“It is a bit like cooperating as teachers”

Group Supervision of Masters Theses in Teacher Education
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Teacher TrainingGroup SupervisionPrimary Education
This study investigates the relation between supervisors’ intentions and their practice when supervising Norwegian teacher students in groups on their master projects and writing of theses. This supervision involves forming groups of students writing individual theses, which allow discussions to take place both between peers and between teachers and students. These groups act as professional communities of practice, where students mutually engage in developing their theses. The question being explored is: Can group supervision of master’s thesis writing prepare teacher students for their future participation in professional learning communities of teachers? Data is gathered from two student groups via a focus group interview. The interviews were analysed thematically. This study emerges from a group of teachers within the field of primary education, acting as mentors for the students. The mentors also form a professional community of practice, aiming to develop and professionalize the practice of supervising. Thus, the project falls into the design of Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices (S-STEP). Results and discussion show how features by the supervision develop student skills, such as daring to raise your voice, presenting interpretations, handling supervising, discussing matter rather than person, argue based on theory and handle tensions. These are all skills useful in teacher teams, but the transferability wasn’t visible for the students before brought to their attention by the mentors. The article concludes by presenting three meaningful alternatives to the existing practice. This insight is taken back to the community of mentors to improve the supervision practice, so this can both scaffold students master projects, and strengthen their confidence, enabling them to enter communities of practice as new teachers and contribute to development.


Since 2017 the five-year teacher training master program has been implemented nationwide in Norway and the first cohort of students handed in their master thesis in the spring of 2022. A group of researchers and teachers at the University of South-Eastern Norway (USN) have been supervising groups of students writing their master thesis within the field of 'primary education', an across-the-curriculum subject within Norwegian Teacher training. To supervise these students as future teachers, and to develop the field itself, we supervise the students in groups, inspired by the principles of "Collaborative academic supervision" (Nordentoft et al., 2013). The supervision has taken place online in groups of students with different master projects and one or more teacher educators/supervisors. This allows discussions both between peers and supervisors-students to take place.

Where previous research has focused on Norwegian teacher student’s outcome of writing a master thesis, this study will explore the potential outcome of 'group supervision' for the student’s future work as teachers. The supervisors see a potential transfer value for the students when they later join communities of teachers. Whether this potential is experienced by the students or not is to be investigated. In other words, the relation between the supervisors` intention and their practice is this article’s focus. According to Loughran (2007), making the relations between practice and intentions visible is a main reason to study one's own practice. Thus, this study uses "Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices" (S-STEP) (LaBoskey, 2004) as a strategy.

The research question is: "Can supervision in groups of master thesis writing prepare teacher students for their future participation in professional learning communities of teachers?" Data for this study is gathered by interviewing two student groups about their outcome of the supervision, shortly before the students were handing in their theses.

Research and theoretical framework

Previous Research

Previous results from the group supervision project at USN are being published in Isaksen, Johansen, Svendsen and Madsen (2023) discussing how online group supervision of master projects created an open and fruitful atmosphere for peer-learning and individual development as student researchers. We find similar results in Kumar and Johnson (2017, 2019), even if the latter is not related to group supervision but is an investigation on the outcome of the five-year teacher training program.

Group supervision is a well-established field of research, and there are several projects concerned with collective forms for supervision/mentoring in higher education. Samara (2006) finds that group supervision may develop skills that are necessary for group communication and interaction. Dysthe, Samara, and Westrheim (2006) discuss how group supervision contributes in diverse ways, for instance with supervisors and peers providing ways of thinking and arguing, disciplinary knowledge, negotiation of divergent voices and giving supportive and critical feedback (Dysthe et al., 2006, p.309). This leads to “discussion and creation of new understandings” (p.310). Group supervision also may contribute to seeing disagreement as productive (Dysthe et al., 2006), and the students being more conscious of their choices.

Theoretical Framework

Hoaglund et al. (2014) state that to be part of a group and to work in teams, can be seen “as critical skills that all teachers in the 21st century must possess” (p. 521). That implies to be part of a professional learning communities, as newly educated teachers:

“...the basis for the skills needed to function within a collegial professional learning community must be developed through intentional, scaffolded experiences in an effort to overcome teacher isolation that leads to the attrition of first year teachers (Hoaglund et al., 2014, page 521-522)

The researchers behind this study have chosen to see the student groups as professional communities, established by both the mentors and fellow students, to gradually master their writing of theses.

A similar concept, also relevant for this project, is 'communities of practice'. A community of practice (CoP) can be characterized by mutual engagement, shared repertoire, and joint activity (Wenger, 1998). When participants engage mutually, they participate, they accomplish to and benefit from collaborating in the community. The shared repertoire in a supervision group would be relevant professional concepts, knowledge about the master's thesis and the demands to the shared experience of conducting a research project. Joint activities are processes where the participants negotiate and collaborate to reach their shared goals, even though the only overlap of interests between the participants is that they are in process of writing, this group can be understood as a learning community according to the above criteria. Each participant in the CoP is individually responsible to contribute and through contributions from all participants a shared understanding of the aim is developed (Isaksen et al. 2023).  

