‘Teachers have three loves: love of learning, love of learners, and the love of bringing the first two loves together.’–Scott Hayden
For first-year undergraduate students, starting university can be a daunting experience, and so can encountering a technical subject for the first time. Small group tutorial sessions become helpful to these students as it enables them to engage with the technicalities of a subject in smaller groups. However, considering that most small group tutorial sessions tend to be for short periods of time (about an hour), it can be argued that in some instances, opportunities for students to access one-to-one academic support as part of a module, may be required. This individualized academic support program should adopt a student-centred learning approach, where the students and their success are prioritized. Therefore, sessions are expected to be semi-formal, flexible, and designed to meet the students’ academic needs.
This academic support is different from the personal supervisory support or a mentoring program. Whereas a personal supervisor provides general guidance to ensure the supervisee progresses through their education, one-to-one academic support aims to help the student acquire the required technical knowledge of the module early on in their academic journey. As regards a mentoring program, Hur et al. (2018) observed that one of the reasons for its existence is to alleviate the stress students experience due to challenges with their academics. On the contrary, one-to-one academic support is intended to prevent any stress from academic failure, thus adopting a root-cause approach.
As a Post-Graduate Researcher (PGR), who was opportune to support teaching on an accounting module, I have had to provide this kind of one-to-one academic support to a group of level 4 students, howbeit informally. Each session was for about three hours and afforded me enough time to meet the individual academic needs of the students. During the sessions, we discussed the fundamental accounting concepts, progressed through lecture notes, and practiced as many questions as we could, to reinforce the students’ understanding. Very importantly, every student felt ‘safe’ to ask questions relating to the topics being discussed and as they acquired enough foundational knowledge, we progressed to solving past examination questions for the module.
The effort put in by the students and I paid off, as firstly, each of them developed the level of confidence required to successfully study and excel in the module. Some even began to consider changing their major course of study to Accounting. For some others, they promptly cleared their doubts through asking questions, and after a while, realized that the additional support was no longer required. This was a personal victory as I had desired that the students should become independent learners as quickly as possible.
What worked well?
Knowledge of the students
Knowledge of each student was essential. There was a need to understand what each student already knew about the subject, as well as their learning styles and beliefs (Moloney & Saltmarsh, 2016). This aligns with cognitivism – a learning approach based on information (external) and the thought processes (internal) of the student (Fairbanks, 2021). This knowledge enabled me to design sessions to ensure students acquired the required technical knowledge, while debunking any negative mindsets that could impede their progress.
Knowledge of the subject
The rule, ‘nemo dat quod non habet’ meaning ‘you cannot give what you do not have’ (Washington, 2013) holds true. For one-to-one academic support to achieve its intended objectives, the tutor needs to possess the right level of subject knowledge to make meaningful impact on the students. This, added to a good knowledge of the students helped to ensure technical concepts were explained simply for the students to understand, without losing their meaning.
Patience is not just my name; it is a quality which is needed if the tutor will succeed in helping the students. Patience, according to the Cambridge dictionary is ‘the ability to wait, or to continue doing something despite difficulties…’. It is considered a quality of the ‘gritty’ teacher (Dweck, 2014) who wants to be better in what they do. Patience was essential in knowing the students and the subject. During the sessions, explaining the concepts in simple terms, multiple times and responding to students’ questions also required patience. Without patience, one-to-one subject-specific academic support programs would not achieve the intended objectives. Patience is indeed golden!
Benefits of one-to-one academic support
The benefits of one-to-one academic support to students are numerous but I will highlight a few. Firstly, because the interactions between the student and the tutor is semi-formal, it presents an avenue for students to freely discuss subject-specific challenges and receive appropriate help. This is closely related to creating a suitable learning environment which has a direct impact on students’ engagement and helps to boost their level of confidence in themselves as regards that specific subject.
Additionally, this individualized support program presents an opportunity to discuss specialized skills applicable to the module. This could include study skills, life application skills, examination preparation tips and question solving techniques. Study skills are of particular importance as they set the tone for overall success, not just in the specific subject but in other subjects as well, thereby improving the overall academic performance of the students (Hassanbeigi et al., 2011).
Some factors to consider
- Tutor-student ratio. For one-to-one subject-specific academic support to be effective, a low tutor-student ratio of about 1 tutor to 5-7 students may be ideal.
- Tutor availability. Should lecturers be unavailable to provide this service, PGRs may be engaged, affording them the opportunity to gain some teaching experience required for an academic career, while concurrently helping the students.
- Commitment and diligence of students. Students must be willing to attend sessions and take ownership of their learning through timely accomplishing tasks and question asking.
- Commitment and diligence of tutors. The tutors providing one-to-one academic support must be willing to put in the required effort to achieve the objectives of the program.
- Institutional support is required to provide the necessary resources for tutors and students to remain committed to the program.