Journal of Nursing Education

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Major Articles 

Health Science Students’ Experiences of Group Supervision of the Bachelor’s Thesis

Kati Utriainen, PhD; Sanna-Mari Ahonen, PhD; Mari Kangasniemi, PhD; Eeva Liikanen, PhD

Abstract

This study aimed to describe health science university students’ experiences of group supervision of the bachelor’s thesis. Sixty-one students responded to questions on an open data collection form, and the data were analyzed by using qualitative inductive content analysis. According to the students, group supervision is supportive in terms of joint learning as well as commitment-enhancing and participative learning, but it also can be useless from the viewpoint of an individual student’s own thesis. Teachers’ role as experts and active directors of the group, students’ commitment to learn together, and workable practical organization of the group were promoting factors, whereas students’ timetable problems, mismatch between received and needed supervision, and difficulties in supervising other students were restraining factors. The results can be used for developing group supervision in higher health education.

Abstract

This study aimed to describe health science university students’ experiences of group supervision of the bachelor’s thesis. Sixty-one students responded to questions on an open data collection form, and the data were analyzed by using qualitative inductive content analysis. According to the students, group supervision is supportive in terms of joint learning as well as commitment-enhancing and participative learning, but it also can be useless from the viewpoint of an individual student’s own thesis. Teachers’ role as experts and active directors of the group, students’ commitment to learn together, and workable practical organization of the group were promoting factors, whereas students’ timetable problems, mismatch between received and needed supervision, and difficulties in supervising other students were restraining factors. The results can be used for developing group supervision in higher health education.

Dr. Utriainen is Coordinator, Dr. Ahonen is Assistant Professor, and Dr. Liikanen is Assistant Professor, Institute of Health Sciences, University of Oulu, Oulu; Dr. Kangasniemi is University Lecturer, Department of Nursing Science, Universit of Eastern Finland, Kuopio, Finland.

The authors have no financial or proprietary interest in the materials presented herein.

Address correspondence to Kati Utriainen, PhD, Coordinator, Institute of Health Sciences, P.O. Box 5000, 90014 University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland; e-mail: kati.utriainen@oulu.fi.

Received: November 23, 2009
Accepted: June 30, 2010
Posted Online: February 28, 2011

Group supervision is grounded on social constructivism. Group supervision enables collaborative learning, which is considered to be an effective method of learning (Cohen, 1994). According to previous studies, group supervision has been used in different fields of higher education (Arkin, Freund, & Saltman, 1999), as well as in nursing education (Arvidsson, Baigi, & Skärsäter, 2008; Arvidsson, Skärsäter, Öijervall, & Fridlund, 2008; Lindgren, Brolin, Holmlund, & Athlin, 2005). Group supervision enables students to learn how to conduct research in a group, which typically occurs in the health care field (Bower & Timmons, 1999). Group supervision has been found to enable the development of students’ supervision skills, to have a positive effect on their writing process, and to facilitate their enculturation into the particular discipline (Samara, 2006). For individual students, working in groups offers opportunities for self-development and interpersonal growth and support, in addition to increased opportunities for completing the stated academic tasks (i.e., learning outcomes) (Cartney & Rouse, 2006). Interaction between students is highlighted and consists of peer support and peer supervision (Lindgren et al., 2005). The supervisor’s role depends on the group and is profiled as scientific and substantial expertise (Holmberg, 2006; Samara, 2006).

This article aims to describe health science university students’ experiences of group supervision of the bachelor’s thesis. The current study is part of a multidisciplinary research project called “Group Supervision in Higher Health Education” (GSiHHE). The aim of the project is to develop group supervision as a method and practice in higher health education. In the project, group supervision was selected as a supervision method to achieve three goals. The first goal was to develop students’ academic skills (i.e., scientific work such as research and scientific writing) (Samara, 2006) and scientific thinking (i.e., criticism and argumentation) (Blowers, Ramsey, Merriman, & Grooms, 2003; Cartney & Rouse, 2006). Group supervision has been found to be appropriate for these kinds of academic purposes due to its interactive and experience-sharing nature (Cartney & Rouse, 2006; Samara, 2006). The second goal was to practice working life skills, such as multiprofessional working, giving and receiving feedback, and peer support and peer supervision (Begley, 2009; Bower & Timmons, 1999; Feingold, Cobb, Givens, Arnold, Joslin, & Keller, 2008). The third goal was theoretical understanding and conceptualizing of group supervision as a method. From this point of view, theoretical understanding is a prerequisite for the application of group supervision in both academic and working life.

