The research basis on which institutions respond to the case for learning support

(extracts from a draft Working Paper)

Following a review of institutional websites in October 2014 it is clear that the vast majority of UK higher education institutions have explicit policy statements relating to the provision of personal tutoring (80%) with the remainder stating such support in more obtuse references or in delegated documents at faculty or departmental level. Whilst the overwhelming preference is to use the term ‘personal tutors’ other refinements such as ‘personal academic tutors’ are also used alongside aligned roles such as ‘year tutor’ and ‘Dean of students’. Approximately 50% UK HEIs on their public webpages reference the use of personal development planning (PDP) alongside personal tutor support. At least 75% provide detailed web support for students defining the role of personal tutors alongside a range of other support services. It is noticeable that this is an active area of policy development with over 80% of policy statements having been updated in 2013 or 2014. The preference for over 90% of institutions is for a fairly traditional blend of personal guidance usually under the guise of:

  • Academic guidance
  • Academic support
  • Career planning
  • Pastoral support

This closely follows the benchmarking documents issued by Watts in 1999, when arguably there was more homogeneity in provision, who following an analysis of the role of personal advisers in post-compulsory education, stated the purpose of effective provision was:

  • Providing ongoing support in an established relationship;
  • Providing ongoing support in an established relationship;
  • Providing holistic guidance incorporating both academic and personal information advice and guidance;
  • Referrals to other support specialists;
  • Personal advocacy in the form of references and representation.

(Watts, 1999)

Higher Education Academy, in its work on widening participation, outlined a similar set of benchmarks with increasingly diverse communities in mind. The resulting recommendations suggest that personal tutoring comprises:

  • To provide of a stable point of contact within the University;
  • To provide guidance on higher education processes and procedures and expectations;
  • To provide academic feedback and development aimed at orientation of new students to academic demands;
  • personal welfare support;
  • To provide referral to sources of further information;
  • To build the institutional relationship and the sense of belonging.

(Thomas, 2006)

This ‘model’ of personal tutorial support was born at a time when institutions were largely ‘campus-based’ and many of them ‘residential campus-based’ with the vast majority of students living-in halls. It also originates in a highly selective environment when significantly less than the current target of 50% of school leavers attending further or higher education. The reality of plurality in provision surely require equally diverse responses. Ultimately institutions may need to relinquish ownership of its custodial relationship with the students and instead replace it with a system that empowers students to search for relevant support. The increasing diversity of the student body, drawn from all sections of society, regions, countries, nationality, and ages as well differing modes of study from online participation and distance study, to workplace and off-campus programs, surely questions the models of support but have stood scrutiny for so long. Given there is nearly universal agreement of the need for students to have access to ‘learning support’ this is the logical place to begin to assess provision.

Theoretical Models of Learning Support

The role of the personal tutor, under what name and guise, has been the subject of extensive writings although relatively little empirical research, with some subject or domain specific exceptions (Burk & Bender, 2005; Powell & Mason, 2013; Symonds, Lawson, & Robinson, 2007). Research focuses on cohort studies and deal primarily with subject skills specific support. There has been little research linking motivational and psychological factors with the operation of tutor support. Burke and Bender (2005) found that despite the formal support mechanisms in place students frequently relied on themselves and their informal peer networks. They also noted a gender difference with female students going outside the institution more frequently than their male counterparts. Studies addressing the needs of a particular demographic are frequently too generic to be of value in policy planning although some large international comparison studies to provide useful insights. Whilst the importance of student support services as a measure of institutional attractiveness alongside its academic, teaching and research profile is highlighted by studies (Kelo & Rogers, 2010) the actually uptake of services contradicts this assertion.

Studies relating to student support mechanisms have tended to focus on the question of retention and progress. One notable theoretical position by Vincent Tinto, described as Interactionalist Theory, is concerned with the early departure of students from colleges and universities. This work focuses primarily on the fear of failure by students and the failure of the institution to create a sense of community of belonging (Tinto, 1993). This work has been influential particularly in the US in influencing morals of student support but its emphasis has been on a traditional campus community despite that one empirical study could find only a single institution supported only 5 of Tinto’s original 13 propositions (Berger & Braxton, 1998).

More recent attempts by Ormond Simpson to develop theory of learner support in the context of distance learning is invaluable in basing its conclusion in the fields of learning and motivational psychology. Summoning Dweck’s self theory and Anderson’s advocacy for proactive support, Simpson suggests that there is a noticeable institutional benefit in the retention of students through development of alternative models of learning skills development and support. We should exercise caution however since Anderson suggests that remediation (intervention to support failing study skills) risk demotivating learners over time (Clifton & Anderson, 2002) and there is evidence that even learners who are made familiar with their personal learning style may not find any correlation with their motivation for learning (Jelfs, Richardson, & Price, 2009). There is broad agreement that study skills alone are insufficient and that motivation proves critical, with notable US research with school leavers identifying that students who receive self efficacy training have a higher retention rate than those receiving learning skills alone (Barrios, 1997).

