Why don’t students attend personal tutorials?

Like most institutions, the university I work for has a complex relationship with the tutorial. We place a high value on the 1-1 or 1-small group nature of these sessions, but they can be hard to timetable, hard to room and, all too often, are expected to work as a sort of panacea. In 2020, we used our first year transition survey (online, Feb-March 2020 (1)) to understand whether or not students skipped tutorials and, if they did, why?

And, of course, some students missed tutorials.

Of the 1,312 first years who answered the survey (13%), 22% reported missing at least one tutorial.

We didn’t ask a comparator question about missing ‘ordinary’ classes (d’oh), but it’s perhaps interesting to note that one study found that in the NHS, around 10% of patients missed a 1-1 medical appointment. (Hallsworth et al., 2015).

Why didn’t students attend tutorials?

If a student had missed an appointment, they were given a free text box to explain why; there were 169 reasons cited for not attending. As might be expected, some related to factors such as illness (n=32) or anxiety/ mental health (n=26) “Was due to anxiety but I slept in as I was up late stressing and anxious” “I do not feel comfortable being alone in a room with someone I have never met.”. However, the most frequently cited reason was that it clashed with other commitments (n=62) “It was a 15 minute meeting at Clifton and I live in the city so it would mean travelling for over an hour”. “I often travel between two cities and the tutorial times don’t coincide with my schedule well most of the time.” “I was unable to meet up with them as I was out of the city on the date I was supposed to meet up. I had a family function to attend.” Some of these answers may relate to issues of being a commuting student, certainly lots were about travelling onto campus, and many of the prioritised commitments were important events such as paid work or family events, but the fact remains that students made an active decision that alternative commitment was more important than attending the tutorial. Given the current debates about why students are not attending classes, I recently analysed the findings to see how frequently students cited paid employment as one of these other commitments. Paid work was only mentioned 6 times by students.

Another frequently cited reason was the fact that students made low level personal administrative mistakes (n=30) for example “I forgot to set an alarm”“I literally forgot about it – had a busy week with a lot of work to do and it slipped my mind”. Arguably these types of mistakes may be about the perceived value of attending, but they appear to be largely personal administration errors. Eighteen students did not attend due to a lack of perceived value or problems with their tutors“Tutorials sometimes feel pointless, no one in the group participates in conversation during them.” “Personal tutor was rude on first session and offered no useful help towards my education.” In some respects, these answers felt similar to the responses about clashes with other commitments, but whereas in the responses about clashes the problem was that the tutorial wasn’t important enough, here the tutorial was actively perceived as negative or problematicThe 14 reasons cited for Other included “I just had no issues etc that needed addressing.” Personal reasons (n=10) included “a family emergency” and University Administrative Errors (n=8) included “Lack of communication on room changes” and “I wasn’t assigned a personal tutor until later in the term and missed sessions as I wasn’t used to the assigned time on my timetable.”

Student Transition Survey 2020: What barriers, if any, have stopped you from attending appointments or seeking support from your personal tutor (or academic mentor)?

What would help students to attend?

The most common issue related to timetabling. Firstly, provide tutorials at more convenient times (n=20) “make the session not at 9am”, “monitor timetables so that they are not too overbearing”, secondly send more reminders and make tutorials visible in student timetables (n=14) “Automatically add these meetings to the timetable”, “Send emails notifying when I have an upcoming tutorial” and thirdly improve the process of booking tutorials (n=7) “Make appointments after a lecture so there’s time to go.”“Have a calendar to show when they might conduct these sessions or for some tutors to be more organised”.

The second most set of responses related to personal support (n=19) “by helping me and understand the problems I go through, particularly more mental health support.”, “It is more my problem than the University’s, but offering support for this anxiety could help me with my course”.  The third point of note was that 5 students wanted to swap to from group to one-to-one tutorials and 2 students wanted to swap from one-to-one to group tutorials.

What do we do about this?

We perhaps need to be cautious, students may not treat tutorials in the same way that they treat ‘ordinary’ classes, but I feel that there are a few important points here. Whilst the most heartfelt reasons for not attending related to mental health and anxiety, the most common reason for not attending related to clashes with other commitments. Some of these reasons were significant and would challenge even the most committed individual (for example flooding), but the majority related to inconvenient timings or a reluctance to commute to campus for a 1-1 appointment when there is nothing else timetabled for the day. Dealing with this problem is perhaps at the crux of the current debates about attendance and engagement. Is a long commute an acceptable reason to not attend? Surely students ought to prioritise attending over the convenience of living at home? It’s interesting that from a student perspective, the most frequently-mentioned strategies for improving tutorial attendance related to better timetabling, reminders and booking. The thing that might have the greatest impact would perhaps be systems to enable them to manage their time better; whether or not that’s possible at scale is perhaps a different matter.

Finally, one consideration that always needs returning to is how we sell the value of the experience to students. Although only mentioned by one student as a way to improve attendance, it may be essential for everyone to periodically consider the following feedback “I don’t know to be honest – maybe make it clear what the mentor session will be about?”.


(1) The survey was completed immediately prior to the first covid-19 lockdown.


Hallsworth, M., Berry, D., Sanders, M., Sallis, A., King, D., Vlaev, I., & Darzi, A. (2015). Stating appointment costs in SMS reminders reduces missed hospital appointments: Findings from two randomised controlled trials. PLoS ONE10(9), [e0137306]. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0137306

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