Reconsidering postgraduate ‘supervision’ from a participatory action learning and action research approach


Postgraduate supervision is most often perceived as a one-to-one relationship between an expert and a novice researcher. Even when working in groups, an instructional approach tends to dominate, where the supervisor(s) prescribe(s) the content and process, with a narrow focus on the outcome of degree completion, rather than a more holistic approach to the development of postgraduate scholars. At a time when curriculum transformation is high on the agenda of Higher Education, we problematise this traditional conceptualisation of postgraduate supervision and argue for a more participatory action learning and action research (PALAR) approach to postgraduate learning and development. PALAR creates a relational and reflective space for dialogical conversations, equalizing traditional power relations and democratising knowledge creation. This opens up the possibility for postgraduate candidates to perceive themselves as self-directed lifelong learners and collaborative action leaders, rather than just ‘students’. Using a case example of a postgraduate PALAR retreat, we thematically analyse the data generated from participant reflections, presented over three days in visual, oral and other creative forms. Findings reveal that this approach to postgraduate learning and development enhances critical thinking and promotes collaboration rather than competition. Participants are thus able to see themselves as developing scholars and action leaders within their specific fields of influence.  Such outcomes are likely to provide a solid foundation for developing future academics or other professionals, able to model a holistic, participatory approach to knowledge creation in their own practice. 

Author Biography

L. Wood, North-West University

Research Professor

Faculty of Education Sciences


Authors 2015

Authors 2013

Brew, A. 2001. Conceptions of research: A phenomenographic study. Studies in Higher Education 26(3): 271–285.

Boni, A. and M. Walker. 2016. Universities and global human development: Theoretical and empirical insights for social change. Abingdon: Routledge.

Boni, A. and M. Walker. 2013. Human development and capabilities: Re-imagining the university of the twenty-first century. Abingdon: Routledge.

Chiappetta-Swanson, C. and S. Watt. 2011. Good practice in supervision and mentoring of postgraduate students: It takes an academy to raise a scholar. Hamilton, Ontario: McMaster University.

Choy, S., B. L. Delahay and B. Saggers. 2015. Developing learning cohorts for postgraduate research degrees. The Australian Educational Researcher 42(1): 19–34.

Creswell, J. W. 2003. Research design: Qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approach. CA, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

De Lange, N., G. Pillay, and V. Chikoko. 2011. Doctoral learning: A case for a cohort model of supervision and support. South African Journal of Education 31: 15–30.

Fletcher, M. A. 2015. Professional learning. In Professional learning in higher education and communities: Towards a new vision for action research, ed. O. Zuber-Skerritt, M. A. Fletcher and J. Kearney. London: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Green, B. 2005. Unfinished business: Subjectivity and supervision. Higher Education Research & Development 24(2): 151–163.

Harri-Augstein, S. and L. F. Thomas. 2013. Learning conversations: The self-organised way to personal and organisational growth. Reissue edition. London: Routledge.

Lee, A. M. 2007. Developing effective supervision: Concepts of research supervision. South African Journal of Higher Education 21(4): 680–693.

Leathwood, C. and B. Read. 2013. Research policy and academic performativity: Compliance, contestation and complicity. Studies in Higher Education 38(8): 1162–1174.

Le Grange, L. 2009. A survey of educational research in the second decade of South Africa’s democracy: A focus on higher education. South African Journal of Higher Education 23(6): 1115–1125.

Löfström, E. and K. Pyhältö. 2012. The supervisory relationship as an arena for ethical problem solving. Education Research International. doi:10.1155/2012/961505.

Loots, S., L. Ts'ephe and M. Walker. 2016. Evaluating black women’s participation, development and success in doctoral studies: A capabilities perspective. South African Journal for Higher Education 30(2): 110–128.

Merriam, S. B. and E. J. Tidsell. 2015. Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Nussbaum, M. 2011. Creating capabilities: The human development approach. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

Petersen, E. B. 2007. Negotiating academicity: Postgraduate research supervision as category boundary work. Studies in Higher Education 32(4): 475–487.

Sen, A. K. 1999. Development as freedom. New York: Anchor Books.

Schulman, L. S. 1999. Taking learning seriously. Change July/August: 31–44.

Vaill, P. B. 1996. Learning as a way of being. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Walker, M. 2010. Doctoral education as capability formation. In The Routledge doctoral supervisor's companion: Supporting effective research in education and the social sciences, ed. M. Walker and P. Thomson. London: Routledge.

Walker, M. 2007. Selecting capabilities for gender equality in education. In Amartya Sen's capability approach and social justice in education, ed. M. Walker and E. Unterhalter. New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Whisker, G., K. Exley, M. Antoniou and P. Ridley. 2013. Working one-to-one with students: Supervising, coaching, mentoring, and personal tutoring. Abingdon: Routledge.

Wilkinson, A. 2011. Postgraduate supervision as an advanced teaching and learning practice: Exploring the scholarship link. South African Journal of Higher Education 25(5): 902–920.

Yin, R. K. 2013. Case study research. Design and methods. Thousand Oaks: Sage publications.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. 2015. Conceptual framework. In Professional learning in higher education and communities: Towards a new vision of action research, ed. O. Zuber-Skerritt, M. A. Fletcher and J. Kearney. London: Palgrave McMillan.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. 2012. Introduction. In Action research for sustainable development in a turbulent world, ed. O. Zuber-Skerritt. Bingley: Emerald Books.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. 2011. Action leadership: Towards a participatory paradigm. Dordrecht: Springer.

How to Cite
Wood, L., and I. Louw. 2020. “Reconsidering Postgraduate ‘supervision’ from a Participatory Action Learning and Action Research Approach”. South African Journal of Higher Education 32 (4), 284-97.
General Articles