From education to employment

Putting the ‘personal’ in personal tutoring

Student success means ensuring every student is given the opportunity to become the best student – and individual – they can be. Dr David Grey, CEO of UK Advising and Tutoring (UKAT) and Dr Rachel Maxwell, Principal Advisor, Solutionpath, discuss why a personal tutoring system without students at its heart is not fit for purpose. 

Personal tutoring can take many forms, but its true aim is to support students in their academic, professional, and personal development. Personal tutors are the linchpin in a student’s university experience.  

‘Personal tutoring’ can be taken to refer to different types of advising and tutoring known by different terms across the sector, including Personal Academic Tutors, Academic Advisors, Mentors, or Coaches. It can be conducted by both academics and professional services colleagues. 

Throughout their degree, students can turn to their personal tutor who is there to provide advice on their studies and study skills, act as a signpost to help them navigate university systems, motivate them to achieve their goals, and to be there as the first port of call in a crisis.   

Today, students need the support provided by personal tutoring more than ever. In expanding and ever more complex universities, and in trying social and economic times, personal tutors provide their tutees with a sense of belonging, a sense of direction, and a sense of their own abilities and worth. When done well, personal tutoring can be truly transformative in a student’s university experience.  

Approaches to personal tutoring  

UKAT, the UK Advising and Tutoring association, is a charitable trust and learned society representing scholars and practitioners of personal tutoring and academic advising in the UK higher education sector.  

The association is a community of experts who learn together, share good practice, work through common challenges, and seek to make personal tutoring valued and recognised within UK higher education. It aims to facilitate a culture shift in the sector to ensure consistent, student-centred personal tutoring, where institutions and individuals are recognised for their commitment to student success through personal tutoring.  

UKAT does not recommend a single model for personal tutoring for the sector, but rather acts as a personal tutor to personal tutors. Just as personal tutoring provides students with the support to work on their own development, UKAT offers personal tutors the tools to reflect on and enhance their practice.  

The way in which personal tutoring is structured varies greatly across UK higher education, but it is underpinned by three main models of student support. The first is the ‘pastoral’ model, where a student is assigned to an individual member of academic staff who becomes their main contact for all issues. The second is the ‘professional’ model, where students are directed straight to specialist professional support teams, be it study skills, employability, or wellbeing. The third is the ‘curriculum’ model, where the content related to personal tutoring is embedded in the subject curriculum through taught sessions and group tutorials. On their own, each of these models has potential issues, and so in practice most universities operate a combination of these three models, and many are working towards an ‘integrated’ model that takes the best elements from each model to provide a more holistic tutoring experience.  

Personal tutoring with students at the heart 

Models on their own only do so much. The most important thing a university can do is to establish a clear purpose and objectives for personal tutoring. The primary aim for any personal tutoring programme should be student success. Student success means ensuring every student is given the opportunity to become the best student – and individual – they can be.  

This means offering students a personalised educational experience that can identify their strengths and weaknesses, and identify opportunities to build on the former and address the latter. Personal tutoring facilitates this by ensuring that each student has the chance to build a developmental, personalised relationship with their personal tutor, taking ownership of their university journey and receiving clear, empathetic, and expert guidance to support them to do this. The ultimate aim of personal tutoring is to give students the support that allows them to have the skills, knowledge, and confidence to grow academically, professionally and personally.  

Given how central personal tutoring is – or should be – to student success, it is not surprising that the role comes with some significant challenges. Three of the most common challenges expressed by personal tutors are time, expertise, and boundaries. As student numbers increase, staff can find themselves with large numbers of personal tutees, which in turn limits their ability to develop meaningful and personalised relationships. Whilst training is often offered on other aspects of the academic role, personal tutoring training may be less valued or even non-existent. Staff have often felt unprepared to deal with the increasingly complex issues that students come with or develop at university, and this is exacerbated by increasing student numbers.  

The clear risk radar  

Solutionpath’s student engagement analytics platform, StREAM, recognises the importance of the personal tutor role. Indeed, it is designed primarily to enable staff working in any kind of pastoral or academic advising or support role through providing them with a clear risk radar around student (dis)-engagement and an intervention lifecycle that helps ensure that students can meaningfully access the right support as quickly as possible.  

Students tend to disengage academically when circumstances in their lives become difficult, and StREAM picks up on the digital signals of this disengagement providing an opportunity for staff to reach out and offer support if needed. Identifying issues early can help prevent those issues from becoming crises arising in students’ lives that may result ultimately in their withdrawal from university. Having the active, personal support from a member of staff during any study or life-related issue can be the difference between graduation and withdrawal.  

By establishing a clear purpose and objectives for personal tutoring and then harnessing student engagement tools, personal tutoring can be elevated to a tailored, dynamic experience, fostering deeper learning and academic success. 

By Dr Rachel Maxwell, Principal Advisor, Solutionpath

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