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Professor Rachel Spronken-Smith

Rachel Spronken-SmithBSc(Hons) and PGDTT (Otago), PhD (British Columbia)

Dean (Graduate Research School)

Phone: +64 3 479 5655

About Rachel

Rachel is currently Dean of the Graduate Research School. When not involved in administrative duties she teaches and supervises in both Higher Education and Geography. She initially trained as a geographer, taking up a lecturing position at the University of Canterbury, where she worked for nine years after returning from completing her PhD in British Columbia. Her teaching was recognised with a University of Canterbury Teaching Award in 2002, an OUSA Supervision Award in 2012, a University of Otago Teaching Award in 2013 and a national Sustained Excellence in Teaching Award in 2015.

While studying for a Postgraduate Diploma in Tertiary Teaching through HEDC at Otago, Rachel became more interested in aspects of learning and teaching and was appointed as a Senior Lecturer in HEDC in 2004. She worked as an academic developer and was Head of HEDC from 2009-2012. In 2016 she won the TERNZ-HERDSA medal for Sustained Contribution to the Research Environment in New Zealand, and was also awarded a Fulbright Scholar Award for research in the US on graduate outcomes for PhD candidates. She is currently the Chair of the New Zealand universities Deans and Directors of Graduate Studies.

Research Interests

Rachel's interests in higher education research include learning through inquiry and undergraduate research, the teaching-research nexus, curriculum change, graduate attributes and aspects of the student experience. She regularly undertakes consultancy work for university and polytechnic staff wishing to undertake curriculum renewal, especially when the focus is on embedding inquiry in curricula.


Rachel is especially keen to supervise postgraduates in higher education who want to research on inquiry or undergraduate research, as well as graduate attributes and doctoral education.

Current students

  • Senorita John - Becoming educated: Exploring the shades of grey that define the ecosystem of undergraduate education (2016-19)
  • Miriam Gibson - Making Meaning: The role of activity in learning (2015-; part-time)
  • James Windle - Learning and assessment connections occurring between the undergraduate years of the Otago BPharm degree and pre-registration internship, a longitudinal study. (2013-; part-time)
  • Nantida Sripaoraya - Development of a non-formal education program to enhance science communication skills in the Thai students (2017-)

Past students
Recently completed PhD candidates

  • Lee Adam - Troubling plagiarism: University students' understandings of plagiarism (2013-15)
  • Russell Butson - The office: the impact of the digital revolution on the office practices of early career academics (2012-2019; part-time)
  • Jono Conway - Synoptic and surface interactions in an alpine glacier (2010-2014)
  • Joanna Joseph - Critical pedagogy in Higher Education (2011-2014)
  • Adisorn Juntrasook - Leadership with/out position (Exceptional thesis) (2009-13)
  • Sharon Sharmini - Assessing publication-based doctoral theses (2012-16)
  • Donna Smith - Perceptions of degree-based massage therapy education (2012-14)


Given Rachel's administrative roles, her teaching is limited. She offers many workshops through the Graduate Research school on aspects of the doctoral journey. She also teaches publishing for postgraduates, and offers professional development workshops for supervisors and convenors of PhD examinations. She teaches on the University's Academic Leadership Development Programme, offering sessions on graduate research, developing a vibrant teaching culture and graduate attributes. Rachel also contributes occasional guest lectures to Geography.


Ongoing projects include

  • Graduate outcomes and career preparedness for PhD candidates
  • The doctoral curriculum
  • More structured approaches to the development of transferable and professional skills in PhD candidates

Past projects include

  • Graduate outcomes – are they driving learning?
  • Inquiry-based learning in undergraduate education in New Zealand
  • The Matariki Undergraduate Research Network
  • Doctoral attrition
  • Institution-wide curriculum change
  • Gender in academia