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Christopher Douce

Individual support sessions

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This blog post is about individual support sessions. It has been written from the perspective of a tutor, with the intention of sharing practice with other tutors.

If you discover that one of your students is struggling with their studies, a tutor can ask a student whether they would like to have an individual support session (ISS) to help them to get them back on track. An ISS isn’t a 15 to 20 minute telephone call in response to a student’s question, or a quick talk through different parts of some module materials. An ISS is a structured and dedicated one-to-one session to help a student to progress with their studies.

A request for an ISS can come from either from yourself, or from a student or via the student support team. A request may also come from one of your line managers. To request an ISS, you can send a request to the student support team (SST) via your TutorHome page, or you can contact your line manager, who will do this for you. It is important that ISS requests are recorded since individual support sessions are not technically a part of your module teaching time. Instead, every session needs to be accounted for since they will come from your FTE.

From the student’s perspective, an ISS typically lasts for one hour, but from the tutor’s perspective, two hours of their time is accounted for; one hour for the actual session, and one hour for the preparation time. More will be said about what it means to deliver and prepare a session in a moment.

An important point to note is that different modules differ in terms of their tuition models. A first year module may have a different model to a final year project module. In a dissertation module, where you may have a fewer number of students than typical module, an element of one-to-one tuition is likely to be built into its tuition module. For example, at the time of writing, the computing undergraduate project module has for hours of one-to-one time for every student. It is up to the individual tutor (and their students) to device how to best make use of that time.

What follows is a short summary of what might happen within an individual support session. Every session is likely to be different, since ever student and every module is different.

Identifying a need

In my distance teaching practice, I try to tie everything together. In my script comments, I refer students to my eTMA feedback summary page. In my feedback summary page, I may refer to other tutorials, earlier feedback, or module resources. In some cases, I may also suggest to students in their eTMA summary that it might be useful to have an additional support session by encouraging them to contact either myself, or the student support team. In some cases, I might even give them a ring to ask this question. 

Booking in a time

The next step is to book in a date and time that works for a student. I always ask what their communication preferences might: whether they prefer to use the phone, or use Adobe Connect, or MS Teams. At the time of writing, I prefer MS teams, since I can use my web cam, and it enables me to do some screensharing, which is especially helpful when working with a technical subject, such as computing. It can also be useful to guide students through important parts of module materials. When arranging a date and time, I also ask the important question: what would you like to get out of the session? In addition to confirming a date and time by phone or by email, I also send a digital calendar meeting invite, which would also contain a link to either a MS Teams room, or an Adobe Connect room.


I have one hour to prepare. To keep things fresh in my mind, I tend to prepare close to the time of when the session is scheduled. Some important questions to ask include: how well has our student being doing in their studies? I answer this by looking at current progress and their study history. I also ask: where are they, or where should they be in the study of their module? To make sure I know where they are, I review the module calendar and identify which bits of module materials they should be studying. Another question is: what assessments are coming up? Is there an exam, or is there an important TMA coming up?

Since students are likely to want to become more familiar with any forthcoming assessments, a really good idea to thoroughly review the assessments, and any accompanying tutor notes. If the focus is likely to be on a TMA, I get a printout of the current TMA and any accompanying tutor notes, and go through these documents with a highlighter and pencil. I highlight which sections are important, and if there are any reference to module materials sections which are important, such as chapter number or page numbers within block materials or set texts.

Running the session

This is a summary of how I run my session; different tutors have different styles and approaches. Since the session is all about our student, I begin with the question: “what would you like to get out of this session?”, and ask any clarifying questions. Whilst I take their lead, I’m also led by another question of my own, which is: “where is our student at?” Or, put another way, where do they need to get to so they are able to reach the learning outcomes to enable them to complete their forthcoming assessments? To understand their own understanding, I ask them about their understanding of some of the module concepts, by asking questions like “how would you describe…”; I aim to establish a dialogue where they teach me what they know, which would enable me to pick up on any gaps of understanding.

If appropriate, I would use screen sharing. In my own world of computing, I would share a software environment, but I also might share an empty Word document, where we can collaborate together on a set of notes, where each of the main points are being suggested by the tutor. In some cases, this document might contain headings which reflect the themes that may for a part of any forthcoming assessment.