Feingold et al. (2008) studied students’ perceptions of team learning in nursing education. They found that team learning promotes learner-to-learner engagement. Group supervision enhances a sense of security, belonging, and encouragement in the students, and it enables professional identity and facilitates personal development (Arvidsson, Skärsäter, et al., 2008). Suchman, Smith, Ahermae, McDowell, and Timpson (2000) found that the majority of students assessed group projects as beneficial, even if they did not enjoy them. Students enter the group with their individual preconceptions, expectations, and responses, which may determine their feelings, actions, and reactions in a group setting (Cartney & Rouse, 2006). Cartney and Rouse (2006) anticipated that both starting and finishing might be particularly difficult times for working in a group.

Method

Sample

The data were collected from health science students after the bachelor’s thesis course in which group supervision was used in December 2008. Students participating in the course were adult students with degrees in different fields of health care (e.g., RNs) and mostly women.

The learning outcomes were defined as follows. The students become familiar with scientific writing and the principles of scientific research; thereby they can conduct scientific research and write about it, based on either research literature or empirical data. The students can present an oral or poster presentation. During the bachelor’s thesis course, the students write a bachelor’s thesis (10 European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System credits) as part of their bachelor’s degree. The course consists of individual work and group supervision sessions. There were approximately four students per group, representing different major subjects (nursing science, health administration science, clinical laboratory science, radiography and nursing education). Six teachers were involved in the course, supervising 1 to 3 groups each. The group sessions are guided by suggestive themes and are mainly conducted by students as peer supervision. Students have the option to invite teachers to two supervision sessions. One supervision session lasted approximately 2 hours. All students prepared for the supervision sessions by reading each other’s thesis manuscripts. During the sessions, the students discussed current topics and gave peer supervision according to the themes. The teachers steered the discussion to topics that were current and, most important, from the viewpoint of scientific writing. Teachers’ supervision was focused on individual theses and on the whole group, highlighting common topics.

Data Collection Instrument

The data were collected using open data collection forms, and the students were asked to answer the following questions:

  • Based on your experience, what is group supervision like?
  • What factors promoted the success of group supervision?
  • What factors prevented the success of group supervision?
Seventy students participated in the bachelor’s thesis course, and 61 students responded to the questions on this data collection form. The questions were on paper, and the students wrote their answers by hand on the form.

Informed consent was obtained for data collection. Informed consent is an ethical principle that requires researchers to obtain individuals’ voluntary participation after informing them of possible risks and benefits (Polit & Beck, 2008). The students were informed about the purpose of the study and its voluntary and anonymous nature. All students gave written consent.

Analysis

Data were analyzed by using inductive content analysis (Graneheim & Lundman, 2004; Polit & Beck, 2008). According to Polit and Beck (2008), content analysis is the process of organizing and integrating narrative, qualitative information according to emerging themes and concepts; classically, it is a procedure for analyzing written or verbal communications in a systematic and objective fashion, typically with the goal of finding quantitatively measuring variables. Relevant statements were selected as units of analysis. Core statements were created based on these statements. Based on content, core statements were classified into subcategories and furthermore into upper categories. These categories were named on the grounds of content.

Results

Experiences of Group Supervision

According to students’ experiences, group supervision is both supportive learning and a commitment-promoting and participative way to learn. Some students thought that in some situations, group supervision could be useless from the viewpoint of their own theses (Table).

Experiences of Group Supervision, Promoting Factors, and Restraining Factors

Table: Experiences of Group Supervision, Promoting Factors, and Restraining Factors

Supported shared learning is realized together with other students and the teacher. Common discourse is typical to group supervision and consists of profound discussion, constructive feedback, critical dissection, creation of new knowledge, and exchange of experiences and facts. Group supervision enables the teacher to supervise all students together. Furthermore, supervision is based on solving shared problems and serving all students and their learning. The main point is an experience of learning through other students’ work. Group supervision also offers a platform for expanding viewpoints: supervision enables students to hear different viewpoints and share different conceptions and, furthermore, it provides an opportunity to view one’s theses in an objective way. The group of students makes it possible to share peer support, which students considered important; in the group, it is possible to give and receive support to and from students in the same situation.

