Personal tutoring in Chemistry
9 August 2013
Dr Andrew Wills, Director of Studies for the Department of Chemistry, talks about the personal tutoring system.
How it works
Personal tutoring is an increasingly important aspect of teaching. If we’re engaged in teaching then we have to be fundamentally behind the idea that we’re trying to educate and help students grow, and personal tutor meetings are a very important part of that support structure.
In Chemistry, personal tutors are allocated centrally by the department and we retain the same tutees throughout their time at UCL. Personal tutorials will often have a specific focus, which we advise on as a department. The first term of the first year is a period of adjustment, so discussion will centre around how the student is settling in, making sure they’ve got accommodation and so on.
We typically have a follow-up meeting in reading week of term one and then meet at the start of the spring and summer terms. First-year chemistry students sit an exam on the first day of the second term, so they’re given their examination feedback in the spring term personal tutorial. This is important because it’s the first real exam they do at university and the first bit of serious feedback they get on how well they’re doing. In that session we can help them work through any problems they’ve had before they get to the big summer exams. Academically, term two is a lot harder, as everyone will have been brought up to the same level in term one, so it’s important that this is the focus of their tutorial.
All members of teaching staff are expected to be personal tutors and we try to match students with staff teaching the courses they’re studying, so as I am Coordinator for Chemistry with Management, I get students from that course. But while parts of personal tutoring are about providing academic advice and guidance on option choices, the remit goes beyond that: we also discuss soft skills, revision, key skills and careers. The aim is to strengthen the opportunities the students will have when they leave UCL.
We are also there as a first port of call when a student is having a personal problem, and this can be quite heart-breaking. Sometimes you can work through the issue with the student, but other times we refer them onto support services available within the UCL system. You can only advise the student of their options, you have to be careful that you’re not making decisions for them, and helping staff know how to do that is something we really do need to support. There is some central UCL guidance available [see the Personal Tutors’ Handbook] but one of the things we’re trying to do now is to offer greater staff development opportunities for personal tutors, because it’s a key point of contact for students and we have a duty to be actively training tutors and helping them gain the skills that they need.
In the second year, the students have two meetings in term one and one in term two. At the start of the year, we check that everything’s okay, discuss things they need to work through if they’ve failed any of their exams, and again just ensure that they’re settled in and prepared for the coming year. They can always book an additional appointment if they have anything they wish to discuss; we are fully available to them. We also have a mentoring system where second-year students mentor first years so there’s a more informal support structure there as well.
The other major aspect of personal tutoring is careers and employability. I’m currently working with Paul Walker (one of CALT’s School-Facing Teaching Fellows) and the Careers Service to create some training videos for our staff on how to discuss careers. It’s a hard thing to do because it’s very easy to turn a student straight off the subject, particularly when they’re in the first year. It’s very easy to forget about the future when you’re a student and so we’re there to remind them to be developing their CVs and key skills while they have the chance.
Again, key skills aren’t the easiest thing to discuss or teach but they’re vital. Talking to a first year about key skills is tricky because they’re not engaged with the concept at that stage, so we need to think carefully about how to give advice in a timely and effective manner. We’re working on creating some video support that allows tutors to get up to speed with how to do this quickly.
Interview by Ele Cooper
- Learn more about personal tutoring at UCL
- Read the Personal Tutors’ Handbook
- View videos and explanatory notes on personal tutoring