Asking questions is important. During the session, I would regularly check for understanding. For example, I might ask “remind me again how you would go about…” or “remind me again about how you would define…”. 

Conveying a positive perspective, which reflects a growth mindset, is important too. I would never say that an expression of an understanding is “wrong”. An expression of an idea or a principle in terms that is different to the expectation of the module team is an opportunity to further develop a student’s understanding. If an idea is expressed that has some elements that reflect learning, I would praise those elements, and add to their explanations whilst trying to lead them on a path to develop their own enhanced explanations.

Towards the end of the session, I would ask whether they have any more questions they would like to go through. I would also offer a quick summary to recap some of the points that have been discussed during the session. I would close by saying that they should feel free to contact me if they have any follow up questions, and that it would be possible to request a further one-to-one session if necessary; maintain a line of communication is important.

After the session

If any notes were made, code written, or documents shared during the session, do email them to your student after the event. 

To confirm completion of the session to the university, I send an update to the student’s record, which can be seen by the student support team. To do this, I go to the “update record” link that is next to the student’s name on TutorHome, recording the date of the session, specifying support on current module, individual support session, regular AL/student contact, and whether the event took place in an online room or over the phone. In the comments section, I write: “This is to note completion of an ISS for student” also noting the time when it took place, and highlighting that no SST action is required.

Recording the completion of sessions is especially important if students are given sessions to help them develop an awareness of study skills and good academic practice. Evidence of pro-active interventions are really important for academic conduct officers.


An interesting question to ask is: what is the difference between providing student support during a module presentation and an individual support session? The answer depends on the tuition support model that is adopted by a module. This said, on a typical module, tutors are usually expected to respond to questions send to the tutor by their tutors. As aspect of my own practice is to regularly ‘check in’ with students between assessment points, to ask them how everyone is. Running ISSs is also one of those elements of tuition which requires collaboration with the student support team, and line manager. A final point to note is that ISSs are not typically performed by practice tutors.

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Christopher Douce

eSTEeM annual conference: TEL in practice

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On 16 April, I went to the first day of the Open University’s eSTEeM conference.  eSTEeM is an Open University initiative to bring ‘together academics in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to promote innovation, scholarship and enterprise in open and distance learning’.  The eSTEeM website offers loads of information about the different projects that are funded through the initiative. Before trying to summarise my ‘take’ on the whole event, I should also add that TEL (which is in the title of the event) is an abbreviation for Technology Enhanced Learning.

Opening keynote

Due to travel timing, I missed the opening address, but I managed to get to the opening keynote, which had the title ‘Using technology in teaching and learning: it is scholarly?’ by Linda Price from the Institute of Educational Technology. My immediate instinct to this question was to say ‘yes’, but the point to Linda’s talk was to encourage us all to think about what scholarship means when it comes to TEL.

An interesting point was that educators and institutions used to be the gatekeepers of knowledge, but technology has enabled some information (and knowledge) to become open.  Two examples of this is with the availability of Open Educational Resources (or OERs), and the increase in the number of open access journals.

Linda’s talk offered us a useful caution, that ‘technology will never save us from poor teaching, it will make things worse’.   Another point was about the importance of learner motivation, and that if technology is not properly integrated into a module then there’s a likelihood that it isn’t to be used (or, used poorly).

Another thought is that technology might not be the problem, but pedagogy might be.  Or, in other words, we need to develop our understanding about how best to use new.  Three important questions are: How do we make choices (of what technology to use)?  What evidence is there? Are we looking at opinion based practice or evidence informed practice?

Connecting to the ‘scholarly’ part of her title, we were told about a number of scholarly principles.  These were: the importance of goals, preparation, methods, results, presentation and critique.  These can also be connected with different scholarly approaches, such as the need to thoroughly analyse a problem, understand the context, review the literature, setting aims and objectives, designing of teaching and learning interventions, evaluation methods, and sharing of findings.

