Exploring academic personal tutoring with under-represented students

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Using reverse mentoring to explore academic personal tutoring in partnership with students who self-identify as under-represented

Rachael O’Connor (School of Law)


Project overview

This project builds on Rachael’s award winning pilot work on reverse mentoring in higher education (HE), to explore how identified principles can be applied to academic personal tutoring (APT) relationships.

The project is important because APT is important, being one of the only opportunities students may have to develop an authentic, one-to-one relationship with a staff member. Tutor/tutee relationships have significant transformational potential for staff and students. However, there are often inconsistencies in how it is approached which can lead to some staff and students ‘checking out’ of the process.  It is crucial that APT is informed by student voices, particularly those who identify as under-represented within HE whose voices are typically marginalised or excluded from mainstream policy decisions.

As well as providing further evidence of the impact of reverse mentoring between staff and students in HE, the project supports us to understand how the institutional review of APT and the introduction of new supportive technology for APT plays out ‘on the ground’ so that we can continue to challenge and to develop. The cross-institutional nature of the project seeks to support in the development of an inclusive and authentic APT provision across campus.

The research seeks to empower students as active decision makers, working in positive partnerships with staff and promoting authentic relationships, belonging, kindness, compassion and mattering. A key objective is to understand challenges faced by students who self-identify as under-represented, particularly those facing intersectional barriers, when it comes to engagement with APT.


The research approach

The project focuses on qualitative research methods in order to gather rich reflections which can meaningfully contribute towards the development of APT policy in the university. The project is split into two phases:

  • Phase 1 involved the co-design of the reverse mentoring scheme with a group of students who self-identify as under-represented from 12 different disciplines (January-July 2022). As well as interviewing APT Leads across campus.
  • Phase 2, currently running, involves the rolling out of the co-designed reverse mentoring scheme across 20 different disciplines with 38 members of staff (mentees) and students (mentors). This has two parts:
    • The building of an authentic and individualised relationship through a ‘traditional’ diversity and inclusion focussed reverse mentoring scheme;
    • Building on that relationship to support staff/student pairs to make proposals for improving APT policy in our University, inspired by participatory action research approaches. This seeks to address an often seen issue with reverse mentoring around the lack of demonstrated impact/culture development as a result of one-to-one, private conversations.

The co-design phase of the project ensures that phase 2 is closely informed by lived experiences and priorities of our students from a range of disciplines and forms of under-representation.  The project in both phases uses PebblePad as a reflection tool for participants.

Through this approach, the project seeks to:

  • Identify and understand staff and student barriers to delivery of institutional APT principles
  • Create positive research partnerships with students, building communities of practice between peers and staff and students
  • Empower students who self-identify as under-represented through leadership exercised during the project, enhancing student experience and longer term life/employability prospects
  • Develop a growing body of data enhancing and scaling up my reverse mentoring work in HE
  • Improve our understanding of how to incentivise students and staff to engage meaningfully with APT across campus
  • Produce cross-campus data contributing to better understanding of the experiences of students who feel under-represented in HE
  • Produce practical guidelines and toolkits on effective APT, designed with students and staff participating in the project
  • Contribute to and develop existing work in the University around sense of belonging, APT, student success and welcome induction and transitions to name a few.

Project progress

Rachael was awarded the Stan Marsh prize for the best paper at the Association of Law Teachers conference 2022 for her published article on the pilot of reverse mentoring.

Rachael has written a blog reflecting on her first year as a fellow and phase 1 of the project. She also published a collection of video and audio images celebrating phase 1, in partnership with Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence intern, Grace Pountney. You can view this publication on the International Journal for Students as Partners.

Rachael would like to extend a huge thanks to the student consultation team who co-designed the project in phase 1 and to all APT leads who agreed to be interviewed. She would also like to thank all staff and students who are taking part in phase 2 – the project is nothing without you so thank you all for your time, energy and dedication.


If you would like to find out more about the project contact Rachael (R.E.OConnor@leeds.ac.uk).

Each fellowship has a project sponsor that helps the fellows achieve impact across the institution. The sponsor for this fellowship is Paul Taylor.

Project start date: October 2021