The small group learning and teaching environment of design studio settings in built environment undergraduate design degree programs is recognized as a complex and unique site of experiential learning. Impacting upon student design learning in this setting is student – teacher interaction. Influencing this interaction is the contradictory relationship between conceptions of design studio as an exemplar for student-centred university learning and the teacher-centred pedagogy of the culture of design studio. In exploring this relationship, this paper introduces an action research project undertaken to identify and establish factors that impact upon student achievement of academic excellence in built environment student design education. It describes an aspect of the project that revealed that students place highest value on the personal qualities of the design tutor believing these are most important to their successful learning. This finding suggests that the design tutors’ attentiveness to students has a powerful impact on student learning. On the basis of this research the paper concludes that the quality of ‘presence’ in a design tutor can be enhanced by adopting a reflexive approach that positions learning at the forefront of a community of practice in design education.