Thursday, May 04, 2006

Mentoring & Tutoring

Peace, one and all...
As part of my interest in the theory and practice of education, I'm posting an essay I wrote for my PGCE in post-compulsory education and training. Insha Allah, as I've posted a few such things recently, I intend to separate them out in a new blog when I get the time. For now, though, I'm posting them here. Enjoy!
Mentoring & Tutoring: Evaluation of a Critical Tutoring Incident
There are many factors involved in promoting and developing effective learning. In order to be truly effective, considerable effort must be spent on designing appropriate course materials. Organisational and structural considerations are also critical. The organisational structure of a college or university can have a deep impact on student learning. A well structured class, within an effective institution framework, can help motivate, encourage and inspire our students.

However, in order to be truly effective, the individual learner needs to be able to take advantage of the opportunities on offer. And, to be in a position to gain such advantage, a student needs to feel that they are capable of ‘making the grade’ and also of developing themselves. In other words, confidence is a crucial ingredient in learning. A student with little or no confidence in their own abilities will find it difficult to learn, even though they possess most of the actual skills required.

This paper aims to investigate the issue of confidence and its wider relationship to education. It is often difficult, given our contemporary education system, to identify unconfident students within the classroom. Indeed, one of the main methods of identifying such students is within the tutorial framework (or other closely related systems). The aim of this paper, then, is to offer a reflective discussion of this issue as it manifested itself during a number of tutorials.

Our aim is twofold. Firstly, we will examine the incident itself. In particular, we will explore some of the student’s means of communicating their lack of confidence. Secondly, we will draw on this incident in discussing a number of wider issues.

Understanding the Role of Personal Tutor
In order to discuss the critical tutoring incident before us, it is essential that we first understand the role of the Personal Tutor clearly. Moreover, it is not enough to understand this role in a generic sense; we have to acquire a clear picture of how this role operates within my own professional context.

Although the exact role of a Personal Tutor will change from institution to institution, there are a number of common elements. Wheeler & Birtle (1993, 1-15) argue that it is the tutor’s role:

To facilitate the personal development of tutees
To monitor tutee progress
To provide a link between the tutee and the central University authorities
To be a responsible adult member of the University, in whom the tutee can confide
To intervene with the University on the tutee’s behalf (adapted from Wheeler & Birtle, 1993, 15)

Moreover, Wheeler & Birtle define a Personal Tutor as a member of the academic staff. In other words, the tutor acts as an interface between the tutee and the University, as well as between the tutee and the academic department. Thus tutee advocacy is another important aspect of the tutor’s role: this could mean representing the student in a wide range of settings (such as Examination Boards and so on).

Another significant aspect of the tutor’s role is the provision of ‘pastoral’ care. Although Wheeler & Birtle’s definition does not explicitly refer to pastoral care, it is important to recognise its importance for Personal Tutors. Indeed, academic development should not be seen in isolation; it is part of a wider whole, in which the tutee develops in every sense. As we shall see below, it is when our tutees are (or feel that they should be) compartmentalised that they often fail to see the links between academic and personal growth clearly.

It is in this rather grey area that the personal tutor draws closest to the counsellor. In trying to encourage tutee development, tutors are often faced with the challenges that life throws at students. Such difficulties can have a fundamental impact on a tutee’s ability and willingness to learn. As such, attempting to help the student deal with these challenges becomes another important part of the tutor’s role. Nonetheless, it is vital to remain clear of the boundary between tutor and counsellor. Although tutors are often faced with difficult situations, they are not trained counsellors.

My own awareness of this grey area has been heightened by the fact that I am also the School’s Student Support Officer. In this capacity, I am also responsible for the broader pastoral care of the School’s students. I therefore often have to deal with students with challenging situations.

