Personal Tutoring: strategies for changing student behaviour

Interview with Janette Alvarado-Cruz (@JanetteValezka) July 2019

The interview explored issues of strategies for tutors advising students who appeared to be at risk of dropping out or failing to achieve their potential. These questions are core to the OfLA Erasmus+ Project: what do we do from the point where learning analytics (LA) have identified that a student is at risk of dropping out. The interviewee is an expert tutor, with over 12 years experience.

(EF) What I’m interested in are the strategies tutors use to increase student engagement/help students to get themselves back on track. What do you do?

(JAC) I look for a hook, something that I can use to show the student that they are already exhibiting the positive behaviours needed to succeed. This has to be authentic, it has to be based on a behaviour that I can see and reflect back to the learner. 

The first hook is educationally appropriate behaviour from the classroom, the VLE or wherever. So if a student contributed to a discussion I will try and use that specific example to demonstrate that they already possess the talents needed to succeed. 

If I can’t recall any recent positive behaviours, then I’ll try and draw out the fact that they’ve come to see me as evidence of wanting to do better for themselves, as evidence that they have already taken steps to get themselves into a better place. I’ll take a positive regard to help them understand how important that first step is that they’ve taken for themselves. All the way through it’s important to be authentic, to reflect back positive behaviours.

Finally, I’ll try and turn the conversation to their longer term goals: 

  • What were they looking for from the course? 
  • Why had they chosen to study this discipline?
  • What are their long term goals and how can we get them back on track?

These all could provide useful hooks to help them to re-engage.

(EF) So these approaches appear to be essential for helping students feel that they are in a position to change, to increase their engagement etc., but they don’t feel enough to actually make that change. What else do you do?

(JAC) I think that institutions/faculties/departments etc. need a standardised approach to tutorials, for example standardised goal-setting tools or resources. Otherwise the student is reliant on the skills, time or motivation of the individual tutors. I’d argue that learning plans, personal goals and targets are all useful. However, in the case of a student who is at risk, the most important thing is probably the first step: setting and completing a short-term goal. I would ask the student to describe a short-term goal that they could achieve, for example going to the library, and I’d give them a short time frame to do it with a follow up meeting. 

I’d then make sure that the follow up meeting started by asking “did you do what you said you were going to do?”. In some respects the purpose is simply to continue the positive self-belief that started in the first meeting, trying to make them feel positive and a little bit more in control of their own destiny.

(EF) And if they let you down and didn’t do what they said they were going to?

(JAC) It’s really important to be neutral, I don’t mean dispassionate or uncaring, but in Transactional Analysis terms, to remain the adult. It’s no use getting emotional, trying to guilt the student or make them feel stupid because they haven’t done it. I’d start with seeking to understand why they didn’t achieve the goal, trying to find strategies that they could do differently next time. I’d try to reflect back what they’re telling me, and reflect back what they appear to be avoiding/ failing to acknowledge. For example, did they avoid doing something because they felt it was too hard? What can we do about that? Perhaps they’ve decided that achieving the goal is no longer important for a range of reasons including doing something bigger, or realising that they’re not on the right course for them. These responses open up different avenues for discussion.

It’s really important that the student takes ownership for themselves. Even if I’m making a referral to professional services, I’d always make sure that the student understands why and is involved in the process, rather than just being passed on. Just referring is less likely to work.

(EF) How do we get the balance right between one-to-one tutorials and group tutorials?

(JAC) I think that both are about building the student’s own sense of positive regard and agency. In an individual tutorial, the student ought to feel that their tutor knows them and is on their side. I feel that group tutorials are about building supportive communities. The goal of group tutorials is to have supportive friendship groups, students ought to feel that their tutorial group will be looking out for one another. 

This can’t be done straight away, students need to build up their confidence with one another, they needed to be guided through with structured discussion activities. 

The experience of the tutor is not the same as the experience of the student, it's always a mistake to assume that the two are the same.

(EF) Who should be talking in a tutorial?

(JAC) Really the student ought to be doing the bulk of the talking. This can be a really difficult challenge for tutors: generally as a breed we’re comfortable talking in front of people and have a lifetime of experience facing up to our own demons. It can be very easy to fall into the trap of explaining how “I dealt with this kind of problem as an undergraduate”. It might be that the tutor is sharing a really important point and it might be that students find it reassuring that their lecturers are also mortals. However, there are really big dangers that tutors assume that that their life experience is anything like that of their tutees. Also some students who don’t want to confront a problem can sit back and let the tutor fill the time talking about their own experiences and completely avoid having to deal with the issues for themselves. 

Tutors therefore need to consider the amount of time that they are talking, but also what they are doing when they are talking. Some time needs to be spent explaining processes and agreeing outcomes, but most of their time ideally needs to be spent asking questions and then encouraging students to talk and work out their next course of action. The only place that change can happen is in the student. 

(EF) Given how time poor many tutorial systems are, do you have any strategies for tutors to get the most from sessions?

(JAC) I’d always start by being clear about what the tutorial is setting out to achieve. For example at the start of the year, getting student and tutor to find out about one another is really important, but it can be difficult to manage. One approach I like is to use two blank post cards: both parties write down “How I got here” make a few notes and then have 5 minutes each to introduce themselves to the other person. 

I do believe that tutorials (individual and group) need to be empowering for students, designed to help them feel that they are special and have some power over their destiny. This must be authentic and include reflection from the tutor, but it does need including, sometimes it’s too easy to focus on what students can’t do.

Finally, I think that each session needs to end with some form of goal setting and agreed actions.

(EF) Do you have any thoughts about the role of data from learning analytics systems in tutorial conversations? 

(JAC) In a previous role, I’d take the student’s attendance data to the tutorial if I was concerned about their engagement. I’d show it to them and we’d discuss it. As I said earlier, I’d try remain neutral, but show the student the potential risks of their behaviour. “This is what I’ve noticed, there’s a lot of missed learning here. What’s going on for you?” Sometimes students would be reluctant to speak, perhaps reluctant to acknowledge that there’s a problem with non-attendance. I would use silence and wait for them to speak. It might seem a bit harsh, but it’s important to get them to a place where we are talking about their engagement and can problem solve any barriers to it.

One thought on “Personal Tutoring: strategies for changing student behaviour

  1. Pingback: Using learning analytics in personal tutorials: breaking into students’ consciousness – Living Learning Analytics Blog

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