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Christopher Douce

Working with the SST

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On Friday 14 July 23, I spoke with colleagues who work within one of the OU’s student support teams (SSTs) with the intention of learning more about what the SST does. I also wanted to learn about what messages or words of advice they would like to share with tutors.

The aim of this post is to highlight some of the great work the SST does, and to share some practical advice to tutors. This post is intended to be one of a series of posts that aim to offer tutors some practical guidance.

Introducing the SST

Tutors are the academic face of the university. You represent the collective views of module teams, and help students to find their way through the materials they have prepared. Whilst you are expected to answer academic questions, you’re not expected to respond to questions that go beyond the boundaries of the module that you are helping to deliver.

In you are ever asked questions about the next module a student should study, what to do if a student find themselves struggling with changing personal circumstances, of have concerns about student fees, there is another group of colleagues who can help: members of the student support teams who work within what is called the Student Recruitment and Support Centres (SRSC).

It is helpful to think of us all members of an SST: tutors are a member, as are staff tutors and module team members. The SST colleagues located within the SRSC carry out a number of different roles: they may be educational advisors, senior advisors, or enrol students to modules. 

One of the roles and responsibilities of a tutor is to proactively refer students to the student support team if it looks like they need help.

At the time of writing, an article on TutorHome describes the SST as “provid[ing] specialist support such as module choice, transferring credit, regulations, disability and can make referrals for careers guidance.” It goes on to say that tutors “can refer students to the SST for detailed advice and guidance. Support teams may occasionally approach Associate Lecturers to undertake Individual Student Support Sessions (ISSSs) with students.  Referrals are made using the electronic Student Referral Form (eSRF).”

What does the SST do?

The SST provides non-academic support and information to students. The SST provides information about different modules, how study takes place, and what the various options might be for student fees. After a student has enrolled, the SST may help a student to think about how to approach their study, and even their study workload. 

The SST uses a model known as Information Advice and Guidance, or IAG, for short. IAG is a model that is applied across higher education, and in situations where learners need information and guidance about learning choices. 

Consider IAG to be a funnel, or an inverted pyramid. Students may begin by asking for information. In turn, they might have further questions about different curriculum choices, and may end up speaking with a senior advisor or an educational advisor who will be specialised in providing different types of advice and guidance.

Seventy percent of queries that the SST handles relates to study intentions. These can include changes to registered qualifications, or increasing or decreasing of study intensity, which refers to the number of modules a student might be studying at the same time. 

Other queries that the SST respond to might be about offering information about assessment and examinations, helping student to navigate university policies, and to offer guidance about reasonable adjustments for disabled students. Advisors will also help with study postponements and fee credits (after postponements), and signpost additional resources such as the student assistance fund.

SST roles

To learn more about how the SST works, it is useful to know a little more about roles of colleagues who work in a SRSC, and how these roles relate to the IAG model.

Advisors (I)

The main role of the advisors is to provide information. An advisor can be thought of as being “a bit like a GP; we need to know a bit about everything – there are specialists we can refer students to”. The advisor acts like the first stage of a filter, passing student queries onto other teams if more detailed responses are needed.

There are often a lot of queries close to, and after a TMA cut-off date. In many cases students are referred back to their tutor and sometimes queries as passed onto the faculty, which will find their way to the staff tutor. If students ask about TMA questions, these will, of course, be referred back to the tutor, and possibly the faculty.

In this first stage of the IAG model, advisors are not meant to offer advice, or guidance or discuss in depth issues that relate to student finance, but they can direct students to information that they may find helpful.

Senior advisors (A)

After the information (I) stage, an advisor might pass a query onto a senior advisor, for the advice (A) stage. It is always worth remembering that senior advisors can only provide advice about study. They can only make students aware of different options that are available to them, perhaps signposting them to different resources to help them to make decision. What they cannot do, of course, is to provide solutions or answers to students: they can only provide them with tools that help them to make decision.

Senior advisors can do a number of things: they can share information about what modules might potentially be useful to study, they might also help students to understand whether any there are any pre-requisites that need to be completed before students choose a particular path of study or module combination, and they can also say something about what is involved with OU study.

Senior advisors also make telephone calls to students if there are any concerns about their progress that may have been raised by tutors with an aim to find out if there is anything they might be able to help with. They often follow up with an email, if necessary, making records to the university student-relationship management system.

Educational Advisors (G)

Education advisors get involved with more complex issues. For example, if there are potential or persistent barriers to learning. If a barrier relates to a disability, they will work with other teams, such as the Disability Support Team. They may also refer students to specialist mental health advisors, or even to a safeguarding team.

It is worth noting that there are some differences in what happens in England, and what happens in the other UK nations. In England, the Disability Support Team works with students to write a support profile, which is available to tutors through TutorHome. They may also help students to begin to claim for the Disability Support Allowance (DSA), to help students to get their right support for their studies. In the other UK nations this support is provided by educational advisors.

Educational advisors may also gently challenge students if there is a sense that someone is taking on too much. They may also offer practical advice about how to catch up with their studies. They may also speak with students if they are finding it difficult to decide whether to continue with their study, and will offer advice about options. They can also help to manage student expectations in terms of the form and extent of support that they are likely to receive, either from tutors or, more broadly, from the university. In this sense, educational advisors can proactively help students to develop the academic relationship they have with their tutor.

The SST always aims to work in the best interests of the students. They are there to make sure students have the right information to enable them to make the right decision, that matches their needs and circumstances.

