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Issues being a supervisor

ProxyAmenRa

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I am supervising two engineering management maters students. The research group I am a member of is aiming to use the theses as preliminary analysis. It is hoped that the results will enable better scoping of future projects. I was briefed by my boss on the projects that the students will be working on. The projects seem somewhat basic to me.

Before my first meeting with the students I compiled project plans and aggregated data, reports and background information. In the meeting I discussed both projects in depth, the knowledge they are required to have and what goals and objectives they need to achieve. I asked both of them multiple times throughout the meeting whether or not they understood and they both replied with 'yes'.

At the next meeting both were complaining that they did not know what they needed to do. To remedy this problem I thought I should be more specific. I compiled project plans in greater detail to the extent of when to construct a scatter plot in excel is stipulated. Once again, both claimed they understood what they needed to do.

Two days ago I had another meeting with one of the students. He stated that he was having problems. I first asked him what has he done so far. His response to the question was dismal. I asked him what exactly is he having a problem with and he simply stared at the in detailed project plan I gave him. I was perplexed. I had no idea and still have no idea why the guy can't follow the outlined steps.

In the meeting I demonstrated the simplicity of following the outlined steps by completing a few subsections that did not require the use of a computer. The reason why it is so simple is because the steps are fully detailed. I asked him whether or not he would be able to complete the rest of them. His response was that he did not know and he was confused. I asked what he was confused about and he stated that he did not know. At this point in time I was annoyed, packed up my gear and left.

I gave them both detailed plans, the data to work with and the background information they need and they have done absolutely no work over the last few months. Is there something I am doing wrong or is it the students?
 

Architect

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Sounds like the students, but we're hearing it from your point of view. A remedy is to make the solution their problem. Ask them "what do you need from me to be successful?" If they can't come up with an answer and can't do it themselves then get new students.
 
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My bone to pick would be in your approach. It appears you're attempting to move forward without an understanding of their perspective and are thus unable to connect A (them) to B (the final result). I'd wager you don't appear to be "on their side," "moving in their same direction," or "willingly available."

In a way, it appears you've let paper do your job, much like a bad babysitter lets the television do theirs.
Ask them "what do you need from me to be successful?"
^This would be a good start given current circumstances.
 

Absurdity

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It might also be helpful to ask them about the most difficult project they have ever worked on. What you're asking of them might just be exponentially more complex than what they are comfortable with.

If this is the case it might be wise to break the project into separate parts so as not to overwhelm them.
 

Coolydudey

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They're not going to tell you they don't understand even if they don't, so that's not something to rely on. What you're describing sounds a lot like them being too lazy to get their headaround it.

Apart from asking them what they need, say to them "Start with X, then report back to me". Now say "Do Y, then report back again", accordingly. After two or three times, that should kickstart them...
 

ProxyAmenRa

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He's a teacher. :)

-Duxwing
My role does not including teaching these two students anything. :P

Both of them have at least five years of work experience as engineers. I am wondering whether or not they were this difficult when their previous employers asked them to work on a new project.
 

Duxwing

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My role does not including teaching these two students anything. :P
Oh yes it does. Practical experience is much more beneficial when received under the guidance of a mentor. If they were working alone and failed because they'd made a tiny error but thought that they'd committed a far larger one, then who would tell them that they hadn't? You. The supervisor: The one who watches over them. I've lived this in learning sports, e-sports, and robotics even after years of practice in each field.

Both of them have at least five years of work experience in their respected fields of engineering. I am wondering whether or not they were this difficult when their previous employers asked them to work on a new project.
The problems that you describe would make them unemployable, so the problem lies with you. They may feel uncomfortable saying that they don't understand what you mean, or they might feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work given at once. Overall, it's probably an emotional difficulty on their part caused by a subtle error on yours. Although again, I'd ask Solitaire.

I'll share a personal story, though. When I first met my INTJ robotics teacher, my stomach turned to ice and a single thought ran through my mind, "He's going to kill us all!". Yes, with only his penetrating, wordless gaze, what turned out to be a father of two made me fear for my life. Now imagine how your charges feel.

