Learning analytics, personal tutoring and belonging: highlights from the 2017 UKAT conference

In April I attended the annual United Kingdom Advising and Tutoring (UKAT) conference at Leeds Trinity University. UKAT is a body of professional practitioners and researchers interested in all aspects of student advising and personal tutoring in Further and Higher Education. What follows are my reflections on the workshops and presentations I attended at the conference.

Three principle themes emerged over the 2-day event:

  1. The growing use of Learning Analytics (LA).
  2. An awareness that LA can only be used to its full potential when combined with an effective network of personal tutors. In addition, this network needs to link to professional services to ensure that students and staff are adequately supported by the relevant specialists.
  3. The importance of fostering a sense of belonging in Higher Education (HE) institutions.
Screen shot of the Nottingham Trent University Student Dashboard showing a student's engagement.
Fig. 1: NTU Student Dashboard – showing student engagement.

Learning Analytics
Nottingham Trent University (NTU, 2017) – described the process of developing their Student Dashboard (follow this link to see the full presentation). The project aimed to: enhance retention, increase a sense of belonging and improve attainment. The Dashboard was introduced incrementally, enabling NTU to test both the user interface and also the accuracy of the algorithms being used.

Research looking at 1st Year Undergraduate student engagement and progression showed that the lower a student’s engagement was, the less likely they were to progress. As a result, the key indicator on the Student Dashboard shows engagement. The Dashboard indicates to tutors when a student was ‘at risk’ due to low engagement. On their own personal Dashboard, students can see how their engagement compares to the course average (see Fig. 1). The presenters made it clear the Dashboard was not a panacea, but a tool to be used by both tutor and student to start conversations on issues that might be affecting engagement and attainment. However, for these conversations to take place, there needs to be a functioning personal tutoring system.

Screen shot of the homepage of the personal tutor portal at King's College, London. Shows the simple design and how everything is grouped into one place.
Fig. 2: Homepage of the personal tutor portal at King’s College, London

Developing a network of personal tutors
Dr. Alison Stenton and Cara Attenborough (2017), from King’s College, London, outlined the project they worked on to enhance the personal tutoring network there (presentation). Recognising they would only get buy-in from academics if they demonstrated a clear rationale for personal tutoring, they started with fundamental questions such as: ‘what difference does personal tutoring make?’ and ‘what impact does personal tutoring have on attainment and experience gap?’ In addition, they kept practical questions in mind: What is useful? What is sustainable?

The Code of Practice for personal tutors was rewritten so it wasn’t so explicit or prescriptive that it became burdensome, but rather it was flexible enough for tutors to shape it to their needs. This came from an awareness of the differing working cultures of individuals and departments. Furthermore, staff were asked how they felt about personal tutoring. Essentially, they did not feel adequately supported in terms of resources and training provided. What they wanted was:

  • ‘At a glance’ guides for referrals to specialist services
  • FAQs
  • Discussion point outlines
  • Case studies
  • A Student Guide to personal tutoring

In response, face-to-face training for personal tutors was provided together with resources for both staff and students. A student guide to personal tutoring was created in consultation with the Students’ Union. In addition, a portal was developed on the intranet to be a one-stop shop for information about personal tutoring (see Fig. 2). In conjunction with these resources, a new training system was launched. Now, two types of training are provided for personal tutors. A 2.5-hour induction for new personal tutors and a 1-hour refresher session for those who feel the need. The training was based on the redeveloped code of practice:

  • outlining the role
  • giving a rationale for inclusive practice
  • providing essential information and resources
  • workshopping case studies

Feedback has been positive and attendance has increased. Now faculties are recognising the benefit of the training, they are beginning to require that tutors attend.

Model showing the characteristics of effective interventions and approaches to foster belonging: mainstream, proactive, relevant, collaborative, monitored and well-timed using appropriate media.
Fig. 3: Characteristics of effective interventions and approaches to foster belonging

The keynote speaker, Liz Thomas (2017) recognised that in recent years there has been a growing interest in personal tutoring in HE (presentation). She suggested this was due to a number of factors: increased competition in the sector, with concerns about league table position which is influenced by student satisfaction and retention; and also the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Rather than focusing on metrics, Thomas showed the importance of the human touch:

“It is the human side of higher education that comes first – finding friends, feeling confident and above all, feeling a part of your course of study and the institution – that is the necessary starting point for academic success.” (Thomas, 2017)

Referring to findings from What works? Phase 1, Thomas (2012) argued that a strong sense of belonging lies at the heart of student retention and success in HE, suggesting this is most effectively nurtured through students’ engagement in mainstream academic activities that all students participate in. Thus placing inclusive learning and teaching at the heart of effective student retention and success. Thomas presented a model for the characteristics of effective interventions and approaches to foster belonging (see Fig. 3).

The evidence from What works? Phase 1 suggests that personal tutoring can help improve student retention and success by:

  • helping students to develop a relationship with an academic member of staff in their discipline, which means they are more likely to feel ‘connected’.
  • providing students with reassurance, guidance and feedback about their academic studies in particular, and working in partnership with professional services.

To sum up, Thomas argued that a “sense of belonging is developed through peer relations, interaction with staff, developing the capacity to be an effective learner and have a relevant HE experience.” Bearing in mind the feedback the academics gave about personal tutoring at King’s College, London, the same is arguably true for staff.

There are many interesting initiatives we can learn from in order to enhance the student and staff experience. However, one key question is how to foster a sense of belonging in a time poor environment. What initiatives have worked in your department? Comment below or write a post here on the Learning at City blog.


Nottingham Trent University (2017) ‘Using learning analytics to boost personal tutoring‘, UK Advising and Tutoring conference. Leeds Trinity University, Leeds, 5-6 April.

Stenton, A. and Attenborough, C. (2017) ‘Developing resources for the ‘busy but diligent‘ personal tutors at King’s’, UK Advising and Tutoring conference. Leeds Trinity University, Leeds, 5-6 April.

Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme. Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/building-student-engagement-and-belonging-higher-education-time-change-final-report. (Accessed: 5 June 2017).

Thomas, L. (2017) ‘Using tutoring to improve student success‘, UK Advising and Tutoring conference. Leeds Trinity University, Leeds, 5-6 April.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One thought on “Learning analytics, personal tutoring and belonging: highlights from the 2017 UKAT conference

  1. Thanks very much, Dan. I think the ideas for personal tutor resources are interesting and could be developed at City too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *