Reflections on Personal Tutoring by a New Lecturer
When I arrived at Exeter in September 2021, I was looking forward to teaching, for which I had developed a love throughout my PhD years as a GTA. During the majority of the pandemic year(s), I was a research fellow and did not have the opportunity to teach. One of the responsibilities of a new lecturer that arguably tends to get slightly overlooked is personal tutoring. For many lecturers unfamiliar with the UK higher education system, personal tutoring might also be quite a new concept. In my new role, as well as being a seminar leader and lecturer through tutorial deliveries (face-to-face and online), I was a Personal Tutor to thirty-eight students. Almost all were first-year undergraduates, ready to embark on a new journey through their first degree. Unbeknownst to them, I was also getting prepared to muddle through the murky waters of personal tutoring.
Personal Tutors are one of the few opportunities for students to develop a consistent relationship with an academic in their institution.
First year as a Personal Tutor
Luckily, I had quite a few senior colleagues who were very happy to guide me through this process. The Senior Tutor at the Department, who is also my “teaching buddy” (academic mentor), kindly explained the role. The personal tutor is the first point of contact for students, responsible for offering academic support and development and for signposting students to wellbeing or welfare teams as needed. The Senior Tutor gave pointers about the frequency of meetings with my tutees, recording notes from the meetings, and how to document if any student does not take up any meeting at all. Other colleagues also helped with examples of situations they faced and provided tips on how to juggle these responsibilities.
A little more confident that I can manage this and as natural as it comes to any academic, I also proceeded to read some literature on this topic. Particularly of interest to me was the paper by Grey and Osborne (2020). The authors analyze a survey response by 49 academics in the UK and their summary was quite informative. Interestingly, 89% of the survey respondents felt that academic tutoring should be personalized to the student in question and 71% felt that tutoring should have a structured programme of activities. Along with these results, the fact that Personal Tutors are one of the few opportunities for students to develop a consistent relationship with an academic in their institution (Drake, 2011), resonated with me. I personally never had a Personal Tutor throughout my studies, and I was keen to make sure my tutees feel comfortable discussing their academic goals and progress with me. At the same time, I was aware that my tutees need to develop independence and that I need to manage their expectations of me (Yale, 2019). I was determined to have regular contact with them but at the same time clarify my role in their academic progress from the beginning (Ghenghesh, 2018).
I approached my tutoring responsibilities, like many of my colleagues, by having a group meeting where the majority of the tutees could attend. I outlined to them my role in their academic journey and provided some examples. I also gave them information on finding further resources in language help, well-being, etc. Throughout the year I had at least one individual meeting with most of my tutees. I also reminded them to book meetings with me at several points, like after the reading week. To some students, I sent personal emails as they had not interacted with me at all either at any meeting or by email.
For all the students I maintained notes in Excel throughout the year, not only for accountability but also to use for future meetings to help support them towards their goals (Allen, 2002). It was important for me to understand if most of my tutees are taking up meetings with me and at what rate. The following graph shows the proportions of male and female tutees as well as the rate at which they established contact with me over two semesters. The majority of my tutees are male, and I have had a significant proportion of tutees taking up at least one meeting or emailing me throughout this year.
Acting as a Mentor
The line between a Personal Tutor and a mentor is quite obscure. I have found myself often crossing over — which is quite gratifying especially when I see my tutees benefit from this relation.
For example, this year, one of my tutees was trying to find a summer internship opportunity in their home country. I also come from a similar geographic area and had prior experience working in a research position in a bank. This tutee had sent me their CV and cover letter to obtain my feedback before sending their applications. I was glad to hear from them that they had secured an interview with their company of choice. At the same time, they told me they could not manage to obtain a mock interview session with the Business School Careers team because of high demand. I explained to them even though I do not have the same skill set as the career team, I can draw from my experience and help them by having a mock interview session. They were glad to take up this offer and we had a chat for thirty minutes where I asked them some questions and gave tips on answering them. After a week, this tutee came back informing me that they had secured the internship:
“Just to keep you updated I managed to secure the .. internship in .., which will be two months long. I also managed to get another internship at .. in... Thank you very much for all your help with regards to the interview prep.”
Similarly to this student, I have provided feedback on the CVs of several other tutees as well.
During this year, another of my tutees was studying remotely as they could not leave their home country due to COVID restrictions. They were struggling to keep up with work in a different time zone and feeling quite isolated. We scheduled several one-to-one meetings with them and talked about how to manage time to keep up with academic work. I also directed them to the language support team and well-being team to seek professional support. On a similar note, another tutee was finding it hard to connect with other students and they felt a little isolated because of their colour. Apart from directing them to the well-being support, I drew from my experiences and provided them with examples of how I have coped in similar situations in the past.
Conclusion and Future Steps
Towards the end of my first year as a Personal Tutor, I realized the learning and development team at Exeter offers a course on Personal Tutoring. Eager to know more, I signed up for this course in May. The two-hour session was quite beneficial for me and I had the opportunity to diagnose the nuances of this role a little better. Discussing with colleagues from different departments was also insightful as I learned about their experiences. For new lecturers acting as a personal tutor, it might be useful to communicate to the students, especially in their first year, how to juggle the freedom of managing their own time.
As a next step, I am going to liaise with the department Senior Tutor to understand the efforts in place to increase engagement of students with their personal tutors. For example, to streamline information flow, this year the department has set up a unique Sharepoint site to point tutees to different services and resources. As a department, we could perhaps organise a couple of face-to-face meet-and-talk sessions with the students and personal tutors as well. Over this year, I have also found that international students in particular find it beneficial to talk through their experiences at the university with me. In my opinion, there is a lack of research into whether and to what extent personal tutoring contributes toward a holistic educational experience for these students at their institutions.
As I get ready for the next academic year, I am looking forward to meeting my tutees in the fall term. It will be wonderful to hear their accomplishments in the summer in different internships in such a wide range of institutions.
Drake, J. K., “The role of academic advising in student retention and persistence,” About Campus 16 (2011), 8–12. https://doi.org/10.1002/abc.20062
Ghenghesh, P., “Personal tutoring from the perspectives of tutors and tutees,” Journal of Further and Higher Education 42 (2018), 570–584. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2017.1301409
Grey, D. and C. Osborne, “Perceptions and principles of personal tutoring,” Journal of Further and Higher Education 44 (2020), 285–299. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2018.1536258
Yale, A. T., “The personal tutor–student relationship: student expectations and experiences of personal tutoring in higher education,” Journal of Further and Higher Education 43 (2019), 533–544. 4 https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2017.1377164