Why a post-Covid, ‘one size fits all’ approach to personal tutoring risks repeating familiar mistakes

 

As the Covid-19 pandemic recedes, there is little doubt that the landscape of UK tertiary education has been significantly altered.

To ensure that their graduates have the skills needed to respond to the wider post-pandemic shifts in work and working patterns, business schools are being pushed to re-evaluate relationships formed between institutions, staff and their students. This has become increasingly important too, as business schools move further away from training students for specific, unilinear job pathways, towards education that enables graduates to be able to operate flexibly, and to adapt to more multi-vocational careers instead. Personal tutoring can play a vital, mediating role in this transition. In a strange sense, some of the ‘not-necessarily-intended' consequences of the ways that UK business schools responded to the pandemic may point in a direction that helps students to achieve this.

Disruption to education during Covid-19 was high, with difficulties including managing learning around other lockdown related responsibilities, challenges in the move to online learning, lack of adequate workspaces and instances of digital exclusion. While there is little doubt that that the long-term impact of Covid-19 still remains unknown, the broadly successful pivot to remote teaching has opened up avenues of potential benefit.

Anecdotal evidence, for example, shows that the accelerated adoption during the pandemic (and consequent retention post-Covid) of online elements of teaching and learning, has seen an upswing in digital literacy amongst students. Being able to function successfully within this intensely transformed learning environment necessitated the acquisition and continued development of digital skills, in ways that are directly transferable to a new business landscape that values hybridity. Online learning has therefore had the somewhat indirect effect of enhancing graduate employability.

The fact that UK the HE sector continued to operate successfully during the pandemic also showed the resilience of UK educational systems, as well as that of staff and students operating within those institutions. Early indications suggest that for students, this was a resilience aided in part through the increase in ease and accessibility of online student support services, which expanded rapidly during the pandemic. This included improved contact with personal tutors, as gaps previously identified between tutorial support offered that favoured face-to-face versus online students, were significantly narrowed.

This is an important point, not least because research has consistently shown that effective relationships established through personal tutoring are crucial in supporting engagement and improving student attainment. It is also clear that prior to the pandemic, many students across UKHE sought greater support from tutors but struggled to ask for it, often leading them to resort to less-than-ideal tactics, as they tried to cope alone instead. It is therefore vital that the experiences gained during the past two years, particularly in relation to student support, are not lost. But to do so requires building on strategies used during the pandemic to reconceptualise some of the fundamental premises that underpin current personal tutoring policies and their implementation at institutional, staff and student levels.

 

1) Accept that there is no failsafe (Institutional)

Advocated by influential bodies like the QAA and NUS, personal tutoring has long been an important part of UK higher education. This is not least because traditionally within the UK, going to university is deemed to be ‘as important for the personal development involved in moving away from home, as for the subject content studied’ – subsequently placing lecturers (at least partly) in loco parentis. Yet as universities have responded to calls to provide clear institutional guidelines covering the who-what-where-when-and-how of personal tutoring, such policies have tended to work on a ‘deficit’ model; they assume in other words, that all students automatically require extra personal support when experience shows that this is not necessarily the case. The reality is that no one method is failsafe, and some students will always need and pursue more support than others. The key is to ensure availability and opportunity, which the online offering during the pandemic made much easier to do, rather than having such one-to-one engagement being blanketly enforced.

 

2) Balance Conflicting Needs (Staff)

The last two decades have seen substantial changes in the university sector, including the concerted effort to increase the diversity of those attending higher education institutions, which has been successful, but has also led to the creation of increasingly complex student bodies. Somewhat understandably perhaps, the role of personal tutor has changed in response. For lecturers, this has created an expectation that personal tutoring should incorporate a broader range of elements, from counselling to careers advice - and that it must be undertaken alongside expanding teaching and research responsibilities. This can lead to feelings of being overstretched and ‘out of depth’. Being able to balance the needs of students with those of lecturers and the university itself, highlights the need for the continued provision of expanded resources, such as more clearly signposted, easily accessible, specialist support services, which many business schools made available online, during the respective lockdowns.

 

3) Consider ‘levelness’ (Students)

Just as the ‘deficit’ model contains assumptions regarding who does and does not need support in the student body more broadly, it is clear that personal tutoring policies tend to assume a ‘one size fits all’ approach across all levels of study, too. It became increasingly clear during the pandemic, however, that students at different levels of study require different approaches to, and/or styles of, personal tutoring. During first year, for example, a ‘curriculum’ model of personal tutoring (where it is embedded within timetabled sessions) enabled students to access information needed to navigate online life at university more easily, whereas in second and third years, students preferred a more self-directed approach, where they had more freedom to instigate tutor interaction when and where needed instead.

 

In the face of the various challenges posed to traditional campus-based learning and teaching, as more and more business schools begin to utilise technology embraced during the pandemic to move towards co-creative and collaborative learning experiences that enhance skills needed in the post-covid workspace, personal tutoring has a vital role to play. As digital interactions have become more routine, and accessibility easier than perhaps ever before, business schools can build on the positive elements of the expansion of student support services made during the pandemic. To do so, a reconsideration of the parameters of personal tutoring outlined in the A-B-C framework above, will also help institutions to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach and to ensure that the support students received is more effective, by being tailored directly to their needs instead.

 

Dr Laura Dixon Programme Manager for Events Manager and Senior Lecturer in International Tourism Management at Liverpool Business School.

 

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