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Learning and supporting student success in Higher Education

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Personal Tutors - Supporting Heroes

We hear the phrase student journey a lot in higher education, and the notion that learning is transformative,  but how often do we stop to remember what that journey is like or how the transformation happens? Yesterday I had the privilege of chairing some sessions at UP North, our annual learning and teaching conference. One of the sessions, presented by Robert Farmer of Northampton University, focused on The Hero’s Journey in Higher Education: A Twelve Stage Narrative Approach to the Design of University Modules., based on his paper of the same title in Innovative Practice in Higher Education. 

The monomyth, also known as the hero's journey, is a common narrative structure which underpins many mythical or heroic stories in which a hero goes on an adventure, undergoes an ordeal and wins a decisive victory before returning home changed in some way. Campbell[1] identifies three phases - departure, initiation and return - in the monomyth and 17 separate phases of the story. Vogler [2] identifies 12 distinct steps in these same three phases and Farmer has used  Vogler's 12 steps (Table 1) as the basis for his analysis of the application of the monomyth to module design.

Table 1: Vogler's 12 steps of the monomyth (Adapted from
Act         Step
I. Departure
  1. Ordinary world
  2. Call to adventure
  3. Refusal of the call
  4. Meeting with the mentor
  5. Crossing the first threshold
II. Initiation
  1. Tests, allies and enemies
  2. Approach to the inmost cave
  3. The ordeal
  4. Reward
III. Return
  1. The road back
  2. The resurrection
  3. Return with the elixir


Farmer's premise is that these 12 steps can also be used to explain the way in which a student engages with the study of a module, and that the monomyth can perhaps be used as a structure to think about module design. In all stories based on the monomyth, the hero begins in the ordinary world but (step 5) is forced to enter into a special world where they engage with an ordeal (step 8), before returning to the ordinary world (step 10). This enforced crossing and re-crossing of the boundary between the ordinary world and the special world is an essential feature of stories based on the monomyth structure. Figure 1 illustrates how Farmer visualises this, and it is interesting to note that he also sees it as cyclical. Farmer subdivides Vogler's Initiation stage into Descent and Initiation, and his assertion is that the special world is where the learning takes place. The Separation stage is the lead into the module where the teacher sets the expectations and encourages the student to engage, carrying them across the boundary from the ordinary world to the special (or Learning) world. In his interpretation, the Ordeal (step 8) equates to the mid-point assessment of the module and, having received feedback on this assessment, the student returns to the ordinary world where stages 10 and 11 seem them using the learning from the mid-point assessment to complete the end-point assessment of the module to gain the reward (step 12).

Figure 1: Farmer's interpretation of Vogler's monomyth narrative and the boundary between the ordinary and special world (Adapted from Farmer, 2019)


It's an interesting idea which many of the audience liked, but some of us argued against Farmer's interpretation. For many students, the end-point assessment of the module is the real ordeal, not a mid-point assessment, and the recrossing of the threshold back to the ordinary world (step 10) occurs when the module ends. The interpretation of learning and assessment as an initiation and an ordeal has obvious echoes of Meyer and Land's[3] conceptions of troublesome knowledge and threshold concepts. Learning is a struggle and an ordeal, and can require heroic struggles on behalf of the student.

 Ryan Scheckel has always maintained that he learned everything that he knows about academic advising (personal tutoring) from Star Wars. Farmer must be of a similar opinion as he used the original Star Wars story to illustrate the concept of the monomyth. For those unfamiliar with Star Wars, here's a precis. Luke Skywalker is a seemingly ordinary young farm boy living with his guardians in the ordinary world when he meets  Obi-Wan Kenobi, an old Jedi who encourages him to learn the ways of the Force. Luke is reluctant, but when his guardians are killed, he has no option but to cross the threshold into the special world and engage on a quest to recover Princess Leia from the Death Star and learn how to control the Force. As he engages in this quest, his mentor Kenobi is killed. Luke returns to the ordinary world where he joins the Rebel Alliance fighters and has to use the knowledge he gained from his quest to solve a real-world problem - destroying the Death Star.