The multifaceted nature of the Personal Tutor is reflected in the differing conceptions of the role throughout the UK Higher Education sector. The tutor’s role is conceived of in a wide range of ways:

Referral Agent
Academic Assessor
Careers Adviser (adapted from Wheeler & Birtle, 1993, 17-22)

In a real sense, the tutor is expected to fulfil all of these roles (to a greater or lesser extent). Some, such as Disciplinarian and Parent are especially revealing. Is it the tutor’s job to punish offences; are we supposed to act as a surrogate parent? Although an answer is well beyond us here, it is important that we note the impact of such notions on the role of the Personal Tutor.

Contemporary Developments
The current expansion of the Higher Education sector has also had an impact on the role of tutors. As student numbers have increased, whilst funding has (in real terms) decreased, tutors have less time to spend with their tutees. Thus there is a pressure to achieve observable and hence verifiable, outcomes. This has meant that the tutor’s relationship with their tutees has come under greater pressure. Although the individual picture is made more complicated by a number of other factors, time pressures have made it more difficult to build effective tutor-tutee relationships. This has had an impact on the critical incident discussed below.

Before we can begin our exploration, it is important that we first establish our context appropriately. I work within the School of Religious & Theological Studies at Cardiff University, which has approximately 250 undergraduate students. One of my key roles is that of Year One Personal Tutor. The School, which works within the wider University framework, requires tutors to meet with tutees at least three times during the academic year (Cardiff University, 2004, 3).

Although this requirement ensures that I meet every student on an individual basis three times during the year, I also see a number of students more regularly. Students can either choose to come and see me themselves. Students can also be referred to me by other subject tutors, especially where a problem has been identified. One of my key roles as tutor, therefore, is to help provide extra study skill support as necessary.

The incident discussed here falls into this last category. Although I had seen the student previously, some concerns had been raised about her attendance. In particular, the student had failed to attend most of her Religious Studies seminars. This had an effect on her written work, which demonstrated a lack of critical engagement with the topic under discussion. Immediately prior to the critical incident, the student submitted an assessed essay. Upon inspection by the marker, the work was found to contain a number of examples of gross plagiarism. As her Personal Tutor, I was then asked to discuss the issue with her.

Describing the Incident
Although a detailed description of the incident itself is well beyond our scope here, a few points are in order. The first point of importance is the student’s reluctance to come to the meeting itself. In order to arrange the meeting, it was necessary to call her at her home. Upon answering, the student’s whole demeanour suggested that she was rather depressed. Her whole attitude seemed to suggest a distinct lack of confidence about her assignment. She believed that she had committed an act of gross negligence and hence was defensive and nervous.

We first discussed the issue of attendance. The tutee openly admitted that the reason she had not attended seminars was because she hated to be asked direct, personal questions. She found being asked such questions very challenging, if not actually threatening. We discussed the reasons for compulsory seminar attendance.

We then discussed her plagiarised essay. The essay had largely been copied directly from the Internet, without any real use of academic referencing. When we discussed the reasons behind this, the tutee admitted that this was because she did not really understand why references were important and how to use them. This led me to ask why. Her response was illuminating. The reason she had not understood the need for referencing clearly was because she felt unable to discuss her concerns with her lecturers. In other words, low self-esteem had prevented her from talking to relevant staff members and thereby accessing the help she needed.

We discussed the essay topic. To my personal surprise, she was extremely interested in the subject and spoke on it at great length. Thus it seemed clear to me that ability was not the primary issue. The major challenge facing her was in overcoming her lack of confidence.

We addressed this in a number of ways. Firstly, we arranged a programme of study skills in order to look at the technical aspects of referencing. Secondly, I gently suggested that she might find counselling useful. Although she declined the offer, she seemed to consider it seriously. Thirdly, we also discussed ways in which we might draw her seminar tutor into the discussion.

