Find out more about key aspects of the Personal Tutor role, holding tutorials, and effective communication with tutees.

Understanding the Personal Tutor role 

At Greenwich, the personal tutor is the 'go to', friendly face for students who may feel lost in the world of higher education and in a new social and cultural context. Tutees should be able to discuss any academic and/or personal issues or problems with their personal tutor. The Personal Tutor acts as agent at the interface between the personal and the academic, building a friendly and non-judgemental relationship of trust with their tutee, and providing a context for establishment of peer relationships through group tutorials; both of which support and enhance students' academic and personal development.

Being a Role Model

The personal tutor is someone who is already established in the academic community that tutees are joining. As such, a personal tutor can be a powerful role model for tutees in terms of modelling the language and behaviours shared in particular academic and professional communities. Using some tutorial time for your tutees to start 'thinking like a nurse' or 'talking like a primary school teacher' is an aspect of the personal tutor role, which is well worth developing. Part of the role of the personal tutor is to support the personal and professional development of their tutees, as well as dealing with problems or issues.

As professionals and experts in a particular field, personal tutors will be well versed in the language and customs of their industry/discipline. This experience and familiarity includes current research, major employers, networks, industry/professional bodies etc.  Talking to your tutees about this can help to empower them to begin to think and act like the professional they aspire to be in their own subject/work related field. Talking about sector/discipline opportunities, news and events can help tutees to begin to see the connections between what they are studying and their future professional careers. They are also more likely to understand the norms and expectations of professionals working within the field they hope to enter upon leaving Greenwich.

Setting Expectations

It is important for both tutor and tutee to be clear about the importance, nature and limits of the personal tutoring relationship, which is designed to help tutees grow in confidence and autonomy as they progress through their studies. Expectations and 'ground rules' should be discussed from the outset, particularly with reference to:

  • Confidentiality and disclosure
  • Boundaries
  • Keeping in touch
  • Data and record keeping

To facilitate positive relationships, it is vital to establish early contact and to begin developing a professional rapport with your tutees from the outset. An essential skill of any effective personal tutor is to be able to initiate and maintain clear, open channels of communication. Students value a personal tutor who they can talk to and who they know is really listening to them. 

To learn more about developing effective practice and to explore being a personal tutor in more detail, attend one of the workshops on 'Being an effective personal tutor' available for booking here.

Key Aspects of the Personal Tutor Role

Using the university personal tutoring policyaddendum and blueprint, personal tutors should be available, empathetic and supportive, and be pro-active in:

  • Establishing and building an ongoing academic and personal development relationship with their allocated tutees;
  • Helping tutees to settle successfully into university life and study;
  • Maintaining regular contact with tutees, responding to tutee emails and keeping records as appropriate;
  • Ensuring tutees understand the purpose and scope of personal tutoring;
  • Providing contact information and office hours for tutees;
  • Engaging tutees with their discipline area;
  • Being informed about policy regulations (e.g. assessment misconduct, extenuating circumstances, interruption and withdrawal etc.);
  • Monitoring tutees' progress through and across programmes of study, offering general feedback on overall performance and appropriate guidance and support;
  • Encouraging tutees to make the most of opportunities offered whilst at university and to plan for their future e.g. playing sports, getting involved with Greenwich Students' Union (GSU) activities, and exploring the Employability and Careers Service;
  • Signposting to key support services in the university;
  • Being informed about university record systems, other sources of support and how to refer;
  • Respecting confidentiality;
  • Having an understanding of different student needs, including diversity and difference, disability and dyslexia, mental health and the particular needs of younger, mature and/or international students;

Keeping tutorial records and being aware how these are kept and used in accordance with local arrangements e.g. Personal Tutor Management System and/or other approved means of recording tutee data.

Record Keeping

Part of effective communication includes keeping a record of tutorials with a tutee. Your department may have a specific form or process to facilitate this (e.g. Personal Tutor Management System). This record might be as simple as:

  • Tutee name;
  • Tutorial date;
  • A brief overview of the matter(s) discussed;
  • Actions to be taken by the tutee and/or personal tutor.

Reasons for keeping a record include:

  • It provides evidence of a problem raised or decision made e.g. the student may have spoken to you about health issues that may later be used in an extenuating circumstances application;
  • It is a useful aide memoir and starting point for the next tutorial;
  • It is a useful way to track progress;
  • It can be a useful way of providing actions for the tutee to complete before the next tutorial.

Individual and Group Tutorials

A blend of individual and group tutorials is recommended to have maximum benefit for tutees. Group tutorials are an excellent way of orientating new students to the University of Greenwich community. They are useful for cohort building and have advantages including:

  • Creating a more informal and less intimidating environment than an initial individual tutorial;
  • Enabling tutees to find common ground and begin to develop a network of friends and peers on their programme;
  • Providing spaces for tutees to share issues;
  • Efficiently providing a means of communicating with tutees.