In his analogy, Farmer ignored several aspects of the heroic quest, and the real-world application of the learning which results from it, which for me embody what personal tutoring is all about. In the Star Wars movie, as Luke and his companions undergo the ordeal of trying to rescue Princess Leia, his mentor Kenobi goes off to fight his own battles. Kenobi is not a constant presence for Luke throughout his ordeal, but he appears from time to time to offer encouragement and guidance. Gandalf, the mentor figure in The Lord of The Rings, behaves in a similar way and comes and goes as the heroes engage in their ordeal. The mentor as an occasional rather than constant presence throughout the hero's ordeal is, for me, a key feature of these mythical tales and parallels the role of the personal tutor and the student. The personal tutor is not a constant presence for the student as they engage in the ordeal of learning, but instead connects with them intermittently to provide support, guidance and encouragement. The mentor often reappears when the heroes in these stories seem to have most need of them, and hopefully that is a parallel for personal tutoring too, with the personal tutor being available to provide support and guidance when the student is most in need of it.

Towards the end of Star Wars, after Skywalker returns to the ordinary world, he and his colleagues fly their fighter ships to the Death Star in an attempt to destroy it. To do this they must fire torpedos into a very small hole but, despite the targeting computers of their ships, they are unable to hit their target. On his last run at the target, Obi-Wan Kenobi comes unbidden to Luke's mind and 'speaks' to him, encouraging him to trust his instincts and use the Force. Luke turns off the target computing, uses the knowledge he has gained of the Force during his quest, and hits the target destroying the Death Star. Although his mentor is dead, he is still a very real presence to Skywalker back in the ordinary world and still provides him with support and guidance which helps him connect the knowledge and skills he has gained from the special world of the quest to the ordinary world. Kenobi's guidance helps progress Luke's transformation as a student of the Force. And in many ways, this too is what personal tutors do. They help their students see how the learning they have acquired through their course applies to the real world, how it supports their growth and development, and they encourage students to engage in activities which enhance their outcomes, particularly employability.

But perhaps the most obvious application of the monomyth to personal tutoring is simply this - that the mentor guides and encourages the hero to engage in a difficult and challenging experience in the knowledge that it will ultimately be rewarding and transformative, so that the hero will no longer engage in the world in the same way. And if that is not a metaphor - and inspiration - for personal tutoring in higher education, I'm not sure what is.

In the next instalment of this blog we'll look at what the monomyth has to tell us about the student journey and the implications this has for organising and structuring  personal tutoring.

[1] Campbell, Joseph (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 23
[2] Vogler, Christopher (2007). The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers.
[3] Meyer, J. and Land, R. (2003) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. Available from

A Personal Tutoring Curriculum for Higher Education

During the period 2015 to 2017, whilst I worked at the University of Hull, I was seconded to lead an institution-wide project to enhance personal tutoring. During this time I became intrigued by notion of an academic advising curriculum which I'd heard about on visits to the NACADA Annual Conference in the United States. 

Adapting the notion to UK terminology, the curriculum of personal tutoring is what personal tutoring deals with. It is concerned with the university’s mission, culture, and expectations; the meaning, value, and interrelationship of the academic curriculum and co-curriculum; ways of thinking, learning, and doing; the selection of academic programs and courses; the development of life and career goals; and university resources, policies, and procedures.

Based on my learning from the US, I defined a personal tutoring curriculum for the University of Hull (you can read about some experiences of it here) and I subsequently adapted it to make it more institutionally agnostic. The curriculum, illustrated below, maps broad themes to different stages of the student journey and, for each theme, identifies specific outcomes the student should achieve and typical activities tutors can engage students in to help achieve those outcomes. 

Journey Point





Getting to know YOU

·         Building relationships

·         Easing the transition to university

·         Identifying ‘at risk’ students

·         (Video) messaging with tutor

·         Complete pre-entry survey via

FHEQ Level 4

Semester 1 – First 4 weeks

Getting Connected

·         Building relationships

·         Social integration

·         Settling in

·         Ice-breakers and team building

·         Note taking

·         Finding information and library skills

FHEQ Level 4

Semester 1 Week 5 onwards

Preparing for Success

·         Establishing the rhythm of the student year

·         Support tutees to be prepared for their assessments

·         Study skills assessment

·         Planning and writing assignments

·         Using references and avoiding plagiarism

·         Revision guidance and exam technique

·         Study skills self-assessment

FHEQ Level 4

Semester 2

Making the most of University

·         Working effectively

·         Action planning and using feedback

·         Engaging with extra-curricular opportunities to develop graduate attributes

·         Making the most of the summer break

·         Engaging with internships and other opportunities to develop graduate attributes

·         Using feedback for personal development – reflective learning and action planning

·         Time management, independent learning and organisation

·         Information on extra-curricular opportunities, internships and placements

