Supervising for Independence – A Case Study on Master Science Projects in Higher Education

supervisionAre MSc students really independent?

All engineering students at Lund University complete a MSc thesis project in the end of the education, either as a project by an individual student or a pair. One of the formal goals of the project, at least for most students at the technical faculty, is to “develop and demonstrate knowledge and ability required to autonomously work as an engineer”.  But what factors affect the independence of a MSc project, and how can supervisors support students in their learning process toward the independence goal? Also, do students and supervisors share a common understanding of what it means to work independently?

As part of a pedagogical course on supervision, we set out to explore these questions. We conducted a case study of two completed MSc thesis projects, one at the Dept. of Computer Science and one at the Dept. of Electrical and Information Technology. For both cases we interviewed the student, the supervisor and the examiner, and we then performed a cross-case analysis. Also, the report was selected for inclusion in the faculty’s pedagogical magazine and we ended up on the cover page… The main lessons learned for us as supervisors follow.

Implications for SUPERVISORS:

  • Expect a gradual progression from teacher control to student responsibility and freedom,  mirrored in a shift from Teacher-to-Student to Peer-to-Peer relationship.
  • Support the student initially with an overall process and plan including timelines, but let the student develop a problem description stating the scope and extent of the MSc project.
  • Encourage the student to take ownership of the MSc project – The student should be in the ‘driver’s seat’ and should be expected to show progress.
Elizabeth Bjarnason, Markus Borg, and Bertil Lindvall. Supervising for Independence – A Case Study on Master Science Projects in Higher Education, In Proc. of LU:s femte högskolepedagogiska utvecklingskonferens, 2015. (preprint)


Students completing a Swedish Master's degree in engineering should have knowledge and skills to independently solve engineering issues. This autonomy should be developed and demonstrated within the MSc project course. But, how can supervisors encourage independence? We have explored this in a case study through semi-structured interviews with students, supervisors and examiners of two MSc projects. We investigated their view of independence, and how supervision correlates to independence. The results identify areas relevant to independence, namely supervision roles and relationships, student characteristics, MSc process, and view on independence. The results confirm previous findings that students' knowledge of and motivation for the topic support independence. The supervisor's role is to guide and support through frequent peer-level discussions and to act as a discussion partner, while the student should have the main responsibility for the project. We conclude that it is important for supervisors to encourage students to take ownership of their MSc projects and to design their own solutions, while providing the overall process and timelines.