The Personal Tutor

The diverse backgrounds of today’s students mean that the role of personal tutor is more important than ever.

January 3, 2008

As the student population expands and changes, traditional expectations of the tutor’s role may no longer be accurate.

Annie Grant, dean of students at the University of East Anglia, says personal tutors should avoid making judgments about students' lives based on their own university experiences. Students' increasingly diverse social, cultural and religious backgrounds 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,” 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.

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

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, 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.

And, of course, you need to know where to refer them if problems come up – and 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. 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 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. Know what the boundaries of confidentiality are and to make them clear to the students early on.

Clarity is hugely important 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.

"One of the most dangerous things is people who try too hard," Grant says. "I feel strongly that you can be friendly with people you teach but you cannot be their friend.”

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.

Blythman says contact between personal tutors and students must 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.

Paula Hixenbaugh, co-editor of Personal Tutoring in Higher Education, says students want staff who know and care about them. "Students can get a great deal of information from written documents. What they 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 for publication in 2007
  • Students in Difficulty: The Role of the Personal Tutor DVD, available from Leeds University.

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