Helping students in difficulty

While a large part of your role as a Personal Tutor will be concerned with the overall well being and development of your tutees, there will be times when some of them will experience difficulty. As emphasised before, the better the relationship you build with your tutees, the earlier and more comfortable they will feel approaching you if they do run into problems.

Common Problems

While much of a Personal Tutor’s job is reactive and cannot be prescribed in terms of preconceived tasks, there are certain problems that are fairly common. We have identified some of these problems and offer some advice on how they might be tackled.

Helping students who are worried or panicking

Examination stress

Examinations and preparation for them cause most of us a certain amount of anxiety and students can become very stressed at such times.

Setting achievable goals

Some students set themselves unrealistic revision targets and then feel overwhelmed by the amount of work they perceive to be necessary.

Tutors may be able to suggest alternative approaches to revision and to look with the student at ways of applying these to one or two topics. It is usually helpful if students can break their revision down into a series of quite short manageable tasks which give a sense of progress and achievement once they are completed.

Counselling and relaxation

Examination stress may, of course, be part of a more complex situation: all kinds of emotional and personal problems surface under the strain of the examination system. Personal Tutors need to be able to recognise how serious these are and when to advise students to seek appropriate professional help e.g. UCL Student Psychological Services

Counsellors and specialist consultants encourage self-referrals, both to emphasise the confidential nature of their service and because they need the student’s own commitment to the counselling/consultancy process. However, personal tutors cannot always be sure that their advice will be taken and situations in which students obviously require professional help cannot be allowed to drift. A compromise is for the tutor to telephone the appropriate welfare service on the student’s behalf and to make a general enquiry about procedures, waiting times, etc in order to pave the way for the student to make an appointment.

Training in self-relaxation techniques is also provided by UCL Student Psychological Services. Referrals to this service must be by Departmental Tutors. There is a limit on places.

Opting out of examinations

Students who cannot face an examination sometimes seek their personal tutor’s approval for opting out. They need to be appraised of the consequences of missing an exam and encouraged to reconsider their request/decision. However, students who are genuinely ill or emotionally disturbed should not be pressurised to sit a paper. Students occasionally have to be dissuaded from taking an exam when they are clearly not in a fit state to do so. Personal tutors advising on situations like this need to take account of:

  1. the student’s condition
  2. the status of the exam
  3. departmental and College regulations concerning re-sitting.

Special arrangements for examinations

Students’ anxieties about examinations may sometimes be caused or heightened by some physical or psychological condition that makes it difficult for them to cope with the conditions under which examinations are normally held. The College makes special arrangements for such students based on a medical assessment of their needs by one of the doctors in the Health Centre.

Helping students who suffer a bereavement

Mental health

If you are concerned about students’ health, mental condition or emotional state, try to persuade them to obtain professional advice without delay. In extreme situations you may need to initiate the contact on their behalf. If a student comes to you too ill or distressed to be left alone, get help immediately. If concerned, don't be reticent to contact emergency services (dial 222 from any UCL extension). In an emergency the Health Centre will deal with students, whether registered there or not. Click here for Health Centre details.

UCL has specific guidance relating to student mental health issues, in the Academic Manual.

In addition to its general guidance for staff, the UCL Student Psycological Services offers scheduled workshops on identifying and managing student mental ill-health.

Helping students who are struggling academically

Requests to change or withdraw from a degree course

Changes of degree course are handled by departmental tutors, but personal tutors can provide helpful guidance and support during the period of uncertainty that normally precedes a decision.

Personal Tutors should try to identify and maintain regular contact with any of their tutees who are unhappy, for whatever reason, at the start of their course. 

Reasons for changing

Some requests to change degree course are a response to staff expressions of concern over poor performance; others are less predictable and may come from students thought to be making reasonable progress. Decisions to seek a change may have been thought through quite rationally but may simply be an attempt to find an escape route from criticism or other problems that have arisen.

