Docendo discimus - "By teaching, we learn"

What is a tutorial?

A tutorial or "tute" is a class configuration in which a small group of students interact to discuss the content of a previous lecture under the guidance of a tutor.

Traditionally, in the English system at Oxford or Cambridge, the tutorial was a one-to-one or small-group explanation of this content, with the aim of clarifying and responding to questions from the students.

However, due to resource restraints, most tutorials these days are for groups of 25-30 students and are structured according to the discipline. For instance, a tutorial may involve a weekly Case Study in business or law or a set of prepared Questions about the Lecture content in arts and social sciences.

Benefits of teaching in tutorial context

The tutorial requires active participation by the student. Learners must become engaged with the course content in order to process and build on it, and more importantly to express their own understanding of the topics discussed.

Challenges of teaching in tutorial context

Many students find the interactivity of tutorials threatening or intimidating; they are uncomfortable when they have to:

  • propose an opinion
  • take part in a debate or
  • critically evaluate material, such as reading material by an expert or ideas put forward by a peer.

How can I teach effectively in a tutorial?

Engage students in discussions

Never let the tutorial's two-way conversation between learners and teacher degenerate into a mini-lecture where you tell students what to think. The main advantage of the tutorial discussion that all of the class can be actively engaged in discussing ideas and concepts. The Discussions and Questioning page discuss a range of strategies to lead an effective discussion in a tutorial.

Make expectations clear to students

Articulate clear aims and Learning Outcomes for each tutorial. This will not prevent the class from achieving unexpected outcomes, but it will help students understand what they need to do to learn. It will also help you identify or devise the learning activities that will most benefit students in each class (see Alignment of Learning Outcomes with Courses and Program).

Use a variety of learning activities

Experiment with different class structures and activities, for example, role-plays, impromptu or organised Debates, oral presentations or reports, fishbowl discussions, Brainstorming sessions, and so on. Choose structures and activities that support your Learning Aims and Outcomes for the particular class.

Collect feedback from students

At the end a tutorial:

  • use "minute papers" to gain feedback on students' learning and level of understanding. At the beginning of the next class after the minute paper, take five minutes to follow up on outstanding issues.
  • summarise the main points at the end of each class or, better still, ask students to summarise.

Make the most of the physical environment

The physical environment itself can be an important learning and teaching tool. For example, if you want students to communicate with each other, altering the configuration of the room can help to create an environment more conducive to discussion:

  • Do students really need to work behind desks?
  • Don't always sit behind a desk yourself.
  • Rearrange the room to encourage maximum communication among students; a circle or semicircle of chairs might be more effective.
  • Consider changing your seating position in every class and encouraging students to do the same.
  • Try to control disruptive external factors, such as noise, heat, light and so on.

Use peer tutoring

With peer tutoring, other students at the same level or of a similar age lead the discussion.

Peer tutoring demands more preparation and monitoring for errors from the lecturer, but it puts the learner temporarily in the role of teacher. He or she must explain conceptions of the course content to peers, which encourages clarity of knowledge, opinions and communication skills. Peer tutoring can be done in normal group tutorial sessions, or one-to-one outside the class.

Use online tutorials

Increasingly, with restricted class time, teachers are making use of online tutorial discussions. These may be synchronous (e.g. Internet chat) or asynchronous discussions (e.g. on discussion boards) in which a facilitator initiates and guides students through issues arising in class.

These online discussions can be unstructured, following the questions and interests of participants, or quite heavily structured into Brainstorming sessions, Debates or set Questions.

Most Learning Management Systems (e.g. Moodle) offer a discussion area for this purpose.

Students who are too shy or culturally disadvantaged to participate fully in class can thrive online, where they have time to construct their questions and answers and don't have to compete with confident peers for attention. For international and NESB students (non-English speaking background), these online discussions also allow time for reading the contributions of others, rather than trying to understand accents and spoken language in real time.

A blended learning approach (some class participation with online follow-up) might work well for your tutorial teaching.

For more information on online and blended learning see Using Technology in Teaching.

Tips for encouraging students to participate

Encourage participation from all students

If your class feels too large to accommodate full and equal participation from all members, consider:

  • splitting it into subgroups for certain tasks or topics
  • using a think-pair-share strategy. Begin by asking students to consider an issue individually, then ask them to form pairs to discuss it, then groups of four to summarise ideas, and so on.

Monitor your contribution

Monitor how much you contribute to discussions. Wait before you jump in to fill silences in the room, and avoid mini-lectures in tutorials.

Encourage interaction between students

Help students communicate with each other by encouraging them to:

  • ask each other questions
  • clarify each other's points
  • build on each other's contributions
  • give examples of other people's ideas.

Encourage critical thinking

Encourage students to think for themselves by:

  • deflecting their questions to you. Instead of answering, say, "What do others think?"
  • not correcting them straight away if they're not on the right track. Instead, try saying something like, "Are there other ways you could think about that?" "How does that fit with what you were saying earlier?" "What about x consideration?" "What do others think of this proposition?"

Addressing dominant students

If you have a dominant students in the class, you might like to try:

  • using non-verbal communication to discourage the student; for example, look or turn away
  • glancing around the whole class; this opens the conversation to everybody and allows you to monitor the reactions of others
  • overtly encouraging or asking other students to contribute
  • asking the student to wait while the class hears from others
  • asking the student to take a recording role for a while
  • establishing rules for contributions; students must wait for a certain number of contributions before they speak again or they can only speak for a certain number of minutes at a time
  • speaking to the student outside class about her/his behaviour; this is probably a last resort.

Encouraging quieter students to participate

To encourage quieter students to participate:

  • use non-verbal communication to encourage the student; for example, draw her/him in with hand gestures
  • watch the student for responses; for example, "Jai, you smiled then. What were you thinking?"
  • ask the student direct questions, positively reinforcing answers the student gives
  • break the class into pairs or subgroups, which the student might find less intimidating.

Encourage students to clarify their ideas

Encourage students to clarify their ideas by actively listening and reflecting, rather than always questioning; for example, when a student says something, reflect the idea back by saying, "Chris, it sounds like you think/feel..."

Further resources

Dawson, Stuart (1998) "Improving Tutorial Papers, Essays and Assignments", in: Effective Tutorial Teaching: A Guide for University and College Tutors, Melbourne, RMIT Publishing, pp39-43.

Lubin, J. and Sutherland, K. (2009) Conducting tutorials, 2nd edition (2009), Guide for Higher Education Research Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA), Milperra, NSW (first edition available at UNSW Library).