Penny Robinson, University of Leeds, UK
“Well, once one has said, ‘How’s it going, old chap? OK? Jolly good’, there’s not much more to do in a tutorial meeting, is there?”
Not a comment one would hear at the University of Leeds, and certainly not since the advent of Leeds for Life, an interactive website which aims to help our students to prepare for their future and to think reflectively about their progress, right from their first moment in the University. It is about inspiring them to get the most out of their academic and co-curricular experiences, thinking of them in an holistic way. Many students believe that employers are interested only in what they have done in their academic studies, but we want them to be able to recognize the value of everything they do and to identify and articulate their skills and attributes; most of them seriously undervalue these.
At the heart of Leeds for Life is personal tutoring (what academic advising is usually called in the UK). We have established a Leeds model for this, providing students with structured one-to-one meetings with their personal tutor. These focus on their academic, professional, and personal development, helping them to become confident, articulate individuals with strong analytical and critical abilities and a reflective habit of mind.
Personal tutoring webforms constitute an integral part of the meetings. They help students to prepare for each tutorial by means of a series of reflective prompts, which ensure that both tutor and student have a clear agenda for each meeting and help them to record outcomes and objectives for the next one. The forms are saved to the student’s dashboard, and only the student and his/her tutor have access to them. They are progressive, with the prompts and agenda changing as the student moves through the degree programme.
The form for the final meeting invites the student to reflect on the year and to record anything significant which could be useful when developing a CV or when the tutor is writing references.
Leeds for Life also allows the student to store and build up a Living CV. The site provides them with practical advice and information on how to do this; is a single point of access to the information they have recorded from personal tutoring sessions, grades from each year of study, etc.; and has the facility for the tutee to add links to other websites, such as job advertisements.
When staff log in to the website, the information displayed on their dashboard varies according to their role. Personal tutors (and administrators/support staff responsible for personal tutoring) may access the information provided by their tutees through the webforms and personal statement. They also have online support such as guidance on how to use the webforms, examples of school handbooks, and signposts to other useful information which may be used in tutorials. Staff who are not involved in personal tutoring do not see students’ webforms, but have access to general information about Leeds for Life and advice on how they could use it in their interactions with students.
Tutors are finding Leeds for Life invaluable, not only in structuring their tutorial meetings effectively, but in using it as a resource when accessing information about their students’ co-curricular activities, etc., enabling them, when writing references, to give an holistic picture of the whole person, not just of his or her academic performance. Details of volunteering activities, participation in sports, organization of societies, etc. are there to be seen and used.
The Leeds for Life Foundation is a new venture to help students who have ideas for projects and activities which are in the spirit of Leeds for Life, but who need a cash grant to assist them to realize these ideas. It helps to fund projects which reflect the enthusiasm, creativity, initiative, and social awareness of our students. Some enthusiasms are academic, but many reflect a wider desire to seek out new challenges, visit new places, and make a positive and practical difference in the lives of other people. In this way the Foundation supports the values which underpin all the activities of the University. Some examples of recent successful grant applications are:
- Study China programme
- Art workshops at St James’s Hospital
- Presenting at an international conference
- Action Easter holiday – for underprivileged children
- ‘No Frills’ – the Leeds Graduate Fashion Show
- Tip of the Tongue Theatre Company
We are already seeing how students who take advantage of what Leeds for Life has to offer are more reflective, have a clearer idea of their skills and objectives, and are better prepared for the future, able to articulate to prospective employers all they have to offer. Second- and third-year students have told us how much more structured their personal tutorials have been since they began using the webforms, and they are glad there is a scheme to help to improve their future employability. They like the way the Leeds for Life website brings information on varying activities into one place. A recent innovation is the employment of Student Ambassadors, who work on cascading the message to the whole student body. Alumni are also involved, posting comments about their careers since graduation and giving advice to present students.
Of course, there have been challenges, not the least of which has been engaging teaching staff in the project. However, initial fears that Leeds for Life would just mean more work for already overstretched faculty are gradually being overcome, as tutors see how it helps them to support their students’ development more effectively.
And the story continues...
In response to feedback from staff and students, there have been, and will be, many changes in, and additions to, functionality. Here are just a few:
- Online personal tutorial booking system
- Automatic email reminder to a student who does not attend a scheduled tutorial
- Departments may share opportunities with each other
- Lifelong Learning Centre students now have customized personal tutorial webforms
- Links provided on student dashboard to Ambassadors’ Facebook and Twitter accounts
- School, co-curricular, and saved opportunities are all grouped together
- An area where news and updates may be posted
We believe that Leeds for Life is transforming the way we support our students, particularly in the areas of skills development and employability. The project is ongoing; watch for updates! In the meantime, do access the website at http://leedsforlife.leeds.ac.uk or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear your comments and questions.
Senior Academic Liaison Adviser
Learning and Teaching Support Office
University of Leeds
Editor’s Note: The author wishes to thank David Gardner and Caroline Letherland at the University of Leeds for the assistance they provided in the development of this article.
Cite this article using APA style as: Robinson, P. (2012, June). Leeds for life: Preparing our students for their future. Academic Advising Today, 35(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]