Building good relationships

Building good relationships with students is key to the success of the personal tutorial system. If you don't get to know you tutees then you will not build up the knowledge required to help and guide them. You want to create an environment in which students feel comfortable enough to approach you about salient issues.

"I am really happy about the relationship established between me and my personal tutor. He is always really friendly and warm and available to give me advice and help if I need it."

- UCL student, Physics and Astronomy

This section is intended to offer simple but effective ideas to help build good relationships.


Initial communication

Email your tutees as soon as you can, introducing yourself, and letting them know how to contact you.

Initial meeting

It's worth gathering all your new tutees together before any formal meetings take place. Introduce yourself. Welcome them to the institution and to the department. Start to find out a bit about them. Make sure there are no urgent issues they are facing. This will also be a good opportunity for them to meet other students in the department.

Familiarise yourself with UCL's support services

As a personal tutor you will not have all the answers and you will not have the expertise to help your students in all instances. It is important, therefore, that you know where to send them to get the proper support and guidance that they need.

Plan ahead

This site has advice on:

New to personal tutoring?

If you are new to personal tutoring we have advice for new personal tutors.

Creating the right atmosphere

Creating the right atmosphere will help you and your tutees feel relaxed during tutorials. It will make the whole process more comfortable and enjoyable for everyone and encourage the kind of discussions desirable for supporting a student's development.

Minimise distractions

Turn off your computer screen and put your phone out of reach. Try to hold tutorials in a private space where you are unlikely to be interrupted if at all possible. If you are unable to, put a note on your door to signal that a tutorial is taking place and not to disturb you.

Sit informally

Some personal tutors go as far as holding tutorials in informal locations but often you will only have your office available to you. If you have informal seating in your office utilise that, otherwise try and position the chairs so that there is no barrier between you both, such as your desk. The recommended position for chairs is at a 120 degree angle, as this allows both of you to make eye contact without forcing you to stare at each other or talk to the floor/ceiling.

Make eye contact

Eye contact plays a pivotal role in communication. When people are not comfortable the tendency can be to avoid making eye contact which can come across as aloof or even rude. Making eye contact shows that you are confident and lends credibility to what you are saying.

Positive body language

Keep your body language positive and attentive to the situation. Nod to reaffirm what the student is saying, use non-verbal gestures and keep a warm expression on your face. Sit in a relaxed posture with your arms open (not held across you or folded).

The first time you meet

Opening communication

The first few minutes of your communication can signify success or failure. It is important to create a positive, friendly first impression. If it is the first time that you have ever met your tutee, welcome them into you office (or wherever you are meeting) with a smile. Make eye contact, shake their hand if you feel it is appropriate and formally introduce yourself. Tell them to make themselves comfortable. You could even offer them a drink. Often it is easiest to break the ice by introducing a neutral topic.

Discuss the role of the personal tutor

It is a good idea to discuss what the role of the personal tutor is and what students can get out of their tutorials. A lot of students have expressed confusion about what exactly the tutorial system offers them and therefore how to make the most of it.

Manage their expectations

Mobile technology and the internet can often lead to expectations that information and responses should be sent immediately. However, students do understand that their tutors are busy. Be clear, reasonable and firm with your tutees about when and how they can contact you and how long to reasonably expect before they will get a reply. Make sure you keep them informed if that changes for any reason.

Discuss what you expect of them

It is also important to make clear what you expect of them. Personal tutoring requires commitment from both the personal tutor and the student. Encourage your tutees to prepare for their tutorials by asking themselves:

  • What is going well at the moment?
  • What do I want to achieve on this module / on this course / at UCL / in the long run?
  • What do I need to do to get there?
  • Do I have any study support needs?



Periodically paraphrase or analyse what is being said

Check your understanding of what is being said. It also shows that you are listening.

Ask clarifying questions 

These can be used to aid your own understanding. They can also help the student put what they are discussing in perspective; for example, by helping them consider what they are discussing from a different point of view.

Make notes during the tutorial

  • Make sure you inform your tutee(s) at the start about what you are intending to make notes on and for what purpose 
  • Making notes can be useful for referring back to in subsequent tutorials

One of the most off-putting aspects of the personal tutorial system that students have noted is that they felt their personal tutor didn't remember what was discussed during the previous meeting or, even worse, didn't remember who they were. If you discuss an important issue students will feel neglected and disappointed if this is not followed up next time. You cannot be expected to remember all the conversations you have had with all your tutees so do make notes.

