Text over an image of the Bristol skyline. BILT Case Study. Claire Spencer. School of Accounting and Finance
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Case study: Supporting postgraduate tutoring through building a sense of belonging and community

A case study created as part of a Education Development Project with BILT in 2022/23.

The Practice

The Senior Tutor with five tutors supports 525 postgraduate students across our four masters’ programmes, two of which have very large cohorts (200+), meaning tutors do not have the opportunity to meet every student during their time with us.  This project was developed to respond to the team tutoring model’s challenges, to understand international postgraduate needs and to support students transitioning to postgraduate life in the UK.  

Initially intended to co-create a postgraduate peer-to-peer mentoring/support scheme, but it was clear very early on that this is not what students were interested in.  International students experience multiple pressures in the first few weeks, so students prefer staff to take the lead whilst they adjust to the new culture, pedagogies, and form friendships.   

The project evolved to creating opportunities for students to meet with one another and tutors, to discuss their perspectives on what belonging meant to them and to contribute to resulting initiatives.  The project also planned to invigorate student reps to be more proactive and instrumental in helping staff make improvements in their programmes.  Discussions with the previous year’s student reps revealed they often felt unsupported and thought having an academic mentor in the school would have been helpful.   

Welcome week:  

  • Programme level ‘getting started’ activities including register with a doctor, team campus photo tour and a note taking study skills session.  Facilitated by the Senior Tutor, tutoring team and four volunteer PhD students, three of whom did their master’s at Bristol. 
  • MS Team for peer support.  Facilitated by students who did their UG degree at Bristol and International students who did their UG degree in the UK. 


  • Workshop to explore students’ views on belonging. 
  •  Meeting with SAM and a small group of students to discuss channels and content of School communications. 
  • Reflections on studies survey. 


  • Study Family workshop and implementation.  
  • Study Family careers conversations with school employability advisor.  


  • Dissertation support pilot with 12 students from our PhD feeder programme.   
  • One session on goals, forming habits, and sharing challenges, and two all day writers/reading retreats. 


This was an exploratory project that evolved over the year based on student engagement and my workload.  Students felt a sense of belonging could be developed through: 

  1.  Improving information sharing channels and how communication is received/heard​. 
  1.  More School level socials with staff e.g., films, book clubs, quizzes, festivals, food.  Academic and non-academic themes​. 
  1.  Study families and/or support schemes based on need and topics of interest. ​ 
  1.  Embedding community in the curriculum to help build rapport with peers and staff, and to develop cultural awareness and communications.​ 

The week 6 reflection on studies survey was focused on uncovering issues early and offering support:  

  • 55 responses (10%)​ 
  • Confidence in studies average 3.65/5 ​ 
  • Reasons for low confidence: pace, difficulty, English, reading, balancing workload (31 students)​ 
  • Life outside of studies was scored as 4.45/5  ​ 
  • 21 students asked for a tutor to contact them​ 

Other points to note: 

  • Those who missed welcome week found it harder to integrate as the first few weeks of welcome events were finished.    
  • Study families were implemented too late in the year, would be better in early TB1 on a voluntary basis to help form friendships and build academic confidence.   
  • Keeping momentum going to ensure engagement and not lose goodwill gained with student reps requires time and energy.   
  • Where food is provided, students are more likely to arrive, pizza was popular. 
  • Inclusion remains a point for further consideration; it tended to be the same confident students who engaged. 
  • Students would like local opportunities to apply generic skills learnt to their programmes, such as reading and writing.   
  • Careers and taking advantage of the new graduate studies visa after their programme is high priority. 

The Impact 

“She held many events for the betterment of the teaching and learning process at the university. She has shown great initiative in building trust between student and the faculty.” 

“She regularly meets with Student Reps to identify any potential issues students may face and works tirelessly to help them solve their problems as quickly as possible. In addition, she is constantly looking for innovative ways to provide the best support for students’ learning and life, such as organising study family groups across programs to facilitate efficient peer support and community building.”  

This project was an insightful exploratory initiative for large cohorts, to get closer to the students and understand their needs, especially where good rapport and engagement with student reps is developed.  Students from our three large cohorts engaged with the activities, including all the student reps, and several students engaged in all project activities.  The project could therefore be seen as a community, which I also felt a part of.  Programme Directors understood student need from an alternative channel, responding by arranging socials and embedding skills in programmes such as reading. 

I have designed a framework for activities for the Business School’s postgraduates, which will be piloted in TB1 2023-24.  Where possible we will explore embedding these into the curriculum.  The Business School Director of Student Experience and I have been awarded BILT funding for 2023-24 to assess the success of this with students using reflective journaling and interviews.   

The framework will guide a series of events and activities to support our large cohorts’ transition, by developing students’ understanding and skills in the following areas: 

  1. Personal (language confidence, forming good study habits, motivation, wellbeing) 
  1. Interpersonal (forming friendships, study groups, networking) 
  1. Academic (pedagogies, critical thinking, academic integrity) 
  1. Cultural awareness (culture shock, cross cultural communications)  
  1. Global employability (recruitment, alumni).   

This framework will be guided by five principles: 

  1. Front loaded, scheduled opportunities for students to meet – we are the catalyst. 
  1. Interactions are facilitated, practical and interactive. No lecturing. 
  1. School, programme, or unit level with a community building focus. 
  1. Inclusive and wellbeing positive impact. 
  1. Students thrive, not survive. 

Whilst being conscious that: 

  1. Social anxiety, shyness, language confidence and health/wellbeing issues can prevent engagement. 
  1. Students may not be aware that academic success requires a combination of academic, personal, and interpersonal skills. 
  1. Time pressures can mean academic work takes priority over social interactions. 
  1. Home students can feel excluded. 


Claire Spencer: claire.spencer@bristol.ac.uk

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