Personal tutoring, inclusion, and the return to campus

For many of us, current priorities lay in programme and module planning ready for a (hopefully) smooth transition to online learning as a whole or part programme offer. As we continue towards September, we will have put our plans in place and our focus will turn even more so, to our students at an individual level. It is human nature to reflect upon our own experiences, to try and relate to the experiences of others. During this unprecedented time there is no doubt that things have changed.  The global pandemic has resulted in change across the education sector, whilst the Black Lives Matter movement has been a stark reminder that we need to ensure barriers to education are broken down at institutional and individual level. This, in addition to the rise in mental health complexities across the UK student population, tells us that student-centred support is as essential as ever going forward.

Although lockdown is nearing an end, daily life for all of us will be far from normal for some time. As educators, we need to be the calming voice during uncertain times, providing reassurance that everything is going to be okay. As personal tutors it can often feel as though we are walking the narrow line between being an approachable avenue of support, and a sign-poster to support services. This role is a proactive one however, there is a notion that students will book to see us if they need to. Although this works for some, though experience I have learnt that vulnerable students have booked to see personal tutors after informal face to face discussion with lecturers, usually at the end of a lecture, whilst the most vulnerable tend to not proactively approach lecturers at all. With the face to face interaction being potentially reduced across the sector, at least in the immediate future, this becomes an area of concern.

I am writing this as someone who has researched social participation and inclusion in a health and social care setting rather than educational. However, there are some key themes from research which are transferable to the education setting, particularly for those students living with complex conditions.

Research tells us that when someone has experienced a life changing event or is living with complex needs or challenges with their mental health such as depression, stress, or anxiety, three coping strategies are typically employed.  People typically either (1) adapt to their situation, (2) seek to identify positive perspectives on life situations, or (3) avoid instances in their daily life.  It is possible to move from one strategy to another over time and whilst adaptive and positive coping strategies mean that those who adopt them generally tend to cope quite well, those who adopt the avoidance strategy often tend to turn away or become reclused. When this happens, motivation becomes reduced and self-built barriers to social participation begin to emerge. This can lead to a reduced sense of wellbeing and low perceptions of quality of life. This in turn, begins to impact on engagement in learning resulting in reduced grades or in some cases non-submission or withdrawal from studies. This in itself can lead to feelings of failure and worry about disappointing others; all contributing to the negative feelings that built the barriers in the first place. It is a spiral which is tough to break.

So, September comes. We welcome back our students and say ‘hello’ to the new intake. We announce the changes and reassure students that they can expect the same high standard of learning. It is business as usual. The students seem happy, and excited that there is some online provision. Many engage well. However, being proactive personal tutors, we notice a few are quiet.  Are these perhaps the vulnerable few?

I am writing this article to ask colleagues to consider the role of the personal tutor within their own institution going forward. Where does the personal tutor fit in the online learning environment? Are there any strategies in place to identify the vulnerable students? What are the implications for PREVENT?

On a more personal level, I found that asking students to reflect upon their life goals and their learning journey so far helped them to take ownership of their study. I would ask the students to develop a personal learning plan, which could be referred to during personal tutor meetings.  This helped students to visualise their goals and keep motivated. By letting students guide reflective discussion during personal tutor meetings I would ask them to identify barriers to their learning.  These could be personal or institutional.

A positive note going forward is that for those students who experience anxiety, an online learning platform supplementary to face to face learning may remove some self-built barriers to engagement in an education. There is a fantastic opportunity to have a truly inclusive learning environment here.  However, we just need to ensure that those students who are potentially vulnerable are identified and supported adequately.

In order to share insight into academic and student wellbeing I have created a blog, via The Rambling Business Academic platform. It is in its infancy, though I hope it will be a useful platform for knowledge sharing once content is more developed. If anyone would like to contribute, please get in touch. I am also happy to discuss topics within this post further if you wish to do so.

By Dr Liz Heyworth-Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship, Liverpool John Moores University.