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Career Advice

10 tips for effective remote student supervision

How to foster a positive relationship in a remote environment.


As we surpass a full year of remote research and learning, those of us who are supervising graduate or undergraduate students can continue to improve our communication and collaboration techniques, and discover that it is possible and meaningful to invest in positive relationships with students in virtual spaces.

1. Get back to basics: Healthy working habits and good organizational skills reframed for remote learning are good starting points. Consider how remote spaces provide an opportunity to revise the core tenets of research, teaching, study habits and networking. What skills do your students need to know and develop?

2. Virtual time and real time management: Even though some days it may feel as though we are still living in March 2020, time is passing! Standing plans, be they a coffee break discussion, lab group meeting, or drop-in office hours provide shape to the week. Maintaining structure within the work week encourages follow through. Sharing calendars with important dates, milestones, and regular meetings can help us stay oriented with one another throughout the semester.

3. Building and extending trust: Though we are physically distancing, it is important to emphasize to students that we are alone, together. Sometimes it’s hard to let go and not be a “helicopter supervisor,” especially when we’re used to seeing our students throughout the week. Stepping back helps foster a comfortable period of silence as well as opportunities for growth and independence.

4. Peer-to-peer learning networks: What skills do some of your students have that can benefit others? By identifying your students’ individual skills and needs, it becomes possible to structure activities such as writing clubs, peer-editing and skills sharing. Does a student have experience with SPSS, ArcGIS, or Photoshop? Have them lead a Q&A with their peers. Empowering students to lead virtual spaces helps build community and independence.

5. Pay students for their contributions: Paying students a reasonable wage for their labour is critical when many students are facing financial crises as a result of COVID-19. Providing paid positions increases accountability and can help manage faculty workload. A two-hour-a-week position to manage online team meetings gives greater accountability to your students. If you don’t think you have tasks they can do remotely or don’t know what remote jobs students can do – see #4 and #6.

6. Build skills in technology: Technology should be a help, never a hindrance. But the learning curve has been steep this past year and it can be daunting. Can your students navigate across different online meeting platforms? Can they use remote learning software to its capacity? Set time aside to evaluate where your students are and help them find the resources to build their skills with technology. This includes reference management software, statistical programs, image editing programs, Slack, Zoom, Skype, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Jitis, etc. If you have teaching assistants/research assistants, build this into their contract and hours of work.

7. Encourage remote professionalization opportunities: Universities have long established programs for professionalization and building research skills, that many students and faculty aren’t aware of, nor are they aware that students can often participate in professionalization webinars at other universities too. Encourage your students to share lists of these resources for CV and resume workshops, networking programs and speaker series. Be honest with your students that not all webinars are great, but that it’s important to keep an open mind and try new ways to share knowledge.

8. Increase accessibility: As we all get used to new technologies, we can take the opportunity to learn about accessible technologies and increase universal design for teaching and research. Peruse your institution’s accessibility office resources. Investigate Google Slides live captioning options to build accessibility into your synchronous and asynchronous interactions. Stop using that yellow font! Increasing accessibility removes barriers for everyone to learn, share and engage.

9. Adjusting expectations: Recognizing that not every day will be supremely productive helps temper our expectations for ourselves and others. Remote working requires us to work smarter, not harder. Our daily/weekly/monthly goalposts may need to shift (and shift again). As we continue working in these virtual spaces, it is important that we be leaders in modeling for students our expectations regarding how to engage with technology and communications. Challenge the “failure is not an option” mindset. Slow scholarship is still scholarship.

10. Self-care and kindness: What do you need today to survive? To thrive? Caring for ourselves is often easier said than done. Take an introspective, screen-free moment to consider what you need today. Ask your students to do the same. Building a pedagogy of kindness into your relationships with your students empowers them to communicate their needs to you. Your self-care strategies may change over time, as will your students’.

Meghan Burchell is an associate professor of archaeology at Memorial University. Madeleine Mant is a lecturer in the anthropology department at the University of Toronto.

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  1. James Deaville / March 17, 2021 at 14:43

    It’s hard to believe that we are still reading best practices lists one year into the move to online teaching, even if we will continue to teach some courses distantly. This comment is not directed at the authors but at the editors, who might wish to consider more fully issues other than teaching, such as online student advising or return to in-person administrative meetings.