Anderson and Clifton have advocated a “strengths approach” in researching the importance of self-esteem in the learning process. The premise is that individuals do best when they focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses and therefore focusing on those weaknesses may not be a particularly effective way of improving success. Rather they suggest that the identification and support for existing strengths, and understanding the means to transfer those skills for effective study, proves long-term gains. Anderson and Clifton identify some 30 strengths which can be explored in a face-to-face programme of encounters over number will of weeks (Clifton & Anderson, 2002) however Boniwell has suggested a nine-point approach for the relevant member of staff to use with individual students. This 9 point approach follows:

  1. Emphasising positive dimensional is during initial contact.
  2. Focusing on existing strengths and competencies.
  3. Identifying past success and achievement.
  4. Encourage “positive affect”, building on hope and aspiration.
  5. Identify underlying values, goals and motivations.
  6. Exploring personal stories, the rating one’s own life story.
  7. Identifying resources and support.
  8. Validating effort rather than achievement.
  9. Finally: exploring uncertainties and lack of skills.

(Boniwell, 2003 cited in Simpson, 2008)

Whilst Boniwell suggest some means to facilitate these conversations between staff and students should be enabled by institutions, the reality is many faculty would find such empathic discussions difficult.

Work by Vansteenkiste resulting in a “self-determination theory” identified that students performed best when they felt autonomous in their study choices (Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Deci, 2006), whilst evidence from the Open University UK that students who have a choice of study material and participate three options have the maximum student retention (Tresman, 2002). Most programmes of study however have been designed with deadlines, fixed content and rigid assessment processes make such findings difficult to implement in most institutions. Other theoretical models that explore notions of students self-identity include “achievement goal theory” in which one of three goals identifies students self orientation namely 1) mastery goals – to reach genuine competence, 2) performance goals – to demonstrate competence to others, 3) performance avoidance goals – to ensure avoiding perception of inadequacies (Skaalvik, 1997). Other researchers have concluded that there are complex social motivational factors involved and that there are reasons to pursue strategies that support performance goals as well as mastery goals (Harackiewicz, Barron, Pintrich, Elliot, & Thrash, 2002).

Vansteenkiste and colleagues carried out empirical studies that have shown that intrinsic goal framing (relative to extrinsic goal framing and no-goal framing) produces deeper engagement in learning activities. These orientations also ensure better conceptual learning and higher persistence at learning activities (Vansteenkiste et al., 2006). Within certain highly competitive disciplines and understanding of student motivation within this theoretical construct might prove valuable. Similarly work by Pajares also argues that self-belief and self-comprehension are important determinates in study success but such conceptions are frequently faulty (Pajares, 1996). Empirical studies examined students awareness of their own relative competence or incompetence and identified that whilst 60% of students had a realistic expectation of their own competence 20% had excessively unrealistic of their competence and 20% a negatively soft judgement regarding their competence (Pajares, 2004 cited in Simpson, 2008).

Study skills have become associated with an add-on provision based on an historical assumption that students enter university already equipped with the appropriate skills in order to undertake higher learning (N. Bennett, Dunne, & Carre, 2000). In an environment in which study skills are framed as remedial provision for students who arrive without the assumed skills, notably international students and ‘non-traditional’ students, are immediately disadvantaged (Cottrell, 2001). Most UK universities provide, usually provided by specialist study support centres situated within learning and teaching centres or within library services, opportunities for students to undertake writing enhancement programmes and individual tuition. Ursula Wingate argues that separating study skills from subject content and the process of learning is ineffective and that study skills should be more fully integrated within modules and programmes (Wingate, 2006). There is an argument to suggest that a full range of literacies should be integrated into the learning experience so bad in the knowledge driven world universities can prepare individuals to be ‘fully literate’.

“…literacy can be taken from a wealth of dimensions other than reading and writing ability or numeracy: media literacy, active citizenship empowerment, financial literacy, basic technological skills, social and values (ethical) literacy, intercultural dialogue aptitude, health literacy, to mention just some.” (Carneiro & Gordon, 2013, p. 476)

Unless as institutions we opt to educate to the syllabus without ambition we must surely consider the ways in which plural literacies in our disciplines should be framed. I have elsewhere argued that effectively designed learning outcomes using a full range of educational objective taxonomies should enable all the full range of higher education skills, a full range of literacies, to be acquired within modules and programmes if appropriately designed (Atkinson, 2013).

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