A final point that I have made a note of was that we need to think about how theory can relate to and drive our research.  This left me with a question: which theories are important and relevant?  This, of course, connects back to the importance of being aware of current debates, issues and, of course, the literature that relates to a particular area of research.

Workshop: what do you mean by tuition?

The university is introducing something called the Group Tuition Policy which is to affect both on-line and face to face tuition.  The aim of this workshop (which was one of many different events I could have chosen) was to facilitate discussions about how we might begin to plan and implement the policy (which is something that I’ll have to do as a part of my day job).

The workshop was split into two different activities and related to two different perspectives.  The first was to discuss what is meant by the term tuition, from the tutor’s perspective.  The second activity was all about what students should expect from tuition.  For this second activity we were encouraged to draw a ‘rich picture’.

At the end of each section, we shared different perspectives.  Points that I noted down were, ‘we need to up our game when it comes to on-line [tuition]’, ‘you can’t describe on-line as tutorials’ (which was an interesting perspective), and that there is ‘no difference between watching a recording and being on-line (or, participating in an on-line tutorial)’.  It was obvious there were a number of interesting, slightly conflicting, views.

How students learn in Massive Open Online Courses

The third session that I went to was all about MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses.  Allison Littlejohn, from the Centre for Learning and Teaching (and the Institute of Educational Technology) began by asking everyone how many had taught or learnt through a MOOC.  A good number of members of the audience put up their hands.

Allison spoke about a topology of learning.  This included dimensions of formal/informal, intentional/unintentional and recognised/unacknowledged.  She then went onto mention a study at Duke University which analysed 75 different MOOCs in terms of whether they adhered to good instructional design.  If I remember correctly, the results were not very positive.

 A key research question that was asked was: how do students learn in MOOCs?  A related question is: do people who are highly motivated behave differently?  To answer his question, a researcher called Barry Zimmermann was mentioned (with regards to his work on self-directed learning), and three case studies.

The first case study was about a ‘connectivist MOOC’ called SRL-MOOC (Glasgow Caledonian University) (I’m not sure what connectivist in this context means – I think I’ve made a note of the term correctly!)

The second case study was an introduction to the data sciences, and was from the University of Washington.  It ran using the Coursera platform, and had forty thousand learners.  We were introduced to an instrument called SQLMQ which was used to analyse learner behaviour, and could connect with factors such as student motivation.  (There was a lot of detail here that didn’t make a note of since this was all new to me!)

After this second case study there was an opportunity to discuss a question: how would we create a MOOC that could help self-regulated learners?  This was an interesting question that led onto quite a bit of debate, about the business models of MOOCs, how you might engage learners that were not ‘self-regulated’, and worries about their terrible completion rates.

 Allison found something interesting about self-regulated learners.  Low self-regulated learners sometimes engaged with MOOCs with the objective of getting a certificate, whereas high self-regulated learners took a more strategic approach, choosing to carry out learning that relates to a job, role or task.  Simplistically put, some high regulated learners tended to dip in and out of a MOOC, gain what they need, and then move on.

I can relate this finding with my own experience.  I have signed up to three different MOOCs, but I haven’t finished any of them.  The first one was about the history of the internet.  I completed the assessment, but then became a bit grumpy about the comments that were coming back from my ‘peer’.  Plus, I was finding there was a bit more reading to do than I expected (so I dropped out!)  My reasons to take the two other MOOCs were all about ‘checking to see what other institutions were up to’, and finding out whether I was missing anything in my teaching.  I dropped out of the first interaction design MOOC when I realised that the content was solid, and offered me some reassurance that my teaching was ‘on target’ with the overall aims of the discipline.  I dropped out of the final MOOC when I realised that the course was pretty baffling and didn’t seem to be teaching the subject in a very satisfactory way.  This relates, in part, to Allison’s opening comment about the importance of effective learning design.

The third case study was a module about clinical trials, and was hosted in the Edx platform.  I didn’t take any notes of this third case study, since I was probably still thinking about the distinction between ‘high self-directed learners’ and ‘low self-directed learners’.

A final activity of the day was to think about some form of recommendations about either MOOC design, or learning design.  Our table chose, instead, to discuss other issues, including the role and importance of face to face tuition.

