At every university in the UK, the theme is the same: students are customers, and the customers demand more “contact hours.” For most lecturers, the results have been an increased number of taught sessions, and an increased number of tutorials. This approach follows on from research, particularly the QAA/NUS report listed in Resources, showing that students equate individual and small-group teaching with higher educational quality.
Whether tutorials are one-to-one or involve small groups, they can be a major driver for student success. Below you will find several useful tips for making your tutorials better organised and more useful to your students and programme.
Structured, not free-form
Both students and lecturers will find that tutorials with a clear structure are more effective than drop-in sessions or casual chats. Students should be given instructions on readings or other work to do before attending a tutorial, and lecturers should structure their sessions to give each student time to discuss this. Students who are unprepared should be asked to reschedule for another tutorial. Students who consistently do not prepare may not be suited for the course, and should be invited for an individual session to discuss expectations and self-motivation.
As the QAA/ NUS report shows, there is a substantial group of students who are unclear about what “independent study” entails. It’s up to lecturers to make this clear, within the context of their course and subject.
Help independent study happen
Many students come to university with passion for a subject and good academic ability, but little understanding of independent inquiry. Let’s be honest: it isn't a hallmark of British secondary school education, which is heavily geared towards producing a portfolio of work to exact specifications and passing standardised exams. So part of your role as lecturer is to help students find their inner independent learner.
This is partly a motivational role, in which you encourage and praise efforts, no matter how small, to go beyond what’s on the reading list, question theories, and relate material to personal experiences, knowledge gained in the workplace, and knowledge gained through other modules. It also involves demonstrating processes and techniques for independent learning. Examples of helpful tutorial topics include:
- How to conduct a productive literature search
- How to evaluate the quality and reliability of a source
- Practical information on research methods
- Encouragement to set up independent study groups
Make the most one-to-one time
At too many universities, the only individual time students have with lecturers is for pastoral care duties, such as filling out a required Personal Development Plan. Many of these chores can be handled via email or online course sites. Instead, use your rare individual meetings to find out why your first- or second-year student has chosen their topic, inspire them to broaden their horizons, and make good study and research choices.
Individual tutorials for final-year students or for postgrads can also help them make links between course content and professional aspirations. Students are from diverse backgrounds, and many do need personalised advice on issues like finding placements, choosing professional mentors, and understanding potential career directions. You have greater insight into these matters than a generic university careers office ever can. And that is one of the great pleasures of tutorial time: this is when students and lecturers can interact as junior and senior colleagues.
Giving students a tutorial summary afterwards (topics discussed, concerns, research directions, work to be completed before the next tutorial) is also good practice.
Centre for Teaching Excellence (2014) “Key strategies for effective tutorials.” Online at: https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/planning-courses/tips-teaching-assistants/key-strategies-effective [Accessed 11 February 2014]