Every year there are some undergraduates who seek a change of course or university soon after their arrival; some even want to withdraw from HE entirely. This is often a knee-jerk reaction to the culture shock of coming to university, encountering new courses and ways of working and, in some instances, living away from home for the first time. Reassurances sometimes help, but if students are persistent in their request to change course they need to be encouraged to continue with their programme whilst they explore other possibilities, so that they at least have time to make a rational decision.

Researching course alternatives

Whatever the reasons for students wanting to change their degree programme, it is reasonable to expect them to obtain as much information as possible on the alternatives and, in situations where the proposed change is within UCL, to speak to the staff responsible for the course they think they would prefer to follow. Having inspected the grass elsewhere, they may decide that it is no greener than where they are.

When a change of course is under discussion students sometimes assume that there is no longer any necessity to meet their current course requirements, indeed that deterioration in their standard of work may enhance their chances of obtaining a transfer. They need disillusioning on this score and informing that they will be required to see their remaining time out satisfactorily on the original course and to pass any exams or tests during that time. Other departments will not welcome failures.

Limitations and implications

Students have to appreciate that some changes will not be possible because of specific course requirements or pressure on places. Changes to Medicine are never allowed.

Students need to be aware of the financial implications of a change of course that extends their period of study. The regulations concerning tuition fees and loans are complicated and students should find an early opportunity to discuss their situation with their departmental or faculty tutor. Personal tutors should not approach the Student Loan Company on their students’ behalf.

Financial difficulties

The number of students experiencing financial difficulties has increased significantly in recent years and is likely to continue doing so. Some students are more or less permanently hard up; others create short-term difficulties for themselves by managing their money badly. Personal tutors may help alleviate some financial problems by directing students to the appropriate College support services. Personal Tutors should never lend money themselves.

Part-time jobs

It is now common for students to have part-time employment during term, as well as a holiday job, and some students work long hours in the evening to the detriment of their studies and health. There is a relationship between course options and part-time employment in that some options allow more time for earning than others.

Financial assistance

Whilst the College can provide valuable support, the sums involved are not large and, in the case of loans, are of course only a short-term solution. Ultimately students must learn to live within their budget and to draw up a realistic financial plan that is not over-dependent on part-time employment. Personal Tutors may be in a position to help students do this. Some begin by persuading their tutees to destroy their credit cards.

There a series of loans and bursaries available to students, more information can be found on the Student Money or Fees & Financing pages or through the Student Funding Office.

The Access to Learning Fund (ALF) provides discretionary financial assistance for students to help them access and remain in higher education, particularly those students who need financial help to meet costs that cannot be met from other sources of funding. Students should be aware that ALF is intended to act as a safety net for those in financial difficulty rather than their main source of income.

There is a Student Hardship Fund available to help students who are experiencing financial difficulty, for unforeseen reasons, despite best arrangements being put into place before commencing study.

Emergency loans are available through the Student Funding Office. Small loans (usually up to £250) can be arranged to tide students over short-term cash flow problems.

International students



Many of the problems that students experience in adjusting to university life are intensified for students from abroad


Culture shock

As well as having to cope with a new institution and educational environment, international students are having to adjust to a different national culture with often unfamiliar social customs and conventions. They may become very homesick.

Where English is not the first language, having to converse with strangers all the time in a foreign language is a strain. Some women students come from cultures where they have had a sheltered life and spent little time on their own or in the company of males outside their family. They may be vulnerable in certain social situations or upset by conventions that they do not understand.

Academic difficulties

Students for whom English is a second language may struggle with their courses. The can receive support with their academic English from the Centre for Language and International Education.

International students are often under considerable pressure to succeed academically and their expectations of themselves may be unrealistic. The transition to a different educational system and new approaches to study is often more challenging than to home students. For example, students from abroad are sometimes unaccustomed to active learning situations, such as participating in discussion and working on a team project. They may have had a much more formal relationship with their teachers and thus be less inclined than home students to seek help from their personal tutors.

