Tutors are key to a positive learning experience for adult learners

7 Dec 2023
Our Research Officer Dr Laura Lovejoy reflects on AONTAS’ research over the years and how adult learners describe the positive impact of support and guidance from tutors.

Writing by Dr Laura Lovejoy, AONTAS Research Officer 

A recent report published by AONTAS found that 1 in 3 adults who are taking a course or training programme in Further Education and Training feel that mental health problems, such as stress and anxiety, affect their ability to learn or study.

Bringing together the views of over 3,000 people, the report shows that adult learners need more access to mental health support like counselling in their training centres and colleges of Further Education.

The report also highlighted that taking part in a course can benefit mental health. This is due to the positive social relationships people make and the sense of achievement people can get from completing a course.

When it came to feeling cared for in their learning, learners identified their tutors as an important source of support. In the research, learners shared examples of when their tutors noticed they were struggling and directed them towards counselling services.

Over the years, since this research began in 2016, thousands of learners we have talked to have described positive learning experiences in FET, and the way that their tutors make them feel often has a big impact on that. When learners talk about their tutors in focus groups, they talk about feeling relaxed, safe, and accepted.

Over the last 7 years, AONTAS have listened to the views of over 12,000 learners, through focus groups and surveys, as part of a project called the National FET Learner Forum. We have also published dozens of reports with our research findings. As well as capturing the problems learners are experiencing in Further Education and Training, our research also shows what is working well from learners’ points of view. Every year, tutors have been highlighted by learners as a positive aspect of FET.

Tutors can provide reassurance and a sense of equality for learners. They can help learners to have a new experience of education.

According to one learner in a focus group:

“In secondary school, I never had fun while learning. And now it’s like a totally different vibe altogether. It’s much more relaxed.”

Many people in Further Education have had difficult experiences in the education system. This can be especially true for people with learning disabilities or additional needs, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, additional literacy needs, or ADHD.

Taking part in a Further Education course can be a second attempt at education, but it can also bring up feelings of fear and shame. According to one learner in 2022, “I did think about courses, but I thought I was too stupid to do it.” Another learner, in an interview in 2020, said: “I was so nervous and frightened about college, thinking, ‘Can I do this? Do I know what I’m doing?’”

So, for many, it is a relief to find a welcoming and accepting atmosphere in their Further Education classroom.

The support offered by tutors is key to reassuring apprehensive learners. Decades may have passed since they last took part in education, and they are worried about meeting the demands of their course.

As one learner explained, “for me, being out of the workplace for a long time, I found technology difficult at first but my tutors were extremely patient and supportive.”

Other learners have shared how the feeling of acceptance they encountered in their FET centres was essential to them sticking with their studies through difficult times. As one learner shared, “when you first go through those doors, you’re so welcomed. The minute I walked in, I felt I was wanted there” (2019).

For learners with difficult prior experiences in education, feeling equal with their tutors is particularly important. Positive relationships with tutors can heal learners’ relationships with education itself. According to one learner:

“For me, it was healing the relationship with learning, because school can be very traumatic for people because you’re getting force-fed stuff that you don’t want to learn. It’s very empowering to go back and learn something that you’re actually interested in and you want to pursue. So it changes your relationship with education.”

Another learner highlighted the noticeable difference between school and their FET college, focusing on the relationship between learner and tutor:

“School was a very toxic environment. Like, if you couldn't keep up with everyone else then you were kind of made to feel like, ‘well, why don't you know this like everyone else knows it?’ But that's just because everyone learns at a different pace and in different ways. You're not made to feel like that in [my programme] … Everyone's understood. I feel like it's kind of a place that you're listened to and your needs are met respectfully, like a person. It's the first time I've actually felt safe in a learning environment.”

Learners particularly appreciated how tutors provided individualised support. The experiences shared by learners through the AONTAS’ research mirror findings of “Making A Difference’ A Student View of Excellent Teaching", from the National Forum for Teaching and Learning, where learners pointed to the personalised approach of tutors as key to their success in higher education. And a 2019 Higher Education Authority report found that “connecting with students is vital,” and that “students value being seen as individuals, not as cohorts.”

Our research findings support this, showing that the relationships between tutors and learners are key to learners’ success in Further Education. This success can include the development of digital skills, completion of course assignments, and the feeling of personal accomplishment associated with completing a course of study.

The personal qualities of tutors, such as being calm, attentive, and respectful, were also prized by learners:

“I like the relationship between the teacher and the pupil. They don’t think they’re any better than us, we’re all on the same level. It's just such a relaxed learning. We all contribute to the class, but ultimately, he instigates us to bring out of us what we probably wouldn't even have thought that we could know. It's brilliant" (2019).

Since 2016, our research findings have consistently shown that tutors are a highly valuable source of academic and emotional support to people who return to learning through Further Education and Training. Having a classroom environment where learners feel heard, understood, and respected means they are more likely to enjoy and complete their course, and to feel the positive effects of this on their mental health.

Check out AONTAS Research for more.