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’They shouldn’t work all by themselves’: Supervisors’ understandings of student independence in undergraduate projects
Södertörn University, School of Historical and Contemporary Studies, Ethnology. Södertörn University, Teacher Education. (Independence in Higher Education)ORCID iD: 0000-0002-0223-8739
Södertörn University, School of Culture and Education, Swedish Language. Södertörn University, Teacher Education. (Independence in Higher Education)ORCID iD: 0000-0002-0280-9095
2018 (English)In: NERA 2018 - 46th CONGRESS Educational Research: Boundaries, Breaches and Bridges: Abstracts, Oslo: University of Oslo , 2018, p. 237-238Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Title: “They shouldn’t work all by themselves!” Supervisors’ understandings of student independence in undergraduate projects

Authors: Maria Zackariasson, professor, Södertörn University & Jenny Magnusson, lecturer, Södertörn University

That independence is a concept of scholarly interest in relation to higher education, is evident within the research field on independent learning, as well as in research on supervision within higher education (eg Broad 2006; Cukurova et al 2017; Gurr 2010; Lau 2017; Lee 2008). That it also in other ways constitutes a significant concept within the academic context, is evident for instance in how independence in the Swedish Higher Education Ordinance is described as one of the main goals of higher education (Swedish Council for Higher Education 1993).

At the same time, independence is characterized by a certain conceptual ambiguity, and, consequently, tends to be understood differently in different academic contexts, both nationally, internationally and interdisciplinary. This may pose a problem not least in relation to the supervision of undergraduate projects. In this paper we examine how supervisors understand the concept independence and how their understandings might influence their attitude to and practice of supervision of undergraduate projects. The analysis is based on focus group interviews with supervisors from two education programs, teacher education and journalism, in two countries, Sweden and Russia.

In our findings we highlight and discuss several understandings of independence that were evident in our material, and in which phases of the undergraduate project these were regarded to be most significant. The theoretical framework for the paper connects to how a number of concepts that are central within higher education, such as criticality/critical thinking, learner autonomy and independent learning, tend to be characterized by conceptual ambiguity (cf Borg and Al-Busaidi 2012; Gardner 2007; Moore 2011). Using Wittgenstein’s ideas on family resemblances, we discuss how the concept independence may be understood in relation to such associated concepts (Wittgenstein 1958).

The paper is of relevance to Nordic educational research through its focus on a concept that is rarely discussed and defined, even though it is most significant within higher education and for supervisors’ attitudes and didactic choices.


Borg, Simon, and Saleh Al-Busaidi. 2012. "Teachers’ beliefs and practices regarding learner autonomy." ELT Journal 66(3):283-92.

Broad, James. 2006. "Interpretations of independent learning in further education." Journal of Further and Higher Education 30(2):119-43.

Cukurova, Mutlu, Judith Bennett, and Ian Abrahams. 2017. "Students’ knowledge acquisition and ability to apply knowledge into different science contexts in two different independent learning settings." Research in Science & Technological Education:1-18.

Gurr, Geoff. 2010. "Negotiating the "Rackety Bridge" — a Dynamic Model for Aligning Supervisory Style with Research Student Development." Higher Education Research & Development:81-92.

Lau, Ken. 2017. "‘The most important thing is to learn the way to learn: evaluating the effectiveness of independent learning by perceptual changes." Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 42(3):415-30.

Lee, Anne. 2008. "How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts of doctoral research supervision." Studies in Higher Education 33(3):267-81.

Moore, Tim John. 2011. "Critical thinking and disciplinary thinking: a continuing debate." Higher Education Research & Development 30(3).

Swedish Council for Higher Education 1993. "The Higher Education Ordinance" Ministry of Education and Research. Accessed 2017-04-11.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1958. Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Oslo: University of Oslo , 2018. p. 237-238
National Category
Educational Sciences Languages and Literature
Research subject
Baltic and East European studies
URN: urn:nbn:se:sh:diva-34832Local ID: 2015/3.1.1/1423OAI:, id: diva2:1196748
NERA 2018 Boundaries, Breaches