When should I refer students to the SST?

There is a simple rule: tutors respond to academic queries, and non-academic queries should be referred to the SST. An academic query can be thought of anything that relates to the study of a module. 

There are also grey areas between academic and non-academic support that tutors can proactively help with. For example, if a student is considering stopping studying of a module due to the difficulty of the module materials or the scores they are getting, a tutor should try to speak with a student to find out whether there is anything they can do to help. Sometimes an additional support session might be enough to get a student back on track. On other occasions, a discussion about their TMA feedback might help them to put their work and progress into perspective.

Tutors can also help if a student queries their marks, or asks for study advice within the context of a module. Whilst the SST is able to offer general advice about student, a tutor is best placed to offer detailed practical study advice about what a student might be able to do to maintain steady progress during a module. In a computing module, for example, this might be making sure a student is aware of the importance of getting better through practice. If you are asked some academic questions that you can’t immediately answer, consider seeking advice from the tutor’s module forum, or your staff tutor.

If a student is experiencing difficulties, and feel their personal circumstances may affect either their TMA or exam performance, tutors can and should refer students to the special circumstances form, which can be accessed through the university help centre.

You should refer a student to the SST if there is any non-academic problem that you cannot solve, or a student is asking questions that are not related to the academic elements of the module that you are teaching, or you are unable to get in contact with your student. The earlier you refer the student to the SST, the better.

You should also refer students to the SST if a student has disclosed a disability. The act of a student telling a tutor they have a disability means that they have told the university they have a disability, and tutors are obliged to pass this information on to the SST.

The SST will “usually try to respond within 2 working days, and then 5 working days during very busy periods. That is the same across the I, A and G”. When a referral or request for information or support is passed between different teams, the respond time begins whenever a new service request has been created.

How should I refer students?

Referrals can be made to the SST in a number of ways. There are two main ways that tutors need to be aware of.

TutorHome

The primary way tutors can refer students to the SST is through their student list, which is available through TutorHome. From your student group summary, click on the name of the student you wish to refer. Under the heading ‘referrals’ you should see a link that has the title: Refer to Student Support team. This will open a form which gives you a number of different options. Always ensure that you provide as much detailed information as you can, also saying what you expect to be done with the referral. If you wish to be contacted by the SST, if you have further information to share, please mention this.

Responses to a referral will either be sent by email, or you can see if there are any updates if a ‘C’ (contact history available) flag is displayed next to the student’s name in the student group summary. You can view any updates by clicking on the student’s name, and then clicking on the ‘Show contact history’ link, which provides a summary of the most recent interactions between the university and our student.

If you wish to share some additional information with the SST after a referral has been made, you can use the ‘Update record’ link, which can be found on the right of the student group summary. 

Staff tutors

Whilst working with a student, you might contact your staff tutor for support. In some situations, your staff tutor might ask you to refer a student through TutorHome, or they might get in contact with the SST to ask them for help, by sending a referral through the university systems.

Other approaches

If an issue is really urgent, tutors can also directly call the SST, but it is advised that on some occasions, the extent of actions that might be possible might be limited, due to data protection limitations. The SST finds it easier to handle written requests, since it enables them to make decisions about priority, identify who should be attending to an issue, and gives the SST time to formulate a response.

What do tutors need to know?

The most important point to reiterate is: if a query from a student is considered to be an academic query, tutors should take the initiative and respond to it as best as they can. Although colleagues within the SST know about modules, they don’t know the details of modules, or know the details of what is contained with their assessments. They do, however, know about when assessments take place and the policies that relate to assessments.

When there is a query that may sit within a grey area, such as whether a student wishes to continue with a module, tutors should feel confident enough to ask some probing questions about the extent to which an issue is one that is academic, or needs SST support. If you are unsure about where the boundaries between tutor support and SST support lie, the best thing you can to is to contact your staff tutor for guidance.

Early referrals to the SST are important, since there are dates known as fee liability points. This means that in some situations, if students defer early, they will be eligible have a percentage of their overall student fee returned. If a student is paying for their studies through a series of student loans, this will reduce the amount a student is liable for had they deferred later. From the student’s perspective, if you are unsure whether a student is engaging, it is always better to send in a referral than to hope they will return to their studies.

If a tutor has referred a student to the SST since they are having difficulty getting in touch with a student, this may mean that the SST may also have the same problem. If a “no contact” referral is made, the SST will always try to contact our student. Attempts will be always recorded, and these should be visible through the contact history part of TutorHome.

If students require advice about module choice, whilst tutors can refer students to the SST, one practical suggestion is to refer students to the OU’s subject sites. Subject sites are available for all students who are registered, and offer useful summaries, and pointers to other resources and events. SST advisors direct students to explore the subject sites.

A frequent request that will come to tutors through the SST are requests for TMA extensions, since TMA extensions are an academic and faculty issue. If there is a request for a particularly long extension which is to be approved from the faculty by your staff tutor, tutors are encouraged to speak with their students. In these cases, tutors should work with their students to establish an informal plan to ensure that they submit their TMA by the date of their new next extension, but also catch up with their study.

The following very practical point is important: since such a lot of the communication between the SST, tutors and students take place through email, it is important to remember to ensure that your Out of Office reply is turned on when you are unavailable.

Acknowledgements 

Many thanks are extended to Felicity Howe, Jamie Ireland, Anthony Short, Matthew Protz and Alexis Lansbury.

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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.

Preparing

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.

Reflections

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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