As an educator, one of the greatest pleasures you may enjoy is seeing how an individual progresses from applicant to graduate, overcoming various challenges along the way. However, the process of transition that students undergo before and at the start of their course can cause psychological distress, anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance and a reduction in self-esteem (Hicks and Heastie, 2008; Palmer et al, 2009). The first 12 months of higher education (HE) is widely recognised as the highest point of attrition in post-secondary education with approximately 10% of students leaving their programme and as many as 42% considering leaving HE generally (Tinto, 1987; Yorke, 2001; Thomas, 2012).
The first eight to ten weeks are clearly the most difficult period of transition when students are at their most vulnerable. They can feel overwhelmed by new responsibilities and expectations that can leave them feeling confused, panicked, lost or isolated (Gutteridge, 2001; Mortenson, 2005; Hixenbaugh et al, 2006; Hicks and Heastie, 2008; Small, 2013). Student attrition in the early part of the course is usually caused by a lack of social and/ or academic integration and often linked to difficulties in making friends or homesickness (Wilcox et al, 2005). New students need support to deal not only with the academic culture shock of adapting to HE but also with other material factors such as the emotional shock of moving away from the familiar home environment to a very different life at university (Wilcox et al, 2005).
The Social Dimension
In the initial transitional phase, students have an urgent need to find a safe place, belong, identify with others and negotiate their new identities as university students (Wilcox et al, 2005). In fact, social integration, relationship forming, stress management and the development of non-academic skills were found to be as influential as academic skills in ensuring successful transition (Richardson, 2000; Stephen et al, 2008; Richardson et al, 2012). It has been suggested that the sector pay greater attention to social aspects of student integration, including peer support arrangements, since students have to manoeuvre through a number of cultures in order to be successful (Lea and Street 2000; Wilcox et al, 2005; McIntosh, 2017).
An induction centred around helping students to settle in, connect to friends and get to know each other is recommended (Parmar and Trotter, 2005; Whittaker, 2008). This might include supporting social and personal issues, overcoming difficulty in making friends or connecting with their personal tutor (Wilcox et al, 2005). The first week of university requires specific attention as it is a key time for students to form relationships and gain a sense of group and cohort identity (Hartwell and Farbrother, 2006). The impact of effective early transition can play a key role in transforming students in terms of their skills, active learning and engagement. It can therefore help determine and support future persistence and success (Thomas, 2002; Palmer et al, 2009).
The role of the personal tutor in transition
The actions of others, such as trained facilitators, can help (or hinder) how an individual progresses through these transitional stages. Therefore, the enabling role that tutors play is key to ensuring the quality of the early student experience (Leibowitz and Schlossberg, 1982; Sargent and Schlossberg, 1988; Lago and Shipton 1999; Brinkworth et al, 2009; Stevenson, 2009; Zepke and Leach, 2010). A personal tutor’s observation, support and instincts can inform a proactive early warning system, contribute towards a sense of belonging, ‘buffer’ against key first- year challenges and develop group identity (Thomas, 2006; Smith, 2008; Stevenson, 2009; Yale, 2017). For these reasons, the quality of relationships and frequency of interactions between academic staff and students is a key influence on their retention, progression and performance (McGivney, 1996; Thomas, 2002; Thomas, 2006; National Audit Office, 2007; Small, 2013).
Student engagement is key. Effective personal tutoring involves getting to know, and building a relationship with, your tutees before they arrive and then serving as a first point of contact very early on during their induction (Thomas, 2012; Calcagno et al, 2017). A favourable first impression of you formed by a face-to-face meeting with your tutees during the first week of study is of significant importance and value to them. It is also key to an ongoing successful relationship (Dobinson- Harrington, 2006; Wisker et al, 2007; Swain, 2008; Yale, 2017). If your tutees do not meet you, or find you intimidating, uncaring or cold, they may feel rejected and reconsider the value and financial implications of their decision to go to university (Yorke and Longden, 2008; Yale, 2017).
To be effective as a personal tutor, it is important to understand the intense anxiety and fear new students experience in relation to the social aspects of transition to university and convey to them that this feeling is perfectly normal and they are not alone (Wilcox et al, 2005). Also critical is understanding that students may have varying expectations of tutoring and support based on previous experiences so these will need to be discussed and managed (Yale, 2017). Your main focus when tutoring new students should be connecting and settling them into the institution while also helping them adjust to university-level study – essentially facilitating both academic and social integration (Barefoot, 2000; Thomas, 2006; Calcagno et al, 2017).
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