What was the activity?
Studying at university can be a lonely and disorienting experience, especially within an online course. Personal tutoring aims to provide academic and personal support to students and make the experience of studying more positive (Wakelin, 2021). However, it is not always effective. Wakelin (2021) noted that often meetings are not structured and have no specific purpose. As a result, students do not always find them useful, and sometimes avoid them. Equally, staff often feel apprehensive about personal tutoring (Wakelin, 2011; Hayman et al., 2022). Hayman et al. (2022) note that personal tutor meetings should not be tokenistic; they should offer genuine support to the students.
Our recipe for success that could contribute to closing awarding gaps is using mini virtual writing retreats (of personal tutoring groups) to enhance engagement through creating a safe space where students and their personal tutors can co-reflect on academic writing in a focused manner.
The optional writing retreats ran weekly. One member of staff (the personal tutor and first author) and some of the tutees (who were studying for an online MSc Psychology conversion course) attended the sessions on Microsoft Teams. The structure of each session was as follows. For 5 minutes, participants greeted each other, discussed their academic work and stated what they were going to work on. For the next 25 minutes, participants muted their microphones and worked on their writing. In the discussion that followed the writing session, participants typically reflected on their writing and on the writing experience, exchanged writing tips and provided support for each other. The participants that had the time could stay for a second cycle of this activity
How did it impact you or your students?
The students that participated noted that the sessions provided a much-needed opportunity to focus on their assignments which then enabled them to be more focused when studying on their own. The presence of others created an atmosphere of encouragement and accountability. Students noted that during the retreat, study-related anxieties that built up all week were reduced while motivation, confidence and engagement were increased. Furthermore, the writing retreats changed the tutor-student dynamic and created a more egalitarian atmosphere. The retreats also took away the pressure of having to make conversation for a full session and allowed participants to calmly collect and express their thoughts; this resulted in a positive shared experience. Furthermore, the sessions enabled participants to identify and reduce barriers to learning each week, as well as reflect on the process of writing. One student noted “the retreats challenge me to be proactive and focused. Having to tell the group what I have been doing helps to solidify my understanding of the topic at hand”.
Any advice for others?
Reflecting with other scholars on academic practice allows participants to exchange tips and become part of a scholarly community, which can have positive academic and well-being outcomes (Stevenson, 2021). Brief writing retreats could provide a structure for personal tutor meetings, as well as a common purpose and an opportunity to bond through writing together. This could make personal tutoring more meaningful and effective.
Not everybody attended the sessions, partly due to other commitments. To increase inclusion, students could conduct writing retreats between themselves at mutually convenient times. This would also allow them to take ownership of the activity. Mini online writing retreats can be applied to any academic course. Although research is needed to systematically explore the effectiveness of this activity, we think this is a promising avenue for pedagogical practice and a recipe for success that could contribute to closing awarding gaps.
Hayman, R., Coyles, A., Wharton, K., Borkoles, E. and Polman, R. (2022) ’Undertaking the personal tutoring role with sports students at a United Kingdom university’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2022.2108693
Stevenson, N. (2021) ‘Developing academic wellbeing through writing retreats, Journal of Further and Higher Education’, 45(6), pp. 717-729, https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2020.1812549#
Wakelin, E. (2021) ’Personal Tutoring in Higher Education: an action research project on how improve personal tutoring for both staff and students’, Educational Action Research, DOI: 10.1080/09650792.2021.2013912