The School of Mathematics has long recognised the need for providing its students with support beyond that offered by the University’s established channels: our subject, by its very nature, poses challenges to incoming students in their transition from School-level to University-level Mathematics.
When the University introduced its Personal Tutor (PT) System, the School decided to appoint a Mathematics graduate to the role of Student Learning Advisor (SLA). The role of the SLA encompasses pastoral support akin to that provided by Student Support Officers found in other Schools, but additionally includes subject-specific academic guidance. Our internal website, info.maths.ed.ac.uk (accessed on March 9th, 2017), states “The Student Learning Advisor (SLA) is available to help with a range of issues around and connected to academic study. You can contact the SLA if you would like help or advice on mathematics study, and indeed the SLA may contact you if we are concerned about your progress, so that we can work together to ensure that you achieve your full potential. In addition to your Personal Tutor, the SLA is also a first person to contact if for some reason you are not doing as well as you hoped, either because of study issues or because other factors such as medical problems are preventing you from engaging fully.”
The SLA hence assumes a proactive, rather than merely reactive, role: by monitoring student engagement, students who may benefit from additional support are identified and offered guidance in an inclusive and non-judgemental fashion. Our experience has shown that early intervention is key; therefore, students meet the SLA before they have begun their studies, as part of an Induction Framework developed in collaboration with the Institute for Academic Development (IAD). The Framework aims to develop student self-efficacy and resilience by normalising the perception that Mathematics will be perceived as “hard” by a substantial proportion of our incoming students.
The Framework encompasses several steps. In a pre-arrival reflection, students vocalise their expectations, and identify any concerns they may have; the corresponding survey is made available to PTs, and provides valuable points for discussion. The subsequent Academic Induction, entitled “Getting Started With Your Maths Degree”, consists of five stations: effective study skills and strategies; communication; reading and writing mathematics; talking points identified by students and the SLA; and an introduction to the School’s MathPALs programme, whereby incoming students are paired up with higher-Year peers who can provide advice and aid in their transition to University life. The overarching aim of the Induction Framework therefore is to convey to students that continuing support is available to them, and that they are encouraged to access it. As part of that support, the SLA organises two additional review meetings during Year 1, where students reflect on their progress with a focus on whether their expectations have been met and on whether any concerns persist. At these meetings, the SLA also provides a refresher on study skills where desired.
The SLA continues to offer pastoral support and academic guidance to our students in later years, such as with submission for Special Circumstances, changes of Degree Programme, or matters of progression; moreover, the SLA is involved in students’ professional development, acting as liaison with the Careers Service and advising on developing transferable skills where appropriate. The fact that the SLA sits on the School’s Student-Staff Liaison Committees and the College Student Support Committee ensures familiarity with the student experience.
Crucially, the resulting overlap with roles traditionally performed by PTs and the Mathematics Teaching Organisation (MTO) is, from the School’s point of view, “a feature rather than a bug”: by streamlining some of the above aspects of student administration, uniformity of support is ensured, while efficiencies are achieved for all PTs in the School. Moreover, the SLA can provide an additional point of contact to students when their PT is absent or when they feel uncomfortable discussing certain issues with them.