Defining the role of tutoring for university students – where is the line?

Private tutoring is a profession that is always evolving, but has traditionally maintained a similar form and purpose; that is to provide students with one-to-one care, attention and support to help them improve their academic performance, pass crucial exams, and overcome any individual barriers and challenges they may face in ways that a traditional classroom education cannot. A tutor is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “A private teacher, typically one who teaches a single pupil or a very small group”.

At Tutors International, we receive enquiries from families of students at all stages of their academic career and development, each with very different and very specific educational needs. These range from early years education, right up to those in higher education. The tutors we provide for these families are talented professionals, hand-picked by us to meet each student’s needs, who often go above and beyond to ensure that those needs are met, while also acting as a personal mentor.

University policies on extra-curricular support

We recently redacted a job listing from our website, following concerns raised by the student’s university that the level of academic assistance they were seeking from us went above and beyond what would, traditionally, be considered as extra-curricular support, and could, potentially, put them in breach of its student agreement. At the time of publishing, we felt satisfied that it did not contravene any university policy but, upon speaking to the client and learning of the institution’s concerns, we took the decision to withdraw the vacancy.

The job specification in question required the tutor to be deeply involved in the student’s daily learning, including producing additional learning materials and being present in lectures for note-taking. On the surface of it, this may imply an unfair advantage over other students, or even a risk of plagiarism. On further consideration, however, it really isn’t that black and white, and deserves an intelligent discussion.

Private tutoring for university students would traditionally take place outside of the student’s full-time academic timetable, either one-to-one in person, or face-to-face via a digital platform such as Skype. The tutors that Tutors International provides are highly qualified and hand-picked for each client, and assist their students by reviewing study materials, identifying and addressing areas or topics where the student may be experiencing challenges, and teaching good study habits. The tutor is not doing the work for the student, merely giving a guiding hand where it is needed, and ensuring that the student understands study materials and topics in order to progress with assignments and exams.

How much help is too much help?

Where we start to see a blur is where additional provision is made in the lecture hall for students with special educational needs, raising the far broader question of what is fair help for students who have genuine impediments to their studies? Blind students, for example, often have readers at university to help them access materials, and the university provides reduced content to enable the volume of material to be manageable, and dyslexic students may be given written notes because they be unable to write quickly enough to be able to take full notes themselves.

If tutoring in general were to become frowned upon by universities, merely due to a level of input from a third party, shouldn’t we also be monitoring student study groups and revision sessions and preventing them from sharing notes with one another? These are commonplace activities, and many students benefit massively from sharing their private study time with others. I see no issue in students seeking support for their studies from among their peers, lecturers or elsewhere.

A great many university students take advantage of private tutoring, in some form, during the course of their degree studies – from a simple one-to-one appointment with their designated course tutor, to hourly online tutoring provision in their spare time to prepare for an important exam. It is a highly beneficial and effective way to ensure that topics and course materials are understood and used effectively. In this instance, I believe wholeheartedly that the value of a university degree should be determined not by how much time has been spent on it by the student, but by what they have actually learned.




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