 Try not to:

Make judgements

Never make judgements on any preconceived notions that you may hold. Instead, take your time to listen and understands what is being said. Offer advice and support. Be sensitive to that person's background, experience and intellect.


Being a good personal tutor requires a lot of patience. It is important that you let students take the time that they need to discuss the issues that are important to them. Letting someone finish what they have to say shows that you have respect for them. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you like it if someone didn't give you the opportunity to say what you wanted to say or express your opinion?

Tell the student what do do

It is not your job to solve your tutees problems. This must come from them. Your role is to guide them to make good decisions, armed with all the facts. You want to help them make informed and intelligent decisions that they have arrived at by themselves.


Make regular contact

Relationships are not built overnight and it will take a bit of time before your tutees feel able to approach you for advice and guidance. Academic guidelines state that there should be a minimum of 5 formal tutorial meetings in the first year.

  • Email your tutees periodically to check that everything is going well
  • At the start of every term, remind them how they can contact you
  • If students don't turn up for their personal tutorials then try to follow up with them why they haven't
  • Make sure you arrange subsequent meetings with them

Regular contact shows you have a commitment to maintaining the tutor-tutee relationship.

Make good your promises

If, during the course of the tutorial, you make a promise then make sure you follow this up and communicate any outcomes with your tutee as soon as you can.

Write up any notes

Keep any notes you make on file so that you can refer back to them. Students will have a lot more confidence in the personal tutorial system if, when you next meet up, you follow up discussion from the previous session.

Asking the right questions

Asking questions is a useful way of navigating through the key issues that should be covered during personal tutorials. There is an art to asking questions and you need to remain perceptive to whether or not they are working. Your questions should be responsive to the needs of the student and not a list of questions that are dogmatically pursued each and every tutorial.

"Asking questions frames the entire conversation as an inquiry in which both sides are coming together to uncover the best solutions"

- Harvard Business Review Blog

Ask what they want to discuss

Make sure you find out what the students want to discuss. They may not be forthcoming at first but the better the relationship that you have with them the more likely they will be to volunteer discussion areas. This will help the tutorial be more meaningful for them and hopefully, then, more productive for you both.


Asking questions is a good way to integrate PPD into the personal tutorial process

Question types

  1. Preliminary questions - these are question used to obtain information and clarify facts
  2. Probing questions - these questions get your tutees to really think in depth about some of the issues you are discussing. They can also be used to help clarify thinking
  3. Possibilities/ future actions - these are questions that are forward-looking. What are the next steps? What do you need to do now to achieve x?

If any actions points come from these questions, jot them down and give them to the student so they take something concrete away with them.

Other things to bear in mind:

  • Try to think of other ways ask 'why' questions. Asking lots of 'why' questions can come across as confrontational or critical which can stymy conversation
  • Ask open questions where you can
  • Avoid leading questions

In all communications....

In all communications with students:

  • Be positive
  • Be warm and friendly
  • Make sure your are accessible to them but be firm about the boundaries
  • Demonstrate a commitment to maintaining tutorial relationships. This can be by making arrangements for subsequent meetings or dropping them a quick email to remind them how to contact you each term

Through your communications with students, try to:

  • Guide them
  • Help them see the bigger picture
  • Clarify their thoughts, opinions and ideas
  • Encourage purposeful debate
  • Connect to the different support services so that they can get the most out of their studies

Barriers to effective communication

  • Try not to use any jargon or over-complicated language
  • If you use unfamiliar terms, take the time to explain them
  • One of the biggest barriers to building good relationships is showing a lack of attention or being easily distracted. While you are with your tutees, they deserve your full attention
  • Bringing certain expectations or prejudices to the conversation can inhibit the personal tutorial relationship. Listen to what is really being said, don't just hear what you think they are saying

There are some barriers to effective communication that are more difficult to overcome. These include:

  • Language differences

At UCL we have a huge international student body who are all proficient English speakers. However, there will be times when messages might be missed or misinterpreted. Spend time making sure that person understands what you are trying to say to them.

  • Hearing and speech difficulties

If an individual has hearing or speech difficulties ask them if there is anything extra you can do to accommodate them. Make sure anyone with hearing loss can see your face clearly and that you are sure you have their attention before continuing to speak.

  • Cultural differences

Cultures influence the way we think, see, interpret and experience the world. Non-verbal communication can vary greatly between cultures so remain intuitive to signals that a person is giving you and adapt your tutorial style accordingly.

Page last modified on 26 jul 13 11:03