What academics want from academic support

Personal tutoring is an aspect of academic practice. Debbie McVitty and Rachel Maxwell asked academics how they view it

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

Rachel Maxwell is Principal Advisor (Academic, Research and Consultancy) at Solutionpath

You hear a lot about building academic support systems around the student, and rightly so, but there’s a solid case to spend some time reflecting on what the academic staff who take personal tutoring or academic mentoring or coaching roles need from the system as well.

There’s a version of the future that strips out the relational aspect of academic support, viewing it as too messy and unpredictable, and too burdensome for overstretched academics. It’s technically possible to build data-driven systems that track student online engagement, issue alerts to students, and direct them to AI coaches and online academic skills development opportunities.

But there’s a deep seam of care and concern for students running through higher education that would view this more automated version of the future as entirely missing the point of bringing students into an academic community, even as students are more dispersed, and less likely to engage in traditional ways. This shift in student engagement habits only reinforces a need for personal relationships that can sustain a connection between the student and their course and institution.

As well as navigating the twin challenges of reduced resource and greater numbers of students, institutions are reconsidering the purpose and value of academic support as a vehicle for keeping students, many of whom have complex lives, on track and achieving academic success. That means moving on from a deficit model in which personal tutors act as a backstop for mopping up issues towards a more intentionally designed system of support in which academics with personal tutor roles are embedded in an integrated web of support incorporating specialist services, the curriculum, and relationships with peers, underpinned by a data infrastructure that can get information about students to the people who are responsible for supporting them at time they can make best use of that data. All of which is easy to describe in the abstract but very hard to put into practice.

To better understand the perspectives of the academic staff who have direct interest in and experience of personal academic tutor roles or their institutional equivalent we held a series of three online round tables engaging in depth with 15 academic colleagues from seven different institutions. We asked them what they think students need to be successful, what in their view is working in academic support and what is not, and what information they would like to see about students.

The academics who attended the round tables valued the interpersonal dimension of academic support, and had a strong sense that there is a connection between the personal relationship and students being “known”, student engagement and student success, especially at the early stage of the course and during transition into university. However, they sometimes struggled to pin down the exact nature of that relationship and there was a lot of debate over things like the different possible models, objectives, and boundaries of personal academic tutoring.

There was a strong sense that the premise of academic support needs to change; that it is something institutions need to invest in to realise the potential impact of the system in terms of support and recognition afforded to the staff involved, effective data systems, and active links between the different parts of the system. Within that framework there was a strong appetite for better deployment of available data sources on learning engagement and wider data on students’ lives and experiences, in a user-friendly way, but with the appropriate guardrails in place.

We actively sought referrals to academics who are interested in the topic of academic support, which will have shaped the conversation. We don’t claim that we have a representative sample of academic views but we do have insights about what academics who are motivated by academic support feel they need to be successful at it.

Personal relationships

The academics who engaged with the round tables clearly valued the interpersonal aspect of providing academic support and had a view about how the personal academic tutoring relationship contributes to student success, through contributing to students’ sense of belonging and confidence, being known and mattering to their institution, and through provision of guidance and support around navigating academic expectations and skills development.

However, there was a lot of lively debate about the nature of that relationship, its intended outcome, its boundaries, and whether it should be voluntary or obligatory for students to engage with. Participants reached for various models external to higher education – including that of a parent, and that of a GP – to illustrate the points they were trying to get across, confirming a lack of common conception of the role.

I think the disadvantage with having the students at the centre is, it’s like being a parent, isn’t it? How do you let go? How do you ensure the student develops their own agency so that they can be successful? So that’s that real careful balance between really having them holding them at the centre and then letting them grow as they become teenagers and adults.

