Explore ways of effectively supporting tutees in a remote/online environment.

Supporting Personal Tutees Online/Remotely

Read our Top 10 Tips for Remote Personal Tutoring.

Online Personal Tutoring

Most individual and group tutorials are likely to happen in a face to face setting. However, there may be occasions when remote tutorials are needed or preferred e.g. part time students, those with work or caring commitments, students with health or medical conditions, or for placement students where coming to campus might be more challenging. Using virtual spaces and other online communication tools (including the telephone) can be effective and help to keep lines of communication open between tutors and tutees.

The same tenets of personal tutoring regarding having regular touch points and check-ins with tutees should apply for online tutoring as they do for face to face tutorials. However, there is potentially more risk of tutees being 'out of sight, out of mind' when engaging with tutees only in virtual spaces/remotely. This can lead to tutees feeling neglected or disengaged, or for some tutees to slip off the personal tutor radar more easily. Therefore, even more care and attention is needed by personal tutors to ensure tutees feel part of the university community and feel valued by their personal tutor (and by extension, the university).

Current literature about student engagement and Universal Design for Learning principles suggests that students are more motivated and engage more effectively when they have choice and agency. When possible, personal tutors should consider offering their tutees some choice regarding the method they would prefer for engaging in a remote tutorial, and what times might be more suitable for them.  Some tutees might be happy to do it using video conference, whereas others might prefer a phone call. Some may not want/be able to talk but would prefer to keep in touch via email or using the chat function on Moodle or MS Teams. This is not usually as effective as talking, but in some cases, this might be an appropriate/pragmatic choice. Where it is feasible, personal tutors should try and include their tutees in working out how best to communicate individually and as a group. This might mean the need for a bit more flexibility on the part of the personal tutor, but if it means tutees are more bought into the personal tutoring process, this is likely to yield better outcomes and increase engagement.

If remote personal tutoring is used, tutors are encouraged to also frame this using the principles and guidance within the Personal Tutor Policy and Personal Tutoring Blueprint, and to be explicit about when and how any individual or group tutorials will take place.

Online Personal Tutoring during COVID-19

During times of unexpected and/or prolonged enforced absence from campus, there is likely to be an impact on the wellbeing of your tutees. They may feel isolated, cut off from regular sources of information such as direct access to their tutors, and social ties and informal support they routinely get from interaction with their peers.

Recognising the emotional impact of COVID-19 on tutees

Students are likely to be experiencing a range of emotions and feelings during the COVID-19 outbreak, including anxiety, distress and uncertainty. There are likely to be many questions that personal tutors are going to be asked about how the outbreak is going to impact on their studies and on the wider university, as well as how teaching/assessment online is going to work.  International students may well have additional concerns about family and friends back home, or about making plans to travel home themselves. A student will not need to be ill or self-isolating for the virus to negatively impact on their wellbeing. Many students are likely to feel worried about the spread of COVID-19 and its impact on them and their family and friends.

It is useful to recognise some of the additional challenges facing students in this situation such as having to combine studies with full time child care due to school closures or financial worries due to lost income for those in part time work where the business has been affected. These challenges are likely to create further stress.

GSU recently surveyed students on the impact of COVID-19 on their learning experience and wellbeing. You can read more about the survey and the initial findings here.

This is the context within which many personal tutors will also be working. It is likely that staff will be experiencing similar emotions, so it is important not to underestimate the emotional element when personal tutors interact with tutees during this time. Showing compassion, and empathy with your tutees by acknowledging that this is new and challenging for you too will show a human side that students are likely to find reassuring.

Keep in touch

Help your tutees by communicating regularly with them about what is happening and what is being done to put things in place for their on-going learning. Being approachable, available and responsive is essential if personal tutors are going to provide effective support during this challenging time. Tutees may find it hard to adapt to online learning and to working remotely away from peers and staff. Supporting your tutees online/remotely may feel unfamiliar and at times frustrating for you too. Be willing to switch tactics if something is not working but stay focussed on making your tutees feel comfortable during this time.

Managing expectations about what you will do, when and how, will be really important. At a time when tutees are likely to be receiving lots of communications from the university and beyond, having some regularity of expected contact from personal tutors will help to provide useful anchor points for them during their studies.

Tutees may feel isolated, so contact from personal tutors to remind them that you are at the end of a phone line or an email will provide useful reassurance. Reassurance and regular updates are essential to ensure tutees do not feel neglected or forgotten about. Let tutees know if you are going to have a set day and time to be online for a Moodle/MS Teams chat or at the end of the phone for office hours appointments.