For a more detailed discussion of issues affecting international students, and some helpful resources, Liz Grant formally of CALT has provided some additional information.

Immigration issues

Some international students experience immigration problems. These range from how to renew a visa to the special procedures for getting married. Some students entering the country are vetted more thoroughly than others and may become involved in protracted negotiations with the Home Office. Traveling to another country, for example to participate in a field course, may create difficulties if essential documents are at the Home Office.

More information regarding immigration & visas can be found on the International Student Support pages.

Harassment and bullying

If a tutee approaches you with concerns that they are being harassed or bullied you should find a quiet place, where you can confidentially discuss the situation without being interrupted. Your should listen carefully to the student and make sure you fully understand the facts, then discuss the options open to the student in dealing with it.

All allegations of harassment or bullying should be taken seriously and dealt with quickly and where possible in confidence.

The student may wish to deal with the situation informally by approaching the person behaving inappropriately either alone or with a friend also at UCL, to draw their attention to the fact that the behaviour is perceived as being inappropriate and to ask them not to repeat it. Alternatively you may be prepared to offer to facilitate a meeting between the two parties for this purpose but ensure you have the student's permission before contacting the other party. If the matter is resolved satisfactorily by informal means you should also ensure that the normal working relationship is restored.

If the matter cannot be resolved informally, the matter can be formally addressed. For details of how the student can do this and for more information on handling allegations of harassment and/or bullying generally see the Academic manual (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/academic-manual/part-5/harassment-bullying)

If you require further support when you are approached, ask the student's permission to obtain further guidance about their case from either Student Support and Wellbeing, the Advisor to Women Students or the Rights and Advice Centre.

Students can gain further support from:

Workload and work-related issues

Personal Tutors have a responsibility along with departmental or course tutors, and sometimes other designated members of the departmental staff, for the oversight of their tutees’ academic progress. Inevitably, therefore, they will sometimes have to initiate meetings with certain students who fall behind with their work, miss deadlines, obtain poor marks, fail examinations. As a general rule, the tutor’s role is to be supportive and understanding with respect to difficulties their students experience.

Assisting first year students

Most students can benefit from advice on how to approach their university studies, particularly in their first year; the tendency is for students to continue with the routines they followed at school with little adjustment to quite different contexts and requirements.

Many students start their first year with a very limited understanding of basic processes such as note-taking, structuring essays, accessing and extracting information. They may also need help in understanding the course content or with a particular assignment.

Different types of student

Various categories of student may have particular problems: mature students because of the length of time since they were in formal education, ‘access’ students who experience a significant jump in the expectations being made of them, students for whom English is a second language (see the Centre for Language and International Education).
There are over two hundred UCL students identified as dyslexic, but not all who have difficulties of this kind admit to it until it becomes too obvious to conceal. See the Disability Centre for further information.

Procrastination or perfection?

Able students sometimes develop a mental block that prevents them from starting major pieces of coursework. Perfectionists can fail to deliver as a result of constant re-writing as they strive to reach their own high standards. In these situations students need advice on how to break assignments down into manageable tasks with deadlines that they agree to meet, regardless of their level of satisfaction with what has been achieved. 

Dealing with issues

Personal Tutors have a responsibility to inform teaching staff of any extenuating circumstances. Departmental tutors will, for example, need to know of any situations that help to explain an unexpectedly poor examination performance.

At the same time, tutors must recognise laziness and lack of commitment for what they are and try to identify those who will go on failing no matter how much consideration is shown them. Students who fall significantly short of an acceptable standard from the outset usually give a poorer return for tutorial support and effort than those whose work declines significantly from a previously satisfactory standard. The latter situation invariably indicates some change of personal circumstances or lifestyle that it is helpful to know about.

Other Resources


Page last modified on 07 aug 13 14:44