Can't beat the real thing

Tutorials are vital for a quality learning experience, writes Tim Birkhead

April 9, 2009

If you live anywhere other than the most urban environment and you happen to wake up at first light at this time of year, you can enjoy a tremendous auditory experience - the dawn chorus. This early-morning declaration of territory ownership and sexual availability by our native songsters - including our best performers such as the blackbird, song thrush and chaffinch - is truly inspirational.

The majority of birds acquire their songs by learning when they are young, and usually from a song tutor - often their father. Fifty years ago, researchers recognised that while there was obviously a genetic template for song acquisition that dictated the tonal quality of sound produced, the actual phrasing - what the bird sings - is entirely learnt. Birdkeepers had known this for centuries and indeed delighted in persuading canaries to adopt the mellifluous song of the nightingale, or training a bullfinch to whistle God Save the King or Thou Art so like a Flower.

Canaries and other birds reared in social isolation - in so-called Kaspar Hauser studies - are typically incapable of producing anything resembling normal song. This may not seem surprising, but these studies provided clear evidence for the vital role of learning.

In the 1920s, when it first became possible to make sound recordings, amateur birdkeepers were able to train young birds to sing a particular song simply by exposing them to that song from a shellac disc booming out of the horn of a gramophone. At the time this seemed a remarkable achievement, both by the birdkeeper and by the birds themselves.

It was soon established that most birds learn their songs and it was assumed that all they needed was to hear the song, whether from another bird or a recording. But then, around 1980, researchers discovered that song learning was much more effective if the song was accompanied by social interactions with a song tutor. The effect of a live tutor was often remarkable. Some species learnt more or continued to learn for a longer period when presented with the song in the presence of a live tutor, compared with merely hearing the song. In a few cases, interactions with a live bird were essential for any learning at all to occur.

The similarities between birds and undergraduates are striking, particularly when it comes to the role of tutors in learning. Some of the most important moments in my own undergraduate career occurred during such discussions and I have been an ardent supporter of the tutorial system ever since.

For many undergraduates today, working alone in front of a computer monitor is akin to the Kaspar Hauser experience. At the other extreme, being part of an enormous, anonymous group of students, as often occurs in first-year lectures, is also a less-than-ideal learning situation. However, both of these forms of learning are a necessary part of our education system, and they are fine if supplemented by high-quality time with a tutor.

However, the undergraduate tutorial experience varies enormously. One university that I visited with my son on an open day proudly announced that they had abandoned tutorials because they were outdated.

Several factors determine the quality of tutorials, including the ratio of students to tutors, the quality of the participants and the frequency of meetings. Individual tutorials are best, but obviously costly in terms of time and effort. They work because both parties have to engage. Large-group tutorials are much less effective because the social engagement is diluted. Most universities appear to adopt a compromise with groups of five or six undergraduates meeting every couple of weeks, thus striking a healthy balance between cost and quality.

Tutorials run by inexperienced tutors, such as PhD students or postdocs, are likely to be less effective than those run by more experienced professors. I have sometimes allowed a postdoc to run one or two trial tutorials with half a dozen second-year undergraduates, and the postdoc's response is always one of utter amazement at how much effort is required to be effective. With experience, however, they also realise what a powerful and rewarding way it is to teach.

Rather like the young songbird eager to learn his tune, most undergraduates crave individual attention and social interaction in their learning. However, you cannot miss what you've never had, and undergraduates in any one particular system have got nothing (or little) to compare it with (other than swapping comments about individual tutors within one institution).

Kaspar Hauser canaries cannot know that they're singing an awful song - certainly not at the time their song develops. But they may discover it later when they find themselves outclassed by properly trained singers and as a result are unable to secure a territory or a mate.

If I were an undergraduate trying to decide on a particular degree course, information on the quality and quantity of tutorials and who delivers them would be the main thing I'd be looking to find out.

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