·         SMART action planning

·         Make the summer vacation count for your future


Semester 1

Refreshing, Reflecting & Developing

·         Review FHEQ Level 4 tutorial content

·         Review study/work/life balance

·         Review FHEQ Level 4 assessment feedback

·         Create FHEQ Level 5 action plan


Semester 2

Enhancing your Future


·         Employability

·         Developing graduate attributes

·         Linking module selection to careers

·         CV and job application exercise

·         Career choice exploration and/or presentation

·         Module and option selection guidance

FHEQ Level 6
Semester 1

Becoming a Professional

·         Planning for the future

·         Selling yourself/your skill set

·         Reflecting on work placements

·         Employability audit – to identify students who would benefit from interventions

·         Managing your digital identity

·         Mock interview and assessment centre exercises with Careers service

·         Set SMART targets for post-graduation

·         Reflection on work placements and how the experience supports their plans post-graduation

FHEQ Level 6
Semester 2

Moving On

·         Transitioning out of university

·         Staying connected

·         Providing feedback

·         Explaining graduation and opportunities for remaining connected to the institution as Alumni

Download a print-friendly PDF (160.83 kb) of this curriculum. 

The original Hull curriculum also covered FHEQ levels 3 and 7 but I have omitted them in this adaption to focus only on the FHEQ levels 4 to 6 which comprise a typical undergraduate degree programme. 

I've found this notion of a personal tutoring curriculum, and one I have returned to personal tutoring work in other institutions since. I'm delighted to say that it was also picked up by the authors of Effective Personal Tutoring in Higher Education (which is an excellent read, by the way) and included, with some adaption, in their book. 

Just how much studying do students do?

For a few years, our MSc students told us that they were stressed by the amount of work they were expected to do in their second semester. We carefully schedule all the coursework assignments we give them so that they are not due at the same time in an effort to help students balance their workload. Because of this, the initial reaction of most staff was that students weren't managing their time very well and were leaving things to the last minute. Yet their complaints were very real and we were seeing even good students presenting for pastoral support with very real symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Our second year undergraduate students started telling us the same thing about their second semester, and again the initial reaction of most staff was to blame the students for poor time management. Yet when I stepped back to look at the situation in more detail, it became apparent that most of the courses being taken in the second semester by these two groups were assessed solely by single large coursework assignments. We try to be helpful to students by specifying an expected amount of time that it will take them to complete the coursework, expressed as a minimum-maximum range. When I looked across the courses to see the whole picture, and considered the expected effort and the actual amount of time we were giving students to do the work, it turned out we were expecting students to be spending 60 to 70 hours a week studying for these courses. No wonder they were feeling stressed and burnt out! Our expectations were completely unrealistic.

I think many of us try to help students out by indicating how much effort they should put into different aspects of our course. It is easy to state the amount of class time (lectures, seminars, practical labs, etc) that students will attend, and also the amount of time consumed by fixed-time assessments such as exams. In the UK, we assume that each credit requires 10 hours of student effort, so a typical 20 credit module requires 200 hours of student work. Once we've accounted for class-time and exams, we assume that the rest of the time is free for students to work on all the other things we give them (formative and summative coursework assignments, directed reading, etc) and that these can all be achieved within that 200 hour timeframe. But can they? And just how much time do students actually spend studying our courses? Do we actually know? When I try to estimate how long it will take a student to carry out an assignment or read a textbook, is my estimate accurate? I can probably do those things faster than students who are coming to the subject material for the first time, so if I base the estimates on my own experience they are likely to be wrong.

I was interested to come across a blog post from Rice University this week which discuss just this issue and provides a handy Course Workload Estimator tool to help academics get a better feel for the actual amount of work that students put into their studies on a course. You can enter into the tool the type of course activities you are expecting students to engage in (exams, assignments, directed reading) and it will calculate an estimate of the weekly workload which that imposes on students. The tool didn't really align very well to what we do - for instance, it assumes the maximum amount of time a student can spend on a coursework assignment is 50 hours and this is perhaps because the US higher education systems assumes more frequent, shorter assignments whereas some of our courses have some large project assignments which can take up to 100 hours. You can still use the tool to gain an approximation, or use the detailed information in the blog post on how the estimates are created to build your tool more suited to your particular circumstances.

If you want to get a better idea of just how much time students are likely to spend studying for your course each week then the Course Workload Estimator blog post is definitely worth a read.

