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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

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.