Supporting students through personal tutor tutorials by Dr Paul Glaister, Dr Karen Ayres and Dr Calvin James Smith

With the news that the University’s personal tutorial system has been under review (Issue 2, T&L Reading), we thought it would be useful to highlight how we have been successfully combining pastoral and academic responsibilities of a personal tutor. In the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, for the last three years we have operated a system of weekly Part 1 ‘personal tutorials’: small-group academic tutorials which are led by the student’s personal tutor. We certainly do mean ‘small group’, because typically there are around six students in the group, i.e. just the tutor’s Part 1 tutees (compared with around 25 in our more traditional tutorials). The focus of the personal tutorials is a formative problem sheet for one of the core mathematics modules (e.g. Calculus Methods). The aims of these tutorials are many: to provide strong support for the school-university transition both in academic and pastoral terms, to develop a strong relationship early on between both parties, to provide better monitoring of progress and engagement by students, to provide support for their Part 1 modules (and one module in particular in place of a large group tutorial) and to enhance their transferable skills. This has proved very popular with students.

The tutorial is not designed to be tutor-led, but rather the students are encouraged to come to the board and work through one of the problems on the sheet, explaining their reasoning as they go. The intention is to start developing students’ skills in communicating mathematics right from the start, since this is a vital employability skill. Whilst one student works at the board, the other students, as well as the tutor, offer suggestions on what to try next for solving a problem, effectively creating a small learning community which meet each week. With a group of reasonably engaged students, the whole experience can be very rewarding for both personal tutors and tutees. Of course, the choice of module is very important to the success of this scheme. For the focus of the Autumn term tutorials we have deliberately chosen the module that is most similar to what the students have seen before: with material they feel comfortable with, they are more likely to be willing to come to the board and work through solutions, rather than just feel intimidated. By the Spring term we find that students have developed more confidence.  There is also the opportunity to make students aware of connections between material studied in different modules, and tutors also get a better idea early on as to which students are struggling, and can ensure that appropriate advice and support is provided. So all in all, it is a win-win situation all round.

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