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Staff Development

Case Studies

Examine the case studies below considering the following questions:

  1. What is the issue?
  2. What action could you take?
  3. Should the student be referred to Student Services?  If so, which service?
  4. Is there any support that you can give the student?
  • You notice that a student who has asked you for help previously is coming to ask for help and information repeatedly.

    A student who feels insecure and who identifies someone as understanding or helpful may prefer to keep referring to that person rather than using other areas of student support available.  The task here may be to encourage the student to access other services, such as Student Services where underlying issues can be addressed if necessary.  You may need to explain to the student the limit of your expertise and time to deal with issues that are not strictly academic.  It can sometimes help to make a referral while the student is in the room so it is ‘endorsed’ by you.  This behaviour could be an indication of a mental health vulnerability, though this is not necessarily the case.

  • One of your advisees is very articulate student who is engaged with his subject. His written work, however, appears careless. He tells you he is finding it extremely hard to keep up with the course reading and is anxious about being asked to read aloud in class.

    One possibility is that the student is dyslexic.  A discussion with the student would be useful to explore further the gap between their written work and their participation in class.  This needs to be approached sensitively.  The student may know they are dyslexic but not want to disclose it.  It is also possible that they have not previously considered the possibility.  Sometimes a diagnosis of this kind can be a relief but it can also be hard to come to terms with.  The ADD Learning Advisors can screen students for possible dyslexia before they commit themselves to the time and cost involved in a full assessment.  If students are anxious about reading or speaking in class, it is generally not helpful to put them ‘on the spot’.

  • One of your students always sits alone and often leaves early. His course marks are OK but not as good as might be expected. He has never really approached you about a problem.

    The question here is whether any intervention is called for, in that the student is attending and could be said to be performing adequately.  The student is not seeking your help and there may be other students who cause you more concern.  However, if you have regular tutorial contact, even if once a term you would have an opportunity to ask the student in a straightforward way how they are getting on.  You could also, informally, let the student know that you are aware that they often leave early and ask whether they have a regular commitment that clashes with the timing of the class (part time work/childcare or other caring responsibilities).  This would show concern and could give you useful information about the student.

  • A second year student doesn't attend all the seminars and has failed to complete 2 assignments. When he comes to see you he says he has to work part time and can’t always make classes on time.

    The apparent issue is financial hardship, but there is potential for more complex underlying issues.  It is important to explore with the student to gather further information as well as to stress the implications of non-attendance and non-submission of work.  The student can be referred to the International Student and Welfare Advisors.

  • A student comes to speak to you, starts telling you that her father has cancer. She is very tearful.

    A tearful student does not necessarily need counselling!  They may just need some acknowledgement of a difficult life event, some human compassion and perhaps guidance, if academic work is/is likely to be affected.  However it would be appropriate to remind the student that the counselling service is available if she would find it helpful to talk to someone during this time.

  • One of your female advisees says she is concerned about the unwanted attention she is receiving from a male student. She feels apprehensive and nervous around him.

    In these circumstances it is worth getting some more specific information: what is the nature of the ‘unwanted attention’?  Does it sound inappropriate?  Has she found any way of letting the student know that his behaviour is unwelcome?  There may be cultural or other sensibilities so that the same behaviour can have different meanings for the different individuals.  However, she is uncomfortable and some way needs to be found to communicate that clearly to the other student.  If it appears to be harassment, the School has a Dignity Policy (pending approval) and a Grievance Procedure if the student wants to take action.  Advice is available from the Diversity Advisor, and the student herself can access support from Student Services.

  • One of the students in your group is behaving in a way that is difficult to manage, speaking loudly and interrupting other students. Other students are clearly uncomfortable about this behaviour.

    There may be highly complex issues here including mental health vulnerability or other underlying disability or general behavioural difficulties.  There may also be cultural norms that are unfamiliar to the student.

    More exploration with the student is necessary to ascertain how aware the student is of their behaviour and its impact.  If appropriate seek advice from Student Services, which can initially be without naming the student.

  • A student tells you he is having problems paying his rent and bills on time and says that his student loan hasn't arrived

    The International Student and Welfare Service can offer students a Financial Health check and disburse hardship funds to which students can apply.

  • A student comes to see you s/he is a first year undergraduate on a 2 subject degree. S/he has had difficulty settling and seems not to have attended any lectures or tutorials for the first 3 weeks of term. S/he seems reserved and reluctant to give much detail.

    This student may be at risk of dropping out.  There is a tutorial role here in exploring with her any academic concerns she may have, what her expectations of the course were and any other factors she thinks may have made it difficult to settle.  She may need some on going support both from you as a tutor, from the Learning Advisors in the ADD and/or from Student Services.  She may find it helpful to have a student buddy (co-ordinated by Student Services) and may find more engagement in social activities through the Students’ Union leads her to feel more involved.

  • Students reporting ‘no problems’ Student A

    Student A says he is settling down OK, has made some friends and generally quite likes it, though he has one or two minor complaints.  He says he has been attending classes regularly, but did not do as well as he had hoped in the recent tests, failing some, but is now putting in a lot more work.  He says he had not realised that he was not putting in enough work until he got his marks, so he has changed his part time job to give him more time to study.  He reports that his latest marks have improved.  He does not appear to be anxious about the situation.

