The Skills of the Personal Tutor

This section contains useful links, documents and videoclips relating to the whole range of skills required of a tutor responsible for PDP. The skills are broken down into subsections below, but some materials relate holistically to different aspects of tutoring skills and appear under more than one section.

Setting agendas; clarifying expectations; developing contracts

The links and materials in this section relate to the task of managing the expectations of tutees, in relation to both the tutor’s role and their own role, and what will take place in tutorial meetings.

You may find it useful to have a written document for students on what they should expect from a personal tutor, whether this document is from the institution, your school/department or the programme team. Here is an example of such a document, from the University of Brighton: What to expect

Whether or not students are given such a document, it is important to clarify the personal tutor’s role and check the student’s expectations at the first meeting. If this is a group meeting, then it is sensible to check again at the first one-to-one meeting.

It is likely to be particularly important to have this conversation (more than once if necessary) when your tutees will have no idea what to expect from the label. This might be because they are students from a different educational culture or they are the first in their family to enter higher education. 

It is useful to discuss the personal tutoring relationship as one which has responsibilities for both parties. There may be occasions when it is appropriate to go beyond a guidance document for students, and develop a ‘contract’ between tutor and student. This reinforces the idea that the tutor’s time, support and advice are a valuable and limited resource. Keeping appointments and carrying out tasks that have been mutually agreed should be treated as serious undertakings.

A key skill for most personal tutors is how to persuade a student who needs to access a specialist service that this would be in his or her best interests, without making themselves appear uncaring or unconcerned (see Referral to other/specialist services). Being clear from the beginning about your role and its limitations should help to achieve this ‘handing-on’ of the student, should it become necessary, without damaging your own relationship with the student.

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Establishing rapport

Establishing rapport

The links and materials in this section relate to the skills involved in establishing rapport between tutor and tutee.

Some personal tutors find the most difficult part of the role is to establish an initial rapport with their tutees which will provide a solid basis for the tutor-tutee relationship. It may be particularly a problem with a shy, monosyllabic eighteen-year-old. Making the effort to meet as soon as possible after the student’s arrival may seem like hard work but it should pay dividends if the student needs later to seek support for an issue which is personal or sensitive. Such a student is less likely to be intimidated if he or she has already been welcomed as an individual by a freindly tutor, possibly in the tutor’s own room.

If the first meeting is a group meeting, a group exercise may be appropriate to introduce everyone to everyone else. Here is a very simple example: Introductory Group Excercise 

With a first one-to-one meeting, it may help to ask the student to complete a brief preparatory exercise. This could be brought to the meeting but could also, if the instruction is to email it in advance of the meeting, be used to check that the tutee knows the tutor’s email address.

Here is a set of very typical questions which many students are asked to think about at induction. When personal tutoring is linked to personal development planning (PDP), the answers to such a set of questions could well form the first reflection or personal record that a student makes. This will then allow a student to reflect back at a later point and help him/her to recognise personal change and progress. 

Introductory PDP Questions 

However, the key to establishing rapport probably lies in non-verbal signals such as a welcoming facial expression, eye contact and an open posture. Together these signal interest and receptivity, conveying a willingness to listen and not to be judgemental (see Effective listening/questioning skills).


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Giving feedback

 The links and materials in this section relate to giving constructive feedback to tutees, and how to increase the chance that they will hear your messages and engage with the feedback. 

It is widely recognised that feedback to the learner is a key aspect of the learning process. There is now an extensive literature and excellent advice on good practice in relation to feedback on students’ academic work. Personal tutors may well find themselves engaged in giving feedback to tutees on their academic performance (though perhaps rarely on individual pieces of work, more typically on general patterns of performance).

To be effective, feedback must not only be given: it must be ‘heard’ and acted upon. There are well-recognised barriers to learners engaging with feedback. Of course, the feedback must be clear and comprehensible, couched in language which the listener will understand. However, there are other, powerful, emotional barriers to engaging with feedback. It can be perceived as personally threatening in many ways and, in self-defence, the learner may reject it without even being fully aware of doing this. The skills of giving feedback are largely about overcoming this rejection and supporting the learner in accepting the feedback and acting on it.

 Learners also rely on feedback to learn about themselves as social actors: how others perceive them; whether they ‘come across’ as helpful; constructive and engaged; or negative, bored or passive. Personal tutors may also feel it valuable at times to offer feedback on how a tutee’s attitude and behaviour is perceived by others. This can feel like a more difficult task for the tutor, as an invasion of the student’s personal space. Unlike a piece of coursework, students can see their behaviour as an essential part of their personality and quickly become defensive.  

Helping students to act on feedback often means helping them plan their next steps (see Supporting planning and objective setting).

The handout below explains how to make it more likely, in any circumstances where you need to give individual feedback, that your advice is accepted and acted upon. It goes through several techniques which can be learned and adapted, and is useful for mentors, line managers and supervisors as well as for personal tutors.

