergraduates, who have no idea what questions are too ambitious to tackle or too narrow to be interesting. Even advanced students are likely to need significant help at this stage.

You might begin by asking the student about his goals for the project. What questions does he want to answer? What skills does he want to develop? Help the student to articulate his learning objectives. For example, some objectives for an independent project might be for students to be able to...
  • collect and analyze user data to inform a design solution.
  • offer a set of recommendations to improve an urban afterschool program.
With one or two broad objectives in mind, work together to identify a meaningful task that would accomplish those goals. As you do, give careful thought to whether your student will have the time and resources (e.g., library or laboratory materials, access to interview subjects, formal permissions) to accomplish the task you have in mind. If not, refine the scope.

At the end of the project (or even at various points along the way) consider asking your student to reflect in writing about his progress in relation to the objectives he has set. Bear in mind that the goals may shift somewhat as the student engages with the project, refines his research question, encounters unanticipated obstacles, etc.
Once the project is defined – at least preliminarily – identify the steps or stages you anticipate it will involve, or (depending on his/her level of sophistication) ask the student to do this. Make sure to identify stages that may not be immediately apparent to relative novices, e.g., preliminary research to frame the question, methodological stages they may not anticipate.

Determine what the final product will be: Paper? Oral presentation? Exhibit? Database? Poster presentation? Define all the relevant parameters to the extent that you can, e.g., page length, format, etc. If some of these parameters are set by outside entities (e.g., Meeting of the Minds), make sure the student finds them out in advance and shares them with you.

Work backwards from the final product to determine appropriate interim deadlines and deliverables. For a research project, deliverables might consist of deadlines for a project proposal or problem statement, preliminary bibliography, literature review, first draft, etc. For a creative project, it might consist of preliminary sketches, prototypes, process journals, etc.
Interim deadlines give you the opportunity to provide early feedback on a student’s work, so ask yourself when feedback would be most helpful. Where in the process are students likely to get confused or discouraged? Where might too little feedback result in wasted time, wasted resources, or serious errors? Build in interim deadlines and feedback opportunities around these points. For example, if a student is conducting interviews, you might want to go over his interview protocol carefully before he’s collected a lot of worthless data. If a student is undertaking an ambitious art project, you might want to weigh in before he works with expensive materials. Consider where students have run into trouble in previous projects to determine when feedback is likely to be most critical.
Independent projects, by definition, presume a fair degree of autonomy on the student’s part. However, students will come in with different assumptions about what "independent" means. Thus, it’s important to clearly articulate your expectations. What can the student expect from you? What can you expect from the student? Consider questions such as these:
  • How often will you and the student communicate?
  • Whose responsibility will it be to initiate this communication?
  • How often will you meet?
  • Whose responsibility will it be to set up meetings?
  • Whose responsibility will it be to develop an action plan?
  • Who will define interim deliverables and set deadlines?
  • What should the student do to prepare for meetings with you?
  • What should you do?
To make sure your expectations are in line with your student’s, consider creating a contract (see example contract .docx file) that spells out your roles. You can draw on your own experience doing similar projects to create a contract of your own, work with the student to create a contract together or ask the student to write a first draft of the contract, which you will then revise. The latter strategy can help alert you to mismatches between the student’s expectations and your own (for example, if the student writes: "We will meet every day to review my progress," you may have a problem). Just as important as defining expectations is debunking unreasonable expectations by explaining what you are not willing to do, e.g., meet daily (or even weekly), read last-minute drafts, etc.

After creating a contract, decide with your student what should happen if the terms of the contract are not met. If the student fails to uphold his/her end, will you resign as project supervisor? If so, does the student understand the implications of losing the units? Also, what will you do if, for some reason, you cannot meet the terms of the contract?
Because independent projects generally involve numerous steps, not to mention the synthesis of multiple skills, they can be difficult to navigate, especially for novices. Are there rules of thumb or heuristics that you can share to make the process easier? Draw on lessons you have learned from your own work and/or from supervising other student projects to provide practical advice. This can be advice about logistics ("Don’t wait too long to get your passport"), study design and research methods ("Before beginning, ask yourself whether your research will still be useful if you get a null result"), and/or the emotional ups and downs of the work they are doing ("It’s normal for the first month of ethnographic fieldwork to be both exciting and profoundly uncomfortable"). As you work with students on independent projects, take note of common stumbling blocks, and think of advice to help future students avoid – or at least anticipate and prepare for – common pitfalls.

Students may assume they’ll get an "A for effort" on independent studies or projects, so make sure they are fully aware of your grading criteria in advance. Determine the performance criteria you will use to evaluate the project and then communicate it clearly to the student. Depending on your goals, it may be appropriate to define performance criteria both for the product (e.g., strength of argument, accuracy and diversity of evidence, elegance of design) and for the process (e.g., student’s ability to communicate with you clearly and regularly, meet deadlines, seek help appropriately).

Also, consider what sort of grading schema you want to use: letter grades or Pass/Fail? What are the circumstances under which you would assign an Incomplete? Make sure the student thinks through the implications of an Incomplete or low grade for their academic standing, financial aid status, and/or immigration status.

Supervising independent student projects have the potential to make a deep, positive impression on students, and to forget lasting bonds between faculty and students. Please contact us if you’d like to talk about your experiences supervising student projects, to work together to tailor any of these strategies to your own context, or to share approaches and materials that have worked for you!