-Duxwing
 

Inappropriate Behavior

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It doesn't sound like you are supervising them as much as you're the one that gave them a job to do. That is, if you've only spoken to them both twice together and one a third time in a few months. If you're more involved than that then it didn't come across to me in the OP.

I agree with the idea above of breaking it down into smaller tasks. The reason is because I've come to learn that most people can only process so much information given to them at one time. Within hours if not minutes, it all starts to fall apart for them in their heads (I know I have my limits). It IS possible to overexplain things. Think of it as adding too much weight to a support structure. It will collapse in time. Having a lot of the information they need written down for them won't help if they lost the context of it.

They may have a) understood everything you said when you said it and thus the "I understand" but they weren't able to retain it all afterwards. Or b) their retention abilities were already overloaded and when you asked "Do you understand?" they said yes hoping you would stop. It sounds like you gave them a lot in your meetings. Hard to say without the specifics.

Or of course they might just not be cut out for the work. If you want/need to find out, then I'd highly reccomend breaking the project up into smaller tasks. It will take a more hands on approach I'm afraid.

If I had a nickel for everytime an employee told me "I understand" when clearly they didn't, I'd have a lot of fucking nickels.
 
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I'm not buying the "I don't understand" thing because I don't think they're motivated. If they were motivated and didn't understand, they'd have approached Proxy and/or others sooner and more frequently. Procrastination is a manifestation of passive-aggressive behavior used as retaliation.

If you can't get them to come to you, you've got to go to them. Architect disguised this well in his phrasing (he IS a married man after all lol), but yeah, I'm a bit more blunt.
 

Inappropriate Behavior

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I'm not buying the "I don't understand" thing because I don't think they're motivated. If they were motivated and didn't understand, they'd have approached Proxy and/or others sooner and more frequently. Procrastination is a manifestation of passive-aggressive behavior used as retaliation.

If you can't get them to come to you, you've got to go to them. Architect disguised this well in his phrasing, but yeah, I'm a bit more blunt.
Retaliation for what though?
 
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Retaliation for what though?
It's normally unconscious and isn't necessarily directed at the source of stress. If I had to hazard a guess I'd say some expectation of social capital went unfulfilled. Maybe they were put off by Proxy's initial presentation, maybe a lack of support from Proxy or elsewhere, maybe perceived unrealistic expectations, who knows.

But because it's both of them, I doubt it's because say... one broke up with his girlfriend. It's got to be related to the work environment.

Lost sheep in need of a leader.
 

Valentas

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When I did not understand some maths I learned on my own, I approached my maths teacher and she explained everything. If students don't understand, ask them what Architect said. It will resolve issues because they are either too shy to ask or they are not interested in stuff and are lazy. ;)
 

Hawkeye

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You should never ask closed questions like "do you understand". They can very easily say yes because they think they understand. In reality, they could be way off course.

Similar to what Architect said, instead of focusing on the negative approach i.e. "what don't you understand?"/"what are you confused about?", try to get them to tell you what you expect them to do. This will allow you to assess whether they do actually understand what you want from them. Also their response will allow you to tailor your guidance appropriately.

I agree that the lack of doing anything is very common amongst students. I know because I've still not done a lot of my university work - reason being the deadline is aaages away.

I am also a teacher.
 

Solitaire U.

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Not sure why I was called out in this thread. I teach English to 3rd and 4th graders. This is clearly a supervisor/employee relationship, not a teacher/student one. Seems like the word 'students' is being used in a potentially confusing way by the OP.

Observations:

My students are accustomed to decipher "Do you understand?" as "Show me you understand." because that's the follow-up command I give every time I ask that loaded question and they answer "yes". If I didn't demand on-the-spot accountability for their affirmative response, they'd "Yes" me to death (because in a student's mind, "yes" is the only acceptable answer to such a linear question) and then I'd be self-sabotaged into an endless loop of blame-trading and guilt-tripping; "Why did you tell me you understood when you clearly didn't?"

