Tutoring in Higher Education: How to better support students with learning disabilities

When we think of tutoring, we often imagine the use base as a combination of students at the top of the class striving to break new barriers and struggling students in need of supplemental help to keep up with faster learning classmates. Who we sometimes neglect to consider are those students who learn differently as a result of a learning disability. Students with learning disabilities sometimes face very difficult barriers, and tutoring at higher education could prove to be a viable way to help those students meet their learning goals.

Firstly I would like to clarify what I mean by ‘learning disability’. According to Mencap (2021) a learning disability is ‘a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities…People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complicated information and interact with other people.’ This is not to be confused with types of learning difficulty such as dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia and dyscalculia which do not affect intellect. The UK Parliament report Support for disabled students in higher education in England (2021) does not report on % of students in England with a learning disability, however of all disabilities 4% are people with social communication / Autism spectrum disorder.

I recently attended the UKAT Annual Conference. The online conference focused on developing students as independent self-regulating learners, and considered how personal tutoring enables the addressing of disparities in engagement, progression and degree outcomes by students from groups under-represented in Higher Education. The conference was full of insightful conversation on how personal tutoring could combine with peer learning, academic study skills development, and mentoring and coaching to build confidence and resilience, and enhance student success academically and professionally. However one presentation stood out in how we could potentially better support students with learning disabilities in higher education.

University Centre South Devon has 700 higher education students on a range of Foundation and Bachelors degrees, HE Certificates and Diplomas, and Higher and Degree-level Apprenticeships. UCSD’s student profile reflects the national profile of college HE students observed by Thomas (2015) with many students: out of formal education for ten or twenty years, the first in their family to undertake tertiary education and/or needing considerable study or mental health support to enrol and remain on programme. Therefore UCSD have an Access and Participation Plan to identify key success objectives to close the gap in attainment between disabled students and their peers, and between student from different areas of deprivation, and tutors are a central role in their integrated tutorial model which is divided into four areas which follow a student’s personal journey from pre-entry to graduation.

Pre-Entry: Personal tutors are applicants contact person as soon as they apply, and give students access to ‘Step Up to HE’ online and in-person workshops to build confidence, make connections with peers and develop study and IT skills.

Induction and Orientation: Students complete a ‘Students Profile’ survey which Tutors receive in induction week. The survey asks about prior learning, work/caring commitments, difficulties/disabilities, study skills confidence, career aspirations and home-life. It is an access document which is given to all students, not just those expected to have access needs with impairments. This information helps tutors to guide students to induction activities which can be completed online and in-person during the first few weeks. Disability and Wellbeing teams also meet ALL students during induction week, and ALL student have access to Macmillan Skills for Study and UCSD online resources.

Tutorial Curriculum: All programmes have a weekly timetabled group tutorial session, by providing support through the course rather than something extra, it normalises it. Each week Tutors receive an update email with reminders of what us happening across the University which they send to students – tis promotes consistency in messaging to students, academic expectations and tutorial practice.

Professional Services: Tutors normalise help-seeking for study skills, disability, wellbeing and employability, and the disability team aim to coordinate all the support disabled students receive including working with the teaching team to embed Universal Design for Learning and inclusive pedagogy and assessment.


What struck me most about this model from UCSD was the normalisation of tutoring. As discussed above, tutoring can sometimes be presumed for higher achieving students or those needing more help, and the middle group often are missed (those achieving 50s/60s). By embedding tutoring within a subject, within a school, within a department and across the University each student gets the one-to-one support they might want and need without it feeling like ‘an extra’. It is also important to acknowledge that tutoring isn’t all about the academic subject the student is studying. It is about building a trusting relationship, giving information to students and referring them to useful support, ensuring the wellbeing of individual students and most importantly being an advocate for the individual you are tutoring. This is especially important when tutoring students with learning disabilities. Students with learning disabilities have the academic ability to be within higher education, however their journey to graduation may be different from the standard model we see. As tutors we should be advocates, and we should confidently support students on their journeys, this may include:

  • Assessment adjustments
  • Become familiar with assistive technology and embed it within the department
  • Ensure all lectures and resources are accessible
  • All staff to be trained in access and inclusivity within departments
  • Listen to students with learning disabilities, and use lived experience to enhance the inclusive learning environment

Since the introduction of the integrated tutorial model at UCSD, the Student Profile at pre-entry helped 92% of Tutors to get to know their students and priorities their support needs, and following the introduction of Disability Support Workers in 2016/17 at UCSD they saw an improvement in disabled students’ continuation. Sometimes being a tutor is about having a cup of tea with your student and having a casual chat, but from Hallam & Perkins’ presentation at the UKAT Conference 2021 it is clear that Personal Tutors can be central to the success of disabled students; coordinating, cajoling, nurturing and motivating students to engage with the available support and liaising with teaching teams.

Good tutoring takes time and commitment from the Tutors and the provider, however UCSD have deployed an evidence-informed strategy, as part of their Access and Participation Plan. I believe we could attract more students with learning disabilities, and successfully support them on a higher education journey at York St John University through interventions from personal tutors, professional service teams, and the use of a tutorial curriculum through the student journey to develop study skills and independent learning, foster belonging and relationships and raise the aspiration of learning disabled students.


Gazeley, L., & Aynsley, S. (2012). The contribution of pre-entry interventions to student retention and success A literature synthesis of the Widening Access, Student Retention and Success National Programmes Archive. Higher Education Academy.

Hallam, I. and Perkins, K., 2021. The central role of personal tutors in closing the attainment gap between students with disabilities and their peers. UKAT.

Hubble, S. and Bolton, P., 2021. Support for disabled students in higher education in England. House of Commons Library, pp.3, 6.

Thomas, L. (2015). Access and widening participation in college HE Briefing Paper 2: Student retention. Attainment and experience in college-based higher education. Association of Colleges.







About the author

Lauren Hall is a student at York St John University

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