Inside Track | A community-led approach to academic personal tutoring

Rachael O’Connor – the University’s new Academic Lead for Personal Tutoring – explains how she intends to support the practice at Leeds and ensure it’s at the heart of our community.

Rachael O'Connor

Academic personal tutoring (APT) is a vital component of our student education offering at Leeds. I’m absolutely thrilled to see this University APT leadership role being introduced and even more thrilled that I’ve been recruited to take it forward in the coming years. 

APT is particularly vital in supporting us as a community of staff and students to achieve our strategic goals around inclusion, belonging and access and student success. For many students and staff, APT is one of the only spaces where we can really get to know one another in a more personalised capacity – much better than we can in the more formal teaching spaces we’re often in. 

However, with time and workload pressures, as well as navigating the challenges of understanding its benefits, APT isn’t currently meeting its full potential. 

There are countless examples of outstanding practice across our campus where tutors are supporting students to explore their identities, achieve and exceed academic goals and have the confidence to follow their dreams. 

Through my ongoing interdisciplinary research as a Leeds Institute of Teaching Excellence (LITE) Fellow, which connects reverse mentoring and personal tutoring, as well as drawing on my former role as APT Lead in the School of Law, I’ve repeatedly seen a lack of consistency cited by staff and students as a significant issue.

Some students have an amazing APT experience; others feel their tutor barely knows who they are. This is an equity issue as it often more significantly impacts students who already identify as feeling under-represented or marginalised in our community. 

We have to prioritise addressing this and centre under-represented voices in our mission.

At the heart of our community

Do I think I can come up with the ideal APT model to roll out across the University in my time as University APT Lead? The simple answer is no. Partly because that’s not realistic but also because I don’t intend to do anything alone in this role. 

It’s hard to think of a better example of a community issue than APT. Every student has a personal tutor and almost every academic staff member is one. 

Through the work I led as part of my LITE fellowship, I have already engaged with more than 20 different schools in the challenge of improving APT. 

Expanding on that, I want to support everyone to put APT at the heart of our community. At the heart of Curriculum Redefined. At the heart of our Access and Student Success initiatives. At the heart of our Belonging work. At the heart of what it means to be a student and a staff member at our University. 

Every student should leave us knowing their tutor well, trusting them, feeling supported by them and acknowledging that they’ve been a key part of their Leeds journey. 

To achieve that, we all have to be involved in conversations and be part of the change. If there’s anything that my APT work has shown me so far, it’s that personal tutors are absolutely changemakers. The difference we can make is not to be understated, but we have to take this up as a collective challenge. The work of one good tutor can easily be undone if we don’t all buy in to the same vision.

Community-led strategy

So, my priority for the first year of this secondment, much like a good APT, is to listen. 

I’m lucky to be working closely with our wonderful new APT intern, Sophie Connor. Together, we will be coming to you, to our students and our external colleagues and peers to find out more about what is and isn’t working to inform a community-led strategy for change and development. 

I will also be working closely with APT Leads across campus to support them in their respective schools and faculties. The APT Lead role has made such a difference institutionally since its introduction and I really look forward to working more with you all. 

In 2024/25, the focus will shift to action. Together with colleagues, we will focus on delivering consistent and flexible APT experiences across campus – the two aren’t mutually exclusive! I want to stress this change and action is about both staff and students and this is why we have to work collaboratively. I hope you’ll join me in embracing this challenge.

Keep an eye or an ear out for more from me soon. In the meantime, if you have any burning thoughts on APT you’d like to share with me, please get in touch. Email me at

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