According to Hargreaves & Shirley (2009) a learning community strengthens the involved teachers` professionalism and can lead to development and changes to advantage for the pupils. In this perspective experiences from group supervision could be useful learning for our students. Participation in communities of practice influences changes and development of teacher identity (Wenger, 1998). Along this line of reflections, we anticipate the professional identity of the students to be influenced in groups of supervision when their shared community of supervision covers a shared field of participation, identity, experience of meaning and learning, four dimensions presented by Wenger (1998). Yet, the supervision groups are not identical to the Communities of Practice described by Wenger (1998) because they do not share an earlier development of learning and will not exist as a community in the future either.  

Teachers in Norway often work in teams (Helgøy & Homme, 2007; Lyngsnes, 2011) These teams can be an important arena of learning, if they are organized and participated appropriately (Lyngsnes, 2016). According to Engeström (1999) tensions are important for development if the situation is not featured as a conflict. In various groups within educational systems externalization of the knowledge seems to be a way to facilitate tensions without conflicts (Isaksen et al. 2023). The supervision groups in our project are organized with some features like many teams of teachers.  

Based on this we identify two levels of communities of practice in our context: 1) The student groups focusing on the master projects, and 2) The mentors and the researchers, aiming for developing the group supervision. This study is a part of this.

As the results will show below, a third level may be visible, though not as a physical, real community or group. However, the student’s statements clearly form a picture on how they expect teachers’ communities of practice to be. This “third level” is the students’ notion of teacher teams, based on their experiences from school placement.


As mentioned, this study emerges from a group of colleagues within teacher training at the University of South-Eastern Norway. We will explore the relation between our intentions and our practice when supervising master students. Teacher training is a complex field and the risk of losing the sight of our intentions is present. To reduce complexity and sort out crucial factors to understand and improve, we can "explore selected parts of the field" (Loughran, 2007). Our selected part of the teacher training program we aim to professionalize, is the practice of supervising master students. We do this according to Loughran (2007) by passing the research findings back to the field of practice (Loughran, 2007, p. 15-16).

This project falls into the design Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices (S-STEP) (Hordvik et al., 2020; LaBoskey, 2004). To improve our practice, we focus on it in an interactive analysis keeping both the process and the outcome in mind in a continuous interplay between research and practice within the frames of practice (LaBoskey, 2004).

Approximately 40 students in our department were mentored in groups when they wrote their master’s thesis this year, involving 10 mentors (this study is by four of them). We collected data from two of our groups by a focus group interview with altogether 9 students.

The interviews with the student teachers were transcribed and analyzed thematically (Braun & Clarke, 2006). We coded systematically (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) and this led us to several distinct categories. All the researchers participated in this collaborative process of analysis (kollektiv analyseprosess, Eggebø, 2020). The categories were in data-reducing-processes (Nilssen, 2012), where we looked for patterns, connections, and differences (Miles & Huberman, 1994), brought down to the following two categories:

  1. Student statements on the transfer value of group supervision to their future teacher career, participating in teacher teams/ teacher’s community of practice. These include the students' notions of teachers' communities.
  1. Student statements on the supervision process: when it is working well and the potential for improvement, including the outcome and utility of the group supervision regarding their master projects and writing of theses.


We will present the two main categories with further three results within each of them, documented with student citations and comments.

The Transfer Value of Group Supervision

When supervision in groups was planned by the teacher educators, transferability of experiences between the teacher education and the future teacher profession, was an important argument. The teacher educators were concerned about all kinds of relations to the field of practice, and this was considered as one of them. The student statements are here further categorized into three results, all related to the value of this transferability.

Result 1: The Connection Between the Group Supervision and the Students` Future Work

The transferability features of group supervision were not obvious to the students when this supervision started. As one of them puts it:

“How this can be relevant for future professional work was first emphasized now, in our last meeting. It has not been focused on in an explicit way, in my experience (…) which may have caused this not being experienced as being connected.”

Quite clearly this effect of the supervising form has been brought to the students' attention by the supervisors late in the process, which partially was caused by this connection growing on the researcher during the semester and partially caused by wanting to see if the students spotted the connection by themselves.

The same student cited above points out that if this had been brought to attention earlier, it could model how to work in teams as teachers:

“We create this community of group supervision, which is meant to be more than supervision, it is created with expectations of transfer of experiences to future practice as teachers.”

The student teachers are in their last year of education and we as their teachers and supervisors expect them to relate to and reflect about their future profession. Maybe this is to expect much, and that the students need our contributions to establish and strengthen this relation.

