You might work in outreach into local schools and colleges, in recruitment, in admissions, in student services, in student health and wellbeing, in student finance, or in careers advice. You might work specifically with disabled students or students from disadvantaged backgrounds and / or groups under-represented in UK education or from certain ethnic backgrounds. Your role will have some focus on building a fairer, better-accessed HE, with the widest participation, student engagement, retention and graduate and post-graduate outcomes.
But what is the only structural activity on campus that gives all students continuing, one-to-one interaction with a concerned representative of the institution? The answer is Personal Tutoring. The utility and value of such a role has not always been properly recognised or realised in UK institutions in the context of widening participation – particularly with regard to fostering student engagement, facilitating retention, helping ensure students get the most from their learning and a properly considered and successful progression from their study.
Impacts of Personal Tutoring – what do they do?
With a strong academic focus; embedded into the academic experience; and based at school or faculty level, purposeful personal tutoring at its most effective is a proactive, intentionally-structured process which focuses on student growth and development. Offering an effective way to stay in touch with students working remotely and a purposeful and structured means of helping students grow and flourish, Personal Tutoring helps students realise a successful and satisfactory academic experience. It also assists them in differentiating their interests, academic strengths and future goals for entry to a highly competitive job market.
With UK universities continuing to adapt to the challenges of the 2020 pandemic and with the HE sector looking ahead to a new academic year, Personal Tutoring is featuring prominently on the priority list of many institutions. The entire HE teaching and learning experience was changed by the pandemic and now, more than ever, it is important to recognise how vital the relationship between Personal Tutor and student is for engagement, academic success and progression.
Over a six-year period, Action on Access worked together with colleagues at the Higher Education Academy on the What Works? programme (now an Advance HE Key Project) an in-depth action research on student retention and success involving fourteen universities and colleges and working variously at an institutional, departmental and course level. The ‘What Works?’ Programme found that student engagement and belonging are central to improving student retention and success and firmly placed the academic sphere at the heart of this retention and success. In 2015, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (the predecessor of both the Office for Fair Access and then the Office for Students) in the ‘Causes in Different Student Outcomes Report’ concluded that retention and success are best addressed by approaches which seek to:
- develop supportive peer relations
- foster meaningful interaction between staff and students
- inculcate knowledge, confidence and identity as successful HE learners
- ensure an HE experience that is relevant to students’ interests and future goals.
It also identified the importance of an effective transition as a contributor to successful outcomes.
Personal Tutoring operates across all of the above, and across the Access and Widening Participation agenda by:
- academic support: discussing academic problems, helping with assignments and discussing feedback
- transition on entry to university or college, and transition to a following year of study
- academic development: supporting students to develop study skills
- pastoral support: providing support with personal issues or signposting students on to further support
- sign-posting to the most appropriate information, advice and guidance through existing support services offered by the institution
- group tutorials through which students can share and discuss their experience and make and cement relationships with their peers
- identifying students at risk for whatever reason; monitoring and/or working with students at risk of failing or leaving
- guiding students into the wider student university community experience
- supporting students in their career ideas and planning.
Personal Tutoring and the Office for Students (OfS)
What does the OfS website tell us about the work and contribution of Personal Tutoring? Currently, a wordsearch for Personal Tutors on the OfS website returns a mere eleven results; and three results for ‘Academic Advisers’. These refer mostly to OfS funded projects or briefings – most of which have been produced in response to the pandemic situation. This word search identifies a case studies page broadly focusing on student health and wellbeing (again in response to the pandemic situation) with almost no reporting of the involvement of Personal Tutor teams. There are a few exceptions, namely: reported activity in the University Centre Weston; Exeter University’s findings that academic tutoring intervention are informing the development of the university’s academic mentoring system; Keele University has provided Information Toolkits on the support available to students especially developed for personal tutors which offer advice on tutor engagement with students. There is almost no mention of Personal Tutoring processes in the OfS Briefing Note on Supporting Student Mental Health. There is one mention of Personal Tutoring in the OfS Coronavirus Briefing Note ‘Supporting International Students’. In the 2019 ‘Review of Support for Disabled Students in Higher Education in England’ report to the Office for Students by the Institute for Employment Studies, I found no mention of Personal Tutoring or Academic Advising. It would seem on the basis of this, albeit brief, research there is currently limited overt recognition here of Personal Tutoring linking or contributing to any one of the OfS’s key objectives.
Building Personal Tutoring into Access and Participation Plans and Strategies
I am suggesting that given that Personal Tutoring and Advising is the only structural activity on campus giving all students continuing, one-to-one interaction with a concerned representative of the institution, the roles and activities of Personal Tutors – which work to the OfS aims – should be reflected in institutional Access and Participation Plans. If the work of Personal Tutors and the various mainstream student support services were to be better linked and integrated, and if it were clearly demonstrated in Access and Participation Plans and Strategies, there would follow a number of benefits:
- a tighter, better connected set of what are oft-fractured student support services
- highlighting of the role of Personal Tutoring in supporting students that is not confined to academic advising
- improved Personal Tutor reach inside the university or college
- improved wider support services’ knowledge regarding individual students
- raised profile of the work of Personal Tutoring
- an improved student learning journey (which would consequently improve institutional retention and success statistics).
In a sample examination of twelve differing types and sizes of institutional Access and Participation Plans I found a very small number of references to Personal Tutor work yet students are accompanied by their Personal Tutor throughout their entire learning journey. It would clearly be wrong to say there are zero connections, referrals and collaborations in institutions between Personal Tutors especially perhaps with regard to counselling, finance and careers advice.
The United Kingdom Advising and Tutoring association (UKAT) is the professional body for Personal Tutors and researchers interested in all aspects of student advising and Personal Tutoring in HE in the UK. A strap line on their web homepage identifies that UKAT “promotes student success by advancing the field of student advising and tutoring in the UK and beyond.” Although a relatively new organisation UKAT offers professional recognition with a coherent set of core values and professional standards and a Framework for Advising and Tutoring. These together with resources, a webinar series and their annual conference can all be found on their website.
UKAT itself identifies three core activities for Personal Tutoring:
- Course focused – support for academic progress
- Community building – through encouraging participation in a learning community and signposting to support services when required
- Career planning – support towards an identified career path.
UKAT core values are ones we would all recognise: Empathy; Collaboration; Student-Centred; Developmental; Authentic; Evidence-Informed; Committed. UKAT has begun to develop the role that Personal Tutors have with regard to core aspects of Access and Widening Participation; and are currently exploring this through their theme of “equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education”. (In 2021/22, the theme will be Moving Forward, Looking Back’ to review and explore ramifications of Personal Tutor role, practice and experience as experienced and developed through the pandemic disruption.)
For a closer look at Personal Tutoring please see some of the following.
The United Kingdom Advising and Tutoring association website.
NACADA The Global Community for Academic Advising website.
LVSA Dutch Advising Association – useful for current information on what is happening in the Netherlands – with an option to view in English.
Faculty Advising Guide: A Guide to Academic Advising for STEM faculty, ASPIRE, National Alliance for Inclusive and Diverse STEM faculty, USA – (applies wider than for just STEM students.)
This blog contribution was kindly provided by Andrew Rawson (Action on Access) following his March 2021 e-special on personal tutoring
Photo: Alex Alvarado