Individual tutorials can be more focussed on the specific needs and circumstances of the tutee.  For maximum benefit these should be framed around the blueprint to have some specific topics to discuss, and/or previous individual (or group) tutorials to pick up on any actions or issues from last time. Tutees can find tutorials to be less useful if they view them as being unplanned or having no specific purpose.

Effective Communication for Personal Tutors

For the tutor-tutee relationship to be effectively established and sustained, tutees need to know why, when and how communications will take place. This is likely to be discussed at the first tutorial meeting. Working in partnership is recommended to establish how the relationship will work, what communication media will be used, the frequency of tutorials and how to get in touch outside of scheduled tutorials. 

Tutee Development Using a Coaching Style Approach

McIntosh and Grey (2017) suggest that personal tutoring can be viewed as merely being about providing 'tea and sympathy' to tutees, but they are clear that a good personal tutor-tutee relationship relies not on a deficit model of the tutor 'fixing' the tutee, but a relationship in which tutees have responsibilities to seek to resolve their own difficulties. This may be in partnership with their personal tutor or with colleagues from support services, but the onus is on the tutee to invest something into the situation to enable them to develop autonomy and problem-solving skills.

To best support and develop tutees and acknowledge the 'whole student' in terms of their pastoral, developmental and academic needs, tutee-centred coaching approaches can be a useful way of framing positive, developmental tutor-tutee conversations (Gurbutt and Gurbutt, 2015). As a personal tutor it can be very tempting to try and 'fix' a tutee by providing all of the direction and all of the answers, using a more teacher-centred, directive style e.g. "Go to see Careers" or "You need to do this".

An effective personal tutor creates the right climate for their tutee to think about and try and generate their own solution to issues, through using a more non-directive coaching style approach, in which they listen actively, reflect and summarise, and ask solution orientated questions to support a tutee to move forward in their thinking about their issues. There is still the need for personal tutors to offer advice and guidance where appropriate, and to use personal judgement on when this might be the right approach. However, before you provide advice or answers, it is always worth stepping back and considering if asking questions that might lead the tutee to coming up with their own answers, is a better course of action.

Questioning and Summarising

When having a tutorial with a tutee, personal tutors can adopt a coaching style of conversation. This is typically:

  • Structured conversation, e.g. through goal setting, exploration, generation of options and action planning
  • Future-focussed
  • Solution-focussed
  • Tutee-focussed
  • Listening, summarising and questioning

When asking questions, you are likely to have a more productive tutorial if you use open-ended questions to expand the discussion e.g. "How? What? Where? Who? Which?", rather than closed questions which require only a "Yes or No" answer. When summarising you might use "So you're saying to me that..." as a way of ensuring you have understood what it is that your tutee has said.

Active Listening

Effective listening involves active listening. Grohol (2007) suggests that active listening "is all about building rapport, understanding, and trust" (n.p.). When you are in a tutorial with a tutee, you are more likely to have productive discussions if you allow your tutee to speak. By listening actively you can begin to tune in to the language of your tutee and may pick up on key themes or words and phrases that they repeat; this can be a clue as to what is really troubling them and can give you a way in when you ask them questions.

Active listening can provide valuable insight into the overall well-being of your tutee. By paying attention to their general demeanour, energy levels and body language, you may detect signs of non-verbal distress e.g. changes in mood, appearance, changes which can be indicative of problems or issues that are affecting your tutee.

Key Points

Whatever tutorial scenario you are in, always consider:

  • Being prepared
  • Paying attention
  • Setting up the discussion as a partnership rather than the tutor leading on all aspects of the agenda and questioning
  • Using open questions and keeping questions solution-focussed
  • Keeping some records of what was discussed and any actions for you or the tutee

The better and more trusting the tutor-tutee relationship is, the more likely it is that tutees are participative, candid and committed to the tutorials and the agreed outcomes.To learn more about developing practical coaching skills, attend one of the workshops on 'Coaching Conversations for Personal Tutors' available for booking here.

References

Grohol, J (2007) Become a better listener: Active listening. Psych Central. Available at: http://psychcentral.com/lib/become-a-better-listener-active-listening/0001299.

Gurbutt, D.J and Gurbutt, R (2015) Empowering students to promote independent learning: A project utilising coaching approaches to support learning and professional development. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, 8.

McIntosh, E and Grey, D (2017) Career advice: how to be an effective personal tutor. Available at: www.timeshighereducation.com/news/career-advice-how-to-be-an-effective-personal-tutor [Accessed 12/03/2020].