Understanding the self: a route to empowering students through personal tutoring

Catherine McConnell (University of Brighton)
Ellie Garraway (Grit Breakthrough Programmes)

Tuesday, April 4, 2023 9:00 AM - 9:45 AM

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Session Outline

One of the key lessons from the Covid experience was how students look to Personal Tutors for more than just information: they look to these interactions for connection, a sense of belonging and community, and a source of agency and empowerment. For Personal Tutors this throws up a lot of questions, not least, with an increasingly heterogenous student population, the confidence in their capacity to do this in the face of a limited experience of issues facing the current generation of students (MacFarlane, 2016).

In debates around the Personal Tutor role much attention is given to the systems, structures and processes (Lochtie et al, 2018). The implicit assumption is that, if we get these right, everything will fall into place. We argue here, however, that rather than the ‘what,’ the focus should be on the ‘how’ of personal tutoring. Well being, agency, empowerment and fulfilment are all affected by ‘relationship’ more than anything else. The challenge for HE professionals now is to move from simply imparting information and argument, to engaging students through relationship (Wisker et al, 2008). At the heart of the delivering interactions rooted in relationship is the need to understand the self: to understand the unconscious limitations in mind-set and belief-systems you bring, the ‘paradigm’ within which you operate and, in turn, how this impacts the extent to which you can empower and create agency in a student (GRIT, 2022). For example, we might be a ‘rescuer’ – one who takes on the issues and challenges on behalf of every tutee and tries to fix them. The result here is likely to be, at best, the discouraging of personal agency and, at worst, the inadvertent disempowering of students. Similarly, the starting point of a relationship-based approach is the framing of the 'space' and the engaging of students by initiating conversations which enable them to articulate their beliefs and feelings about the issues important to them. It is about listening for the subtext, about questioning and coaching. Where the Personal Tutor ‘self’ is uncomfortable with emotions the result can be an over-directive stance that (consciously or unconsciously) prevents difficult emotions surfacing. This, then, inhibits the interaction and the relationship that underpins it. Increasing the self-awareness of their [limiting] assumptions and biases enables the Personal Tutor to come from a place of congruence and authenticity which, in turn is more likely to create meaningful and productive engagement. Understanding the self frees the Personal Tutor to re-frame the basis of their interactions with students to ones that put relationship at the centre. And, through relationship, Personal Tutors can empower students to find the agency to make the most of their student experience.

This session addresses the following competencies of the UKAT Professional Framework for Advising and Tutoring
R1 - Build advising and tutoring relationships through empathetic listening and compassion for students, and be accessible in ways that challenge, support, nurture, and teach
R3 - Motivate, encourage, and support students to recognize their potential, meet challenges, and respect individuality