Personal Academic Tutoring – Dionne Barton

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At the University of Birmingham, every undergraduate and taught postgraduate has a Personal Academic Tutor (PAT). The role of the PAT is to support academic progress and personal development throughout a student’s University career (University of Birmingham, Code of Practice for Personal Academic Tutors, 2019). Personal Academic Tutoring is an anchor for students; it puts students at the heart.

How can Personal Academic Tutoring benefit students?

Personal Academic Tutoring can really make a difference for students and enhance the student experience. PATs are important for nurturing belonging which is critical for students, particularly in the first year of university (McFarlane, 2016). This helps bring a greater sense of inclusion as well as facilitating engagement, improving achievements and happiness.

Good tutoring can aid:

  • student retention;
  • academic support and development;
  • pastoral support and progression (Fitzgerald, 2014).

A positive relationship with staff and a better understanding of the university processes means students have an improved experience. They appreciate having a recognisable face to turn to for support, and knowing that someone cares.

How can Personal Academic Tutoring benefit staff?

Personal Academic Tutoring gives tutors the opportunity to engage with interesting and diverse individuals.  I really enjoyed being a Personal Tutor at a previous institution and saw it as an important part of my role as an academic. There was nothing more rewarding than seeing my tutees graduate and pick up their award, being aware of their stories, and knowing that I had made a difference to their experience at university.

Personal Academic Tutoring is about getting to know students. To observe students’ development throughout their course gives you a sense of pride as their tutor, and it gives you insights into individuals whose experience of life is likely to be very different to that of previous generations of student. It is a really rewarding and valuable role. So, how might we be more effective PATs as we look ahead to the needs of future students?

The research for my Doctorate in Education (EdD) is finding out about the perceptions of PATs and investigating the support that PATs staff would like and need. This is also part of my role as Educational Developer in the Higher Education Futures Institute (HEFi). Based on my research, I have some ideas about the kinds of development and training that might be useful. One example is introducing ‘threshold concepts’.

Threshold concepts are core foundational concepts which transform perception and understanding of a phenomenon or experience (Meyer and Land, 2003). They can be defined as core principles. They are what individuals need to know to gain ‘mastery’ of their subject.  Examples include ‘Gravity’ in Physics; ‘Depreciation’ in Accounting and ‘Deconstruction’ in Literature. They are ideas that enable a deep understanding of a phenomenon and they can help when individuals encounter troublesome ideas that transform their understanding of a particular discipline or activity; in this case Personal Academic Tutoring (Mossley, 2017).

Could threshold concepts open a door into a new way of thinking about Personal Academic Tutoring and therefore enhance the ability of learners (personal tutors) to master their subject (personal academic tutoring)? What threshold concepts are central to the mastery of Personal Academic Tutoring? What do Personal Academic Tutors need to be competent/gain mastery in the role? I have some suggestions below as a start, but comments on these or further suggestions are welcome:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Compassion
  • Proactivity
  • Resilience

HEFi is planning to offer support for personal academic tutoring in the next academic year. Responses to this blog would be helpful and useful to inform the design and content of any development. Please do respond, your thoughts are valued and appreciated.



FitzGerald, M. (2014) Report on Personal tutoring at Loughborough – A scoping project for LTC LTC14-P24

McFarlane, K. (2016) Tutoring the tutors: Supporting effective personal tutoring. Active Learning in Higher Education. 17 (1): 77-88.

Meyer, J.  and Land, R. (2003) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge – Linkages to ways of thinking and practising. In: Rust, C. (ed.) Improving student learning – ten years on. Oxford: OCSLD.

Mossley, D. (2017) Reflecting on threshold concepts: an introductory tool. York, Higher Education Academy.

University of Birmingham (2019) Code of Practice for Personal Academic Tutors. Birmingham, University of Birmingham.

3 thoughts on “Personal Academic Tutoring – Dionne Barton”

  1. Superb work Dionne thank you for sharing. I wonder if we can include in this conversation the process of learning through feedback as dialogue as championed by David Boud among many others? I think that the different ‘compartments’ of learning are really communicating vessels…

  2. This seems like a potentially valuable way to move forward – ones role as a PT is often so vague so these kinds of ideas are really helpful. Is there something that could be done that would also mirror this for students to understand what the purpose of the tutor relationship is as well?

  3. Thanks Dionne – I really enjoyed this – I feel that tutoring is such a key part of what we do and hope that this blog can help create more spaces for discussion about the tutoring role, how it is undertaken (including what we can learn from each other), and the value to student development and sense of belonging. For me reading Bruce Macfarlane’s recent book ‘Freedom to Learn’ has underscored my interest in person-centred approaches to education: whether learning is delivered as distance, blended, off-site or on-campus – supportive developmental relationships for tutees (where they have the opportunity to express their past learning and influence on current learning, their self-assessment as well as learning from feedback, their motivation and their plans for future development) seems to me to be an important component of what we ideally offer through tutoring.

    In trying to develop myself I am thinking about how I engage with ‘where individual tutees are at’ (in terms of learning development, and in terms of who they are including how they learn) so this is probably touching on the traditional person-centred skills such as empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard. I am planning to study person-centred and experiential therapeutic approaches with the view to thinking more about their relevance to educational rather than psychotherapeutic relationships. Be really good to hear more about your research!

    All best wishes

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