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Sheila Pankhurst and Jacqui McCary, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge and Chelmsford, UK

Jacqui McCary.jpgISheilaParkhurst.jpgn a research project funded jointly by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and The Paul Hamlyn Foundation, we found that more than 40% of current students had thought about leaving on at least one occasion. These doubting students, however, continued with their studies. One of the key research findings was that students want advice from their Personal Tutor (academic advisor) on a range of specific issues related to their thoughts about leaving, (e.g., academic failure). This project highlighted the importance of the role of the academic Personal Tutor. Part of our response to the research findings has been to consider how we can reinvigorate this role at Anglia Ruskin University so that all students have access to the strong support they want.

Before looking at our findings in more detail, it is worth saying a little about how we carried out our research. We asked a sample of more than 6,000 undergraduate students to complete an online survey entitled  ‘Staying the Course’ that was advertised widely within our university.  The survey, which consisted of 22 free text and 29 multiple choice questions, was made available to all first and second year students in their second semester.  Questions in the first part of the survey covered a range of issues identified from the literature as being important in student retention, including thoughts about leaving, expectations, social integration, and sources of support (Tinto, 1993; Benn 1982; Johnes 1990; Pascarella & Terenzini 1991). These questions focused on the student experience, but we also wanted to hear the student voice. A separate survey section, therefore, was presented as a ‘Big Grid’ which asked students to tell us where they wanted to go for support on a range of issues from sources both internal and external to the university.

We were very pleased with the 10% response rate to the survey as this represented over 700 students; in total 559 students completed the entire survey, giving us a rich dataset with which to work. This allowed us to investigate many factors affecting a student’s decision to consider withdrawing, and the sources and types of support within and outside the university which helped them decide to stay.

Our results confirmed that the role of the Personal Tutor was an important influence in a student’s decision to stay, especially in relation to academic and study issues. We found that, where students had study concerns, 60% wanted to talk to their Personal Tutor; 32% wanted to speak to other academic staff; 27% would like to speak to their Student Adviser (a non-academic student support role), and 29% wanted to talk to friends and family.  More specifically, answers to the question ‘What did you do when you thought about leaving’ indicated that when students have difficulties with assessment they approach their Personal Tutor for support.

The guidance students receive can have a strong positive influence on their decision to stay.

“I spoke to my Personal Tutor who assured me that I could turn things around.”

“I spoke with my tutor about my concerns and then I set in place very strict timetables for my work to make sure that it was all completed on time.”

“When I spoke to tutors we decided that I could re-take and I have made lots of effort and I am doing really well.”

Conversely, we found that students who had thought about leaving were less likely to say that their Personal Tutor was easily approachable.

Prior to the start of our research project, the role of the academic Personal Tutor was in place at Anglia Ruskin, and had been so for many years.  Our research verified this by identifying that more than 80% of students who completed our survey knew that they had a Personal Tutor, and only 9% had never met their Personal Tutor. The operation of this role, however, was not consistent across all departments and faculties. As a result of our findings, we have taken a number of steps to ensure the consistency of the role, and that students receive the support they want and need from their Personal Tutor.

All students, on arrival at Anglia Ruskin University, are now assigned a named member of academic staff as their Personal Tutor to ensure they have access to an academic experienced in their subject area and a friendly face within their Faculty. All of our academic staff are required to undertake the Personal Tutor role and must be available for a minimum of three hours a week, during teaching weeks, for students to book appointments or sometimes just to drop in. This ensures that students should not find it difficult to meet with their Personal Tutor or with other members of academic staff.

As a minimum, students are required to meet with their Personal Tutor during Freshers’ Week, then regularly within their first semester and at least once a semester after this. Students are also given a leaflet which explains that the Personal Tutor is there to support them during their studies at Anglia Ruskin University; this leaflet outlines the key issues students may wish to discuss with their tutor, such as accommodation, finances, part-time employment, social life, study skills, and any personal challenges experienced during their studies. Additionally, when students meet their Personal Tutor, they are asked to complete a study skills self-assessment exercise to help them to identify any areas that may require additional support. Their tutor then guides them in accessing appropriate support.

Within Anglia Ruskin, we have identified many areas of best practice that go beyond the minimum required of the Personal Tutor programme. In the Department of Life Sciences, for example, first year students meet weekly with their personal tutor during their first semester, and these meetings are linked to tutorial sessions for a core skills module.

The module covers a range of topics including how to access our online systems and facilities, as well as referencing, good academic practice, giving a presentation, and writing a scientific report.  Personal Tutors work with their tutees to improve these skills, and provide direct feedback on assessment. These weekly tutorial sessions provide both personal and academic support.

Our research has provided new insights into the relationship between undergraduate student retention (persistence) and the Personal Tutor support role. We will continue to monitor and evaluate the impact of this role, to implement best practice across our university, and to disseminate the findings of our project to a wider audience within the Higher Education community.

Sheila Pankhurst
Department of Life Sciences
Faculty of Science and Technology
Anglia Ruskin University
Cambridge and Chelmsford, UK.

Jacqui McCary
Faculty of Science and Technology
Anglia Ruskin University
Cambridge and Chelmsford, UK.


Benn, R. (1982) Higher education: Non standard students and withdrawals, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 19(3), 3–12.

Johnes, J. (1990) Determinants of student wastage in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 15(1), 87–100.

Pascarella, E. T. and Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years. Oxford: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition (2nd ed). Chicago: University of Chicago Press 

Cite this article using APA style as: Pankhurst, S. & McCary, J. (2011, June). Reinvigorating the role of the personal tutor. Academic Advising Today, 34(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]
Posted in: 2011 June 34:2


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