It make you proud to be British

I'm very fond of reading the books of Bill Bryson and lately have been enjoying his most recent offering, The Road to Little Dribbling, which describes a sort of tour round certain places in the UK. As an alumnus of Durham University I'm well aware that Bill Bryson was once chancellor there and that he is immensely fond of the city. He returns to visit Durham for this book and, in discussing his involvement with the university, he introduces some statistics to compare higher education in the UK to that in the US, specifically in terms of funding. He also provides figures to show how UK HE punches well above its weight on the global stage, although I have no idea how valid those figures are. What moved me greatly though is his comment on p357:
'I doubt very much if there is any other realm of human endeavour in the country (UK) that produces more world-class benefit with less financial input than higher education. It is possibly the single most outstanding thing in Britain today.'
That glowing statement stands as testament to the effort and commitment of all who work in higher education in the UK, and I for one feel very proud and privileged to be a part of it.

First UKAT Annual Conference

The establishment of a UK body focused on supporting personal tutoring and academic advising has been a vision for a number of years. So it is good to see this come to fruition in the form of  UKAT under the able guidance and direction of chair Penny Robinson.

UKAT is now well established and the first Annual Conference was held on 17 and 18 March 2016 at Southampton Solent University. With over 100 delegates attending from 7 countries, the event was lively, exciting and inspiring. Numerous delegates praised the warm, welcoming, collegial atmosphere in which delegates were willing to share experiences to help one another in their common goal of advising, tutoring and supporting students to help them achieve success. UKAT is an allied association of NACADA and we were privileged to welcome several key members of NACADA to the UKAT conference, including NACADA executive director Charlie Nutt.

The conference was opened by leading figures from the two universities in Southampton. Jane Longmore, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Southampton Solent University gave the formal welcome. This was followed later by a refreshing insight from Sir Christopher Snowden, Vice Chancellor of Southampton University, on the importance of personal tutoring in Higher Education and the potential this has for making the most important difference to outcomes for students.

The conference didn't quite go according to plan on the first day when the opening keynote speaker had to withdraw at short notice for personal reasons. Fortunately, Karen Sullivan-Vance of Western Oregon University was attending and, with less than 2 hours notice, gamely stepped in and delivered an insightful presentation on Higher Education in the 21st Century, challenging us to Aspire, Connect and Empower our students and to remember that despite the ever-changing and demanding challenges we face, student success is our goal. Karen reminded us that “Good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience" [1] and that “Academic Advising is the only structured activity on the campus in which all students have the opportunity for one-to-one interaction with a concerned representative of the institution.”

The closing keynote on the second day went much more to plan, and NACADA's executive director Charlie Nutt closed the conference with an inspiring, impassioned and moving plea to delegates to really care about and support their students through their roles as advisors and tutors. In fact, it was so moving, Charlie moved an audience of academics to tears with the combination of his words and a rendition of the song I Was Here from YouTube.

There was a rich programme of breakout sessions and workshops which touched on a wide range of issues relevant to all involved in advising and tutoring. Particularly interesting to me were Sam Grogan's (Salford University) presentation on co-creating the student journey, in which he outlined the approach that his institution is taking in collaborating with students to really take the student voice into account and to improve the student experience together. The session provoked much interest and discussion from the audience, as did all of the breakout sessions and workshops. Mike Dobson's (Exeter University) session on supporting transgender students was extremely well received and hats off to Mike for dealing with a deeply personal and challenging subject in a sensitive manner whilst to being afraid to challenge the adjustments made for transgender students. I'm not sure Mike found this the most easy session to deliver but the audience deeply respected him for doing so and thoroughly enjoyed his presentation. Other workshops and presentations provided a mix of discussion and useful practical exercises and guidance which delegates could apply in their own practice. Also of note was the presentation by the CRA on the new joint CRA/SEDA Professional Award in Personal Tutoring. Many in the audience were interested to hear of this award and recognised the value that a developmental award like this has in enhancing effective individual and institutional practice in personal tuition.

Much hard work clearly went into the organisation of the conference. Many congratulations to Ann Bingham, Dave Beeson and the organising team at Southampton Solent University who made this such a successful and enjoyable event.

[1] Light, R.J., 2001. The power of good advice for students. Chronicle of Higher Education, 47(25), pp.B11-B12.
[2] Habley, W.R., 1994. Key Concepts in Academic Advising. In Summer Institute on Academic Advising Session Guide (p.10).  Manhattan, KS: NACADA The Global Community for Academic Advising

SEDA Professional Development Award in Personal Tutoring and Academic Advising

2016-03-10SEDA have recently introduced a new Professional Development Award in Personal Tutoring and Academic Advising. This award is aimed at anyone involved in personal tutoring of students in higher education settings and seeks to enhance professional practice and encourage a student-centred approach through a critically reflective approach to tutoring practice.