There was some fuzziness about the link between what the relationship looks like and how that contributes to desired outcomes around student academic development and enhanced student agency, suggesting that this is not always very well defined. This is not surprising given the complexity of the concepts involved and the messiness of human interaction. For some, the abstract conceptions of the intended outcomes of the personal academic tutoring relationship were unrealistic in the context of the students’ preferences and behaviours:

Quite often these 18 year olds, they are not proactive. They are not going to take the initiative and do it themselves. They need a certain level of hand holding. What I’ve experienced from my time as a personal academic tutor, is they really want to latch onto one person, and they want that person to be their first port of call and their final port of call for everything.

There were some common themes drawing on participants’ practical experience and reflections. Participants generally agreed on the importance of establishing a relationship early in students’ time at university to support transition. Those who had experience of provision of pastoral support in a school or college context reflected on the gap between what could often be an intensive weekly system of student meetings with a key support person and the much lighter touch system that tends to hold sway in the university context.

One of the things that I encourage when students come to me in level 3 and 4 is to bring their whole selves to the room. We quite often have this hidden curriculum of what a university student should look like, and I think we need to demystify that from the minute they step into the door.

We started talking very much about transition to starting the university. The students we were experiencing weren’t worried about their academic ability. It was about whether they would fit in, could they see themselves in that institution? Did they see people like them?

I think, really, what we’re trying to achieve through our PAT program, if you like, is just greater interaction, greater engagement with the students. Making sure that we are aware of their challenges early on, so that they’re not escalating into, you know, really bigger challenges…We try to encourage our PATs to meet with the students when they first arrive, so that they have that face to face meeting, and I would say that one of the biggest challenges is getting the students to make that initial meeting.

A second theme was about the personal academic tutor as part of a linked system of academic support – part of the conception of the role of the PAT was as a maker of connections, or helping students make the connections that will help them build a sense of themselves as having academic skills and potential:

It’s having those conversations and helping students to make those connections with their outside world, the things that they’ve accomplished in other spaces to be an asset, you know, with them in their studies.

Sometimes the links related to the interaction with other sources of support, such as dedicated student support officers in schools or centralised specialist support. Knowing when to hand things over is a constant tension for personal academic tutors: one participant described the double bind of not being confident in their ability to support complex student issues, particularly around mental health, but not being especially confident in the responsiveness of central support services. Another participant described a practice of a “warm handover” or “active handover” in which a student is referred to another service in person rather than via email: “We don’t just say, go and speak to this team. We actually take them to the team. We take them to the desk. We involve that support group much more explicitly rather than just saying to the student, ‘you need to speak to this person.’”

Sometimes the link was more explicitly with the curriculum – some participants argued for the value of building academic skills development into formal teaching, or engaging specialist services such as library services in course teaching spaces to help students build a wider sense of a support network from their “home” disciplinary course space rather than expecting them to go out and solicit support from elsewhere in the university.

A third theme was about using academic support as a means of developing a sense of a peer cohort among students. This could take the form of group sessions – and in the example shared students could opt to switch groups to be with friends or course mates – and dedicated time in at the start of formal teaching contact time to addressing students issues:

This is a time where students begin talking about things that they’ve experienced, things that are working well on the programme, probably things that are not working so well or issues that they have, you know, experienced during that week. Also, during this 15 minutes, we talk about any upcoming opportunities for students as well [such as upcoming assessments and how they’re feeling about that]. So during this time, it’s like a mini academic advising session for the whole class.

What really stood out in the conversation was the complexity of the issues academics were wrestling with, drawing on personal experience and academic literature to better understand their tutor role and how to execute it as effectively as possible. While some of the issues discussed could theoretically be addressed with some additional development of institutional policy and practice, there’s an argument that the solutions are much more contextualised to student cohorts, disciplinary cultures, and institutional conditions ie they require a level of professionalism among individual tutors and for thinking and practice to be extended in the context of course and programme development. Within that framework, local knowledge and insight about students can be deployed to inform and guide practice.

Knowing students

In exploring what academics would like to know about their students in their personal academic tutoring role, most were extremely enthusiastic about the idea of having access to as much information as possible about students, especially how they are engaging in their studies in as close to real time as possible:

I think for me, it’s really knowing what the student does when they’re not in class. It’s engagement, how are they engaging? What are they engaging with? And when are they doing that? So, are they working remotely, but actually engaged? How do they use their material? So it’s that local engagement. So that we can see the detail of what they’re actually doing in terms of their learning journey, and intervene where necessary.