From the students’ viewpoint, group supervision is a meaningful method of learning. Students describe group supervision to be an interesting way to work on theses, enabling profound supervision. Despite all the support received from the student group, high expectations are set by the teacher’s supervision. Group meetings with the teacher were considered to be fruitful and useful. Supervision given by the teacher is desirable because teacher’s guidelines can be followed “without any doubt.” Students responded:

  • It was good to discuss practical problems regarding the thesis in a group. Group members are “on a par” [sic] perhaps that makes it easier to ask even some “stupid” questions. Meeting with the teacher is significant; on the other hand, listening to others’ supervision also gave tips for my own thesis and it was very rewarding. (Respondent 16)
  • Group supervision mainly involved exchange of experiences and information, which was completed by the supervision received from the teacher. (Respondent 25)
  • Fruitful peer support. The entire group is wrestling with the same problems, so discussion and comments are relevant in terms of my own thesis. Supervision is more structured, less spontaneous, when the teacher is present. A pretty good way of working on the first thesis. (Respondent 31)

Group supervision is a commitment-enhancing and participative method of learning. Group meetings require active advance preparation on the part of the students. They have to orientate themselves into other students’ papers. Functionality of group supervision demands that all students participate in an active manner. As students described, they all have to have “something to give to each other” and “put themselves on the line.” Guiding other students is challenging; giving supervision and commenting on other students’ writings is considered very challenging. Students responded:

  • Group supervision is more rewarding if each member participates and has courage to stick one’s neck out. (Respondent 51)
  • Group supervision works when all members are active and they have something to give to each other. It was rewarding to tutor the others, especially when it was helpful and my ideas were useful to others. (Respondent 28)

Group supervision can also be seen as useless from the viewpoint of students’ own theses. The importance of the group can be minor, relating especially to the weaknesses in students’ relative supervision. Weaknesses can be intellectual or connected to the low activity of the group. Furthermore, it is possible that students do not get a response to all of their needs. Some of the students feel that they would need more supervision from the teacher; there should be more supervision and it should be more concentrated to the beginning of the process. Students responded:

  • One unskilled person supervises another. (Respondent 11)
  • In my opinion, I got very little from the group supervision. Each member was completely immersed in his/her own thesis, so it was very difficult to give comments and supervision about others’ theses. (Respondent 4)

Factors Promoting the Success of Group Supervision

Factors promoting success were divided into the teacher’s role as an expert and active director of the group, students’ commitment to learning together, and workable practical organization of group work (Table).

The teacher acts as an expert and active director of the group. Supervision received from the teacher is considered important. The teacher gives information about strengths, as well as about revisions, needed to improve papers. According to students’ experiences, teacher’s thorough preparing for group meetings promotes the success of group supervision; supervision was well planned, and the teacher had made herself familiar with each paper. Another promoting factor is the teacher’s expertise as a supervisor, as well as the equality and encouragement of supervision. Students responded:

  • We all got and I got very good supervision, both individually and by listening to others’ supervision. Supervision led by the teacher was excellent. (Respondent 37)
  • Of course the best thing about supervision was the inspirational, encouraging, and constructive feedback from the teacher. In my opinion, the beneficence of the teacher’s expertise was that it supported the writing process. (Respondent 26)

In addition to the teacher’s role, the success of supervision is promoted by students’ commitment to learning together. The main thing is that every student prepares for all group meetings in an active manner and reads the papers of other students. An essential thing is to commit to the group and have a positive attitude toward the group itself and learning in the group. Students give peer support to each other; all students are in the same situation, which provides an opportunity for peer support. A significant element in successful group supervision is equal, genuine, and cooperative discussion within the group. Discussions in a positive and secure atmosphere, encouragement, and interest in other students’ papers are important. Students responded:

  • Members of the group are committed to following the schedule and prepared by reading others’ papers. (Respondent 48)
  • Positive attitude towards participation and learning together. (Respondent 10)
  • Best thing received from other group members was peer support and encouragement. We share the same process. (Respondent 26)
  • The group discussed a lot, and everyone was really interested in each other’s papers. (Respondent 15)

Workable, practical organization of group work is also important. Having similar subjects (which was a basis of classification) has a positive effect on success. Small, and thereby correct, group size (3 to 5 students) and effortless agreement of group meeting times are significant for students. In their group meetings, students use different forms of communication and potentials of information technology, such as e-mail and Skype™. These different options are considered positive in the implementation of meetings.

