Models and Methods for 21st Century Tutoring: 28th January 2015, Aston University

Birmingham City University’s Future Tutor team, headed up by Ruth Lawton (Learning and Teaching Fellow, Birmingham City University), attended Aston University’s Models and Methods for 21st Century Tutoring event with a view to testing out our ideas, gleaning a few new ones and developing our existing provision as we review and refresh our institutional approach to personal tutoring.

aston4 (C) Aston University

As a Centre for Recording Achievement (CRA) event, it saw the colloborative delivery of best practice from across the sector with representation from the National Union of Students (NUS), the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) and JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee). Through examining some of the best practice emerging from across the sector in relationship to personal tutoring and mentoring activity, the day event acted as a platform for sounding-out ideas, sharing solutions and developing collaborative approaches to resource development and the nurturing of growth in holistic personal tutor provision to best serves our student populations’ needs.

Hosted and chaired by Rob Ward and Janet Strivens (both CRA), the event kicked off with Dr Camille B. Kandiko Howson’s paper entitled, ‘Perspectives on the Student Experience: Key Points Relevant to 21st Century Tutoring.’ As author of the QAA (2014) report Student Expectations and Perceptions of Higher Education and co-author (with Paul Blackmore, 2012) of Strategic Curriculum Change: Global Trends in Universities, it was nice to be able to put a face to a name for the academic research around curriculum design for student engagement that I have recently been pursuing. Her paper left me with a renewed respect for her contribution to the learning and teaching landscape, as she advocated the necessity of consulting with our students if we are to truly gain an understanding of our students’ perspective of their learning experience.

Highlighting how students identify with two broad strands of thought surrounding their experiences of life at university, she identified how value for money and what students should be getting for their investment represented only one aspect of the student perspective. Often it is feared that this is all students are concerned about when considering their satisfaction, particularly when working with academics. However, her work highlights how the most important part of that experience, for the students, is the broader set of ‘opportunities’ made available to them. One solution for assisting academic institutions in enhancing their provision here was identified through the means of transitions. For Kandiko Howson, they key lay in how this transition activity needed to be articulated across a range of intervention areas, which included the investment in development and assistance for our students ‘academically, intellectually, socially and physically.’ A significant aspect of that research highlights how discussion surrounding the different perspectives of students’ expectations has revealed that there is actually no consensus of what students want or expect.

Focusing attention upon the role of the personal tutor, she highlights how what students really want of their tutors, is for them to perform the act of explaining areas of university life that they don’t understand, or find difficult, or that represent uncertainty for the students. Some of these issues might include – what impact module option decisions have upon the future choices available to them in their degree, how they should position themselves in relation to their future career, as well as assistance in making personal and life-choice decisions. As an addition to this, students were also expecting their tutors to help with securing placements and assisting them in enhancing their employability. While we are fortunate in the Birmingham School of Media that our personal tutoring activity is linked to both our students’ pastoral support, and is also tied through their Professional Media Practice development and employability enhancement, this is by no means common practice.

However, what I found most interesting was the divergence of personal tutoring support highlighted around the room, with some provision linked to professional development, some purely focused upon academic support and others focused on the pastoral support. Within the School of Media, our aim is to provide support for all three, however, this is largely possible as a result of the extended network of support that operates though our personal tutoring team, and the extended support offered by our Student Success Advisors, and team of Level Up Venture Mentors. This web of support allows us to cover each of these essential aspects of student support within the academic environment, without any one tutor being overburdened by the volume of essential work required in this area.   While this is not yet common practice across the university, it is a method that is working well for us within the School of Media where we have seen a 7% increase in student retention across the last two years.

Interestingly while Kandiko Howson highlights how personal tutoring activity offers the potential to personalise our students’ education and tailor it to their individual needs, she maintains that what students want is some clarity on what personal tutors can do for them, and identifies how personal tutors often do help with all kinds of assistance. However, it is important to recognise that this provision is not just restricted to academic staff.   Kandiko Howson, while discussing some of the difficulties that our students face, as they try to navigate the support and provision available, suggested that with the correct training, our personal tutors should be in a position to assist students in understanding the distinctions between the different types of provision available from both within the institution and that provided by our Students’ Union. Her suggestion for a renewed institutional approach highlighted the significant role that personal tutoring can represent in ensuring not only our students’ success, but also their retention.

Kandiko Institution Slide

(Kandiko Howson: Renewed Institutional Approach to Support)

Within an institutional context, Kandiko Howson highlights here how a strong business case can be made for investing time and money into personal tutoring provision and training, as the bottom line is that saving students saves money. However, the ethical benefits of creating personalised support and provision work to enhance greater community cohesion and strengthen the sense of belonging and engagement for both students and staff alike.

