Personal tutor sessions can be a place to overcome undergraduate myths

As students prepare to embark on their university adventure, personal tutors can help bust some persistent myths, says Jon Down

Jon Down is Director of Development at Grit Breakthrough Programmes. 

The prospect of a return to face-to-face interactions between staff and students in the new term presents a genuine opportunity for personal tutors to rethink and re-imagine the support they provide and the way they provide it.

Rather than simply thinking in traditional terms, now is that chance to look again at engaging students, particularly non-traditional ones. Now is the time to take a leap of imagination.

Going off to university is one of life’s great adventures. If you’ve just left school, it’s a time to spread your wings, strike out on your own. If you’re an international student, it’s a trip into the unknown, into uncertain and unfamiliar territory. If you’re a mature student, a commuter or part-time student, it’s a journey of exploration into a realm of alternate possibilities.

And, like all great tales of adventure, going off to university is loaded with myths and legends. The trick to having a successful, fulfilling, and rewarding experience as a student is not to confuse them with reality.

Myth busters

There are the social myths: these will be the best years of your life; you’ll find yourself, discover who you are; you’ll meet your future husband or wife; you’ll enjoy the independence you’ve always wanted.

There are the academic myths: the first year doesn’t count; it’s easier than A-Levels; you’ll only study things that are really interesting instead of stuff you don’t care about; it’ll get you to the career you always wanted.

And now there is the Covid myth: that the university experience last year was tainted or of lesser value because of the pandemic; that this year, as a student quoted by a contributor to the Student Futures Commission said, “I’m from the cohort that got fake grades.”

These myths can be compelling. But then they bump up against reality.

For many students there is the isolation: in the last academic year, the Student Futures Commission research found that 85 per cent of students found it difficult to make friends at university, while the Student Room 2021 survey found that less than half of students felt like they had a support network they could reach out to.

For others, it is the academic experience: the 2021 National Student Survey found that a quarter of students were not satisfied with their course (up from 17 per cent in the last, pre-Covid, year).

There are, of course, as many realities as there are students: the Hepi/Advance HE Student Survey 2021 continued to find significant numbers of students with “unmet expectations”.

At Grit, we see what can happen when the myths don’t match up to the realities. We’ve worked in universities big and small, up and down the country where, for many, particularly non-traditional, students it can become debilitating, paralysing, demoralising, isolating.

Space to connect

In times when myths, old and new, are being exploded like never before, the personal tutor can be that point of connection, that place of certainty and stability from which students can build a sense of belonging, agency, and confidence.

In the first instance, it is about a personal tutor investing in the relationship with students. It is about simply “checking in” and encouraging open conversation that goes beyond the formal and the academic.

It is about creating the space for students to air their beliefs about university life, about listening for those assumptions, and identifying those myths that are getting in the way of a fulfilling and successful experience.

Personal tutor sessions can be a place to overcome the myths. It is an opportunity to explain that myths are not facts: how they are a picture that a student has made up based on something they have read or seen, on interpretations of what others have said, on what they wish for or are hoping to find.

There may well be a sound explanation for why a student believes the first year doesn’t count but it is a story entirely of their own imagining and may, or may not, bear any relation to reality.

Encouraged and supported by the personal tutor, a student can begin to articulate why it is that the myth is coming up short (you’re not going to make friends for life by only going to lectures, classes, and the library, for example), what it will take to meet the need failed by the myth (“friends for now” would be a start), and the actions needed for a student to work towards what they want to achieve.

We come across many personal tutors who don’t feel confident in supporting students on more than just the academic, about straying into the social and emotional areas of their lives.

What we are suggesting is not about doing for students but working with them so they can find their own solutions, empowering them and creating agency. By simply asking questions, listening and (where appropriate) signposting, a personal tutor can help build resilience, enable students to become more independent and autonomous, and reduce the demands on their time.

So, as universities prepare to welcome the coming cohort of students into their big adventure, remember the myths (some of them will turn out to be true), acknowledge the realities, and help the students see that, if you’ll allow me to mangle an old literary saying: “If you can meet the myths and treat them as impostors, then you’ll create and own your own Student Experience.”

3 responses to “Personal tutor sessions can be a place to overcome undergraduate myths

  1. All well and good, *if* your university hasn’t abolished the personal tutor role in favour of one person “looking after” ~150 students…

    1. Though, in my experience, the personal tutor system can often be fatally compromised by its requirement that all academic staff be good at personal tutoring.

      If well executed, a year tutor or similar system can provide better support than the kind of personal tutor system where every academic has 5-6 tutees per year (particularly if some students will have a personal tutor they never see or who doesn’t respond to emails).

      (Obviously, a badly executed support system of any kind is a badly executed support system…)

  2. Caveat: I agree with most of the content here.
    Difficulty: This is all predicated on the assumption that students will actually show up for their tutorial sessions. My experience has been that, even if you make personal tutor sessions compulsory and/or offer incentives (including free alcohol), attendance is woefully poor. Students overwhelmingly ask for more support at the same time that they ignore any that is actually on offer.

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