    From a personal tutor’s point of view, this student seems to have made a realistic appraisal of the situation, though it would be necessary to listen out for other issues that might have been missed.  He seems able to self-adjust his behaviour in response to feedback from the environment and shows confidence in dealing with the transition to HE despite this initial setback.  Such students seem to appreciate feeling ‘known’ by the tutor, but contact is not sought out.  The tutor needs to keep in contact, but with a light touch unless circumstances change.

  • Students reporting study-related problems ( and failing early tests) Student B

    Student B is an 18 year old male from a background where nobody has previous experience of HE. He appears confident and street-wise, with a touch of bravado.  He says he failed in his subject tests due to ‘bad luck’ or a problem in the environment.  If pressed, he concedes he might do more work on the course than he does, but seems unworried.  Despite his test results, he has not modified his working habits (which appear to the tutor to be insufficient work combined with ineffective work methods and a surface approach to study) and seems not to see it as his responsibility.

    From a personal tutor’s point of view, this student is having difficulty with the transition to HE and is not able to adjust his behaviour in response to environmental feedback.  It seems probable that he is adopting a strategy of it being better to fail by not doing any work than to try and still fail (Covington and Omelich 1979), though it would be necessary to listen out for other issues that may have been missed. Students with this particular approach to transition difficulties are, in my experience, more likely to be male and risk of failure or dropping out without adequate support.  They are unlikely to seek counselling and many may not approach the personal tutor at all unless the system is proactive.

    The personal tutor would work together with the student to look (firmly but supportively) at the reality of the situation, in particular what he wants from the course and how this can be achieved, providing realistic information as required.  It is helpful to catch this student early when there is still time for progress to be made.  Help with study skills is usually necessary and the student may be referred for academic help.  The tutor would aim to give support and containment, with tutor and student working in partnership to solve the problem.  The tutor may need to give information on how to study, whilst encouraging the student to move towards a more independent approach.  If he has got into debt, he may need referring to a financial advisor in the university.  This student may need regular meetings so he can work initially towards a series of shorter-term goals.  He may need reminding of them.  Whilst many students improve sufficiently to pass, some students may not manage to improve quickly enough to pass, some students may not manage to improve quickly enough and may need to repeat the course the following year if possible.

  • Student C

    Student C is a young student who has not done well so far and is very worried.  He feels he has study problems, though he felt he was ok at school.  He is having problems settling in, desperately missing his family and the old environment.  At his old school, his teachers took an interest in him and gave him lots of help.  His parents made sure he did his homework.  What he had to do was clearly laid out, so he just followed the indicated path.  It is clear that there is a present less environmental support and more demand to function independently than he feels he can cope with at such short notice, despite attending well and studying.  He is unsuccessfully applying methods of coping and working that seemed to have been successful in the post , but no longer seem to be so.  He doesn’t not know what to do about it and is frightened and worried by this inability to make headway.

    The personal tutor might consider this student to be at risk of failing or dropping out, particularly if he does not live at home during term-time.  He needs to feel ‘known’, supported and contained, with regular meetings until he has found his feet, which may take some time (some students may need to ‘touch base’ from time to time throughout the first year).  He needs study skills help, and may possibly need referring for academic help.  The tutor would listen out for other issues that might have been missed and this student is much more likely than student B to consider going to counselling if necessary.

  • Students reporting study-related problems (and passing early tests) Student D

    Student D is a mature student who very much wants to do well.  He says he has study problems - he cannot understand the academic material, he is falling behind etc.  He reports that he gets good marks and works and attends very conscientiously, but he is extremely worried about his progress and unsure that he has understood the course requirements.  He has always done well in the past, despite thinking he will not.

    The student expects high standards of himself, which he may indeed have often achieved.  He needs support, containment and a listening ear; a counselling referral may be considered in some cases.  Realistic information may be needed about course requirements and the amount of work necessary (the student may be working to excess).  The student may be employing a strategy of defensive pessimism (Cantor and Norem 1987) to gain control of stressful situations by worrying in advance.  the personal tutor needs to consider periodic meetings to listen, help him with time management where necessary and give feedback and information where appropriate.  Meetings may also be necessary before stress points such as exams.  Again the tutor needs to listen for issues that may have been missed.

  • Students reporting non-study related problems Student E

    Student E has missed an early coursework deadline and is very worried and anxious.  There is a family crisis - the student cannot concentrate on anything but the crisis and has not attended classes or done any work since the situation developed.

    The personal tutor would need to spend time listening to the student, whilst also trying to gauge the potential duration and seriousness of the situation for him and the likely support needed.  A means needs to be considered of allowing this student the ‘space’ to cope with the crisis until he is able to return to work.  In some cases the student may be unable to cope with dealing with university bureaucracy, and the tutor may need to take over some of this temporarily, such as talking to other tutors on his behalf or helping fill in forms.  The tutor may feel the need for consultation with an experienced colleague or counsellor and may also consider a counselling referral for the student (and in some cases, referral to other Student Services).

    Regular supportive meetings are needed with the tutor and students may may need help with planning work and time management.  Other issues that may have been missed need to be listened for.  In some cases (particularly if the external crisis does not resolve or is part of a larger ongoing very difficulty situation and is seriously affecting the student’s academic functioning in the longer term) it may be necessary to consider with the student the option of withdrawal or of coming back to the university the following year.

  • References

    Cantor, N., Norem, J.K. et al (1987) Life Tasks, Self-Concept Ideals and Cognitive Strategies in a Life Transition.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 53/6 pp 1178-1191


    Covington, M.V. and Omelich, C.L. (1979) Effort, the double edged sword in school achievement.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 169-182