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Recognising the individual: re-thinking engagement and the staff-student relationship in personal tutoring

  • 13 February 2024
  • By Rachael O'Connor and Jon Down
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Rachael O’Connor (LinkedIn), Associate Professor in Legal Education and Academic Lead for Personal Tutoring at the University of Leeds, and Jon Down (LinkedIn), the Director of Development at Grit Breakthrough Programmes. Grit delivers intensive personal development and coaching programmes in universities across the UK.

As the student body in most universities becomes ever more heterogeneous, one of the greatest challenges has been to see and understand students beyond a single administrative demographic label or identity. As universities begin acknowledging students’ complex, intersecting social identities, staff approaches to engaging and supporting students become much more than a question of using the right language or “labels”. They become about supporting every student to feel seen, heard and valued as an individual, beyond a single identity characteristic – that they belong to a community and that, as an individual, they matter.

The question of how to engage students, then, becomes ever more complex. The UKAT Professional Framework suggests staff should appreciate students’ views and cultures, maintain a student-centred mindset, and treat students with sensitivity and fairness, respecting individual needs and perspectives. As the focus shifts towards the conscious development of “the whole person”, regardless of social/educational background, personal characteristics or academic discipline, the role of the personal tutor must also shift. Yet adopting a personalised approach can be challenging and time-consuming in a profession that has become increasingly time-poor and feels under-skilled.

The holistic view of the student is one that moves the relationship with staff from the transactional to one more in line with what students are increasingly coming to expect: “interactions with a familiar face and to establish a relationship, which leads to a sense of community and belonging.” Personal tutoring is an ideal space in which non-curriculum topics such as values, identity and aspirations can be explored.

We need to consider what response or approach will best support each individual student to achieve the outcomes they want. A Teaching Fellow at Leeds describes their role as “supporting students to make connections or see things they might not have seen by themselves. This is central to enabling students to take control of their experience – academically and student life more generally.”

But there is no “silver bullet.” What a student may want and need from personal tutoring can span a broad spectrum, based on background, identity and circumstances, and it can change over the course of their university journey. Over the years staff on Grit programmes from a range of universities have described how their usual approach to working with students has been going straight into “fixing mode”, trying to always take action or give advice, even if students appear to have disengaged. They have tended to skirt around “difficult conversations.”

This transactional approach is, by its very definition, limiting, based on what is easy and familiar to the member of staff rather than what works best for the student. But knowing where to move on to is often perceived as a mystery, particularly in spaces like personal tutoring.

An inclusive approach often starts with a willingness and an ability to meet with each student on their own terms, from where they are at in their university journey, academically, professionally and personally. And it acknowledges varying definitions of success: as a Student Achievement Analyst puts it: “For a student who is the first in their family to go to university, just being there and getting the work done is a success. For another, raising a child while staying the course is an achievement.”

This takes an approach rooted in relationship: understanding the student perspective and their strengths more holistically and authentically; and deploying a range of different modes to engage students – instruction, leading, coaching. Another academic describes how “together we look at the whole person. How they can help themselves, get the support they need, work on the skills and attributes they want to develop as a person and the professional they are going to be.”

It means setting aside the feeling that you need to have all the answers and a willingness to be vulnerable. This is, by its nature, challenging for academic staff who are often used to being experts. It means coming from a place of inquiry and active listening, instead of assumption, expertise and certainty (which is also, of course, what we often ask of students). This takes humility and a willingness to engage with our own limitations and self-confidence to question the effectiveness of our approaches, particularly in the moments when we might be left feeling de-skilled.

Authenticity in staff/student relationships can be critical, acknowledging that we all learn best when we can bring our ‘real selves’ to the classroom. It requires an awareness of how, as a member of staff, our lived experience shapes the way we come at things. Concepts of working authentically can be emotive, its boundaries differing for everyone. This must be recognised and staff self-care and support prioritised on this learning journey. Each tutor might meaningfully consider what makes up their authentic self and consider ways they can bring aspects of authenticity into their relationships with students

Being alive to these issues is a powerful starting point from which to engage students on a level playing field. As a Student Support Manager at the University of Leeds says, “Now I give [students] the space to explore, to talk things through. It’s more of a conversation. I get a far better understanding of what’s really going on with them and they leave in a much better place.” Reverse mentoring work at the University of Leeds supports the continuation of these meaningful conversations beyond the classroom and the breaking down of barriers created by hierarchies in staff/student relationships.

Positive, authentic interactions can empower students to find the agency to make the most of their student experience in a way that is meaningful for them, and liberate staff from the emotional burden of needing to fix or find answers. As another academic puts it: “It enables students to take charge of their learning. I’ve become a supporter, a facilitator, part of their support network – not the do-er.” This can create more mutual meaning for both staff and students in their interactions, transforming personal tutoring into true partnerships and rewarding learning experiences for both tutor and tutee.

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  1. Les Ebdon says:

    Having seen first hand the effectiveness of this approach employed by Grit , I hope that more universities will be encouraged to adopt it.

  2. Arti Kumar says:

    You say “there is no silver bullet.” Some may consider the SOARing to Success approach (used extensively as a metamodel or framework) as an inclusive, distinctive, integrative way of empowering each student ‘from the inside out’ — to personalise learning and develop as a whole person, achieve multiple graduate outcomes and transition to sustainable employability and whole life learning. Isn’t this worth checking out, and using for the benefit of all students?

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