Result 2: The Learning Community of Students As a Parallel to a Team of Teachers

When students were made aware of the possible connections to the field of practice, they soon compared being a student in a supervised group with being a teacher in a team:

“Yes, it is a bit like cooperating as teachers, to question why you think the way you do, regarding everything around the school system and how you perform your work in school and, yes, teamwork.”

The student finds the experiences from participating in group supervision transferable to participating as a team member in school. So are several more emotionally challenging skills like to dare raise your voice, to dare presenting your interpretations, handle supervising/advising from peers/colleagues and make sure you discuss the matter rather than the person. Further, through group supervision the students experience that discussions can make a difference, they practice how to justify and argue based on theory and they experience how to constantly be “in process,” all features transferable to teacher teams in future practice.

Result 3: Students` Understanding of Teacher Team

When comparing group supervision with future participation in teacher teams, students stated their thoughts and ideas about teacher teams.

“Do teachers have the tools for cooperation? Do they know how to collaborate? The principal says, “every Tuesday between 2 and 3.30 you are going to cooperate”. That is actual the only tool they have”

The students do have expectations of working in teams as a future teacher, in this case, they are rather low, where teachers’ ability to collaborate is questioned, likewise their access to relevant tools. When asked what features a competent teacher team needs, the students stated, “reflecting and wondering, being able to take difficult discussions and knowledge-based arguments.” The students seem to have strong ideas about the competences needed.

The students also mention that teamwork and a culture of collaboration in teams varies quite a lot between the schools. The relevance and transfer value of group supervision depends on this:

“It varies from school to school whether the teams are functional. In some teams, you [the teacher] just run your own class by yourself (…) While in other teams, there is collaboration all the time, as a team, all the time.”

The students have different experiences from periods of placement in school. As student teachers they have been outsiders and are now able to reflect on their observations. They do know that the competence for collaborating in teams amongst teachers could be better, but they are little specific about what is needed.

The Supervision Process – Outcomes and Potentials

Result 4: Outcomes and Effects on the Master Projects

One student talked about the effect of writing in order to present their work for the student group:

“It is sort of a competition, or, that came out wrong, but you get more motivated to do a job, because I’m actually using some other students' time.”

Group supervision influences the students’ writing process, they feel motivated, and they get support. This outcome is especially significant when the students write individually on their thesis. Collaborating in groups gives more eyes on their work, more voices to comment, more questions and so on. The students also are inspired by listening to each other's presentations of projects. Group supervision increases the students` engagement, prepares them for being part of a critical, reflective group commenting on their work. The effect of closely watching fellow student working with their project and writing is summed up by a student:

“We have read many masters' theses until now, but it is nice to observe a master's thesis being written and to get explained why, how things are done that way. You don't catch sight of this simply by reading a thesis.”

By presenting their own work and responding to others, the students become “outsiders” to their own writing. They read and understand with other perspectives, and this seems to contribute to improvements of the content. The students claim that learning the nature of the other students’ projects contributes to a less theoretical focus on their own. Also, the supervision groups’ schedule pushes the students' project forward.

Result 5: When Group Supervision Succeeds

Even though result 1 above shows the importance of the students collaborating, the teacher educator as participant is also significant in the group supervision. One of the students put weight to this:

“You (the supervising teacher educator) step aside, ... assign us (the students) a role where we give feedback and become the assessors. The meta-perspective we, as students, gain from that, is very valuable.”

The teacher educator is referred to as important for the success of group collaboration, not only because we supervise the scientific content, but also because we organize the students into an active role in the collaborating group. The students are expected to participate actively in the feedback and the role is therefore passed to them. They are expected to assess the shared texts and this role is passed to them. To make this possible the teacher educator must step aside, this student tells us.

Result 6: Some Ideas for Improvement

The students have never participated in group supervision where the participants write on different texts before. They were skeptical of the outcome in the beginning, but as shown above, they after a while found themselves as engaged and learning students. Collaborating supervision seemed to work. One of the students suggests we start in another way the following year.

“We could have had … supervision on supervision in groups when we started. To show us “this is what is expected from us, this is what we should expect from each other”.”

Our students were not prepared for this kind of supervision, and one student reflected on this and concluded that the collaborative supervision would be prepared for a better start if we had opened the semester with some information. This result is already brought into practice in our teacher education. The following year the first meeting between students and supervision teacher educators was a seminar where the students and the supervisors learned about group supervision together before writing their supervision contracts.

In addition, students put forward some more practical suggestions, like earlier planning for an earlier start-up, milestone schedules and planned, stated deadlines and suitable sized groups.