For me, it’s definitely up-to-date data, and how students are interacting with their studies. And I’m not sure that’s something that we can collect, really. It feels a bit more organic than that, but we can only collect the data that there is. But then it’s a little bit of a proxy for the extent to which students are kind of thinking and engaging with their studies. But it’s the timeliness of the data to enable us to support the student in the most appropriate way.

In the ideal world, participants suggested they would also like to see a broader basket of information on things like the status of submitted assessments, whether a student has specific learning needs, whether a student has engaged with professional service teams, and additional details about their lives as students such as whether they are a member of a sports team or student society. All this would help to form a rounded picture of the student and contextualise a meaningful conversation about their progress.

I don’t know which of my students are accessing professional services. And obviously then, because of that, I don’t have that information about my student, so I can’t say, ‘ Hi, Johnny, I understand that you’ve met with somebody from this professional service. Is everything OK, can I offer more support in that area?’ It’s just building that picture around the student. And the problem is that some of this is quite disjointed.

However, there were some significant caveats to these ideas, particularly the reliability, usability and transparency of systems that provide data about students. One participant made the point that students need to be informed about the engagement profile they are building up and what it will be used for. Others emphasised the importance of academics being able to have confidence in the data and being able to access it in one place:

So the reliable integration of data and providing some sort of cohesive solutions that integrate all these different things together. I think that’s the key. If it doesn’t happen, the trust the academics will have on this kind of system will be lost. So then they will only look at this as another thing that they will have to do.

Some participants were concerned that building up detailed student profiles could introduce bias into the academic tutoring system:

I feel really that at an individual level you should be making decisions based on that attainment, and how they present to you, not because of a particular characteristic, or because how far away they live from campus or something like that.

I get that agency isn’t cultivated by hand holding but neither is it cultivated by assuming that because we know, or if we knew more about their background, then we would be able to support them, because I think that can quite easily move into a deficit model. And that’s almost the antithesis of any interactive notion of agency.

Another participant countered this by arguing that academics should be developed to manage their own bias in a professional way:

We need to support tutors better, educating them regarding how to identify bias and things like that. But we are professionals. Surely we can handle this. And we shouldn’t be doing bias. You know, we’ve all got inbuilt bias a little bit. But if there is a problem with the member of staff, it’s about supporting them and educating them and things like that. So I would like to think there isn’t a problem with too much data.

There are also practical considerations, such as the downheartening effect of anticipating the rollout of a new system that promises to change things but then encountering issues with implementation, and another of which relates to academics having the time to make sense of the data:

You’re pulling all of this data together and then potentially empowering the tutor to help signpost but also like, understand the student on a more in depth and detailed level. But I think all of that works if you’re given the time and the space to input the data and analyse the data and do that all properly.

It’s not for everyone

The issues raised by academic staff in these conversations do not have straightforward answers. How do you establish a supportive relationship with a student as early as possible? How do you strike a balance between offering support to a student and building their independence? How do you keep track of the wider institutional support offer and connect students to it meaningfully without “pinging them off” as one participant put it?

The academics who took part in our round tables recognise the value of knowing more about students to help underpin the development of a meaningful relationship but having access to data about students doesn’t answer the question about what the nature of the personal academic tutor relationship should be.

Ultimately, this probably comes down to a combination of high level thinking and clarity, through institution-level policy, of what constitutes the academic support system and what it is intended to achieve, with a data infrastructure that is as reliable and user-friendly as possible, combined with provision of space for interpretation and development of practice both for individual academics, and within course teams and disciplinary areas.