Whilst personal tutors will be concerned about tutees and their wellbeing, it is equally important to recognise and manage your personal wellbeing too. Many staff will also be combining work and childcare and possibly experiencing illness at some point too. So although regular communication to tutees is essential, equally, personal tutors are advised to keep things as simple as possible and not over commit – if you cannot deliver, this could create additional stress for tutees and worry or disappoint them. Monitor your own situation and ensure you have contingencies/people to cover should you be unable to contact and support your tutees as you had planned to. 

Clear communication

At a time of great uncertainty personal tutors can help by providing clear communication to tutees. What you will do, when you will do it and how, will be important for tutees to know.

Where possible try and use hopeful and optimistic language, such as, "When you come back to campus …", "When you go on the field trip next academic year". This will help tutees look forward to coming back to campus, and it will signal that COVID-19 will ultimately subside and that things are likely to return to normal at some point in the future. Try and avoid using negative language e.g. "cancelled". Instead if you can, consider words like "paused, postponed, deferred" or "adapted, modified" etc. It helps to signify that whatever they were going to be doing has not been cancelled; rather it is planned that it will happen at another time or will be adapted and will happen in a different way. It is important that students do believe that their studies can and will continue, and that all the effort they have put in will not be in vain. This is a temporary situation, and they will be supported to ensure they can complete their studies as they have planned. Refer to the things that will continue as well as the things that are changing e.g. "Instead these activities will be provided online so please continue to use Moodle as normal".

Peer support

Encourage your tutees to reach out to their peers to provide academic, social and emotional support. A strong and well-connected peer group will be incredibly important during this time. If tutees feel they are still part of the community and still have their goals to aim for, they are more likely to remain motivated and more positive. Remind and help facilitate your tutees to harness the power of the peer group to air and respond to problems, and to offer mutual support. How they choose to communicate will be decided by the peer group; what is important is that personal tutors encourage tutees to remain in contact with their peers to help sustain group cohesion and communication. Everyone will be in the same boat; everyone will be affected in one way or another by the COVID-19 outbreak. This shared experience can have a positive galvanising effect upon a group of tutees.

Key Points

In addition to the general guidance about tutoring remotely, personal tutors are recommended to be even more proactive than usual in terms of communication and support for tutees. This could include:

  • Outlining a weekly plan for personal tutoring. This could be letting your tutees know when your remote office hours are, or when any synchronous individual or group tutorials will be scheduled, or any asynchronous activities for them to complete in Moodle.
  • Changing your email signature to add information about the ways in which tutees can contact you, and the times at which you are available.
  • Having more touch points and check-ins to enquire about general health and wellbeing, as well as about any academic matters. This means tutors will be aware of tutees who are not responding or communicating.
  • Checking that your tutees have access to a computer, internet, suitable place to study etc. It is easy to make assumptions about what tutees have access to (or not).
  • Managing expectations about how you intend to update them when information is likely to be changing rapidly and expected turnaround times for emails/correspondence.
  • Keeping in touch with existing tutees over the summer break to keep them motivated and excited about the prospect of continuing with their studies next academic year.

Further Reading

Bandura, A (1994) Self-efficacy. In V. S Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998). Available at: www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Bandura/Bandura1994EHB.pdf.

Bassett, J, Gallagher, E and Price, L (2014) Personal Tutors' Responses to a Structured System of Personal Development Planning: A Focus on 'Feedback', Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 9:1, 20-34.

Bridges, S. J (2017) Professional identity development: learning and journeying together.Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy. Volume 14, Issue 3: 290-29.

HEFCE (2017) The wellbeing of graduates. Assessing the contribution of higher education to graduates' wellbeing in the UK. Available at: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk//30632/.

Houghton, A.M, and Anderson, J (2017) Embedding mental wellbeing in the curriculum: maximising success in higher education. York: Higher Education Academy. Available at: www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/embedding-mental-wellbeing-curriculum-maximising-success-higher-education.

Lochtie, D, McIntosh, E, Stork, E and Walker, B.W (2018) Effective Personal Tutoring in Higher Education. St Albans: Critical Publishing.

Miller, W. & Rollnick, S (2012) Motivational Interviewing. Helping People Change. New York: Guilford Press.

Rosengren, D (2009) Building Motivational Interviewing Skills: A Practitioner Workbook. New York: Guilford Press.

Thomas L (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change. Available at: www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/what_works_summary_report_0.pdf.

WHO (2001) Strengthening mental health promotion. Geneva, World Health Organization (Fact sheet, No. 220) Available at: https://mindyourmindproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/WHO-Statement-on-Mental-Health-Promotion.pdf.