Career advice: how to run a tutorial for the first time

Kevin O’Gorman and Robert MacIntosh offer tips on how to master the art of small group teaching

August 17, 2017
Harp lesson
Source: Alamy
Note of caution: some students will not have read the tutorial material

Figure out what type of tutorial you’re giving
Pre-university, most students will have worked in small groups for their end-of-school qualifications. On joining first year, it can be a great shock to discover that there are several hundred in the lecture theatre. The purpose of the tutorial, then, is to create a more intimate setting in which to reinforce the finer points of what you have been learning in lectures.

That said, across the disciplines, tutorial formats vary enormously. Typically a tutorial is a gathering of somewhere between 10 and 30 students, charged with working through a case study or task to support that week’s lecture. In the most august institutions, a tutorial can be a student’s chance for one-to-one tuition from the lecturer.

You’ll have your own expectations based on what you experienced when you were an undergraduate but don’t assume that every university or every degree is the same.

Don’t assume that they’ve read the tutorial material
Have a fall-back plan to deal with the fact that somewhere between a third and half of those in your tutorial group haven’t read the material. You may be faced with a barely conscious and less than conscientious group of people who are only there to ensure that they satisfy the attendance policy that enables them to progress.

Factoring in a 10-minute reading period is an easy option but doesn’t deal with the dynamic between the eager and well-organised and the more reluctant conscripts. Think about setting some firm ground rules about level of preparedness in the first tutorial of the semester and be willing to follow through with them.

Get comfortable with awkward silences
The temptation when no one answers your prompt questions is to answer them yourself. This form of monologue is called a lecture and you’re supposed to be doing a tutorial.

Members of your tutorial group can have many reasons for maintaining an undignified silence. Perhaps they have just arrived from a 10-hour shift at their full-time job that is necessary to support their status as a full-time student. Perhaps they haven’t read the materials and don’t want to appear an imbecile in front of their peers. English might not be their first language, or indeed yours, and they might not follow what is being said. 

Regardless, one of the skills you’ll need to develop is that of tolerating what seem like inordinately long periods of silence. If you tough it out, someone else might speak. Even if they don’t say something insightful about the academic theme of the tutorial, they are at least awake. From that beachhead, you can begin the long campaign of generating some learning.

Manage the air time
Find ways of balancing the needs of your more vocal students with those of the strong, silent types in your tutorial group. The vocal students are a real bonus in the early weeks when you are confronted with a stony silence. However, they can quickly become the dominant, or perhaps only, voice that you hear except your own. Finding a way of getting others to speak up will help you and them.

There might be opportunities to split into smaller sub-groups and ask for some feedback on a point or question. Stick the two or three vocal students in the same group where they can slug it out for the role of pack leader. Meanwhile, the other groups might get the opportunity to say something.

Another strategy is to adopt “the three Ps”. That is, pose a question, pause for what seems like an unfeasibly long period, and then pounce on an unsuspecting and hitherto silent member of the tutorial group to ask what they think. If nothing else, the three Ps will foster a reciprocal game of eye contact avoidance that can be fun for you but not for them.

Handle the paperwork
Tutorials often form part of the assessment regime, either formatively or summatively. Make sure that you provide all the information required by the course leader.

Everything from marking essays, grading presentations and keeping accurate attendance records is part of your role as tutor. These seemingly mundane tasks are of vital importance to the wider university system. 

You should have been given a steer on what you’re required to capture by way of data. If you haven’t, be proactive and ask the course leader what they want from you. If they are lecturing for the first time they might not have thought of it and you will have saved everyone a great deal of subsequent pain and embarrassment.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on the Heriot-Watt blogs It’s Not You, It’s Your Data and thePhDblog.com.

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