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Background: In my area, academics often supervise a large number of students (e.g., 10, 15, 20 students). Many of these students are doing a small thesis as part of either their fourth year or coursework masters. I am able to keep all these projects in my head, I do have documentation around each project, and I generally have a good understanding of what needs to be done next on each project. I can also see that one of the skills that a student learns whilst doing a thesis is project management and self-control.

However, I feel like I could develop a better system for recording and managing deadlines and deliverables on student projects. Such deliverables include concrete assessments (e.g., assessed literature reviews; the thesis; project proposals) and informal but required steps (e.g., finalising study materials; ethics applications; literature reviews; preliminary training; etc.). Such a system could let me know when a student has not provided an agreed deliverable by a given date. It would probably also have to accommodate some of the more fluid activities that unfold over time (e.g. data collection; data analysis; write-up; etc.).

A few features that would be good:

  • It shouldn't be too onerous too maintain
  • It should notify when deadlines are not met
  • It should highlight current tasks
  • It should integrate into the supervision process and make it easy to share deadlines with students
  • It should accommodate different kinds of deliverables (process; outcomes)

Question

What is a good system for helping a supervisor oversee deliverables and deadlines for a large number of research students?

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When teaching undergraduates, before my retirement, I tracked/supervised student research/capstone projects with two methods.

1) I required the student to prepare an Excel document with their timeline for completion and the milestone dates. After a joint review (and revision(s)), I then had the document which I kept in a binder (later on a shared server) which I could track completions and keeping of suspense dates.

2) The other method which I usually used for team projects was a written ONE-PAGE weekly activity report. (And even up to 1 year ago, they were to be submitted in hard copy.) The report included a summary of work done in the last 7 days, what is planned for the next 7 days, what were the next 2 milestones and their due dates.

Additionally, some of my colleagues were in the last few years using a shared Google gdrive folder for a shared calender for each student and project. I did not do this because I actually wanted a record of how milestones were revised as the project processed. (Part of good research is being willing to revise the plan in an appropriate manner, keeping all parties informed, and accomplishing the task at hand in the time required)

  • As an aside - It might be helpful to know that Google docs has a 'history', so you can go back in time and view the documents at a previous time. I'm not sure about the calendar though. – Laura Huysamen Apr 11 '15 at 5:19
  • I'm using google docs that each student creates and shares with me. I find that a very useful feature since I can review these documents whenever I want (and provide feedback in them, as appropriate). But it doesn't track deliverables. – Wolfgang Bangerth Apr 13 '15 at 17:16
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You might ask your university if they can hook you up with some project management software. They probably have licenses sitting around. In the past I've used JIRA with a SCRUM add-on to track things like this, but there's a learning curve and it might be overkill for you. (However, it is quite reasonably priced.) There are LOTS of project management suites out there, some free and some commercial.

Get something that can draw Gantt charts. They're perfect for tracking progress vs. milestones. That makes it easier to see what's going on at a glance.

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In my department we use Trello and Kanban

We have two boards:

  • All Students board, their advisers and how far along they are in their thesis writing process. This is mainly used by the program director/dean.

All Students Board

  • Individual student one Board that shows how they are doing in each part of their thesis.

It includes Articles Read, Summary of those articles, etc. The different Label Colors represent different kind of activities: Reading, Executing, and Writting. There is a review Column. When something arrives to that column I get notified and start reviewing that activity.

Individual Student Board

Finally with Burndown for Trello we control time and schedule, so that we know if they will finish on time.

Burn Down For One Thesis

In fig. 4 yellow lines represents ideally what the student should have left every week, blue line represents what was actually left ( you can obsevre he was a little behind schedule in the middle) And red line shows the accumulated effort.

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I've started using OmniFocus task management software for the Mac. It is very useful for supervising research students. I imagine other flexible task management software could also do the job (see here for list of alternatives), but OmniFocus has a number of helpful features (see screenshot at bottom of post). The following describes the workflow.

Actions: Actions are the unit in the task manager. Actions can be given a context, due date, and details.

One context per student: I have contexts for different categories of supervision (i.e., masters, fourth year, PhD). And within these contexts, I have a context for each student. OmniFocus makes it very easy to add actions to a context (e.g., keyboard shortcuts, auto-completion, automatically assign context when you are viewing within a context) and view the actions assigned to a specific context.

Monitoring completion: The interface (see below) has a colour coding system to easily flag actions that are approaching a due date (yellow) or are over due (red). There are numbers next to each context, so it is easy to see at a glance which students have an approaching or over due action.

Distinguish who needs to do action (student, supervisor, both): If I need to distinguish tasks based on whether it is something the student needs to do or whether it's something I need to do, I put the name in parentheses. Typical actions that a student might need to do include sending me a draft of a literature review, thesis section, ethics application, confirmation document, presentation, experimental method protocol, funding application, etc. Such actions will include a mixture of interim tasks as well as submission dates for formal assessment. Typical actions that I might need to do include submitting paper work, reviewing drafts, submitting various forms (ethics, funding), finalising programming of tasks, etc.

Notes: I use action notes to record reasons why the action can not be completed. For example, we might be waiting on receiving a signature. It can also be used to store essential details, but mostly I avoid storing details about the task OmniFocus.

Setting deliverables with students: In supervision meetings, I record tangible due dates, and we agree on other deliverables with due dates. Thus, the student is clear on what needs to be done next and by when. In some cases, due dates need to be extended (especially more flexible due dates). Thus, this system encourages the setting of a new deadline rather than leaving things more open ended.

General discussion of benefits: There are several benefits of the above system

  • Adding actions is efficient
  • It is easy to see what tasks are due and when for a given student. This makes it easy to follow-up.
  • It also makes it clear what I need to do as a supervisor to ensure the project is not held up by my inaction.
  • It encourages the setting SMART goals for students (specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, time-related), which is particularly important for something as potentially flexible and open-ended as a student thesis.

omnifocus screenshot for managing supervision

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