Introduction to personal tutoring
How the system works and what it takes to be a good personal tutor
At UCL, every student is provided with a personal tutor, who offers guidance on their academic progress and personal and professional development.
All academic staff at UCL are expected to contribute to the scheme, and graduate students with appropriate training may also be involved.
In year one of a student’s study, they should have a minimum of five formal meetings with a personal tutor – three of which must be one-to-one – with further opportunities for the student to drop in. In further years, there should be a minimum of three formal meetings – again, with further opportunities for students to drop in.
What are the benefits?
Through pastoral and academic support, personal tutors have huge potential to help students deal with the challenges they may face. Having a personal tutor, with whom they have built up an authentic relationship through regular contact and good communication, provides students with a source of support and guidance.
Academic staff, on the other hand, get the chance to impart their passion and experience and see their tutees flourish. Departments also benefit by having students who feel they are part of an academic community.
There are five principles of good personal tutoring. They are:
- Being approachable
It is important that your tutees feel comfortable approaching you. Students can feel intimidated by academic members of staff at first. They are also acutely aware that tutors are busy people and can feel nervous about taking up their time. It is important to take the time to make tutees feel welcomed and relaxed.
Students need to feel that they are not a burden on your time and that you genuinely want to help them get the most out of their time at university
It can take time to build up the sort of relationship that you both feel comfortable with.
- Be prepared to listen
Sometimes students simply want to talk to someone when they are in difficulty or feeling low.
Students don’t necessarily want advice or expect someone else to sort out their lives, but they appreciate an empathetic ear, someone to be aware and to understand without making value judgements.
We can best help by giving them our undivided attention and offering the space to explore their problem, without the injection of too many 'words of wisdom'.
- Understanding the issue
To be of help to students in difficulty, a tutor needs to judge the extent and seriousness of the issue:
Is it real or perceived, genuine or spurious, an isolated situation or part of a complex set of circumstances?
Students rarely reveal the whole picture. For example, tutees may be prepared to talk openly to their tutor about work problems, but could be more reluctant to discuss the personal situations that may have contributed to the difficulties arising.
Tutors may have to be aware of hidden agendas and be able to pick up the nuances and hints that can enable them to inquire skilfully to uncover the factors underlying the issues presented.
- Empowering the student
A surprising number of students don’t think through their problems systematically for themselves, or haven’t done so before seeking help. Sometimes they worry unnecessarily or unduly: in outlining a problem they may reveal misunderstandings or misconceptions - for example over institutional requirements or departmental systems - that can quickly be corrected.
The Personal Tutor’s task is usually to help students to define and articulate their problem and to prompt them to consider the avenues of action open to them.
Very occasionally tutors may need to tell a student what to do. Usually, however, it is the student who has to decide on an appropriate course of action. The personal tutor offers only what is necessary to ensure that it is an informed decision, based on careful consideration of all the options.
- Knowing when to refer
UCL provides an extensive network of support for students in relation to a wide range of pastoral issues and special needs. The personal tutor can be a helpful point of contact in referring students to services with the resources and expertise most appropriate to their needs. A list of relevant services is accessible on the UCL website. There is also a list of places to refer on this website. The choice to advise or refer needs to be made judiciously. On the one hand, it is disappointing to students if the personal tutor’s only reaction to their problem is to suggest that they see someone else about it. A decision to seek help often requires considerable effort, and students are easily deterred if they sense they’re being passed along the line. On the other hand, a cardinal principle of personal tutoring is not to take on more than one can manage.
For one’s own sake, as well as the student’s, it is important to realise when other people need to be involved and particularly when a student has psychological or other problems requiring specialist help. UCL Student Psychological Services offers some helpful guidance for staff who may wish to refer students to its various services and resources.
Personal tutor’s handbook: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/personaltutors/documents/PersonalTutorsHandbook.pdf
Personal tutor pages: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/personaltutors
Advice for new personal tutors: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/personaltutors/support/new-personal-tutors
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