Written by Imran Mogra, Senior Lecturer in Religious Education and Professional Studies,
In the changing landscape of the HE and FE sector, many new roles are appearing to support and advise students. The guiding roles of academic faculty and professional services are also being re-defined and explored. The theme of the first annual UKAT, held at Southampton Solent University in March 2015, was Exploration of Student Advising, Support and Guidance in the context of Student Success, Attainment and Retention.
United Kingdom Advising and Tutoring (UKAT) is a professional body of practitioners and researchers interested in all aspects of advising and personal tutoring in FE and HE in the UK.
UKAT’s conference explored the current trends and methods of student advice, support and guidance, and considered the broader context of student success, attainment and retention whilst sharing innovative practice. The conference was held over two-days with participants from different countries, although were from the UK. I participated in the ‘show and tell’ session and presented my poster, Trainee Teachers and their tutorial system: a case study.
In a keynote speech the success of student discourse was of central concern. Karen Sullivan-Vance, covered this ground by touching on real students’ lives. She emphasised that tutors were the first people to demystify the curriculum for many students. For student success, to her, tutoring meant: to be persistent against retention, to promote academic achievement, to set academic milestones, to support students in reaching their goals, to review educational attainment and to support high impact practices. Prior to Karen, the DVC Jane Longmore, referred to the changed climate in HE participation. She questioned the support required to close the attainment gap among white working class boys and black, ethnic minority students.
These presentations became reminders for not taking-for-granted the power dynamics, cultural capital and generational structures of the education systems from which student come and enter into.
The audience listened attentively as Karen shared her experiences from Western Oregon. She made some stimulating points:
- young people have to learn how to deal with failure
- young people do not study in a vacuum, their lives are impacted by HE, globalisation and many other factors
- everyone is struggling in terms of how to support students
- Advisors give advice which makes students rocket scientist, advising is not rocket science.
At least five implications could be deciphered. Staff need to be advocates of tutoring. Conduct assessment of tutoring. Promote best practice. Model active learning for students and create annual PD Plans.
It was interesting to note how the discourse on advising is formulated in academic circles compared to what is actually discharged in policy and practice – particularly among support service providers. Here, questions were raised about the framing of tutoring as a moral obligation, the accepted conflation of retention and the prominence of attainment and success in FE & HE.
Later, in a symposium, the habitual question about definitions and meanings was raised as a way towards the deconstruction of advising and tutorial. As expected, attendees expressed divergent perspectives. Some suggested advising was a teaching function others thought tutoring was about on-going support.
Over the years, having been exposed to a wide range of challenging issues faced by my tutees, some of which have been complex and related to their psychological well-being and other deeply personal ones, it was evident that the construction of tutorial comes to fruition in the dynamics of tutorials within institutions. Instead of defining it, perhaps, the question to ask would be: what is the mission? Are coaching, mentoring, advising and tutoring all about student success? Is there more to the student than success? Would a student centered enterprise be fully satisfied by mere reforms on policies and use of technology in systems which are already constrained?
Some students deny they need help. Others recognise they need help, but power differentials may impede their voices. Others might feel intimidated or pride may withhold them
– whatever the reasons, I was getting the impression that waiting for the student to come to the tutor will soon, if it has not yet, become an outdated practice. Rightly so, students should be prevented from ‘coming in’ when it is too late. The message, thus, was to notice them early. In so doing they may be surprised and pleased that someone is noticing them.
While current policy trends in the UK and NSS surveys might suggest that ‘the job’ is being done. Sir Christopher Snowden VC went on to suggest that more needs to happen to understand students’ needs and reminded the audience that academics are forming their students, they are not yet formed! He appeared to have reservations about the pressure on Universities to conduct, behave and do things in certain ways. He argued that shifting teaching and learning onto the Web without sufficient personal contact might become a shallow experience for some students. Talk, he claimed, was essential for scholarship and development. He also invited questions to be asked about how systems allow student to fail.
In a climate clamouring against withdraws and advancing retention, a team of presenters, which included two students, recapped that tutoring can be emotionally draining for tutors. Some institutes have initiated the use of peer tutors who are mobile and highly visible. Perhaps, this is a shift from a ‘problem’ centered tutoring system where student meet the tutor when there is a problem to one where the ‘door is open’. The presentation, raised many questions and issues.
- Has the time come for students to be informed about what they are entitled to? The Compliance with consumer law is not only important in giving students the protection required by the law, but also helps to maintain student confidence and the standards and reputation of the UK Higher Education sector.
- Should all academics have an expectation to be tutors and should this work load be discussed with their line managers?
- Does HR have a responsibility to support tutors?
Tutoring has moved into teaching and learning, which is a welcome shift –signs of a holistic approach to student experience. However, questions about resources were raised for a system to be truly student centred rather than a paper exercise. It was observed that shared values, care, people well-being and pride are more important than papers and policies. It was also noted that academics were being asked to do more to intervene, to make formal referrals, to create data bases for individual students and to tract attendance and their success. From the tutoring perspective, it is significant that the tutorial should not to become about the data of the student instead of being about the student.
Apart from the conference, online discussions show that some institutes are interested in creating a role of Senior Personal Tutor (SPT), as is the case at Plymouth. The SPTs support personal tutors, may be responsible for allocation, training sessions and dealing with problems and complaints. There is interest in exploring a supportive structure or framework within which SPTs would operate and how personal tutoring looks like in different institutes and what is the nature of the provision. In another institute, proposals are being considered for SPTs to have a formal responsibility for monitoring and reporting, via the quality process, on the effectiveness of personal tutoring in their academic area.
Tutoring and research
In terms of survey research, I was encouraged to discover that UKAT had conducted its first national survey of personal supervision and academic tutoring. The purpose of which was to examine and report on the use of and approaches to personal supervision/academic tutoring within HE institutions in the UK.
Tutoring is a relatively recent phenomenon, perhaps 12 years, as one presenter noted. Thus, there is recognition that student experience in HE matters and tutoring is seen as a way of ensuring students succeed. In this context the experience of staff is important too. Thus this growing field of advising, mentoring, tutoring and coaching opens wide the opportunities for further research.