Diverse students need bespoke personal tutoring

With an ever-expanding student body and increasing pressure on staff, Louise Banahene reflects on recent insights into effective personal tutoring for diverse students

Louise Banahene is Director of Educational Engagement at the University of Leeds

An excellent personal tutoring (PT) model needs a personalised approach that acknowledges the wealth of lived experiences, strengths, and areas for development that each student brings.

There are valuable resources and examples of research on what the gold standard PT model looks like. A UKAT and Oxford, Brookes University report exploring student identity and special interest groups highlighted the need to ensure student tutees feel they matter.

Related research highlights the importance of communication skills and organisational structures to enable successful tutoring. The growing needs of a diversifying student body means that more than one model may be required. Alongside that, creating space for our academic and personal tutors to develop their knowledge and skills and time to build meaningful relationships and trust with students is also crucial.

Last month, the University of Leeds hosted a deep dive round table discussion, chaired by Professor Karen-Burland Clark, on personal tutoring for diverse students. It raised four interesting themes.

There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Diverse learners have diverse needs. And while any PT program should have consistent core principles, models must be designed with diversity in mind. For this, we need models that focus on trust, early intervention, building belonging, and flexible delivery.

How different PT models impact different students’ PT experiences can be understood through reverse mentoring schemes, where staff learn from students how they engage and benefit best from PT, which in turn allows us to develop a more personalised approach.

‘What works well – and what doesn’t – is impacted by many factors, including the size of an institution. So there is a clear need for an evidence base and to make decisions about personal tutoring in consultation with the people affected rather than making decisions based on assumptions.’

Rachael O’Connor, Associate Professor in Legal Education, Academic Lead for Personal Tutoring, University of Leeds

Students need to be clear on the benefits of personal tutoring

It may not always be clear what PT can provide, and a model in which signposting to a PT service is the default may not be enough. Students have competing time pressures and are often required to make decisions on what to prioritise – particularly during a cost of living crisis when more students are working more hours in paid work. Students need to be reassured that their own lived experience is acknowledged in the context of engagement around their academic development, as well as given support in juggling commitments.

Higher education institutions need to be clear on the role of PT, set expectations on both sides of the relationship and build a model in which it is valued by all involved. This includes acknowledging the varying starting points of understanding across the diversity of student communities – as not all students will be coming to university with an understanding of what PT is.

There is little doubt that when personal tutoring works, it enriches the student experience in many important ways. A key challenge is communicating to time-poor students just how much they can gain from it.

Eileen Pollard, Personal Tutoring at Manchester Metropolitan University

Early intervention is crucial for managing expectations and ongoing engagement

Student disengagement may sometimes be due to a PT model that does not work for them. Time constraints, mismatched expectations, a misunderstanding of the purpose of PT, and a lack of trust can all play a role.

And for new students, the early days of university are a time of significant change in a new environment – which makes navigating what’s on offer even more difficult. A positive and supportive interaction early on with a personal tutor can ensure that the transition is smooth and that they feel valued, and this sets the foundations for an ongoing PT relationship.

Academic Personal Tutoring is an effective and undervalued student-staff support network, with tutors making a real difference in helping students settle into university life. Research shows that if a tutor establishes communication with their tutees at the start of their degree, such as sending out an email on Welcome Week and arranging a meeting in the first few weeks of term, students are more likely to feel a sense of belonging at an early stage. This subsequently has a positive impact on both attainment and wellbeing.

Sophie Connor, Student Experience Graduate Intern, University of Leeds

Support for personal tutors in dealing with challenging issues is crucial.

The nature of the personal tutor relationship can often mean students disclose difficult experiences and circumstances – both within and beyond their university experience. Personal tutors need support and guidance in responding to and handling such disclosures appropriately.

As universities develop and diversify, so does the range of support needs that personal tutors need to support; this can often lead to staff feeling overwhelmed or lacking confidence in how best to support students disclosing difficult experiences or circumstances. Finding ways to help staff manage the boundaries of their personal tutoring relationships, to know when and where to direct students for additional support, and, sometimes, to find support as they process their own emotional and psychological responses to those disclosures is vital.

Karen Burland Clark, University Academic Lead for Student Opportunities and Futures and Chair of Round Table on Personal Tutoring

Staff must also be supported in understanding the boundaries of their guidance or advice. Coaching models can support and empower students to take ownership of their growth. To help students get to this place, tutors need to understand the students’ prior life and education experience. This means that staff need development to build an understanding of coaching principles and to understand the context for students.

A complete understanding of the personal tutor and the person receiving the support is essential for the effectiveness of the personal tutor intervention; this understanding should also guide the matching process.

Brightness Mangolothi, Director of the Higher Education Resource Service South Africa

Models need to be embedded within broader support services.

An embedded and joined-up approach within a holistic PT system maximises opportunity for students – particularly those accessing multiple services – and helps them navigate complex university structures.

A joined-up approach in which academic and professional services staff work together provides a unique opportunity for all involved to feel held and supported in this area of work. Students won’t have to explain their circumstances several times to different staff at key points of entry, and staff may feel less alone when dealing with challenging conversations. Colleagues can build support networks and learn best practices from one another (e.g. coaching) while optimising the chances of (re)engaging more students in the experience of personal tutoring – key for both student success and belonging.

Sophie-Louise Hyde, Student Success Manager at Loughborough University

One response to “Diverse students need bespoke personal tutoring

  1. Thank you for sharing this Louise. It is an area that I am especially passionate about and have advocated in a lot of my roles. In my current role, I am allowed to practice this, as I work with a small group of students on a scholarship and I have noticed the difference this has made to the students transition into HE and their overall experience (so far) at the university.

Leave a Reply