Student perspective

"Whenever I come out of a meeting with [my personal tutor] I always feel better. He has a way of putting things into perspective and making me realise that there is a bigger picture and not following a certain path or not getting something isn't always the end of the world. Even though he might not know that what he says makes me realise all of that."

A key skill of an effective Personal Tutor is to open up and keep open the channels of communication. Students value a personal tutor who they can talk to and who they know is really listening to them. 

Professionals, including personal tutors, use a variety of strategies and conversational techniques to understand how best to help and support individuals with any aspect of life that might be affecting their studies, whilst still developing their capacity to find their own answers to their questions. The aim is to help students find their solution or preferred outcome from the possible options. This can be difficult to uphold, especially if a student comes to you for ‘the answer’. One such technique is motivational interviewing.

Motivational interviewing is an approach designed to help individuals to achieve their goals by eliciting and exploring their motivation behind the goal, thus increasing their likelihood of success (Miller & Rollnick, 2012). In our context the goal might be academic-related, career-related, related to work-life balance or to well-being. The basic interaction techniques of motivational interviewing are Open questions, Affirmations, Reflective listening and Summaries (OARS). This approach can be useful for discussing issues that tutees want or need to take action on.

OARS techniques

Unlike closed questions, that invite only a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, open questions, give people the opportunity to explain the situation in their own words, without being led. 

Examples of open questions include:

  • How are you getting on?
  • How can I help you with ___?
  • How would you like the situation to be different?
  • What are the advantages of that choice and what are the disadvantages of it?
  • What do you want to do next?

Affirmations are statements that recognise an individual’s strengths and acknowledge positive behaviours that will help them to achieve their particular goals or improve poor practice.  Affirmations help to build an individual’s confidence in their ability. To be effective, affirmations must be genuine and congruent.

Examples of affirming responses:

  • I appreciate you agreeing to meet with me today.
  • You are clearly a very motivated person.
  • I can see that you’ve responded to feedback given on your last assignment and used it to improve your work.
  • That’s a good suggestion.
  • It’s been useful to discuss these things with you this morning.
"His genuine interest in our well-being and success is heart-warming. (Imperial Student)"

A common barrier to reflective listening is misinterpreting what is said or making assumptions about what a person needs.  To be successful it is essential to listen actively and to think reflectively. Using reflective listening statements can keep you as the listener engaged and let the speaker know that you’re really listening. Unlike questions, which tend to interrupt the speaker’s flow, reflective listening statements guide the speaker and lead to clarification and greater exploration.

Examples of reflective listening statements (the speaker then finishes the statement whilst you listen):

  • It sounds like you…
  • So you’re thinking about… 

Effective reflective listening techniques also include the listener repeating or rephrasing and paraphrasing what the speaker says.

Summaries can be useful at transition points in the conversation; for example, when the speaker is about to move onto a different topic or when the tutorial is coming to a close. Summarising helps to clarify that both speaker and listener have the same understanding of the situation and can create opportunity to identify a concrete action point.

For example: 

  • Here is what I’ve heard. Tell me if I’ve missed or misunderstood anything.
  • So, what I understand is that …and now you plan to…
  • Let me summarise what we've just discussed.
  • If that’s accurate, what other things are there to consider?


Miller, W. & Rollnick, S. (2012) Motivational Interviewing Helping People Change New York: Guilford Press Third Edition

Rosengren, D. (2009) Building Motivational Interviewing Skills: A Practitioner Workbook New York Guilford Press

SAMHSA (2007) Motivational Interviewing: Open Questions, Affirmation, Reflective Listening, and Summary Reflections (OARS)