Postgraduate taught courses: teaching and learning

The principle of an individualised educational experience shaped through ongoing support from a senior academic underpins the University’s approach to postgraduate study, enabling students to develop their capacity to think critically and independently beyond the undergraduate level. All teaching and assessment at Oxford should provide an appropriate opportunity for students to achieve and demonstrate their full academic potential at master’s level.

Postgraduate taught courses should utilise a variety of teaching methods to foster the development of a range of skills. Departments must publish norms for each programme in accordance with the requirements stipulated in the Policy and Guidance on Course Information, setting out the amounts of teaching of different types to be provided. The balance of lectures, classes or seminars and seminars, and laboratory or fieldwork within each course should be carefully and regularly considered by departments, including on occasions when external examiners’ reports are reviewed. Given the three major types of postgraduate taught courses: research preparation, high level professional or disciplinary development, conversion courses, those constructing courses will need to reflect how the teaching methods employed meet the overall purpose of the course. This is especially important where a single course has to serve more than one of these purposes.

Assessment forms an essential element of the learning process: students learn both from assessment activities and from their interaction with staff about their performance in those activities. It is also the means by which teaching staff can form judgements as to what extent students have achieved the intended learning outcomes of a course, or of an element of a course.

Formative feedback is an essential component of postgraduate taught courses, and should be provided  promptly to students. It should combine information which enables students to understand the strengths and limitations of their past performance, and information which enables them to recognise how future performance can be improved.

As part of Education Committee’s revised policy on feedback for postgraduate taught courses (see Section 7.5), departments are now required to ensure written feedback on at least one designated piece of formative assessment, e.g. essay or assignment, during the course of the first term. The purposes of this feedback are to:

provide guidance to those for whom extended pieces of writing are unfamiliar forms of assessment;
indicate areas of strength and weakness inrelation to the assessment task;
provide course members with an indication of theexpectations and standards towards which they are working.

In all aspects of its teaching the University stresses the distinctiveness of the high level of engagement of senior research-active academics in all its taught courses, which it sees as putting teachers’ own research-based learning to use in enhancing the learning of the students they teach. The University is committed to sustaining a significant proportion of the teaching and supervision of all students by senior research-active academics. Department documentation should make clear the links between research and teaching, especially:

  • highlighting parts of courses which are intended to promote or develop skills relevant to a later dissertation or project
  • making explicit elements of courses which are intended to develop an understanding of how disciplinary knowledge is developed and articulated
  • encouraging students to take full advantage of research seminars, visiting speakers, and other aspects of the life of the scholarly community/network of which they are members

Each student should, as early as possible, be allocated a general supervisor (or ‘academic advisor’ in some divisions). In small courses this may be the Course Director/s, but where the cohort is larger (i.e. more than 20), students should normally be allocated to another member of academic staff to fulfil this role. It is the responsibility of the general supervisor to provide the student with regular information as to the student’s progress and, where problems arise, provide guidance and assistance as to necessary corrective action. The academic advisor or supervisor should alert the Director of Graduate Studies to any problems experienced in supporting the student.

The completion of the termly supervision report, to which both student and academic advisor/supervisor contribute via Graduate Supervision Reporting (GSR), is mandatory for general supervisors. Departments/faculties are responsible for taking any action required in cases of non-submission by supervisors/academic advisors.

In certain subjects, departments may also request additional reports from individual tutors e.g. courses involving intensive language teaching.

For appropriate courses, students should be allocated a dissertation/thesis supervisor. The dissertation supervisor may be the same person as the general supervisor, or another person. Where another person is allocated, they may be appointed in addition to the general supervisor, or they may take over general supervision also. Through a pattern of regular meetings, the dissertation supervisor should endeavour to ensure that the student works on the dissertation/thesis within a planned framework with clearly agreed stages by which the student should have reached various points. The dissertation supervisor should ensure that written work is prepared as appropriate in accordance with the course requirements and structure. Such work should be returned with constructive criticism and in reasonable time.

Dissertation supervisors should ensure that, from time to time, students are told how their work is progressing and should also try to ensure that the student feels properly directed and able to communicate with them. Where a dissertation supervisor is appointed in addition to the general supervisor, a department can also ask the dissertation supervisor to submit a termly report on the student’s progress.

Responsibility for the dissertation/thesis ultimately rests with the student, who should be proactive in seeking support and guidance when necessary.

The termly reporting cycle commences with the opening of the student reporting window on the Monday of the 7th week of term. The student reporting window remains open for three weeks, until the Friday of 9th week. Following the closing of the student reporting window, the academic advisor/supervisor reporting window opens on the Monday of 10th week, and remains open for four weeks, however supervisors will also be able to report as soon as the student has submitted their report. The Director of Graduate Studies is able to view reports and may submit comments at any time during the reporting period. The college advisor may also view reports at any time and record the number of meetings held with the student.

In addition, departments may request an additional report for a programme during the long vacation (4th reporting window). The exact reporting dates will be published in Graduate Supervision Reporting (GSR), following the timetable below:

Timetable for Reporting (PDF)

In exceptional circumstances, cases may be made to the appropriate Division or Continuing Education Board to permit an alternative reporting timetable for a programme, as long as the overall requirement for three reports per year as defined by regulation is met (for example, for part-time modular programmes where teaching is not delivered in the standard eight week terms).

Proposals should set out the academic rationale for the alternative timetable and include the proposed dates for opening/closing the student, supervisor and DGS windows for each reporting period throughout the academic year. The student reporting window should always be three weeks, followed by a four week reporting window for the supervisor, and at least a four week reviewing window for the DGS. However, the reporting periods can be spaced at different points in the year, to align with the delivery of teaching/assessment. Once approved, Divisional super-users will be able to configure the alternative reporting timetable for a programme directly in GSR.

Each report should include a review of the student’s academic progress over the course of the previous term, information about the nature and extent of contact with the student, and should draw to the attention of the Director of Graduate Studies any problems experienced. The report should also include feedback on any formative or summative assessment or on progress with the dissertation. The student is also invited to indicate the level of contact they have had with their college advisor during the previous term.

GSR includes a mechanism by which a student or their academic advisor/supervisor may flag that they have concerns about the student’s academic progress. This flag will also be visible to the DGS and college advisor. The flagging system should only be used for concerns about academic progress. It should not be used to report a concern about problems in the student-advisor/supervisor relationship or in the work environment. These concerns should be raised with the DGS in the first instance, and be pursued through the department/faculty’s complaints procedure if necessary. If the academic advisor or supervisor has concerns about the student’s academic progress, these should be discussed with the student before being flagged in GSR.

The flagging mechanism in GSR has three categories: minor concerns, major concerns, or severe concerns. The DGS should review all flagged concerns and take action as appropriate.  A severe concern flagged in GSR should result in a meeting with the DGS without delay (this may be via Skype or similar in the case of part-time students). The DGS should note in GSR the action being taken to resolve the matter.

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