Short paper session

The next session contained three short ‘paper’ presentations. 

The first was by Clem Herman, and her presentation was entitled ‘putting gender on the agenda: why gender should be a threshold concept for STEM educators’.  Clem spoke about the university’s involvement with an initiative called Athena Swan (Equality Challenge Unit).  

Two of the key objectives of the initiative is to ‘address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation’ and ‘to tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation’.  To be recognised by the initiative, institutions have to go through an audit process, enabling the university to gain an understanding of the state of gender representation in individual departments. 

It was interesting (and alarming) to hear that the number of women enrolling in the first level undergraduate computing module has been dropping (in comparison to Maths and Statistics, which was reported as being okay). Postgraduate registrations, apparently, have always been low.

During the question and answer session, questions were asked about engagement with external organisations (which have similar objectives), and there was a discussion about unconscious bias and the ‘stereotype threat’.  I think what is means being aware of gender related expectations when it comes to subject specific performance.

The next presentation of the day was by ‘yours truly’.  I briefly spoke about a university funded project that has been carrying out some research into the tutor experiences of teaching on a second level computing module called TT284 Web Technologies (Open University).  I won’t go into the fine detail, but a description of the project is available on the eSTEeM website, with an accompanying project poster (PDF).

The final talk of the day was from Martin Reynolds, who gave a talk entitled, ‘Designing a learning system for postgraduate recruitment and retention based on systemic enquiry’ (I may or may not have made a proper note of his title).  During his talk I remembered him telling us something about a university LinkedIn ‘systems thinking’ alumni forum, where students are continuing to share knowledge and experience beyond the boundaries of the postgraduate modules that they have been studying.

Closing keynote

 The closing keynote, entitled ‘getting data into your eye: live in the field, life in the lab, and augmented reality’ was by Peter Scott, who was from The Open University Knowledge Media Institute (KMI). 

Peter talked us through a series of EU funded projects that KMI had been involved with; I recognised the name of some projects, but not all, such as WeSpot (EU project website), The Open Science Laboratory (Open University website) and Engaging Science (EU project website) which might have been mentioned into an associate lecturer development event that I went to at the University of Sussex.  Another project was called the Field Network System (Open University website), which was about creating a portable network infrastructure for scientific fieldwork.

A big part of Peter’s talk was about applications of something called ‘augmented reality’; a topic that is featured in a module that I tutor called M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design (OU website).  Augmented reality is where digital technologies can add additional information to a digital scene.  An interesting point was made is that AR can become really useful if we use it in combination with people, which leads us to the term ‘socio-technical augmentation’.

An interesting example of this can be found in a project called TellMe (EU project), an abbreviation for Technology Enhanced Learning Living Lab for Manufacturing Environments.  We were shown a demo where a computer tool offered engineers visual guidance about how to assemble and work with components.   Another perspective is that you could potentially be guided by another engineer who is working at a distance.  During these demonstrations I thought about my own interests in teaching computer programming, and wondered about how these tools might be used in this somewhat different context.

Towards the end of his talk, we were shown a demonstration of a virtual volcano (that was spewing lava) that popped out of a text book.  We could only see the ‘virtual volcano’ is we viewed it through the screen of a smartphone, which hinted at the wide variety of different ways that technology can be used when it comes to teaching and learning.

Final thoughts

There was a lot going on during the day, and I felt that I missed out on quite a few things.  I like days like these, since they force you to sit down, listen and learn.  They are also opportunities to help you to understand what is going on, and to gather up gently clues as to how the teaching and learning of science and technology may be changing.  A connected challenge is to try to find the time to investigate what happened in the other sessions and continue to keep up with the various developments that you are introduced to.

During conference I became involved in a couple of conversations about research about introductory programming, and there was even some talk about organising what might become a mini conference.  The bulk of the talk was an objective for a couple of us (who were interested in similar topics) to try to get our heads together; to try to understand more about where the ‘state of the art’ was heading.  In some respects, this was an outcome that was as just as useful as learning about new projects.  The reason for this is that these new connections and discussions have given me a bit of much needed and welcome motivation.

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