5.3 The Tutorial

The word tutorial is used in different higher education contexts to indicate everything from one-to-one sessions to a lecture by another name. For our purposes let’s define it as a timetabled activity with a group of students which is smaller than the full class, and during which the lecturer speaks for a significantly shorter time than the students. A tutorial could be face-to-face or could be conducted on-line or via a video link.

Some apparently universal aspects of the tutorial are:

  • The learning which can be achieved is greatly enhanced if the students have done some relevant prior work. They should be ready to answer, as well as ask, questions about a specific topic whether it be something they have read, an experiment they have conducted or a calculation they have attempted (e.g. see ‘recitations’ below);
  • It is difficult for most tutors to keep sufficiently quiet. The temptation to explain, resulting in a mini-lecture, is hard to resist for many (probably most) academics;
  • One or more students will almost always keep rather quiet in a tutorial, while one or more are usually willing to speak a lot. (Two of us were actually banned from tutorials during one stage of my undergraduate programme because we dominated the discussion!).

Some comments which may not be universal but which are often reported include:

  • Overseas students may prepare well, take liberal notes, but not be prepared to participate in discussion;
  • On-line ‘tutorials’, especially asynchronous sessions involving bulletin boards or wikis, are better for encouraging ‘quiet’ students to contribute. The lack of face-to-face embarrassment, and the time to think and compose a response, are helpful for some students;
  • Occasionally, students may be reluctant to introduce ideas because they see the quiet students as ‘freeloaders’ who are learning from others without contributing. There are even extreme cases where students wish to keep their knowledge to themselves for competitive advantage (e.g. see Sweeney et al, 2004).

Tutorials are surely to be encouraged in an environment where class sizes are increasing. They provide almost the best opportunity for students to learn both from each other and from their tutor (this is feedback – see below). End-of-lecture question sessions tend to be inhibited by constraints of time and space (the next lecturer is often waiting for the room!) so tutorials offer an excellent way of stimulating interactive learning. However lecturers would be well advised to insist on prior preparation of a defined piece of work by the students, and should consider supplementing the face-to-face sessions with an on-line forum in order to allow different types of student to contribute.

A useful variant of the tutorial is the recitation, which has the advantage – in these days of high student-staff ratios – that it can be carried out with group sizes of up to 25 or so. I will describe a version known as ticking.

All students are asked to prepare solutions to a set of problems. When they arrive at the class they are asked to tick, on a list, those problems for which they are prepared to present a solution to the class. The teacher selects a student at random (from those who have ticked that problem) to present the first problem, then another for the second and so on. If they demonstrate their ability to tackle the problem and lead the class through it, then their tick remains. Otherwise it is deleted. Over a semester all students should have presented one or more problems, and collected ticks for several more. The assessment of the class is based on the number of ticks collected, not on the actual presentations. If you felt tough enough it could be a condition of entry to the exam that a student had collected a certain number of ticks!  However you organise it, the underlying idea is that you encourage all students to attempt most of the problems, while each problem is only presented once. This is both motivational and time-effective. It also provides immediate feedback (see section below).

Read on …  (but first please add a comment)

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