Add a little of the personal touch

February 2, 2007

There is more to being a tutor than giving out the odd glass of sherry at the end of term, says Harriet Swain. The diverse cultural and religious backgrounds of today's students means they need real support.

A brief nod and a glass of sherry were all you got from your personal tutor. And, bar that minor third-year breakdown, you sailed through university. Students today are far too mollycoddled.

They're also different. Annie Grant, dean of students at the University of East Anglia, says personal tutors should avoid making judgments about students' lives based on memories of their own university experiences. Students' more diverse social, cultural and religious backgrounds today mean new pressures. "If you are open to that you can get their confidence more quickly," she says.

"A good personal tutor is one who listens without judging and is able to offer an informed range of options," says Wes Streeting, vice-president for education at the National Union of Students. "The important thing is for students to make their own decisions."

Establishing a rapport with your student is essential, but not always easy, says Lindsey Neville, senior lecturer in community and social welfare at Worcester University and editor of The Personal Tutor's Handbook , due out later this year. She says you need to be genuinely interested in the student and in your role as a personal tutor. It also helps if they know who you are.

Neville recommends arranging some kind of meeting with your student soon after they arrive at university. "You need to be a known face as a personal tutor in that first week," she says. She suggests gathering all your students together so that they can meet each other at the same time as you.

She then advises sending an e-mail to them at the beginning of every semester welcoming them back and reminding them of your contact details. If you are part time, where possible make sure that you are not matched with part-time students or it may be impossible for you to meet, she warns. And if you have to go on long-term sick leave or are absent for another reason, make sure the students know who else to contact.

Meanwhile, you should get to know who they are in a deeper sense than just recognising their faces, says Margo Blythman, director of teaching and learning at the University of the Arts in London. "You have to know what other things are happening in their lives - what pressures they are under - so you target your advice and suggestions appropriately," she says. This needs to be done in your first meeting. "Make sure you are finding out about them rather than telling them things you think they need to know,"

Blythman says. This means discovering whether they have children, work part time and, if so, how many hours, whether they have far to travel, whether they live in halls, and any other potential problem areas. Then, you need to know where to refer them if problems come up - and this means having telephone numbers and names to hand rather than just pointing them down a corridor.

Grant says it is vital to establish good relations with student services staff so you can work collaboratively. This is especially important when there are issues that you find difficult. Effective referral is key, she says. "Know your own boundaries and when to refer them to someone else."

Deborah Murdoch-Eaton, until recently director of student support at Leeds University, says you need to know what the university expects of you as a personal tutor, and to make sure that students know what you expect of them. She says it is important to set ground rules at your first meeting, including discussing how far you will be keeping a record.

Grant says it is often possible to talk about a problem without disclosing a student's name or breaking confidentiality. And not everything is automatically confidential. She says you need to know what the boundaries of confidentiality are, to discuss these within your school and university and to make them clear to the students early on.

Clarity is hugely important. "You need to be clear about what you can offer and what you cannot." This means that if you have certain times when you will be available to students in your office you have to be there or give students a clear alternative. It does not necessarily mean giving out your home or mobile number. It is usually advisable not to. Nor should you meet a student alone at night, Neville says.

"One of the most dangerous things is people who try too hard," Grant says.

"They get sucked into a student's difficulties and then all of a sudden realise that there is a minor crisis and they don't know what to do." She says it is important to keep the relationship professional and not to get personally involved. "I feel strongly that you can be friendly with people you teach but you cannot be their friend," she says.

On the other hand, you must do your best for them. If you have referred them on, follow up the problem and ask if it has been solved so they don't feel you have just dumped them on someone else, Grant says.

Blythman says contact between personal tutors and students has to be systematic. "It is no good saying, 'if you have problems pop in and see me' because often students with real problems do not ask for help," she says.

You need to arrange regular meetings, monitor whether the student turns up and keep records so that someone else can take over if necessary.

Paula Hixenbaugh, co-editor of Personal Tutoring in Higher Education, says students want staff who know and care about them. "I think the relationship aspects of personal tutoring are particularly important," she says.

"Students can get much information from written documents. What students want is what human beings have always wanted - personal contact."

Further information

Personal Tutoring in Higher Education , edited by Liz Thomas and Paula Hixenbaugh, Trentham Books, 2006.

The Personal Tutor's Handbook , by Lindsey Neville, Palgrave, due out later this year.

Students in Difficulty: The Role of the Personal Tutor DVD, available from Leeds University.

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