Participants, perhaps not surprisingly, expressed a strong sense that the academic support role should be taken more seriously in terms of workload planning, integration into curricula, creation of clear boundaries around the role, and formal development and recognition for those taking on academic support responsibilities:

We’ve got to value the role. When I was a head of department I would go to my programme leaders and say, ‘Who do you want to be the personal tutors on your course?’ So they would be able to select the people they thought would be best, and then they would put that into their workload, planning first, not last, because often it tags onto the end where people have capacity.

If there’s an initiative then it’s ‘oh the personal tutors can do that because they know the students or the personal tutors can do that,’ and there’s no way to either agree it or work out whether it it aligns with the whole ‘why’ of personal tutoring…we’re still working on really being firm about the boundaries, and who can request changes to the personal tutoring system. That’s still an ongoing battle.

A general observation from the various educational institutions I’ve worked in is that they are very poor about supporting staff and staff development. We all know, being a pastoral tutor is quite complex, quite challenging. Have a look at staff development opportunities on that side other than self help groups getting together over a cup of coffee. There aren’t any real structures to support and develop somebody who wants to be a PAT.

As student profiles and participation patterns become more complicated, academic support is increasingly going to be seen as wrapping around the curriculum, and keeping students on track – as a core provision to develop students and orient them towards success rather than as a backstop or deficit model. As such it requires those who carry it out to have a clearly defined and recognised skill set. As one participant put it:

You might be brilliant on using the data and understanding the data, but you’ve got to have that particular skill set and the empathy to become a personal tutor and the drive, the need, the desire, the time, the effort, the commitment because students, let’s face it, they all live chaotic lives. They all live messy lives. They come in with such complex problems. And you know, it’s not for everyone, I’m afraid.

Higher education tends to carry on as if the nature of roles like lecturer or personal academic tutor are already known and understood, but our workshops suggest that even among experienced academics there is a struggle to find language that captures the essence of the personal academic tutor role and the sort of relationship with students that it is expected to foster. The role can be defined in the abstract up to a point but there is also an onus on the academic to develop their practice in that role and find an authentic version of it for themselves, and an extent to which the relationship is co-produced by the academic and the student(s). It is not something that can be carried out by rote or through simply following a process.

David Grey, chief executive of UK Advising and Tutoring (UKAT), the learned society for personal tutors, points out that some disciplines, especially the professional disciplines, already have mentoring, coaching and support models drawn from professional practice in which some of the thinking has already been done about issues like boundaries, objectives, and conversational approaches. But the skills of learning and teaching can also apply in designing personal academic tutoring activities that will support students’ learning in individual or group settings.

The UKAT professional standards framework encourages adoption of approaches that are appropriate to the context. Coaching might be valuable at some points or for some students but there are other options – you can even take a flipped approach. Academics can deploy their learning and teaching skills to achieve ‘learning beyond the discipline.’ To support this, institutions need to delineate clear role descriptions, values, and outcomes for tutoring, provide training which establishes and shares good practice, and empower tutors with the tools to enable student-centred, personalised tutoring within that framework.

This shift in academic support suggests a need for a change in thinking about data as well, especially student engagement analytics data – while it still might be used to identify students with lower engagement, who are a retention risk, the context is more likely to be within a developed student data strategy that seeks to know the student in multiple dimensions and support them throughout their journey, rather than a single student engagement monitoring approach.

This might involve focusing on supporting transition into university, especially for non-traditional students, but it could also include using engagement data in tandem with other kinds of student insight to help students achieve their academic goals, support students on placement, enable students to reflect on their own learning journey, or a wealth of other possibilities. It will also almost certainly involve cohort analysis as well as individual monitoring.

This is, of course, much more labour intensive in terms of designing and maintaining an academic support system that incorporates, but is not limited to, effective personal academic tutoring. In contexts where institutions are seeking efficiencies in support provision and to reduce workload and burden for academic staff, there will need to be some thinking about where to focus resource where it is likely to have the most impact. But another way of thinking about it is that for the system as a whole to be impactful, it needs to empower the people who are most motivated to make a success of it.

This article is published in association with StREAM by Solutionpath and Kortext. You can access Support to Success, the full report of our year long project on academic support here.

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