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Effective listening/questioning skills

These links and materials relate to the interpersonal skills of active listening, clarifying, probing and asking non-directive questions.

There is a wealth of material available which describes the skills of effective or active listening and also effective questioning techniques. While these can help an inexperienced personal tutor to understand the difference between giving advice and facilitating another’s decisions, there is no real substitute for practicing. This is where role-play can be extremely valuable, although many people are initially reluctant to take part (see Using these resources for a workshop which makes use of a relatively non-threatening approach to role-play.) 

Here is some brief advice from the University of Reading: Listening skills

Facilitating someone's personal growth and decision-making abilities naturally draws on the concepts and theories of client-centred counselling. The handout below describes the range of techniques used by counsellors, placing them on a pendulum: at one end the counsellor/tutor solves the problems of the client/student; at the other, the client/student is helped to solve problems themselves.

Counselling techniques

Certainly the skills of active listening, drawing out, clarifying and reflecting back are a basic part of the counsellor’s repertoire, but most personal tutor guides emphasise strongly that the personal tutor is not the same as a trained counsellor. These techniques can be powerful, sometimes making the tutee aware of emotions previously unacknowledged or ignored – and personal tutors suddenly find themselves out of their depth with a highly-distressed student. It is helpful to be prepared by discussing in advance (with more experienced tutors and during training session) how such a situation can be handled. 

In particular it is helpful to set clear boundaries to the relationship from the beginning, and to be very clear about how to access more specialist services who have the training and the time to offer help (see the Setting agendas; clarifying expectations; developing contracts and Referral to other/specialist services).

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Supporting planning and objective setting

The links and materials in this section relate to ways of supporting tutees in action planning and ensuring that they leave tutorials with a clear agenda and set of targets.

Action planning is the activity most closely associated in many people’s minds with the personal development planning (PDP) initiative in UK higher education. Yet skills in action planning have arguably received less attention in educational literature than reflective skills. And while the two sets of skills are connected within the concept of PDP, there seems little reason to suppose that they are connected in a student’s learning. People in general can be very good at analysing their experience and very bad at planning their future actions!

Simple guidance to make planning more effective can be expressed as an acronym: the instruction to set SMART targets encompasses the good advice that targets should be:




Relevant and


The Assignment Survival Kit is a simple online tool developed at the Universities of Kent and Staffordshire, which students can use for planning any kind of assignment.

More simple tools for students to use in planning their time effectively can be found on the Learnhigher website under the Time Management section.


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Referral to other/specialist services

The links and materials in this section relate to the knowledge and interpersonal skills involved in referring tutees to specialist (often central institutional) services while maintaining one’s own approachability as tutor.

Knowledge of the range of services offered by your institution to support students is an essential part of the training of a new personal tutor. There is some variability but, almost certainly, your institution will offer a careers service, a counselling service and some form of specialist support for students with disabilities. There may also be central support for learning development/study skills (sometimes with specialist help for mathematics and writing); housing, financial and legal advice; specialist support for international students; and a health service. Sometimes, central services from the institution may appear to be duplicated by similar services from the Students' Union: it is worth knowing what is offered as some students will feel more comfortable accessing services via the Students' Union.

Hopefully all this information and, crucially, how to access these services, will have been gathered together by the institution as part of a guide to personal tutors, but this may not always be the case.

Personal tutors should be able to think of these services as their back-up and support. Confidence in your knowledge of what is available and how to access it will help you to stay within the boundaries of your role. There is skill involved in persuading a student to accept a referral to another source of support without feeling rejected, and confidence in your own knowledge will help.

Below is a list of issues which a personal tutor might be presented with. In many cases the most appropriate action would be to refer the student for more specialist help. It could be a useful checklist for tutors new to an institution to be helped to complete. 

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Planning and debriefing work experience placements

This section relates to a specific set of tasks which many PDP tutors are required to undertake; the briefing and debriefing of tutees in relation to work placements. As the number of those continuing to higher education has grown, so there has been an increasing emphasis on the role of universities in preparing students for future employment. Work experience plays a key role in developing employability. The workplace is a rich environment for learning but can be chaotic: to gain the maximum from their exposure to it, students need careful briefing and debriefing.

As well as offering students opportunities to apply their subject-related knowledge and skills, workplaces will almost certainly require good time management, will help them to develop communication and teamwork skills and may allow them to demonstrate initiative and reliability. Students need to be fully aware of the value of these experiences for use in future job applications and interviews.

Less obvious but equally important to employers (who frequently complain about students’ lack of business and commercial awareness), is the opportunity to learn about how organisations work and the business models they run on; whether they are profit-making private enterprises, public sector organisations or ‘third sector’ charities. Personal tutors do not need to be experts themselves: there are many simple exercises and questions to alert students to these aspects of their placement organisation.

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