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15 August 2019

Working in partnership with students to transform academic tutoring



Cindy Isherwood
Project Officer, Academic Tutor System Implementation Project

Jess Johnson
Teaching and Learning Project Manager, University of Reading

Academic or personal tutoring is a key component of the student learning experience at university, as it has been at Reading for many years. Tutors act as a key contact for their tutees, establishing relationships that help engender a sense of belonging, which is so important for student engagement, retention and success.

Ensuring consistency of tutoring in practice is a recurring challenge for the sector. Surveys, such as the National Student Survey and one that our Students’ Union ran on personal tutoring in 2016, often indicate this inconsistency of experience for students. For every comment made saying: ‘my Tutor was great and really supported me’, there is likely to be another saying: ‘I never met with my Tutor’.

So, what to do about this perennial problem? At this year’s QAA conference, we were delighted to share our experience of working in partnership with students to address this issue.

The student survey conducted by our Students’ Union in 2016 highlighted the myriad expectations students had of their tutors, including pastoral and mental health support, academic support, and professional support. However, students were often not attending tutor meetings unless they had a ‘problem’ so were missing opportunities for academic and professional support. In general, there was confusion about the purpose of tutoring.

Staff told us that they were feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped to support students with complex personal and mental health issues and, as academics, they would prefer to use their expertise to help students to develop their academic, personal and professional skills - while retaining a keen interest in their tutees as individuals. Colleagues reported feeling undervalued as Personal and Senior Tutors, lacking support, training and time (due to growing student numbers) to execute their academic and pastoral roles.

Since this initial consultation, we have worked in partnership with three generations of Students’ Union Officers (two of whom presented at the QAA conference), students, and academic and professional services staff, to review our Personal Tutor System and introduce a new Academic Tutor System in September 2018.

We are shifting the emphasis of tutoring from pastoral and ‘problem-focused’ towards a pro-active approach where tutors work in partnership with their students to support their academic, personal and professional development. However, this shift left us with a key question - if we focus the tutor system on academic and professional development, who will fill any gaps in pastoral support?

Our solution was to recruit a team of Student Welfare Officers to help students with personal and welfare issues that may impact their studies. The team works in partnership with students, Academic Tutors, our new School Directors of Academic Tutoring (previously Senior Tutors) and our other specialist support services (such as counselling and disability advice) to offer the support they need. Improved signposting to specialist support services has already made a huge difference to both tutors and students.

Policy, guidance, resources and professional development opportunities for Academic Tutors and School Directors of Academic Tutoring underpin our Academic Tutor System. Our formally-appointed Directors of Academic Tutoring, with revised role descriptions and a minimum workload allocation, provide essential leadership for the Academic Tutor System in their Schools. So tutoring is no longer the ‘Cinderella’ of academic roles.

We introduce students to our Academic Tutoring System through our pre-arrival online course and in their Welcome Week programme. Throughout the student journey, their online resources mirror those provided for tutors, so they know what to expect from academic tutoring at Reading.

As we enter the second year of the change project, we look forward to continuing to work in partnership with students and colleagues to transform academic tutoring at Reading, improving the quality of experience for all our students and, ultimately, aiding their success.