Inside Track | Academic personal tutoring: Why is it important?

Professor Paul Taylor, Dean: Student Education (Experience), outlines the vital role academic personal tutors play in fostering a sense of belonging at Leeds, our future plans and how to get involved.

Inside Track | Academic personal tutoring: Why is it important? March 2022

Our students succeed when they truly feel they belong – that they can thrive and are valued for their unique contributions. 

A recent Wonkhe article shared the findings from a survey of more than 5,000 students. It highlighted mental health, confidence and connectedness – with course of study and university – as crucial factors influencing the sense of belonging among students. The reasons for this are multifactorial and an area researched in depth, both at Leeds and across the higher education sector. 

Academic personal tutoring is a key contributor in nurturing this sense of belonging, encouraging successful academic development and signposting support. Academic personal tutors (APTs) provide an opportunity for students to develop positive relationships, to be given steer and have conversations shaped relevant to their individual learning experience. 

This is particularly important in the transition into higher education, and between levels of study, as a mechanism to navigate different principles and processes in academic learning. Where there are group tutorials, it’s also a space to build strong connections with fellow students around a common purpose.

Positive impact

Professor Liz Thomas, writing in the 2017 ‘What Works?’ report for the Higher Education Academy and Paul Hamlyn Foundation, reinforces the importance of academic personal tutoring as an activity that’s based on a proactive relationship, acknowledging each student as unique and individual, with mechanisms to monitor and follow up. Crucially, it’s the timeliness of the conversations and the development of relationships that builds confidence, trust and belonging. This is often generated through regular meetings during a student’s course, with the first few weeks being pivotal in this process. 

Group tutorials can also be highly effective in embedding core academic skills, providing the opportunity for students to work together and – especially in the earlier weeks of courses – creating a space that may feel less intimidating than one-to-one tutorials. Many of our students benefitting from academic personal tutoring talk about being made to feel at ease, the support they can expect and the positive impact this has on their sense of belonging. 

Actively inclusive

Of course, there will be students who don’t feel they require academic personal tutoring. However, belonging is at the core of the Access and Student Success Strategy 2025 and also runs across our institutional strategies. Being actively inclusive, by following up students who are less visible and reflecting on the way in which we communicate the benefits of academic personal tutoring, will ensure background isn’t a determiner for participation. This, in turn, will further reinforce our efforts in breaking down barriers to access and student success.

Rewarding experience

My work as Dean: Student Education (Experience) is absolutely informed by my own practice as an APT for the past 30 years. Still today, I find tutoring the most rewarding part of my duties. Our responsibilities as an APT are multi-faceted, and I’ve found it helpful to consider my role in student success by reflecting on the following questions:

  • Am I creating a space where students feel welcomed and valued?
  • What assumptions do I make about the learning environment and attitude to learning?
  • Am I clear about what support is on offer, how it can be accessed and why it’s of value?

Maximising student success

Work to continue to support APTs in answering these questions and enabling systems is ongoing. Guided by our Student Education strategy and those priorities outlined in the Access and Student Success Strategy 2025, the role of academic personal tutoring has been clarified, with maximising student success a core purpose. This has included the development of an institutional role descriptor and the inception of a new lead academic personal tutor role in each faculty. 

APTs have told us about what they value in their role and the enhancements they want to see. This has been incredibly useful and we’re working on these changes. I’m very aware, though, of the challenges being a good tutor brings. I would love to hear your ideas as we consolidate academic personal tutoring as a fully recognised part of our role. Please also speak to your school lead for academic personal tutoring if you’re interested in becoming an APT, or if you require further support or advice.

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