Factors Restraining the Success of Group Supervision

Restraining factors were divided into students’ timetable problems, mismatch between received and needed supervision, and difficulties in supervising other students (Table).

Timetable problems, including students’ own difficulties in the matching of busy schedules, hindered the success of group supervision. Pressure of work, different situations in adult life, and long geographical distances made it difficult to find time for common group meetings. Students’ busy schedules and, for example, daily work made it more difficult to write a thesis.

Another restraining factor was the mismatch between received and needed supervision. This was linked to different timing of the thesis project between students; the thesis does not proceed simultaneously and as a result, students need supervision at different phases. According to the students, there are differences in the guidelines depending on the teacher. Some students also perceived that there should be more supervision by a teacher (e.g., meetings with teacher). Addressing different subjects within the group makes contentual commentary complex and restrains shared understanding. Sometimes some students have feelings of uncertainty related to working in a group and the goals of the work. For instance:

  • Need of supervision varied because different members were in different phases. (Respondent 53)
  • Uncertainty as to the direction of process. Of course, supervision from the teacher was useful, but group members agreed on the need for more supervision from the teacher. (Respondent 30)
  • The topics of the theses varied a lot; they were not connected, so it was difficult to comment on the content. On the other hand, it was fruitful to get to know new topics, but it was little frustrating to comment only on the grammar, structure and practical aspects of the thesis. (Respondent 25)

Students consider that there are some difficulties in supervising other students. All students are not committed to group work, and some have a negative attitude toward group supervision. Non-alignment appears in several ways: some students are not committed to common contracts and do not prepare for group meetings, become familiar with other students’ work, or take part in conversation. Instead, those students emphasize their own individual performance. Peer supervision is considered challenging; students feel that their readiness, knowledge, and skills are inadequate. In addition, becoming acquainted with other students’ writings is considered as challenging. These challenges are associated with finding time for this and limited resources to read other students’ theses while working on one’s own thesis. Respondents said:

  • Group members had different attitudes and motivation to [complete their] thesis. (Respondent 1)
  • As novices, we lack the courage to give feedback to others; that requires supervision or common discussion on the topics. (Respondent 32)
  • Peer supervision remained superficial, members were not committed to read others’ papers beforehand; there was not enough time. Group members didn’t have enough skills to comment “professionally.” (Respondent 54)
  • It was difficult to concentrate on others’ papers because my own thesis required all my concentration and energy. (Respondent 38)

Discussion

The aim of this study was to describe health science university students’ experiences of group supervision of the bachelor’s thesis. According to this study, group supervision is supportive of common learning. Learning is realized together, with students and the teacher having a common goal. Dialogic discussion and sharing of views enable different ways of thinking. The success of supervision is promoted by the active and expert role of the teacher, students’ commitment, and well-functioning organization of group work. Students’ timetable problems, mismatch between given and needed supervision, and difficulties in supervising other students are restraining factors.

Based on students’ experiences, it can be concluded that group supervision is a suitable method in supervising theses in higher health education. From the viewpoint of working live skills, group supervision provided readiness for multiprofessional work and shared expertise, as well as dialogic discussion and mutual interaction.

This study reveals that the teacher’s role is essential. To create productive group supervision, it is essential that lecturers initiate frank discussion of aims, methods, and guidelines for students taking part in group supervision sessions (Bogaard, Carey, Dodd, Repath, & Whitaker, 2005). Stimulation of active and constructive learning, self-directed learning, and collaborative learning by supervisors enhance the quality of the problem solving and group functioning (van Berkel & Dolmans, 2006). It is pertinent for teachers to consider a variety of strategies aimed at monitoring possible cliques in group functioning and encouraging democratic participation (Cartney & Rouse, 2006). The supervisor also represents traditions and norms of a particular discipline and facilitates construction of the students’ academic identity while becoming familiar with the culture of scientific writing in their discipline (Dysthe, 2002).