If our students are able to access personalised support that is tailored to their needs, they are less likely to leave, and in the current economic climate institutions are keen to put intervention measures in place around the negative financial implications of lost students. While the business case may be the leverage that results in financial investment in personal tutoring, the ethical implications are of more valuable in supporting and reinforcing positive relationships with the on-going results of a healthier educational environment.

Camille B. Kandiko Howson’s report, Student Expectations and Perceptions of Higher Education, can be found in full here.

Picking up on the benefits of taking account of the student experience, Kate Little (Senior Project Officer, NUS) shared a draft version of the Principles of Good Academic Practice that the NUS are currently consulting on. Devised in focus group consultation with NUS elected officers from across the UK, the NUS are currently working up a benchmarking tool ‘with five levels of practice for each principle allowing staff and students to work together to identify areas for enhancement activity’ (NUS, 2014: Principles of Good Academic Practice Briefing Document). At their most basic, these principles can be outlined as follows:

  1. Personalised academic and pastoral support for all students
  2. A joined-up approach to academic support
  3. Coherent institutional policies, applied consistently
  4. Staff support, reward and recognition
  5. Regular, structured interactions based upon mutual expectations
  6. Trust, respect, and an effective working relationship
  7. Proactive monitoring of student progression
  8. Learning to learn effectively
  9. Collaborative learning and peer support
  10. Clear, accessible, up to date information

However, the beauty of the intervention is that while we might feel, as Higher Education providers, that we have these aspects of the student support nailed, the benchmarking tool permits us to assess just how effectively these targets are being met, and as such allows us to identify not only where we are performing well as individual institutions, and even courses, but most importantly where we can improve that delivery through conversation and dialogue with our students. While our already embedded focus upon partnership working and the added value that working closely with our Students’ Union brings, using the benchmarking toolkit will act as an impetus for our further educational enhancement of our student experience provision. I envision our Students’ Union and Centre for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching at Birmingham City University using this as they continue in their close working partnership with staff and students from across our courses and faculties.

Whilst at the conference, the BCU Future Team found ourselves joined by the Bristol Massif, Namely Alex Bradbrook (University of Bristol Students’ Union) and JJ Clark (University of West of England Students’ Union) – a serendipitous collection of cool cats if ever there were! As insiders to the focus group and development process, as well as hearing Kate’s impassioned delivery of the project, we were able to hear first hand from the Bristol Boys about their experiences of the collaborative process, the shared student voice that emerged from across multiple and complex institutions, but perhaps most significantly the shared consensus through which the ten core principles emerged.

Perhaps I am doing the complexity of the co-ordination and exposition a disservice here, but rather my intention is to reassure HEIs of the value in the knowledge that these guiding principles for good academic support, as identified by our NUS, are the product of sustained research across our national student body, but also is being channelled through those in a position to make demands of the our HEIS. The guidance being provided is entirely reasonable and is supportive, not only of the student voice, but also of those staff who provide academic support, through their request to our HEIs to provide ‘support, recognition and reward’ for those involved in this activity by way of training, development and ultimately recognition for that work. Kate recognised the competing pressures and maintained the need for notice and recognition to be paid to those staff who were investing in the delivery of a quality student experience, particularly as this work was conducted often at the expense of missing out on time for academic research.

A key sentiment that emerged from Kate’s presentation for me was that the support staff and academic staff should aim to work together to ensure provision of a holistic student experience, which was echoed in her call to action, “We are ALL the university!” Reassuringly the workshop that followed saw all members of academic and support staff wholeheartedly embrace the ambition and ideals of the project. We eagerly await the launch of the benchmarking tool that will allow us all to evaluate just how well we do ‘good academic support’ and how we can do an even better job for the future. Currently the NUS plan to release the benchmarking tool in March 2015.

While Kate Little and the NUS team project represents an intervention into assessing the efficacy of institutional academic support provision, Peter Jackson (formerly Director of Student Support and Development Service, University of Leicester) revealed how the perception of ‘belonging’ and ‘intimacy’ impacted significantly upon the students’ experience. Here he highlighted how personal tutor provision provided an opportunity to reinforce that sense of belonging and intimacy, and the important role that the personal tutor played in the lives of those that need it. Calling upon data collated as a part of their HEA supported report (Cashmore n.d.: Belonging and Intimacy Factors in the Retention of Students). Jackson highlighted that students with the lowest sense of belonging rated the personal tutor as being of key importance in the student experience. Inversely however, those students who reported the highest sense of belonging didn’t place value on the personal tutor as they didn’t need the support. However, interestingly he identifies that regardless of the personal tutor support provision available, by their third year, their students had usually found somebody else that they preferred to talk to.

