Student support and personal tutoring: observations from further and higher education
In March 2021, Andrew Rawson (Director, Action on Access) published an interesting e-Bulletin special paper on ‘Personal Tutoring and Student Engagement and Success’. Many studies recently have focused on ways of improving student engagement and belonging, responding to the particular challenges caused by the coronavirus lockdown, including isolation and mental health outcomes for students. Some have focused on personal tutoring in universities. My experience has been within both further education and university, raising personal observations and comparisons.
I was responsible for tutoring practice and evaluation in a large further education college for several years. The tutors had a different and broader role from those in higher education. Although all were academic lecturers as well, their focus was not just on academic issues, and they would not necessarily teach the students they were tutoring. Recording academic progress and success was an important part of their role, including referral to subject specialists where needed, but it also encompassed student progression after further education, social and personal aspects of the student’s life, referral to student services as required, and contact with parents when necessary. Debates about parental involvement are not new; once a student reached 18 in college this stopped, in contrast to local sixth forms where parents were kept fully informed until the end of Y13 which parents would have preferred. Moving into higher education, for some time I was Head of Student Services, responsible for student helpdesks and the specialist referral service teams, but not for personal tutors, who were largely autonomous tutors reporting to faculty. Academic progress was the main concern of this role. Whilst most tutors were good at referring students with other issues to Student Services, often students preferred not to disclose to the tutor when they had a problem other than an academic one. Even when they did, tutors tended not to follow up once they had referred a student – there was no expectation that they should.
From evidence of internal reports, training sessions and evaluation, tutors varied greatly in their willingness to engage with personal and social matters. Given that there was a panoply of specialist services provided elsewhere this is understandable. It might be assumed that this wouldn’t matter, but focus groups revealed that it mattered very much to the students. To generalise, Y13 leavers entering university had expected a replacement for their school or college tutor, i.e. someone they could refer to whatever their concern, and more mature learners hoped for individual support and encouragement whether requested or not, and an understanding of their particular circumstances in relation to study. Both groups were appreciative of the student services provided but regarded them as being for ‘students with problems’ and did not identify with this, regarding their issues as too trivial. Problems arise where personal and social issues impact on academic work, and sharing of information is, rightly, left to the student to decide. A common trajectory is where absences lead to a drop in performance, missed examinations or even dropping out altogether, with no problem being disclosed despite the tutor’s best efforts. It is likely that commuter students are more likely to be affected, depending on the reasons why they are commuting in the first place, for example part-time employment or caring responsibilities, both of which may lead to sessions being missed. Students from disadvantaged home backgrounds are likely to be represented among this group, and also perhaps, and for many reasons, among students not seeking help. In terms of progression and success, the provision of individual help when needed can make a difference both to individual outcomes and the university success rate, which may in turn affect admissions policies. It is encouraging to see the increasing and changing focus on student needs and support requirements, including personal tutoring, which can be one of the most important features of student experience in higher education, and contribute directly to better retention and success.