Running effective tutorials in transnational education

Michael Daw explores the challenges and misconceptions related to running interactive tutorials in joint international courses, based on his experience teaching a UK-China programme in China

Michael Daw's avatar
,Zhejiang University
3 Sep 2021
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Advice on running successful tutorials in transnational courses

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Many UK universities have developed transnational education outposts in Asia leading to concerns about whether Western pedagogical approaches can be equally effective for students with an Asian educational background.

I am a lecturer on one such biomedical sciences programme in China. The programme is taught in English and, to date, the majority of students have been Chinese nationals. To encourage and develop the students’ ability to discuss science in English we place a strong emphasis on tutorials, with first-year students having up to five tutorials each week.

When the programme started, one of the questions I was most often asked by colleagues was whether the students were less willing to contribute in tutorials. This reflects a widely held view that Chinese students are hard-working but quiet and unwilling to speak out in front of others. Indeed, research supports the view that Chinese students are reluctant to speak out or challenge others’ opinions. This has, however, never been my experience.

In fact, in one of my first tutorials in China, I was rebuked by one of the students for talking too much and ruining the students’ discussion. Of course, it is not always like that. Much like in tutorials I have been involved in anywhere, as a tutor or student, sometimes the discussion flows easily, other times no student wants to be the first to say something and the whole session is hard work.

The dynamic can change in the same group of students from week to week. The approaches that can be used in the UK to break, or better avoid, these impasses are effective in China, too.

For example, especially in larger groups, I usually start by asking the students to discuss questions in groups of two or three before opening the question to the whole group. Even if this does not encourage them to speak out to the whole class, it ensures that all students engage with the topic at some point.

  • Start with small-group discussions. Grouping quieter students together can often increase their confidence to speak in small groups.

  • Ask representatives of each small group to report their discussion to the whole class. Less confident students are often more comfortable reporting thoughts of a whole group than those labelled as theirs alone. 

  • For general discussion, provide a list of suggested questions students might want to consider.

The big difference for tutorials in China, however, does not relate to the students but to the tutors. Our teaching is carried out by staff from both a UK and a Chinese university, with many of them being newly recruited to lecturer-level positions.

For Chinese staff, that often means that not only have they never delivered a tutorial but they have also never experienced one as a student. Some are confident from the outset, while others are anxious about how to lead tutorials. Feedback told us that some students were unhappy with tutorials delivered by our Chinese colleagues because tutorials were treated more like a small-group lecture than an interactive discussion.

Whenever possible, we now try to give a better introduction to new tutors. This starts with asking inexperienced staff to sit in on tutorials led by experienced tutors, then having one-on-one discussions with the staff member who planned the tutorial before delivering it. This has resulted in improved student feedback.

For staff new to tutorials you should:

  • Ask staff to sit in on one or two tutorials led by experienced tutors. These staff members should not join in the tutorial but should be introduced to the students. There are few things more distracting for students than a mystery person sitting at the back of the room with no explanation.

  • Before the new tutor’s first few tutorials, the person who devised the tutorial should have a meeting with the new tutor(s) to go over the main points and advise how to approach it (such as how to ask open questions). Group meetings with multiple new tutors are often effective.

When multiple staff will lead the same tutorial, especially if some are inexperienced, you should:

  • Provide a clear set of instructions, with timings, rather than simply giving a general outline of what to discuss. This should be provided to tutors several days in advance to leave time for questions

  • List the most important concepts that you want the students to learn in the tutorial 

  • Provide answers to the questions and concepts most likely to arise in the tutorial.

There are lessons here too for domestic teaching. Although tutors who are postgraduate students are usually guided in their first experiences of teaching, a common assumption is that anyone in an academic position knows how to deliver a tutorial. We experienced teachers are often worried that suggesting someone might not know what they are doing might cause offence.

However, many staff in lecturer-equivalent positions are recruited for their research background and may have little or no experience of teaching. This was certainly the case for me in my previous position: I was hired directly from a research institute with no teaching opportunities and would have welcomed more guidance than I got.

The key message here is to never make assumptions about experience nor be afraid to offer guidance whatever environment you are teaching in.

Michael Daw is a senior lecturer in the Zhejiang University-University of Edinburgh Joint Institute.


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