Personal Tutoring during COVID-19

Updated: May 19, 2020

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher said, “Change is the only constant in life.” but not everyone adapts to change, HE has responded to the current COVID-19 pandemic in a way that is unlikely to ever return to what it was before. The biggest impact is seen within teaching and learning with the sudden switch from face to face to online learning institutions have adapted their pedagogy and provided opportunity for innovation and experimentation, this is a good thing. Although this was unplanned and unexpected, staff have responded professionally, using all the digital tools available in their institutions and reaching out to networks to learn from others. The student experience of this sudden change is less understood, whilst many will welcome the move to online learning others may struggle, this opens up the possibility of a new digital divide as well as division in experience, this change is not good or equal for all.

One aspect of HE that is being tested is Personal Tutoring/Academic Advising, this important relationship between students, their course, the university and their peers has always been critical to the success of HE. Often ignored or taken for granted, undervalued and most certainly under resourced, tutoring is often the glue that binds students to their course, peers and to their learning, tutors among others facilitate a sense of belonging and inclusiveness. The role and purpose varies among institutions, different models of tutoring operate across the sector but at the centre of it is the human relationship between the staff member and the student(s). How a staff member engages, interacts and supports their tutees is unique to them, how suited they are to the role is often an entirely different matter. It needs to be acknowledged that often the allocation of tutors to student groups is done for more pragmatic reasons and the fair allocation of workloads than designing a better model that works for staff and students. Staff can often resent the role and therefore give less, but those who value the role and understand the positive impact it can have on student outcomes do so because they inherently know that without their support their students may not enjoy the full benefits of their time at university. Students rely on their personal tutors/advisors for all sorts of reasons which are broadly split into two areas; academic support and pastoral support. Tutors are very adept at answering questions of an academic nature but are less skilled in pastoral support for students, the need for sympathy, empathy and understanding requires a high level of emotional control and self awareness so as to know how best to respond to a student and recognise the subtle signs of stress, anxiety, worry and self-doubt that students try their very best to hide.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is asking critical questions about how we care about others and particularly elevating the discussion around well-being and mental health. In these times of social distancing and isolation it is now even more important that we connect, reach out and show people we care, the health of humanity is more important than anything else, everything else will, in time recover. It is interesting to note that almost all forms of communication being sent out place the individuals health and safety at the forefront of the message with the signing off instead of 'kind regards' now replaced with 'stay safe'.

The question for tutors is what can they do to support their students, how can they 'be there' for them? UKAT together with the University of Swansea have provided 10 useful tips on Personal Tutoring at a Distance.

  1. build your effective remote tutoring environment

  2. focus on the human relationship

  3. establish clear boundaries and expectations

  4. ensure your students can engage with you

  5. make your personal tutoring accessible

  6. Don't overlook an old-fashioned phone call

  7. keep notes and send follow-up emails

  8. know how to refer when working remotely

  9. setup an online learning community for your tutees

  10. follow flipped tutoring principles

Students levels of confidence around their studies and personal relationships will have altered, priorities will have shifted, but students will need their personal tutors/advisors now more than ever. The digital revolution in learning just had a significant jolt to test its effectiveness, but it is only as good as the individuals using it, learning is still human, it elicits and emotional connection and this needs careful managing, building resilience to change and adapt is central to moving forward positively.

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