When analysing data from The University of Leicester, they found that of the students that leave, only 70% had sought advice from their personal tutors, with 57% of students finding that advice useful in helping them to make that decision. Most worryingly 33% claim not to have received personal support and 28% reported not knowing where to seek advice [NB: Totals of over 100% as a result of multiple selections by some respondents].

Friends represented a significant contribution to the advice sought by students that leave. Jackson reported that 44% of students that left their course had asked friends for advice, and of that 44%, 94% of those had found that advice useful. On this issue, some concern was raised about the affirmative nature of such friendships and the willingness of their peers to align their feedback with the wishes of their friends however sage that advice.

Here the value of nurturing personal tutor relationships to become meaningful opportunities for interaction and the development of student belonging was raised as a significant need, rather than a simple allocation of students to staff. For personal tutor provision to be successful and meaningful, the ensuing discussion circulated around a need to renew the importance of those social relationships and the need to embed this in the development of those personal tutoring systems. However to do this a need to embed this activity firmly with the strategic approach to it implementation is necessary. One suggestion that emerged was to link this to a certificate of academic practice with an emphasis upon the importance of social relationships. Within the BCU Future Tutors team, we discussed how we might link this to on-going staff development and the individual performance review process.

The presentation that followed from the QAA picked up on some of these issues surrounding ‘What students think of their Higher Education’. QAA presenters, Harriet Barnes and Natalja Sokorevica, highlighted that while the QAA devise and ensure quality code compliance across all universities and colleges within the UK Higher Education system, they also identify that contained within the fabric of that code are measures of protection which ensure that adequate training and development are supported. One such measure can be found in section B4, Indicator 7 which reads,

“Higher Education providers ensure staff who enable students to develop and achieve are appropriately qualified, competent, up to date and supported.”

In this instance, the legislation not only supports the students in their requirement for support tutors who are well-trained, but this also supports the staff in their own development and enhances their ability to be a more effective support tutor. In my own experience, one of the issues that troubles personal tutors about their responsibilities circulates around the fear of inadequate training and the need to be prepared. So this would suggest that further training and bespoke support surrounding personal tutoring activity would facilitate in the building of academic tutors’ confidence around successful personal tutoring.

In addition to support by way of staff training, the 21st Century Tutoring event saw Paul Bailey and Lisa Gray of JISC promoting the potential for technology to be used in support of personal tutoring. Highlighting the value of technology use to enhance existing personal tutoring processes, their ambition here was not to replace traditional face-to-face models of personal tutoring, but rather to use technology to enhance and facilitate that process.

Highlighting how technology could be used as a feed forward and assessment tool for learning, here Lisa identifies how the role of technology, here Lisa identifies how the role of technology acts as a powerful too as it is the use of technology that allows us to start and inform conversations with our students. In this way the analytics are used to support student learning and are simply delivering the message in a different way. This has certainly informed our approach to personal tutoring in the School of Media and is something that we have been working on recently. However our data collation is in its infancy here and while the data is available, it is the collation and pooling of that data that has proven the most time consuming and difficult in its collation into meaningful data sets for personal tutor and support staff to act proactively upon. While institutions such as Nottingham Trent University have recently won an award for ‘Outstanding Support for Students’ through development of their data analytic designed Tutor Dashboard which allows personal tutors to examine how well their students are doing across a range of data indicators. In this way the Tutor Dashboard can be used as a diagnostic tool and early warning indicator.

With all of these wonderful design and development implementations for personal tutoring, however the role and responsibility for personal tutoring ultimately returns to the Support Tutor responsibility for the implementation of that activity. Our own Jenny Eland (Programme Director MEd, Birmingham City University and Co-Chair SEDA’s Professional Development Framework Committee) returned to the issue of support tutoring and the associated need to support tutor development. Working alongside John Peters (Head of Academic Practice, Newman University and Associate Director, the Centre for Recording Achievement) raised their plans for the development of a named professional award in tutoring in order to support the professional development of academic and support staff through advanced academic practice certification.

This is an approach that is wholly welcomed by the BCU Future Tutors team and through which our on-going professional development training for tutoring will see some finessing with regards to delivery and implementation. An ambition for the review and institutional recognition for tutoring activity to become a key and embedded part of the Individual Performance Review (IPR) process to ensure not only the enhancement of provision, but also the associated reward for those staff who are invested.

A wonderful event where congratulations are due to the Aston University event organisation team. In the words of Kate Little (NUS),

So back to the design alchemy for us as we begin our ambition to recruit and develop an army of BCU Future Tutors.

Check out the Centre for Recording Achievement event discussion storify here:

A full set of slides from the event can be downloaded here:


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