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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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