Are we getting it right? Using an MBA Placement Tutor Snapshot survey during the pandemic to support effective personal tutoring


The MBA International Business Programme in the Greenwich Business School is a large programme with a predominantly international student cohort. The programme has three intakes – in September, January and April, providing nearly 1,000 students across the academic year. At the recent Learning and Teaching Festival, we discussed a survey-based snapshot innovation implemented by the module leader to support the personal tutoring of the MBA placement year.


In many respects, the MBA International Business (MBA-IB) student cohort can be considered vulnerable (McFarlane, 2016) with varying levels of English, academic backgrounds and understanding of the systems, processes and academic norms in UK Higher Education. To complete an MBA, students are required to complete a 9-month internship or exit at the end of year one with an MA. For many, this places pressure on performing well whilst dealing with new recruitment and work environments.

During the MBA-IB programme the students’ personal tutors (now called placement tutors) are involved in supporting them before, during and after their internships. These key relationships are difficult to establish in normal times. With an enlarging programme the academic and professional services staff tend to triage a high number of students in a fast-paced environment. The Covid pandemic meant that these relationships had the additional complication of becoming fully remote, where digital inequality meant that it was essential that tutors did not simply rely on students making contact.

The Module Leader during the placement year needed a way to see – at a glance – through a systematic tracking process, who needed additional support; to spot anyone going ‘off radar’ before they vanished (Thomas et al, 2017). The current University of Greenwich Personal Tutor dashboard does not provide users an ‘in the moment’ transparent overview of grades, engagement, and student contacts in this way. The increased vulnerability of the students during Covid created a need for more support and protection, and particularly to gather what students are not saying (Seale, 2010). This survey provided tutors guidance on making best use of tutee meetings, pinpointing students in need, creating talking points, contact methods and identifying preferences such as group/one-on-one meetings. The survey outcomes can also be used for personal tutor reflective practice to improve both new and established personal tutors (Lochtie et al, 2018) by providing a real-time sense of impact and success.

Survey questions were a mixture of Likert and open text responses delivered through the Virtual Learning Environment, Moodle, while submitting student monthly reports. These monthly questionnaires are a key piece of engagement data for UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) compliance purposes and so both the students and institution take them seriously. There was a high level of response to the survey, 78% of 478 students in April, with follow-up for any student who did not respond to encourage response in the following month. Non-engagements are then followed up through the retention department, and if necessary, Visa Compliance.

Survey Responses

The survey responses showed that students valued their connections with their personal tutors highly, 4.2/5. It demonstrated a high level of comfort to share information with their tutors, 3.95/5 and a score of 4.4/5 to the question ‘Is your personal tutor supporting you?’. The finding highlighting the higher level of support perceived by the tutees (4.4) compared to the value sought (4.2) by the students. A finding consistent in the literature where personal tutors provide more than is expected by tutees (Bartram, 2009).

Emotional state during Covid

Very few students stated they were not feeling negative emotional well-being during Covid. The 18% who are feeling unsupported are those personal tutors should focus on.

Table 1. Survey responses (Emotions)

Remarkably, 0% feeling they are disappointed with the institution or the instruction is a welcomed finding.  57% expressed ‘feeling uncertainty for the future’ can suggest the negative feelings due to Covid are not directed at the institution, but focused instead on the uncertainty around graduate prospects in an uncertain market.

Preferred contact methods

This can be used by personal tutors (PT) to group students and reach out to them in different ways if needed, thereby reducing the PT resource time. There were a surprising number of students who would prefer face-to-face meetings upon our return to campus, given these students are essentially distance learners while on internship placement. This may point to a need to increase connection with our students while on placement. 

