Right in the chaos of tutors

Right in the chaos of tutors

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For many students studying with a tutor becomes a source of distress. Few knows you always have a right to change your tutor.
Photo: Lukas J. Herbers

Problems with tutors create difficulties for many students each term. For the student Li being tutored became a nightmare.

The end of the term is approaching and with it comes the work to finish one’s paper. For Student Representative Petra Holst this means a hectic time since questions about tutors start coming in.
“It is usually at the end of the spring term that they start to flood in”, she says.

For a large part of the students, working with their papers goes on with little to no drama, but for many of them, problems occur. It is not unusual that tutors and students do not match, and this can create problems with the student’s work.

Petra Holst stresses that it is important for students to air their concerns with their tutors early on.
“I have had many dealings with students who do not dare to pursue the wish to change tutor. They say that ‘I will do this, and if I fail – then I will move on’. At that point, it is often too late, has gone on for too long and the students may have lost their CSN support”, says Petra Holst.

Years of Difficulties
One who has suffered problems with her tutor is Li. For her it was bad personal chemistry between her and her tutor that turned an already backbreaking situation into a complete disaster. Li is an active person with several different activities; however, she also suffers from an illness which causes episodes of great pain and vomiting, and this, in turn, puts a great deal of mental pressure on her.

In the autumn of 2011, Li began her one-year long master’s programme in physics, with things going as they should.
“It was working”, she says, “as long as I had her who was going to have a baby”.

The tutor was pregnant, and in December, complications occurred. The tutor had to go on early maternity leave. And when Li began working with her paper during the spring, she was assigned a new tutor. According to Li, this when the problems began.

Condescending Comments
Li experienced that the tutor only focused on the negative aspects of her work, and in a situation already trying because of her illness and personal problems, it became too much.
“You can give constructive criticism in a much better way. As time passed on I got many comments which were unpleasant and uncomfortable”.

The tutor has another view on the matter. She describes it as hard to balance pushing Li to finish on time, and at the same time taking her personal problems into consideration.

Li decided to speak to the one in charge of the program about the issues she experienced regarding the cooperation with her tutor. However, she received no help.
“I spoke to the man in charge several times. Again and again”.

The man in charge, according to Li, downplayed her problems with the explanation that the tutor “meant well”.
“He never said ‘maybe we should do something about this, and get you a new tutor if the two of you can’t seem to cooperate”.

The Course Coordinator Confirms Li’s Story
The person responsible for the course confirms that Li had said several times that things were not working out with her tutor. As a student you always have the right to change tutor, and as course coordinator, he was the right person to contact.

Despite being the person in charge, the course coordinator did not wish to meddle because he was also the one examining the course. He has however, no reply to why he did not direct Li to other coordinators. Li got the impression that no one wanted to take responsibility for the difficulties she experienced with her tutor.

During the autumn term of 2013, Li lost her study allowance because she had not acquired enough credits to get it extended. At the same time, her health became worse and worse, and according to a doctor she was overworked. Despite that, Li continued to work on her paper believing she could finish it.

End of Tutoring
In the early 2014, Li received a notice that took her by surprise. The work she had finished was considered inadequate and she would not receive any more guidance. Instead, her work was to be shortened and she would be assigned some time with a mentor.

Li claims that no one had warned her that this would happen. In the emails which Lundagård have had access to, it appears that the tutor emailed her as late as the day before Li got her notice, and there is no mentioning of her paper being discontinued because of numerous errors. On the contrary, the tutor says that they are to continue working together despite knowing that the paper is not up to par.

The tutor herself says that she did not know what she could demand of a student who had a tough personal situation.
“I don’t have that much information about guidance, I really don’t”, she says.

Hard to Give Bad News
Petra Holst describes the inability to raise problems of inadequateness as a common problem when it comes to the relationship between tutors and students.
“Many tutors find it difficult to give students negative decisions and messages, but they are only digging their own grave. It both becomes tougher for the students, and for those who are tutoring them, if you do not tell them the truth straight away”.

Photo Caption: Petra Holst is student representative. Photo: Lukas J. Herbers.

The head of the department of Li’s institutionrecognises the picture Petra Holst paints of tutors often having difficulties giving straight answers when the papers are not good enough.
“I’m from Germany, and I think that this as a general Swedish problem”.

The result is that students keep on working without knowing that their work have problems. Petra Holst has had several cases where students have needed to make alterations, even though the tutor said that the paper was fine. Some students have made as many as ten new submissions.

Loss of Time
Li was promised help after three days, but the entire spring term passed before the situation was resolved. She was not enrolled on any courses, and had no study allowance. It was first in June that the department put her in contact with a mentor who would help her complete a downsized master’s project.

The new mentor was a change for the better for Li, and today she is back and working on her paper.

Her master’s exam has been shortened, and it seems that her mentor will be able to guide her all the way through to the end.

The fact that things are going well with the mentor supports her claim that the problem was the chemistry between her and her tutor, and that the situation could probably have been resolved sooner if she only had been able to change tutor.
“For me it would have been better, because it is a person I can work with and we understand each other. That is what is most important, having someone who understands you.

But for Li the damage is already done.
“This has taken so much time from my life, when instead I could have had a job and whatnot”.¨

Li is not her real name.

Your Rights When Tutored

  • As a student you always have the right to change tutor.
  • You do not have to give a reason for wanting change tutor, if you do not want to.
  • The wish to change tutor can be brought up directly with your tutor or with the course coordinator.
  • If it feels uncomfortable, for example if the tutor is also the course coordinator, you can contact the director of studies, the head of department, or the dean.
  • How much tutoring you have the right to is stated in your syllabus.
  • If no such thing is in your syllabus, then you have right to tutoring for as long as you want, that is, until you are done.
  • Even if you have used up all your time with the tutor, it should be possible to find a solution.
  • If you want help or support with changing tutor, contact your union or the student representative.
  • From there you often try to mediate, making sure that the student comes in contact with the right people in the university, or in specific cases, inform the student about his/her rights.

Text: Philip Stålhandske
Translation: Viktor Jönsson

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