Following Loughran (2007) we will in this section "develop our critical reflections" on group supervision by discussing the results to finally draw some conclusions and to find meaningful alternatives to our practice

According to Hoaglund et al. (2014) a professional learning community can be developed through intentional scaffolded experiences. The students in the study do not form a community of professionals as such, but each group functions as a learning community when working on their master projects. Their learning and development is scaffolded by their supervisors and, more significant, by their fellow students.

As pointed out above, there are two levels of communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) in this study: The student groups and the group of supervisors (including the researchers). What distinguishes these two communities, is the practice they build their mutual engagement and joint activity (Wenger, 1998) around: The students are collaborating in their research and writing processes. The focus of the supervisors is how to improve and develop their supervision practice.

What may connect them is the feature of their collaboration, not the content of their practices. And here lies the potential and the challenge for collaborative academic supervision: To become more than just a way of scaffolding student writing. To achieve this, our practice could be altered so that supervisors make the transfer value explicit to students early in the process and add this as intentional experiences to the outcome of the collaborative process, alongside the traditional academic activities. Result 1 and 6 above both point out the early introduction of this aspect and the need for information about the collaborative processes and their potential. However, as result 2 states: Once made aware of this, the students clearly saw group supervision as a parallel to working in teacher teams.

Hoagland et al. (2014) further points out that forming a community among first year teachers can prevent attrition with experience from group supervision. Our students are prepared for this kind of active participation.

One feature of group supervision making it a valuable experience for later work, is tension. Engeström (1999) points out that tensions are important for development. In this research project we meet tensions in several variations. Results 1 and 2 illustrate the tensions between the supervisors’ intentions and students’ expectations and need for information. When these tensions now are uncovered, results can be communicated back to the supervisors, making way for developing a new practice.

Another tension visible in the results is between the students' relatively strong ideas about the collaborative competencies needed for working as a team and that this competence varies among teachers and schools. This is shown in result 3. Some of the skills developed and looked upon by students as useful in future teacher teams, are also useful tools to handle tensions in a professional way – without developing conflicts but lead to improvement – such as handling feedback from colleagues, discussing matter and not person, to argue on the basis of theory. These are features often known to academic staff, therefore this can be an arena to transfer them.

This arena – the group supervising meeting - where students receive and give feedback on their master's work, has the potential of friction arising. The collaborative climate is then of importance for the friction not developing into major conflicts.

If we turn to result 4, the students clearly state that the group supervision and collaboration is helping and motivating them in their projects. One way to look upon this is also by the concept of tensions: More students mean more “eyes” on your work, more plurality in feedback, more perspectives etcetera. The students witness diverse ways of writing master theses and the tensions between them, affect their writing. Another clear tension is stated clearly in the student citation: The feeling of using someone else’s time makes the student put more effort into the work – it almost becomes a competition. This sense of obligation to the group may also prevent students from loneliness when writing their masters` thesis as an individual project.

Isaksen et al. (2023) points out that the participants are individually responsible to contribute to a community of practice. But in a supervision process with an unequal power balance and with learning and development of some of the participants, it is important for the supervisors to step aside and make room for the students to take their responsibility. This is also pointed out from one of the students in result 5 as an important feature for the supervision process to succeed.

Our research question is: "Can group supervision of master thesis writing prepare teacher students for their future participation in professional learning communities of teachers?" Based on this discussion and reflections above, the answer is: Yes, and in several ways if certain conditions are met by an altered practice. We will sum this up in the conclusion.


As self-studying researchers and mentors we aim to professionalize our practice when we pass the research findings back to the field of practice (Loughran, 2007, p. 15-16). We will present three meaningful alternatives to our existing practice in the following.

First, the mentors involved in our group supervising need to emphasize the transfer value of group supervision by making it an intentional, explicit part of our practice. As we have seen, timing is crucial: This needs to happen at an early stage in the master projects, because it takes time for the students to be able to participate actively in commenting on the masters` work to the other students. To discuss with the students how to do this, is also important.

Second, the awareness of tensions as an “engine” for development needs to be recognised by all parts. Students need to learn this as a part of their “training” to become active participants in this community of practice, but more important: supervisors (teachers, academic staff) must acknowledge these features of tensions, both for supporting the writing process and preparing students for their future participating in teacher teams.

Third, the supervisors need to be made aware of and recognise the success criteria for group supervision to work. One important example here is that the supervisor is able to step aside and let the student both learn and to take the role as peers.

We hope this will strengthen the students’ ability as new teachers to raise their voice and contribute to development in their future community of practice. We are worried about this, because one could easily expect that active participation might be even more difficult as newly qualified amongst experienced teachers than among fellow students. The question is: Do we as supervisors scaffold the students to emerge their self-esteem as contributors into a professional collaborative? We hope this study is a step in the right direction.


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Ronny Johansen

University of South-Eastern Norway

Siv Svendsen

University of South-Eastern Norway

Bjarne Isaksen

University of South-Eastern Norway

Janne Madsen

University of South-Eastern Norway

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