10 Top Tips for Effective Personal Tutoring

Personal tutoring is often perceived as some kind of lost or elusive art to master: there are few rules and regulations and plenty of disputes over what exactly it is and how it should be structured.  The topic certainly polarises: we hear stories of “good” and “bad” tutoring, colleagues who value it and meet their commitments and colleagues who don’t do either.  Yet personal tutoring can play a valuable role in helping us to improve the learning environment and to navigate a stricter and uncertain regulatory landscape.  Most importantly, it is fundamental to promoting a student success culture through improving the quality of staff-student relationships.  Many UK institutions seem to be reviewing their tutoring systems; it appears that the TEF and arrangements for the New DLHE have focussed minds.  Historically, tutoring in the UK has been chronically under-resourced and neglected: there is a lack of evidence-based material upon which to draw and the importance of tutoring to curriculum delivery has not been well-articulated.  How, then, do academics build effective tutoring skills and reflect on their experiences when the goalposts are constantly moving?  Here are 10 tips to help:

[1] Know your students – this is crucial: students are not homogenous, they have different needs, backgrounds, motivations for learning and different pressures.  This inevitably makes tutoring more difficult but, familiarity with some basic advising theories can help here.  Egan’s “Skilled Helper” model (2006) is dated but still useful, some coaching theories for example, Whitmore’s GROW model (2009), can also be helpful.  For an A-Z of advising theory, it’s the US context we can look to: Drake, Jordan & Miller (2013) focus on useful strategies.  Recent work on student engagement and belonging is also critical to understanding more about the profile of today’s students: see Thomas (2017) What Works? Report 2.

[2] Know your limits – effective tutoring is also about referral, we can only advise and guide within the limits of our own expertise.  It is important to listen to students, advise on what we can and then work with specialist support services to get students the support they require.  Active referral means facilitating this referral properly rather than just recommending things and sending the student away to do this for themselves: often they won’t!

[3] Tutoring can be both academic and pastoral – effective tutoring acknowledges the “whole student” and their academic and pastoral needs.  Many confuse personal tutoring with providing “tea and sympathy”.  Effective tutoring approaches, however, recognise the importance of skilled interpersonal conversations which explore both academic and personal goals, and realities. 

[4] Apply tutoring principles at all times – the principles of effective tutoring also apply to all teaching and learning contexts, including small or large group lectures and seminars.  Being an effective tutor applies to all our interactions with students, whether inside or outside of the classroom.  We are building effective working tutor-student relationships over time, so this means we depend on all the information we see and hear in both formal and informal settings.  Therefore our development as tutors cannot be limited to our experience of 1:1 meetings.

[5] Tutoring is about being human – what we are trying to do is systematise human interactions and that can be messy.  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.  Setting specific goals with students can be really motivating and gives you both something to focus on.  Remembering the four principles of ethics can also help: do good, do no harm, be just and allow autonomy.

[6] Set boundaries – student-tutor boundaries are essential.  An open conversation about how you can provide support and what you expect from students in return can help to manage unrealistic expectations.  Tutoring is not a one-way street: 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, they cannot do so without effective advice and guidance.  A working knowledge of institutional student-centred policies can help here.

[7] Connect students to their peers – students must learn that they should 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 within their course and championing university-wide peer mentoring and peer assisted study support programmes.

[8] Technology must be embraced – but it should not control the tutoring relationship nor adversely influence it.  Good technologies will support deeper, richer face-to-face interactions with students, not less.  Use these to record notes of tutoring conversations, even if only in brief form.  If your institution has a dashboard, use the data to explore and connect what you are seeing and hearing to your conversations with students rather than to make specific judgements to inform action.

[9] Tutoring systems should reflect the student lifecycle, and also be fluid enough to apply across year groups – students from all year groups require tutoring, not least to reflect the differences of studying at a higher level.  Tutoring can help students to navigate and normalise anxieties over typical transition points in the student journey, for example: their first assessment, getting to grips with library resources and the learning management system, even expectations of the second year of study and how to prepare for life post-graduation.

[10] Get support from colleagues – no person is an island, tutoring can be hard work and emotionally exhausting.  It’s critical to discuss what you see and hear with colleagues (bearing in mind the rules of confidentiality) and get support after particularly difficult conversations from the support networks at your institution.  Tutoring networks are emerging, take advantage of them and ask questions.  UKAT, the UK Advising & Tutoring Organisation (www.ukat.org) offers membership, resources and an annual conference.

This is an expanded version of a blog article which first appeared on The Times Higher website.

About the author

Emily is Director of Student Life at the University of Bolton.

David is an Educational Developer at York St John University, and chair of the UKAT Research Committee.

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