Universities throughout the world are grappling with ways to improve the quality of research supervision and thereby improve successful completion rates. Much effort has been spent on defining the research skills students are expected to develop and how to assist students improve them, e.g. Willison (2012). The concept of developing researcher autonomy has also been the focus of research, e.g. Gurr (2011). As supervisors, we help our students become skilled autonomous researchers through discussions and feedback, in other words, through our communication skills. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) can be applied in research supervision to improve the communication process and ultimately both the student experience and the student outcomes.
Communication Accommodation Theory provides a framework that ‘predicts and explains many of the adjustments individuals make to create, maintain or decrease social distance in interaction’ (Giles and Ogay, 2007). CAT provides a way to articulate expectations of both supervisor and research student in relation to preferred modes of communication, e.g. directive or non-directive, and to address the power relationship inherent in the relationship e.g. (Willemyns et al., 2006). The supervisor can respond to questions such as ‘What should I do?’ along the lines of ‘Let’s see. What are the options?’ This approach encourages students to transition to using their own judgement and discernment skills rather than just providing answers. Over time, the student develops a habit of identifying and evaluating options, proposing solutions, and finally taking responsibility for their choices.