Supervising students

Our latest monthly post from the Forum committee, Jill Webb from the York Management School reflects on academic supervision; the post was written by Jill in May but we felt this was a good one to post as we look forward to a new intake of students and a whole new set of personal tutees. 

I can’t believe it’s already May, I have two writing deadlines, hundreds of scripts to mark, a couple of presentations to pull together and I need to see my twenty-five personal tutees. I’ve booked some time for them but before they drop in I’m secretly hoping that they’ll be quick, so I can get on with my ever increasing list of things to do. Then, in they come, we start chatting and I remember how this is fun, VERY interesting and important both to me and to them. Hopefully, it encourages them to reflect and means that they get help when they need it. For me, it helps me to understand my students as people and reminds me how diverse they are. Hopefully this will lead to better programme and module design.

I’ve tutored Jiang for three years, in the first year she seemed like a model student with great grades but she was a bit withdrawn. After a year of tutoring her I didn’t feel I really knew her, she was polite, she attended meetings but conversation was limited. In her second year she had an absolute crisis of confidence and had developed a firm belief that she wasn’t normal. She really thought that she was the only person in the world going through friendship problems and struggling with the course.  When things started going wrong, she started to open up a little bit and I was able to convince her to see the Open Door team.  They helped enormously and the change over the past year has been transformational. Jiang developed new friendship groups, contributes in class and asks for help when she needs it. I can’t help thinking though, that the change in Jiang may have been possible without the crisis had we done more to help her integrate with her classmates and generally cope better with what can be a challenging first year.

Jiang is closely followed by Nina who is in her second year. Nina is a sporadic attender and she doesn’t contribute much in class. It’s really hard to get anything out of her. However, after a year of tutoring her, a lot of open questions and a few silences, I find out she’s hugely engaged in university societies and has strong, active connections to volunteer organisations in her home country. She seems to be a completely different person when she’s talking about her interests to the quiet character who struggles to make eye contact in class. I wonder whether it’s possible to find ways to better connect to our students and tap into their natural enthusiasm.

Finally, I see Joel, another second year. He’s done okay in year one assessments but I can see that his 2:2 average has given him a bit of a knock. He’s not admitting that he’s lacking in confidence or that anything in particular is wrong. I can see that it’s going to be difficult to get him to access the broader university support that he needs to improve his writing skills. I’m also concerned as he’s enrolled for the placement year, he says that he’s attending the employability sessions but somehow, I doubt it. He lacks direction and is already talking about swapping off the placement track as his mates aren’t planning to do a placement and he wants to sort his accommodation. I see a lot of students like Joel who never seem to get beyond a 2:2 although they’re probably capable of a 2:1. They’re at uni but I don’t get the feeling that it’s changing them or that they identify with the subject or the course. These are often the ones who don’t get a grad job in their third year. In Joel’s case I really don’t feel that my motivational chats are having an impact and I’m a bit lost as to how to help.

The next day I attend a really good meeting where we map our modules to the new draft programme outcomes and discuss the changes we want to make. I can see that some of the principles embedded in the York Pedagogy have the potential to help students like Jiang, Nina and Joel.

The reading I’ve done seems to indicate that academic engagement is, for the most part, the key to more general engagement.  We can really make a difference to students by thinking carefully about module design and delivery. These are the questions I’m asking myself:

  • How can I integrate some of the broader university support into modules? This may improve take-up and ensure that those who actually need the support get it.
  • Can I create opportunities for students to draw on their own interests and to share this in class? This might bring some of our students’ the natural enthusiasm into the classroom.
  • How can I provide more opportunities for students to engage socially in modules? I need to think about how students might work together in seminars, as part of assessment or in more wide-ranging study groups. Social engagement is important to fostering a sense of belonging which improves retention and success.

Also as a Programme Leader I need to think about engagement from a course perspective. This isn’t just organising social events or being approachable and friendly, although these things have a part to play. The ‘What Works’ literature provides some great ideas, for example a longer induction with a focus on activities, small group work and broader opportunities to mix with staff and fellow students.  Many universities have also introduced peer mentoring schemes, where second or third year students mentor first years. I recently attended a validation event at another university where the both mentors and mentees said this had really made a difference to how they felt about the course.

I can see how some of these ideas might really help students like Jiang, Nina and Joel. Also, fostering a greater sense of belonging in our students might make working with students even more interesting than it already is.

Jill Web, York Management School 

Please note students referenced in this post are fictional. 


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