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Vantage Point banner.jpgSue Robbins, Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom

Sue Robbins.jpgFor most students, starting university is exciting, daunting, challenging scary-fun!  Students come to university from a wide variety of backgrounds and prior educational experience.  How can we help them understand our university culture – what we expect of them as students, the academic requirements of their discipline?

When they arrive, most students want to explore their surroundings and fit in with their peers.  Their priority is to make friends and build the networks that will support them during their time at university. Most are not able to absorb the stacks of information we bombard them with in Freshers’ Week (orientation week). So how are we to communicate important information and support them during this big transition to university?

I am a biochemistry lecturer in a UK university – member of faculty in US terminology – with a passion for the well-being of students. This drives my work in supporting students and has led to my role as Head of Student Support in our School of Life Sciences. In UK universities, it is the norm that faculty are Personal Tutors (academic advisors) named to assist a specific group of students (Hixenbaugh, 2008). The role of Personal Tutor varies from place to place, but the emphasis is on being available to give each assigned tutee (advisee) academic advice, someone to go to if they are having problems that interfere with their ability to study effectively, and to be an academic role model in their discipline.

At my university we have this traditional model of Personal Tutoring, with all academic staff assigned new tutees annually as freshers arrive and move through university to graduation. In Life Sciences, this system seemed to work well for decades: students came to talk over their academic programmes, make changes, have us sign appropriate forms, and have a chat about how they were getting on. Through this contact at the beginning and end of each term we got to know our tutees, and they were comfortable coming to us if they had problems.  Then, early this millennium, things began to change.

The university developed electronic student management systems, students could request changes to their programmes of study online; we responded online, cutting out the ‘inconvenience’ of face-to-face meetings. Staff and students thought that this was wonderful, and in many respects it was. However when we found that students were dropping out during their first year, I was asked by the Dean to “find out why and do something about it”!

I talked with first years and found that some were experiencing problems, mostly non-academic, but didn’t know who to approach for help. They would let things deteriorate and drop out of university because they could not cope any longer. I realised that in adopting online student management, which is amazingly efficient and a wonderfully useful tool, we had taken the ‘Personal’ out of Personal Tutoring. What to do?

If students do not work with their tutor in good times, they are hardly likely to seek our help when things get tough. Students will not go to a stranger – especially a member of faculty – when their world is collapsing. We needed to change our model of Personal Tutoring from reactive to proactive.

In September 2005, I set up PASS, our Personal and Academic Support System, in my academic school. Each PASS tutor runs a programme of small group tutorials throughout the first year with our tutees. Eight tutees are allocated to each tutor strictly within their discipline, giving cohort identity among that tutor’s students and building empathy between tutor and students. Meetings have a purpose: we knew that students would benefit from structured study skills training, so tutorials have a programme covering discipline-based academic study skills. This helps combat information overload that happens at the start of the year by drip-feeding information to students at the time when it is relevant.

I have written tutorial materials, thus minimal staff preparation is required and all students receive the same level of academic support. Group-work teaches cooperation between students and helps build cohort identity and peer support among students within the discipline. Face-to-face meetings build student confidence with staff and provide tutees with a feeling of belonging in the academic community. Through fortnightly tutorials, students get to know one faculty member well, so they have somebody to contact if they experience difficulties that interrupt their studies.

When students approach tutors with non-academic issues that extend beyond faculty comfort levels, they can refer tutees to me; I meet students and listen to their stories. Together we move forward; this often involves referral for professional help e.g., counselling, financial aid, or accommodation. I have a hot-line to the Director of Student Services, who supports me in finding rapid assistance for students in need. As a senior faculty member, I am able to make academic decisions on behalf of the student and clear these with my colleagues. Having this academic influence is crucial.

I no longer research in biochemistry; instead I use my people-skills to develop holistic support for students.  That is where I believe I can make a difference in students’ lives.  After all, students who face personal problems have a difficult time focusing on their studies and progress at university.

Over the past four years, I have developed other branches of PASS to provide holistic support for all our students. Our first year retention has improved from 83% in 2004 to 93% in 2009, and the Dean has attributed this to our student support: PASS.

Sue Robbins
Principal Lecturer in Student Experience
University Teaching Fellow, ASKe Fellow
School of Life Sciences
Oxford Brookes University, UK
srobbins@brookes.ac.uk

Reference

Hixenbaugh, P. (2008, March). The concept of advising: From theory to practice – The United Kingdom context. Academic Advising Today, 31(1).

Cite this article using APA style as: Robbins, S. (2010, September). The importance of face-to-face contact between faculty and students: UP example of pro-active personal tutoring. Academic Advising Today, 33(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]

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