Critical Reflections: Relating to the Wider Context
Arguably the most significant aspect of this incident was the hidden nature of the root cause of the student’s difficulties. In meeting with the student, I was faced with a number of disparate facts which although they suggested a problem, did not clearly suggest that confidence was the underlying issue. That low self-esteem can manifest itself in poor attendance, lack of engagement and plagiarism is important to realise. Whilst such things may seem obvious when taken together, this is not always how events present themselves in our everyday working lives. Thus I found it immensely useful to be able to draw this issue out into the open. Indeed, upon reflection, the student appeared relieved that the problem was now being discussed openly.

Identifying the underlying issue was of the utmost importance. Highlighting the cause made it easier to understand the symptoms. It also made it possible for us both to start thinking of ways to address the challenge. This is not to say, however, that it is possible or even likely, to address deep seated emotional issues in one short session. Nevertheless, we both felt that progress had been made.

Another significant issue is in deciding how to move forward. There are a number of connected points here. Firstly, there is the issue of ownership. It is absolutely crucial that the student ‘own’ their own development. If the aim is to empower the student to face and overcome their own personal/educational challenges, then we can only move forward on a firmly tutee-centred basis. How can we do this in practice? In other words, how can we create a useful balance between the student’s and the department’s needs, whilst maintaining a strong focus on individual empowerment?

Secondly, it is important to understand the limitations of my role as Personal Tutor. I am not a counsellor. Therefore, it is essential that I accurately understand where my responsibilities end. In a sense, this is the aim of a student-centred approach. The tutee needs to be made aware from the outset that they alone are ultimately responsible for their own growth. I would argue that my role here should be that of a facilitator. That is, it is my role to provide the tutee with helpful and timely advice and support; it is the tutee’s responsibility to follow up (or not) on my advice.

In this sense, it is useful to understand my role as that of a guide. A guide is someone who has already made their own educational journey and can thus offer the tutee their insights on ‘travelling’. In particular, a guide can share their own experiences; indeed, experience is one of the central and most distinctive features of adult education.

The model of guide is useful in another important sense. As a guide, I am only responsible for helping the tutee to see some of the possible options before them. It is palpably not the tutor’s job to decide for the tutee. As such, I can make suggestions about how to move things forward. I can also monitor the tutee’s progress and provide advice where appropriate.

In tackling low self-esteem, it is also important to provide regular positive reinforcement. Within the tutorial setting, this can take a number of forms. It is critically important that the tutor shows the tutee that their opinions are valid, worthwhile and interesting. Furthermore, these need to be clearly demonstrated to the tutee. Discussing complex subject topics, in an engaging and supportive manner is also an effective means of developing tutee confidence. By these means, the tutor can show the tutee that they already have many of the core requisite skills and, more importantly, that they actually can develop those skills they do not yet possess.

The aim in giving constant reinforcement is to help generate a positive cycle of encouragement and success. This will, it is hoped, attack the vicious cycle of negative reinforcement which lies at the heart of low self-esteem. In other words, it is vital to focus the tutee’s attention firmly on what they can do well. Once they have seen this, it should be much easier to begin addressing more challenging topics.

Education needs to address the whole person. Although this may sound like a cliché, it illustrates an important truth. Student learning is affected by much more than what takes place in the classroom. Necessarily, therefore, we need to find ways to address these issues in our educational practice. Personal Tutors are particularly well suited to uncovering these issues, especially with regards to students with low self-esteem. We need to continuously look at how we interact with students, as well as at the organisations within which we work, to ensure that we are giving our tutees the best we can offer.


Cardiff University (2004), Personal Tutors’ Handbook, Cardiff: Cardiff University Press

Clutterbuck, D. (1985), Everyone Needs a Mentor, London: Institute of Personnel Management

Kerry, T. & Shelton Mayes, A. (1995, eds.), Issues in Mentoring, London: Routledge

Parsloe, E. (1992), Coaching, Mentoring and Assessing, London: Kogan Page

Wheeler, S. & Birtle, J. (1993), A Handbook for Personal Tutors, Buckingham: The Society for
Research in Higher Education

Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman


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