Career advice: how to be an effective personal tutor

Emily McIntosh and David Grey offer advice on rediscovering a ‘lost art’

August 3, 2017
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Guiding hand: tutors play a significant role in encouraging peer networking

Personal tutoring can play a valuable role in improving the learning environment and helping students to stay on track throughout their studies.

But it is often perceived as some kind of lost or elusive art. There are few rules and regulations and plenty of disputes over what exactly it is and how it should be structured. We hear stories of “good” and “bad” tutoring, colleagues who value it and exceed their commitments, and colleagues who seemingly do neither. When done well, however, it is fundamental to promoting a student success culture, particularly by improving staff-student relationships. 

Many UK institutions seem to be reviewing their tutoring systems; it appears that the teaching excellence framework and the increasing pressure to retain students have focused minds. However, tutoring in the UK has been chronically under-resourced and, until now, neglected: there is a lack of evidence-informed practice on which to draw and the importance of tutoring has not been well articulated.

Here are a few tips on how to guide your students successfully.

Tutoring can be both academic and pastoral

Effective tutoring acknowledges the “whole student”, both their academic and pastoral needs. Many confuse personal tutoring with providing tea and sympathy. Successful tutoring approaches, however, recognise the importance of skilled interpersonal conversations that explore both academic and personal goals, as well as the reality that students currently face.

Students from all year groups also require tutoring. First-year students may need help with the anxieties associated with their first assessment, getting to grips with library resources and the learning management system, but those in later years may seek advice on expectations about the next level of study, while third- and fourth-year students may want to know how to prepare for life post graduation.

Know your limits

Personal tutoring is also about referral – we should only advise and guide within the limits of our own expertise. 

It is important to listen to students, provide advice to the best of our ability and work alongside specialist support services to get students the support that they require. Active referral means facilitating a referral properly, rather than just recommending things and sending the student away to deal with something by themselves – often they won’t.

Apply tutoring principles at all times

The principles of effective tutoring apply to all teaching and learning contexts, including small- or large-group lectures and seminars, as well as interactions outside the classroom. 

Building effective working tutor-student relationships takes time, so staff need to call on all the information that they see and hear in formal and informal settings. Don’t limit tutoring to one-to-one meetings.

Tutoring is about being human

This starts with focusing our attention on students and actively listening to what they have to say. Structure your approach around open questioning, try to get a good overview of what is going on for the student and develop a meaningful relationship over time.

Remember that students have different needs, backgrounds, motivations for learning and different pressures. This inevitably makes tutoring more difficult but it may help when setting specific goals with students, which can be motivating and give you both something to focus on.

Set boundaries

Student-tutor boundaries are essential. An open conversation about how you can provide support can help to manage unrealistic expectations. Tutoring is not a one-way street and the tutor cannot solve all problems: the students have responsibilities too and these must be discussed to avoid over-reliance on tutor support.

Tutoring exists to help students to become independent, but often they cannot do so without effective advice and guidance.

Connect students to their peers

Students must learn to develop effective peer relationships. Tutors play a significant part in encouraging peer networking and can do so by creating group-based learning opportunities, making room for peer-learning strategies in their course and championing university-wide peer mentoring and peer-assisted study support programmes.

Technology must be embraced

Technology can help to support deeper, richer, face-to-face interactions with students. For instance, you can record some notes to help recall tutoring conversations. If your institution has a dashboard, use the data to explore and connect what you are seeing and hearing to your conversations with students.

Get support from colleagues

Tutoring can be hard work and emotionally exhausting. It is critical to discuss what you see and hear with colleagues (bearing in mind the rules of confidentiality) and to get support after particularly difficult conversations from the support networks at your institution.

Emily McIntosh is director of student life at the University of Bolton and David Grey is an educational developer at York St John University, who presented research on personal tutoring at the Higher Education Academy’s annual conference in York in July.

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Print headline: I’ve got your back: reviving the ‘lost art’ of tutoring


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