I  am delighted that my application to join the initial cohort of this award has been accepted and am looking forward to working towards it. This requires me to create a reflective portfolio and explore in detail four case studies of personal tutoring development and enhancement activities that I undertake. So my first task is, I guess, to review my current practice and identify those four activities.

I’m really pleased to see that this award has been introduced to promote the important role that personal tutors play in supporting students and I intend to blog more about my experiences of this award as I go through it. Ideally, I’d like to encourage as many of my colleagues as possible to put themselves through this award too.

Personal Tuition and Student Loyalty

One of the often cited aspects of a good personal tuition system is its potential to increase a student’s belonging to their institution. This has been recognised through project such as the HEFCE funded What Works? Student Retention and Success programme, and the HERE Toolkit which came out of this.

There is an interesting paper in the current edition of the NACADA Journal entitled Strengthen the Bond: Relationship Between Academic Advising Quality and Undergraduate Student Loyalty. Based on a surveys conducted at the University of Wisconsin, the others conclude that the quality of the tuition support (academic advising) given to students correlates with the loyalty that the student feels towards their institution. The better the quality of the tuition experience, the more loyal the student is likely to be towards the university.  The interesting aspect of the research reported by this paper is that this loyalty seems to persist beyond graduation. Individuals who had a good tuition experience during their studies are more likely to remain loyal to their institution after graduation, and  thus more likely to continue supporting it in ways that benefit the current generation of students.This loyalty might manifest itself in graduates offering internships or jobs to current students, or in making donations to the Alumni fund. It is certainly interesting to think that a good tutorial system is far-reaching and benefits more than just the students currently experiencing it. A very unscientific sample of conversations with my own colleagues would suggest that this is an aspect of the tutorial system that is rarely considered by UK universities.

Where the paper starts to make less comfortable reading is in its suggestion that the survey used in the research could be used to identify those students who are most likely to display greatest future loyalty. These students could then be targeted with a greater focus by the tutorial system to maximise their  contribution, especially financial, after graduation. This approach seems somewhat mercenary and not in the spirit of equality of opportunity for all.

What does success look like?

One of the aims of my daily job, and this blog, is to promote and support student success. But what does success look like for a student? Success will look different for different students, but many students will see it as attaining the degree they chose to study or completing that degree with a certain grade. I think most people would probably recognise that definition of success, yet for some students success might not involve them completing their degree at all. If a student is really not enjoying their course then transferring to a different course, perhaps at another institution, or leaving education altogether and getting a job might well the best and most successful outcome for them. This view of success makes sense when we take an holistic view of a student; as tutors supporting students holistically we should consider outcomes like these.

Universities spend much time and effort agonising over the subject of retention - encouraging students to remain at university until the completion of their studies. Although they are linked, success and retention are not the same thing. As a speaker at the NACADA Global Conference 2015 observed 'success is something students do, retention is something universities do'.  Helping some students to pursue paths other than completing a degree may not be desirable to university management and may put tutors in conflict with them, but if we are serious about helping students succeed then we must help and support them in achieving the best outcome for them, whatever that may be.

UKAT Personal Tutoring Survey


UKAT is currently conducting a National Personal Tutoring survey, which aims to examine and report on the state of personal tutoring within Higher Education institutions in the United Kingdom.

If you are a member of staff of a Higher Education institution in the UK then UKAT would be very interested to hear your perceptions and experiences of personal tutoring, so I would strongly encourage you to complete the survey. The survey is open until 12 February 2016 and the results will be presented at the UKAT Spring Conference 2016.

A similar survey will be conducted later in the year to gather student perceptions and experiences of personal tutoring.

Welcome to my Blog!

Hello, and welcome to my blog.

It has been a few years since I was a regular blogger and I figured it was about time I got back into the habit. My previous blog concentrated on my work as a software developer and teacher of software engineering, and was mainly filled with technical articles on various aspects of building software systems. I still do software development and I still teach software engineering, but the focus of my work has changed in recent years and I am now more concerned with supporting university students and how we, as teachers, can help them succeed.

So this blog is going to focus on matters relating to student success and teaching and learning in Higher Education. In particular, it will focus on how we support students through personal supervision - a process known outside of the UK as academic advising. Good academic advising is considered to be key in helping students succeed in their studies, and I am honoured to be a member of UKAT and NACADA, organisation which promote and support the practice of academic advising in the UK and globally.