April 30, 2019, by Emma Birkett

Structured Individual Tutorials


Individual Tutorials

At the March 2019 PLATE meeting, there were two key questions: What are structured questions for individual tutorials and should we use them? Today’s blog begins with an overview of personal tutoring then addresses these questions. We would welcome any comments on structuring individual tutorials in the comments below or via @Notts_Psych.

What exactly is the role of a personal tutor?

As defined by the Quality Manual at the University of Nottingham a personal tutor is expected to support, encourage and guide their tutee’s development in academic, personal and professional matters. A personal tutor’s role is to facilitate the development of tutees by encouraging self-appraisal and self-development strategies and by helping their tutees identify their learning needs and goals. Monitoring their progress towards these goals and making tutees aware of development opportunities is an important feature of the personal tutor’s role. At each personal tutor meeting, tutors are expected to help students set personal and professional/employability development goals in an area on which students are not assessed nor provided with academic awards. In Psychology, at UoN, we have both group-based seminar tutorials and individual tutorials for all our undergraduate student groups.

Structured question sets for individual tutorials

The School of Psychology tutoring staff moodle page provides tutors with examples of topics which and questions which could be used in individual tutorials, with a balance of academic, personal and career-related questions. A new set of structured questions was discussed at the PLATE meeting and these appeared more beneficial in that they included career planning aligned to the students level of study and they reviewed progress towards those goals in subsequent meetings. Some issues with these questions were highlighted, for example, not all academics may feel comfortable setting or guiding students with careers as they are primarily trained to conduct research and teaching.

Should there be a set of structured questions for individual tutorials?

In our discussions, tutors felt that set questions with goals may be of use, however, they must only be there as guidelines to allow tutors to follow-up and explore others issues raised by tutees. For example, if a student does have an urgent personal or academic matter that they wish to discuss then, of course, this should take precedence over the set of structured questions. Equally, if a student is struggling with mental or physical health issues then it may be inappropriate and even counter-productive to push on with a set of questions that do not really address or provide guidance or support for the student’s current issues.

More laissez-faire approaches (i.e. allowing tutors to ask what they want) may also need to be used with caution as they may not provide equality of learning opportunities. For example, some students may discuss the kinds of topics included in these guides for students to reflect upon and other students may receive personal tutoring devoted to academic or personal matters whilst professional and employability subjects are neglected.

Our debate, therefore, led us to reflect on two key concerns. Firstly, the extent to which the tutoring system should be a balance between tutor- vs tutee-led discussions. And secondly, even with the most finely tuned set of structured questions, whether the effectiveness of the tutor session ultimately depends upon the rapport developed between tutor and tutee (e.g. sometimes it is not what is said that counts but how it is said that really matters) and whether these relationships would be affected by a compulsory structure.

Although a body of research points toward ways in which tutorials enhance the student learning experience and their feelings of connectedness, we are not aware of research examining the specific content of personal tutorials (structured or unstructured) and this may be an area for further investigation.  It was anticipated that if the use of structured questions were to be implemented, feedback would need to be gathered from a wider group of tutoring staff. The extent to which individual tutorials can be structured may, of course, depend on the nature of the degree programme and the mix of curriculum learning vs personal support required.

Thanks for reading. If you have any thoughts on structuring individual tutorials please get in touch via the comments or twitter @Notts_Psych. Our next installment will discuss recent research on the use of lecture capture in HE. 

Written by: Dr Alex Bradley, Teaching Associate, School of Psychology, University of Nottingham. 

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