Teaching Skills: Academic Tutor - all-knowing guru or best mate?

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The term tutor is used to cover a range of academic and welfare support provided by academics who work with individuals or small groups of students. While the focus is on academic development, students’ personal lives and their general well-being also impact on their studies and it’s important for tutors to be clear how they might respond to these issues even if it’s to refer students to professional university support services.  This article will be useful for those new to tutoring as well as those wishing to reflect on their current practice.

The range of activities included under the heading ‘academic tutoring’ includes:

  • Giving feedback on assignments
  • Study skills support
  • Tutorials for distance-learners
  • Demonstrating equipment
  • Laboratory-based practicals
  • Fieldwork
  • Choosing options.

The term ‘tutor’ and especially ‘personal tutor’ can also encompass:

  • Welfare issues
  • Monitoring overall progress
  • Course or module choices
  • Writing references
  • Signposting to other services such as: disability services, learning support, and careers.

Tutors may meet their tutees from once a week to twice a year depending on the year of study and subject. The tutor might variously be a mentor, advisor, facilitator, teacher, supervisor, expert, coach and sometimes a bit of each in the same session.

Preparation – think about the following before your first meeting:

  • What exactly is your role and what are the students’ expectations? Check any written guidelines/protocols guidelines; talk to experienced colleagues and Senior Tutors or their equivalent. Do you need to keep records?
  • What are the boundaries? Sometimes the personal tutor role is very clearly defined and these tutors are trained to deal with personal/welfare issues.
  • Who else can help students? Your role may include signposting other sources of help to students; don’t assume students know what they are. Key areas include: learning support, careers, welfare, students’ union or guild, counselling, well-being, chaplaincy, student buddies/mentors.
  • What information about the student might help you? check any specific learning needs, previous academic record, modules previously take. 

First meeting – students make choices; they need to be clear how the tutor relationship benefits them to keep them coming back. Build rapport and show you’re interested and approachable:

  • What’s the tutorial for? Get this really clear from the outset. Perhaps start by asking the student what they expect before telling them.
  • Are there any ground rules? These can include meeting times and more generally, agreed key components for a successful tutorial. Perhaps ask students to think about this before your first meeting.
  • Take a history: ask the student to tell you about their academic life so far; what do they most need help with?

Dynamic Dialogue – the tutorial is a conversation and a great opportunity to really delve into the detail of your subject; to encourage ‘deep learning’. The interplay of questions and answers can enable students to realise clearly what they know, what’s getting the way of their learning and to set them off on their own research.

Communication skills - not complex, they just need thinking about:

  • Listen actively - even if your prime role is to explain a key concept, take time to listen to check the student understands.
  • Question effectively: a few concise, well-timed and challenging questions can be the key to students thinking for themselves. A barrage of questions (which you then impatiently answer yourself) will not develop an independent and enquiring mind.
  • Summarise: how do you know the student has learnt from the tutorial? Give them time to reflect, write down what they’ve learnt and then explain the key learning points to you.
  • Avoid: talking non-stop for 50 minutes; student madly scribbling, asking nothing, rushing out of the room and then sending you a constant stream of emails asking you to explain what you thought they had previously understood.

Although you might not be an all-knowing guru with answers to all your students’ questions, your role as a teacher and mentor is of course key. As for ‘mate’ – be approachable and supportive, but be clear on setting boundaries. Aim for ‘critical friend’ rather than best buddy.

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