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Why I value being a personal tutor: Professor Mark Emberton

The Dean of UCL Faculty of Medical Sciences on maintaining connections with students, preparing them for 'a highly competitive way of living' and how UCL's personal tutoring system could be improved

29 October 2018

Professor Mark Emberton is a practising surgeon specialising in prostate cancer and leads a clinical innovation unit developing diagnosis and therapy for the disease.  He is also Dean of the faculty of Medical Science, a role he took up in 2015.  Each year he acts as personal tutor to four or five first- or second-year medical students.

What do you think is the main purpose of a personal tutor?

It’s quite an informal system, although advice about how to conduct personal tutoring has become more prescriptive in recent years. I think the main job is to be reassuring, especially in first year, which can be wobbly for some students. And to be an independent, confidential sounding board.

In your experience, what are the main areas of discussion?

Learning styles

We discuss their marks of course, but the focus is more on learning styles. 

Our students are obviously very accomplished, but some struggle with the new style of learning that university demands.

They also are shocked by how much they have to work just to stay in the middle of their cohort. This can be really difficult for someone who is used to being top of the class at school.

So we explore different styles of learning: some form learning groups quite early, and I encourage that. We also point them to online resources to augment the learning they do in class. For some students lectures are crucial and others find them useless. My role is to reassure them that that’s okay.

We discuss tactics as well

They need to recognise that this is the beginning of a highly competitive way of living.

For example, every medical student does the iBSc, a year of research in their third year: some areas of specialism are much more competitive than others, so it’s important that students know early on how to distinguish themselves from their peers, becoming positive outliers – by getting a travel bursary for example, or by doing some data crunching for a research group to get their name on a paper.

Pastoral care

We talk about money, accommodation and kinship and through those themes it’s possible to get a sense of the student’s mental health and wellness.

Making connections

Kath Woolf’s research for the Medical School on student outcomes shows that one of the strongest predictors of success is how well networked you are.  A tutor group is a good way of getting students to make connections with peers who they perhaps would not normally meet. It’s getting more and more difficult to arrange group meetings, but I think they are as important as ever - it’s striking how quickly cliques form and this is a way of shaking them up.

What do you get out of being a personal tutor?

It’s great for me to get an insight into the diversity of the student body.

My tutee could be the sixth doctor in the family or the first in the family to go to university, with all the challenges that entails. Having been a medical student myself, I enjoy meeting people going through the same process – though it’s much harder for today’s students, much more competitive. This is my opportunity to keep that connection. I want to hear what they have to say.

And it’s satisfying when you can help students with issues that might affect their studies - which can range from career change to illness to marriage!

How do you think UCL’s personal tutoring system could be improved?

The role of personal tutor should be professionalised so that people are recognised for doing it well.  And perhaps we could reinforce that with an annual get together each year, a two hour symposium, with updates, sharing best practice and networking afterwards for those who want it.