Knowing, Teaching, Learning. A reflection on supervising my first student – Kevin Volf.

The Vitae framework can be a great teacher for early career researchers. It teaches you what you need to know and I needed to know how to teach.

Looking at the framework, I knew that I didn’t want to leave the Structured PhD programme without gaining any teaching experience. It would be hard to apply for academic jobs without this experience on my resumé. Besides, teaching looked like fun. Whip up some slides. Put on the performance. Impart my pearls of wisdom. Another triumph. Lecturer was evaluated by students as being enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the topic. I could see the future.

So, I set about getting some teaching experience. I brought the subject of teaching up at meetings and asked around the department if there were any teaching work available. I put forward a project I was working on onto a list of FYP titles. Then an undergraduate student took up my project for his final year thesis. That changed things very quickly.

My first thought was what if this doesn’t go well? The poor buachaill might have made a fatal mistake here. Four years devoted to study and the fickle hand of fate messes it all up for him by handing him a totally unprepared supervisor. Somehow, it had not occurred to me that I was signing up for this kind of responsibility. Well, I know that now. That was learning number one.

Figuring out how to supervise a student raised some questions. What is expected of me as a supervisor here? More fundamentally, what do I need to learn to do this? I probably needed to learn how much work should be assigned to a student. So, I delegated some tasks to the student and to see how he gets on. But a final year project should probably involve more than just carrying out a list of tasks. That raised another question of what is expected of the student? I started to learn that I needed think about the students learning outcomes rather than my own. That’s probably learning number two.

I was still very much wrapped up in my own performance. I delegated but I also encouraged my student to ask questions. The rationale was that it would encourage the student to think critically about what he’s doing. I encouraged my student to bring his questions to me at our meetings, so I can help him with them. In my mind, I’m like Socrates encouraging the youth of Ireland to question everything.

The meetings went on. My student reported his work and asked questions of me as requested. That’s fine, but I didn’t have a notion if he was learning, self-motivated, ‘owning’ the project. Of course, Socrates asked questions of other people rather than sitting on his high horse and expecting them to bring questions to him. The only similarity between the two of us is that I know nothing it seems.

I started asking questions, just so I could know what my student knows. I guess it helps students learn what they need to know going forward when they are challenged.  I’m learning too; I’m learning something about teaching anyway. In a way I am being taught. The teacher-student thing is dialectical it seems. Probably learning number three.

My student presented on the project. I think he did well when it came to question time. At least, he seems to have reflected on what he needed to know. I wish I had done the same before I had taken on a student but I’m still learning how to do this.


Kevin Volf is a 4th year Postgraduate Student in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences, UL.

Contact: Email: Twitter: @kevin_volf ; LinkedIn: Kevin Volf ; Facebook: Kevin Volf ; Instagram: kevinvolf 

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