Thing is, I don't even have to ask the question. I already know whether or not they understand. In fact, I generally only ask the question when I'm positive that they DON'T understand. I want them to say "no". I don't want them to be afraid to ask for further instruction. If my students are afraid of making mistakes, I've failed them as their teacher.

So, possible fundamental problems based upon the incomplete info in the OP:

The OP (supervisor) spent a lot of time compiling materials, info, and creating succicent, detailed instructions on how to go about transforming it into the finished product, but failed to verify that the ability levels of his workers were up to the task at hand. If we're labeling these workers as 'students', that might very well have been a critical omission.

The supervisor assumes his pre-prep and instructions are clear and concise. Obviously, the materials he's provided are clear and concise to HIM, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be rock-solid for anyone else who attempts to use them.

The supervisor declares the task to be 'basic'. However, this judgment is invalid to apply to others, especially students whose ability levels are apparently unfamiliar to him. What is 'basic' to the informed is often insurmountably difficult to understand for the inexperienced. To declare a difficulty level for a given student, an instructor needs to be intimately familiar with that particular student's ability level.

Supervisor asks "Do you understand?", takes the students' affirmative response at face value, and then holds them liable for it. Fatal error.

Hence, it sounds like these students have been assigned a task that significantly exceeds their ability level, which is not to say that they couldn't successfully complete it with the assistance of a qualified instructor. Since the supervisor is not qualified thus, he should either complete the task himself or reassign it to workers with the required skill level.

Reminder that mine is a teacher's POV, not a supervisor's. Preserving and defending student integrity is in my nature. It may very well be the case that these particular two individuals are simply incompetent, lazy, (insert negative personality adjective here), etc.
 

ProxyAmenRa

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This is clearly a supervisor/employee relationship, not a teacher/student one.
This is correct.

A maters thesis is meant to be a self-directed process. A candidate is give or chooses a subject and must investigate it without having a hand held throughout the whole process. My role is to aid them in direction, technical advise and comment on the quality of their work.

Since the @thehabitatdoctor is also a PhD candidate, he can verify.

Seems like the word 'students' is being used in a potentially confusing way by the OP.
They're master students...
 
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Since the @thehabitatdoctor is also a PhD candidate, he can verify.

They're master students...
Except I disagree ;)

A thesis is as much self-directed as it is a learning process. If the candidate comes up with their own project, it's more likely to be a mix of the two because of the implied intrinsic motivation associated with carrying out one's own ideas, but if they're given one, it's expected to be much more biased to the learning side.

imho this process of managing a team via feedback, like managerial sonar, is something you missed out on by not having a teaching assistantship. A measure of your success is what your students will voluntarily do for you.

Supervisor =/= watcher.
 

Inappropriate Behavior

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Does their success or failure have any affect on you professionally?

If you were assigned this task then your boss may be evaluating you too.
 

ProxyAmenRa

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Except I disagree ;)

A thesis is as much self-directed as it is a learning process. If the candidate comes up with their own project, it's more likely to be a mix of the two because of the implied intrinsic motivation associated with carrying out one's own ideas, but if they're given one, it's expected to be much more biased to the learning side.
But you do know that your supervisor/advisor is not there to hold your hand throughout the whole process, right?

imho this process of managing a team via feedback, like managerial sonar, is something you missed out on by not having a teaching assistantship. A measure of your success is what your students will voluntarily do for you.

Supervisor =/= watcher.
The undergrad students I lecture and tutor seem to be fine in this regard.

Does their success or failure have any affect on you professionally?

If you were assigned this task then your boss may be evaluating you too.
Yesterday when I had a meeting with my boss. I discussed the issue I was shaving with the two students. He stated it was normal for masters students to do nothing until the last minute.
 

Hawkeye

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But you do know that your supervisor/advisor is not there to hold your hand throughout the whole process, right?
It's also not as straight forward as:

Supervisor: "You should do this and this. Do you understand"
Students: "Yes"
Supervisor: "Good, see you next week"

because...

*Outside room*
Student 1: So... 'the hell are we supposed to be doing? :confused:
Student 2: No idea. Don't worry, it's early days yet.
 
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