What is personal tutoring for? What role does it play in supporting student success? What models of practice work best? How can we support staff to be diligent tutors in a work-intensive environment? The changing landscape of higher education, and the evolving expectations of the Teaching Excellence Framework, put questions such as these on the lips of many higher education leaders: ‘we are reviewing our personal tutoring system’ is a statement being minuted in many university committees in 2017.
I lead our work on personal tutoring at King’s. Informed by the Causes of Differences in Student Outcomes report to HEFCE (Mountford-Zimdars et al, 2015), we know that students want to get to know their teachers, and that effective academic support and positive student-tutor relationships are vital for establishing a learning environment in which students can thrive. We also know that some students are more equipped than others to actively seek support and guidance from their tutors, and so we see personal tutoring as a mainstream intervention – it is not just “we’re here if you need us”. All of our taught students are allocated to a personal tutor, and all parts of the College work to an agreed Code of Practice. We have Induction and ‘Refresher’ training for staff, concise and accessible tutor resources, a Student Guide to Personal Tutoring co-created with our union officers, a lively network of department and faculty senior tutors, and an annual campaign nudging students to remember to keep appointments with their tutors. Supported by a HEFCE Catalyst Fund we are collaborating with the universities of Sheffield and Portsmouth on a project – Raising Awareness, Raising Aspiration (RARA) – to explore the role that personal tutoring plays in supporting student attainment.
Like many universities we take personal tutoring seriously, we think it is important and work hard to make our Code of Practice a reality for all our students.
We are not alone in working conscientiously to enhance this aspect of academic support, and yet there isn’t a university in the country who could say that personal tutoring is working perfectly in all areas. There is little empirical evidence to inform best practice – although UKAT is taking active steps to address this – and we know that this work is not always valued as highly as other aspects of academic endeavour. Within the sector there are some who would argue that personal tutoring is an out-of-date practice – something that made sense when few students went to university and when tutors were in loco parentis, but which now cannot meet the demands of a larger and more diverse student body.
Like most personal tutors, I really enjoy talking to my students – and to be a good teacher I think I need to understand the learners in the classroom, and personal tutoring conversations support this. But the work can be difficult. The 2012 reforms to the fee regime have changed how students engage with their studies; as a personal tutor I observe that it is harder for students to fail, to change course, to take a break – it is all higher stakes. Nationally we know that the net effect of this is increasing numbers of students living with poor mental health – and personal tutors are often the on the front-line for helping students to cope with these challenges. Most staff understand the role that personal tutoring can play in supporting students, but will point out that they are not the best people to discharge this role now that our students’ needs are more complex. Recent research suggests that having a bad tutor might be worse than not having one at all (Yale, 2017), and so we need to be sure that we are not asking staff to commit to a role they cannot deliver.
The first person students turn to
In the eight years that I’ve been a personal and a senior tutor, I’ve held hundreds of conversations with students: about assessment patterns, essay feedback and revision techniques; about the differences between the UK’s main supermarkets, about coping with family difficulties and with panic attacks. I’ve talked with students at all points of the wellbeing spectrum: celebrating successes with some, and identifying urgent, specialist support for others. Occasionally I am the first or only person to know something very personal or distressing. Whilst I’m careful to explain that my role is not that of a counsellor or social worker, I also know that ‘the academic’ cannot easily be separated from ‘the personal’: as seen through a student’s eyes, as soon as any difficulties impact on their studies (or vice versa) then it’s all personal.
In designing resources and training to support personal tutors at King’s we reflected on what we can expect from all of our personal tutors, formulating the view that if we can clarify the boundaries of the role, and make it easier for staff to work within them, then this would support effective conversations between tutors and tutees. In general, academics are experts in educating others about their discipline, capable of analysing a complex situation and skilled in asking intelligent questions. As such, they can help students to reflect on their academic progress and identify trends in how they are performing across different modules. University educators are also often motivated to address inequalities, and equipped to translate or challenge arcane practices. So they can be an essential interlocutor or a powerful advocate for when a student is in a difficult situation. Personal Tutors are enthusiasts for their subject, and so can play a key role in helping students to form strong disciplinary identities – and this can have a positive impact on access to further study, to co-curricular opportunities and to more successful graduate outcomes. For students, a personal tutor can be the essential ‘way in’ to an academic programme and to the university if other points of engagement are difficult, and they can be the still point in the student’s journey when their university experience takes them to other departments, campuses or countries.
To perform this role effectively the personal tutor needs firm boundaries to lean on and concise, up-to-date resources to support effective signposting to specialist support. Tutors can be trained to listen without judgement and to be diligent in managing their tutee meetings, but they cannot safely be skilled-up to be part-counsellors or social workers, and so readily accessible professional services are essential to complementing personal tutoring systems. We need to manage student expectations about what the role is for so we are confident that when tutors do signpost on to other services that this is understood to be the best way to deliver on our duty of care and our promise to help. Staff need the time and space to timetable conversations with tutees and the technological support to keep an eye on who is turning up and who is not. We hope that the HEFCE-funded RARA project will give us the opportunity to share with the sector our findings on how far this approach is effective in supporting staff engagement and student success.
Regular communication is essential
Most of us know that regular communication with others (with groups and individuals) about what we do, think or need is essential in order to function successfully in our professional and personal lives. Personal tutoring provides the opportunity to educate students to do the same – socialising students to the idea of regular communication, and providing the opportunity for them to find the words to talk about how they are connecting with a discipline, with their programme, and with the university. If, as a sector, we conceptualise personal tutoring like this – as an integral part of a student’s education and not just a ‘safety-net’ – then we will be more successful in hardwiring personal tutoring into academic endeavours, and specifically into workload planning and routes for reward and recognition.
It’s not just good to talk, it’s essential for learning and for thriving in the world beyond university – and as a sector it is time to recognise that the principles of personal tutoring are not out of date, though its practice may be evolving to fit with the times.
Mountford-Zimdars A, Sabri D, Moore J, et al (2015). Causes of differences in student outcomes. Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Yale, AT (2017). The personal tutor–student relationship: student expectations and experiences of personal tutoring in higher education, Journal of Further and Higher Education. DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2017.1377164