Instituto Superior Técnico

Observatório de Boas Práticas do IST

Supervision of master theses based on Scrum

12 de outubro, 2021

Educação Superior ● 2021

Miguel Mira da Silva

Implementação da Prática

The success rate of a master program on Information Systems and Computer Engineering (MEIC) in a Portuguese university is very unsatisfactory. However, the success rate of a group of students that were supervised based on the Scrum framework was much higher.

In this study we assessed the current situation and identified the benefits of using Scrum to supervise master’s theses. The evidence suggests that this approach increases the number of students successfully completing their theses.

This proposal discusses the issues at stake and summarizes a qualitative study with focus on the actual practices and benefits reported by students in the master program. We found that some techniques in the Scrum framework can address existing problems in the development of master theses with very positive results

Resultados Alcançados

The success rates of students who were supervised based on Scrum was very high compared to the global rates presented in the studies published by NEP. For example, in the 2012/2013 academic year, only 30% of the students enrolled in the Alameda campus and 32% of those enrolled in the Taguspark campus were successful in their master theses. Those numbers improved in the following years, but until 2016/2017 they never exceeded 55% in both campuses. However, the students supervised based on Scrum had 80% to 100% success rates in those academic years.

Our findings are in line with the results obtained by Mariz et al. (2010), showing a

positive correlation of the methods used in the success of a software development

project to the success of an academic thesis project, whenever the Scrum framework is used. With frequent meetings and a high commitment to the tasks discussed in the planning phase, the agile methodology becomes a relevant factor in the successful development of a master thesis.

The most significant benefits of adopting agile methods are knowledge, learning, feedback, and confidence Solinski and Petersen (2016). We can map these benefits to the evidence given by students, specifically during the review phase and the exchange of experiences in group meetings.

The practices we identified are: iteration, planning, meeting, iteration review and retrospective, face-to-face communication, small self-organizing cross-functional teams, frequent planning/reporting, and prioritized list of requirements.

However, in what concerns the practice of small self organizing teams, and considering that a thesis is rather individual, the key stakeholders are the student and the supervisor, and therefore we cannot map this practice to theses.

Concerning the prioritized list of requirements, we also cannot map this practice to

our results, since participants only developed a backlog of tasks they planned to implement in a Sprint, or tasks that had not yet been allocated to a Sprint.

Sprints and meetings between the stakeholders foster communication Rover et al. (2014). The benefits originating from these practices are teamwork, product quality, customer focus and iterative development. Benefits such as teamwork were not referred to by students since the thesis is associated with a student.

Regarding the iterative development, Rover et al. (2014) state that ‘bi-weekly meetings kept students accountable and motivated them to spread work throughout the semester’, which was also reported by the participants in our study as a positive factor towards delivering the master’s thesis within the stipulated time.

Begel and Nagappan (2007) highlight the top benefits of agile methods in order to

form a ranking of common benefits. The top three benefits perceived by participants

were: improved communication, quick releases and fast response to change (flexibility of design).

Avaliação e Monitorização

This study highlighted the value of several Scrum events in the development of academic theses: Sprint Planning meeting, Sprint Review meeting, frequent work deliveries, feedback and collaboration. Moreover, regarding the insufficient knowledge transmission, participants pointed that having group meetings was an opportunity to follow-up on the work of other students, learn with their ideas and developments, and learn from their mistakes.

However, Scrum has specific roles, such as Product Owner, Scrum Master and Team Member, which have specific responsibilities that are not appropriate for an academic context such as thesis development. So, to answer our preliminary question: is the Scrum project management framework applicable to supervising theses?

To a certain extent, yes. In what concerns our main research objective, we found that the adoption of Scrum and many of its methods can positively influence the success of a master thesis development process, thus overcoming the issues previously stated by students who were not satisfied with the supervision. In essence, the adoption of Scrum may be a way to foster communication and organization between students and supervisors, generating positive feedback, and improving the work in progress.

Looking back, considering that we could not find any previous study on the subject of Scrum applied to the supervision of theses, our research had to examine the experiences and use of the Scrum framework by a small group of students in a specific institution, spanning a few years. Based on qualitative data gathered through interviews we were able to find out which practices of Scrum and agile were more appropriate, and which benefits were generated by them. We also compared our results with the work of other researchers in somehow different contexts.

However, a more systematic and in-depth analysis of the implementation of Scrum in the academic context is needed, considering the subjective experiences of participants, but advancing beyond an exploratory research endeavor.

Carácter Inovador e Transferibilidade

We investigated the advantages of using the Scrum framework for supervising master theses. More specifically, we identified which parts of the Scrum framework may benefit the supervision of master theses, based on qualitative data collected in a specific program.

Scrum methods have been used with success in the industrial development of computer software, but not so much in the educational area. However, there is potential for using Scrum to help students to learn more effectively and develop themselves in an enjoyable way. Scrum as a framework is able to specify roles, artefacts and events that give both the student and the teacher the structure which is normally missing within project-based learning.

We think that Scrum may be used as an engaging and self-organizing way to work collaboratively and dynamically, and this may improve mutual collaboration and reflection among students and professors. Experiences of students during project-based learning are described by Dinis Carvalho et al. (2018) which showed that students recognized the advantages of the Scrum methodology and scored above average compared to students using regular teaching approaches.

Since the 2012/2013 academic year, studies and inquiries have been performed by the Statistics and Prospective Unit (NEP) to determine the reasons for the existence of very unsatisfactory completion rates and long (than stipulated) completion times. In the MEIC case, the students who rated their orientation as unsatisfactory pointed out as main reasons: lack of commitment and limited time of the supervision team to monitor the work, insufficient knowledge transmission ability, and lack of support for experimental and field work.

We developed a case study focusing on the perceptions and results related to the Scrum project management method for supervising theses. A group of master students, crossing a few years, was supervised based on the Scrum framework. The main goal was to collect their opinions, experiences and results regarding the application of the methods. We used semi-structured interviews that were analyzed with NVivo to understand which Scrum techniques were more effective, and if these practices were related to the success of each thesis project.

Since Scrum is a generic project management framework and a master thesis is just a type of project, this good practice can be applied to the supervision of any master thesis in Técnico.


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