How can I be an effective personal tutor and what is out there to help me do this? Staff perceptions of their personal tutor role and the influence of key resources.

Ben Walker and Alison Wilkinson

Research aim (phase 1)

• To evaluate the influence of new personal tutoring resources on tutors’ perceptions of the effectiveness of their support of level one students at risk of underachievement and/or withdrawal.

Research objectives (phase 1)

Stage 1

• To understand what is currently available to tutors in guiding and developing them in their personal tutor work.

• To ascertain the views of tutors on the effectiveness of their support of level one students at risk of underachievement and/or withdrawal prior to the intervention of personal tutoring resources.

Stage 2

• To ascertain the views of tutors on the effectiveness of their support of level one students at risk of underachievement and/or withdrawal after the intervention of personal tutoring resources.

• To use this to evaluate the relationship between the personal tutoring resources and tutors’ perceptions of the effectiveness of their support of level one students at risk of underachievement and/or withdrawal.

Rationale and key issues

The rationale for this research project stems from an increased interest in personal tutoring resulting from developments within the higher education sector and the findings of key research reports into the retention and success of higher education students.

The relevant sector developments are four-fold. Firstly, expansion of the HE sector, together with widening access, has resulted in more students and more diversity. Secondly, increased competition in the sector has raised attention of league table position influenced by retention. Thirdly, continuing differential outcomes for under-represented groups and fourthly, the Teaching Excellence Framework and its focus on retention of students (Thomas, 2017b).

Moreover, the principal findings of two key reports have contributed to this increasing focus. Firstly, the What Works reports (phase 1 and phase 2, 2012 and 2017 respectively), a comprehensive study into the retention and success of students over nine years with the participation of thirteen universities, found that the ‘human side of education’ and a strong sense of ‘belonging’ is at the heart of student retention and success (Thomas, 2012). It states that tutors can improve the retention and success in a number of ways including being proactive with support and taking an holistic approach. Secondly, the OFS (formerly HEFCE) report Differences in Student Outcomes (Mountford-Zimnars, 2015) found that ‘engagement’ is a critical factor in differential outcomes, that not all students have the social or cultural capital needed to engage readily or ask for support and focussed on three particular groups seen as most at risk of withdrawal or underachievement: those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, disabled students and BME (black minority ethnic students) with reference also made to a fourth group: part-time students.

Therefore, we can say there is an imperative for work to research into, and develop, personal tutoring at a macro level. This, in turn, is reflected in an institutional imperative focussing on retention of students and the financial implications of this for the institution. The imperative at a micro, or individual, level links to student perceptions of ‘value for money’ connected to fees and an expectation among school-leaving students to receive a similar level of support to that given to them in school or college. We can also add the ethical imperative in terms of provision of life chances, particularly for students from at risk groups as highlighted by the social mobility agenda.

Despite this increased interest, it can be argued that scholarly activity around personal tutoring is a relatively under-developed area. I would welcome the opportunity to contribute to the field through this research project.

I have previously undertaken scholarly activity in the area of personal tutoring and the support side of a teacher’s role which has taken the form of my co-authored book, Becoming an Outstanding Personal Tutor: Supporting Learners Through Personal Tutoring and Coaching edited by Professor Sue Wallace and published by Critical Publishing in 2015 and undertaking practitioner-led research funded by the Education and Training Foundation and through the University of Sunderland. I feel this work has enhanced development of the field in the further education sector and believe this project is a great opportunity to build on this work for the benefit of practice within higher education. My aim is that my research will enhance lecturers’ and personal tutors’ knowledge by providing the evidence to support the development of professional practice in this important area.


This action research focuses on personal tutors’ views on the effectiveness of their support in this role. As shown in the research aim in section six, I see this as the first phase of a more comprehensive research study into evaluating the effectiveness of personal tutoring beyond tutor perceptions and views with the second phase focussing on students’ views and performance in relation to tutoring practice and the resources. This application is for funding to help with phase one.

Research question

• How effective do personal tutors perceive their support of level one students to be when working with students at risk of underachievement and/or withdrawal?

In answering this question, we will also seek to answer the following.

• Prior to the provision of tailored personal tutor resources for level one students and staff, what resources and support do personal tutors draw on to address challenges in supporting level one students at risk of underachievement and/or withdrawal?

• After engagement with tailored personal tutor resources for students and staff, what are personal tutors’ perceptions of the support and resources available to address the challenges in supporting level one students at risk of underachievement and/or withdrawal?

This is an action research project which I plan to be the first phase of a longitudinal study into the effectiveness of personal tutoring practice at the University of Lincoln. This first phase consists of gathering the views of tutors in two stages: pre and post intervention (the intervention being the provision and use of tailored resources). This application is for help with this first phase. The proposed second phase will further the study of effective personal tutoring by evaluating students’ views and performance and the influence of the tutoring resources and, by implication, tutoring practice, on this.
The proposed research population consists of eight personal tutors across the four colleges of the university: Arts, Science, Social Science and LIBS. Aiming to ensure the data is as representative as possible, the participants will be identified using a quota sampling technique across a range of variables, the key ones being gender, level of experience and subject discipline.
The qualitative measure of semi-structured ‘one to one’ interviews will be used. To increase the likelihood of gaining valid data, the interviews will be preceded by a pilot interview with a key practitioner or ‘informant’ who is knowledgeable in the field and this will inform the final set of questions to be used. Before this, a survey will be sent to participants to stimulate their thoughts on the topics to be discussed and, potentially, further inform the interview questions. The advantages of ‘one to one’ interviews include confidentiality, potential greater willingness to disclose and appropriateness for the short timescale.

The relatively short length of the project is reflected in the twelve week period for personal tutors to use the resources. Two interviews per tutor will take place, one before and one after this period followed by a thematic analysis of transcriptions.

March 2018 Progress Summary

The personal tutoring research at Lincoln is going well with the first of the two data collection stages having been completed (interviews with eight personal tutors across all four colleges of the University on the tutor role and support for this, including resources).
We have completed an initial analysis of the stage 1 data and there are some very interesting emerging themes related to perceived confidence, understanding and performance of the role along with awareness and use of support and resources available.
The participants are now in the twelve week research period (January to March 2018), when they have committed to using a minimum of one staff resource (to support and develop them in the role) and two student resources with their tutees. The resources were developed by Ben Walker and Alison Wilkinson as part of the OFS Catalyst funded Intervention for Success Project. The second set of interviews to take place in April 2018 will include questions to assess any influence and help these may have had on their delivery of personal tutoring.