According to Suchman et al. (2000), in group projects it is difficult to lure students away from passive learning and its comfort. Our study demonstrated that the students’ role has to be active. All students should have the courage to give and receive feedback, even if guiding other students is considered challenging. In a study by Feingold et al. (2008), students were concerned about their team learning grade and its dependence on group performance.

According to students’ experiences, all three goals that were defined for group supervision in advance were present in the data. As academic skills, students mentioned critical and argumentative discussion needed in group supervision to develop scientific thinking and learning (Roberts, 2006). Prerequisites for successful discussion and fruitful feedback are preparing and orientating for group meetings and reading other students’ papers. At the same time, feedback can be a good tool for students in developing their scientific writing skills. Despite different topics or phases of the thesis, students emphasized the ability and willingness to perceive general shared questions because such skills are also needed in team-based working life (Begley, 2009; Feingold et al., 2008; Overton, Kelly, McCalister, Jones, & MacVicar, 2009). Practicing communication was found important for developing working life skills as well.

Students’ theoretical understanding of group supervision as a method was a critical point for successful application of group supervision. According to students, if the idea of the method remained unclear, application and benefit of the method were impossible to achieve (Hamrin, Weycer, Pachler, & Fournier, 2006); without theoretical understanding of the method, it was difficult to find motivation and commit oneself to demanding and reciprocal working.

Limitations

The limitations of research are discussed by using the concepts linked to qualitative tradition, such as credibility, dependability, and transferability (Graneheim & Lundman, 2004; Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Polit & Beck, 2008;). To ensure credibility, convenience sampling was used, and the amount of data was sufficient. The essay method for data collection was selected as the most appropriate method in relation to research questions. The data were analyzed by one researcher and confirmed by discussion in a research group with co-researchers. To ensure clear analysis, authentic quotations are presented. Pertaining to dependability, data collection was performed for all participants at the same time and in the same place, and experience of group supervision was for the same course (Graneheim & Lundman, 2004; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). As a factor decreasing dependability, there was little information about students’ earlier experiences of group supervision. Credibility and dependability may be decreased because of the nature of the essay method; the answering area was limited, and there was no possibility to interpolate later in the text. There are some limitations regarding transferability of the results (Graneheim & Lundman, 2004; Polit & Beck, 2008). The data were collected at one university and participants represented students enrolled in one bachelor thesis course.

Recommendations

Previous studies describe several phenomena with features that are shared by group supervision: small group learning (Cartney & Rouse, 2006; Overton et al., 2009; Roberts, 2006), team-based learning (Clark, Nguyen, Bray, & Levine, 2008), group work and group discussion (Roberts, 2006), team learning (Feingold et al., 2008), peer tutoring (Blowers et al., 2003), and peer-led support group (Hamrin et al., 2006). Despite shared phenomena, the use of concepts is confusing. In this article, we used the concept of group supervision. According to our results, the content of the concept should be revised—for example, in terms of student’s active role and learning. Therefore, there is a need in the future to analyze and clarify the concept of group supervision in relation to other concepts.

Conclusion

Group supervision can be defined as supported, commitment-enhancing, and participative shared learning realized in a group. Both the students and the teacher have an active role, and they interact in dialog to achieve a common goal. From a practical viewpoint, it can also be concluded that group supervision is an applicable method for thesis supervision, also on different levels of health education.

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Experiences of Group Supervision, Promoting Factors, and Restraining Factors

Experiences of Group Supervision

Supported shared learning
A commitment-enhancing and participative method of learning
Uselessness from the viewpoint of students’ own thesis

Promoting Factors

Teacher’s role as an expert and active director of the group
Students’ commitment to learning together
Workable practical organizing of group work

Restraining Factors

Students’ timetable problems
Mismatch between received and needed supervision
Difficulties in supervising other students
Authors

Dr. Utriainen is Coordinator, Dr. Ahonen is Assistant Professor, and Dr. Liikanen is Assistant Professor, Institute of Health Sciences, University of Oulu, Oulu; Dr. Kangasniemi is University Lecturer, Department of Nursing Science, Universit of Eastern Finland, Kuopio, Finland.

The authors have no financial or proprietary interest in the materials presented herein.

Address correspondence to Kati Utriainen, PhD, Coordinator, Institute of Health Sciences, P.O. Box 5000, 90014 University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland; e-mail: kati.utriainen@oulu.fi

10.3928/01484834-20110228-04

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