An Opinion on a new approach on Personal Tutorial Systems

(Extracted for a draft Working paper)

In the previous four posts I have outlined the changing nature of student support demands, the existing basis for current support, the need to embrace epistemological orientation as a necessary function of higher education institutions and suggested one project that attempts to resources such an effort. I should also state (for the record as it were) that I have had the utmost respect for a great many colleagues who are fantastic academic and personal tutors. It was also my privilege to oversee the work of the Study Support Services when I was Head of the Centre for Learning Development at the University of Hull and have been an (occasional) study advisor (at the LSE) and to postgraduate students at BPP University. However I don’t believe in Sacred Cows (unless they are there to be at least considered worthy of butchering).

Given the increasingly diverse nature of the student population, ever distant from the selected and ‘ever ready ‘ school graduates, it is unsurprising that institutions now provide a myriad of support services. In some institutions there is clarity between study support and student welfare services and in others these can be found bundled together in ‘student services’. In some institutions these services are aligned alongside library provision and in others provided wholly or jointly with student union organisations. There is a need for institutions to recognise the evolutionary nature of this provision and to question whether there is not in need to wipe the slate clean. There is an obligation on institutions to provide students what they need but also what they want and the onus is then on us to ask students new questions.

Students are clearly a diverse group of individuals and we must provide individually tailored solutions if we wish to maintain the diversity within our learning communities. Clearly it is impractical, not least from a financial perspective, to design solutions targeted with each individual but it is surely possible to provide mechanisms that enable students to pull down services as and when they require them in a more meaningful way. Whilst there are certainly faculty members who are heroic in their endeavours to service both the academic needs of their students and provide welfare and personal guidance this is an unrealistic expectation. While in some disciplines, notably in health, such personal tutorial support focused on the affective development of students, clearly is a requirement imposed on faculty, this is not universally true. We should re-evaluate the need for personal tutorial support and where appropriate specify academic guidance and mentoring from welfare duties. I believe with correct epistemological orientation and the embedding of skills within courses the academic role should be largely limited to academic ‘mentoring’ in reviewing choices, strengths and weaknesses, and academic progression.

The degree to which support for the affective development of students is provided will then depend largely on the nature of the learning community itself. The ability of faculty and students to create a supportive community able to furnish appropriate aid on demand will depend on the extent to which students operate within a closed system. In a non-residential commuter institution, and in distance provision, the enormity of diverse needs simply cannot be sustained within our existing tutorial systems. Instead we should provide students with the maturity to understand their own needs and facilitate their access to appropriate support most probably sourced from outside the institution. Partnerships, both formal and informal, with welfare services (counselling services, financial advisers, spiritual services, housing support and other) can be paid for by the institution itself based on use or delegated to the individual student. A more formal arrangement of the division of academic mentoring and effective support is more likely to ensure quality advice and guidance is more universally accessible. Institutions must recognise however that instituting such a division of labour may appear to disenfranchise those tutors whose strengths include the personal, human touch, support which they’ve become accustomed to providing their students.

I believe this begins with an orientation to individual epistemological beliefs, a conversation that can begin before students even begin their formal programme of study, to ensure not that we are all on the same page but that we understand the page where on. POISE is one attempt at this meaningful orientation that can be integrated into online materials or initiated in face-to-face individual or group interactions. I believe we should also re-evaluate the our course designs to ensure that a full range of skills are built into intended learning outcomes to which constructively aligned teaching activity is targeted. Ensuring that all the domains of educational objectives are embedded within course designs, with supplemental teaching integrated into course delivery if necessary, will enable students to best help themselves on their study journey.

Better prepared students will lighten the burden on academic guidance services and ‘reduce’ the role of the traditional personal tutor. Where students identify needs they must be able to find clearly signposted support services, internal to the institution or increasingly externally, available on demand. This is not an abdication of responsibility on the behalf of institutions, quite the opposite. It is a recognition that increasingly higher education approximates more closely to the world of work than it does to the closeted environment of school. In reality most of our modern universities never had cloisters and students living around the quad, it is time for our support services to students to reflect that truth.

 

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