Personal Email42%
Table 2. Survey responses (Communication)

Qualitative Responses

The qualitative responses indicated a strong sense of emotional support being received by the students, which is combined with a sense of confident relationships built by those comfortable with online contact. Students discuss the practical support they’ve received, including help with, for example, internship paperwork, navigating situations at work and dealing with university administration. It is also clear that students valued their questions being answered quickly – there appears to be a correlation between the speed of response and their satisfaction with that response. A strong sense of the value of effective signposting is present, linked to the quick and effective resolution of queries. For many of the students the support they discussed was a combination of academic (deadlines, support with assignments), practical and emotional, indicating that there is value in having a ‘one stop’ point of contact for students. Some acknowledged that they weren’t accessing the support as it was “just another thing to fit in” but were pleased to know it was there if they need it.

There is gratitude from the students for the help they receive, and some sense that the tutors benefit from it as well:

“More engagement with the students. A more personalised approach. it might be hard and time-consuming but it’s totally worth the effort.

Students also recognise that they don’t always take up the help that’s offered:

“I do feel supported but also feel that I get carried away and forget to even answer and communicate with anyone sometimes.”

Many of the students highlighted academic support as being especially valuable. Emotional wellbeing was important too:

“I prefer if they could invest time in knowing the students’ feelings and situations during the pandemic. This will help the students mentally as well.”

There was interest in tutors supporting longer term career development:

“Conduct more 1-2-1 meetings. Guide us on how we should move forward in our future.“

One of the questions asked students to consider who they felt should provide personal tutoring, a current live topic of discussion at an institutional level. The students surveyed showed a strong preference for academics teaching on modules to be personal tutors:

  • Should personal tutors be those academics who are teaching on the modules (our current form of Personal Tutoring)? 45% 
  • Should we have trained academic staff in personal tutoring, where not all academic staff provide PT, but those who do are designated personal tutors (Such as UKAT training/designations)? 48%
  • Should we move personal tutoring to administration provided by professional staff who are non-teaching staff? 6%

The clear preference for those tutors to be trained in personal tutoring supports the value of the current investment in UKAT accreditation.


Overall, the snapshot survey provided a useful and practical tool to support PT’s and a large cohort of students. We are currently digging deeper into the qualitative analysis and considering how this approach could be scaled to enable a better early warning system with other cohorts of students. It is pleasing, as personal tutors ourselves, to have confirmation of the value that students perceive in personal tutoring and to have some of our ‘gut instinct’ reactions confirmed, such as needing a primary point of contact. Credit must go to the tutors on the module who each received individual praise from their tutees, and their considerable investment of time, knowledge and expertise must be recognised. The growing institutional commitment to contributing to the sector-wide discussion about how best to support tutors and students may benefit from tools and approaches built on this snapshot. Specifically, developing this tool to enable personal tutors to have a bird’s eye view of their tutees could support retention, academic success and student wellbeing by enabling early detection of students in need of the support. Effective reflection is enhanced by the opportunity to stand back from the detail and consider the whole. By affording personal tutors this view, it could support their personal reflection and development. Alongside this, it could be possible to create a system which identifies personal tutors who need additional support and training through careful interpretation of the data.

Katherine Leopold, Senior Teaching Fellow (Business School), University of Greenwich

Ronald Gibson, Teaching Fellow (Business School), University of Greenwich


Bartram, B. (2009). Student support in higher education: Understandings, implications and challenges. Higher Educ. Q. 63, 308–314.

Lochtie, D., McIntosh, E., Stork, A., and Walker, B.W. (2018). Effective personal tutoring in higher education. Critical Publishing, Essex.

McFarlane, K.J. (2016) Tutoring the tutors: Supporting effective personal tutoring. Active learning in Higher Education, 17(1):77-88.

Seale, J. (2010). Doing student voice work in higher education: an exploration of the value of participatory methods. Br. Educ. Res. J. 36, 995–1015 doi: 10.1080/01411920903342038 Thomas, L., Hill, M., O’Mahony, J. and Yorke, M. (2017) Supporting student success: Strategies for institutional change. What works? Student retention and success programme. Final report. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

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