Don't rush in to tell it like it is

September 9, 2005

A tutorial is not just another lecture, which means that you must learn to take a back seat. Harriet Swain says sobriety, enthusiasm and knowing how to keep the peace will all stand you in good stead

You've had a quick glance at your watch and you're hoping that your student's interminable essay read-through will finish soon and you can impart your own, vastly superior, knowledge of the subject. Maybe you need some one-to-one tuition on giving a tutorial.

David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, and editor of a book about the Oxford tutorial, says that while the opportunity for a student to have a conversation about a piece of work he or she has written can be invaluable, it must be handled properly.

"Quality control breaks down if the academic is drunk, tired or bored," he warns. He advises regular discussions about a student's progress, and says students must know from the start what a tutorial is all about.

"If they think they are turning up to a mini lecture, it's a bit silly," he says.

Writing in Palfreyman's book The Oxford Tutorial , Peter Mirfield, fellow in law at Jesus College, Oxford, states that the subject matter being studied is fundamentally unimportant in a tutorial - "How it is studied is what matters."

Another contributor, Emma Smith, a fellow in English at Hertford College, Oxford, says that one of the things she tries to do in tutorials is to convey her enthusiasm for her subject while not pretending she knows it all. This encourages the students' own intellectual excitement and helps to develop ideas within a tutorial rather than discussion of established ideas.

Rosie Cunningham, head of politics at Northumbria University, says both tutors and students must constantly ask whether they are making the most of their hour.

"It is very easy for students to take a back seat rather than to go prepared with questions," she says. Tutorials should always be student-led, and the tutor should know how to listen as much as how to give advice. "It is too easy to jump straight in when sometimes you should let silences occur," she says.

Drew Livingston, academic affairs officer at Cambridge University's student union, says it is important to involve everyone in a tutorial group and to keep an eye on the progress of every student. If students are responsible for arranging their own supervisions or tutorials, there should be a mechanism in place to ensure that they do so and are not so distracted by other aspects of university life that they let their work slip.

"Don't allow one person to dominate, and try not to fixate on one student's piece of work for whatever reason," Livingston says. "If students have approached the topic in different ways, try to allow equal time and discussion for each approach."

This means being aware of the differing needs of students relating to gender, race, socioeconomic background or other factors. The environment in which the tutorial takes place should allow for the free flow of ideas and debate, he says.

Cunningham says you have to think about how you relate to your students.

Don't sit behind a desk with a low chair at the other end of the room, for example.

John MacMillan, senior lecturer in international relations at Brunel University and co-author of a paper on tutorials (see Further Information), says preparation is essential. You have to define topics and questions in advance and think about practicalities, such as whether there are enough copies in the library of a key text to be discussed. He advises making your learning objectives clear in the questions you set so that you don't have to keep repeating them.

While you may hope that students will work hard for the love of it, it is always worth giving them an incentive to prepare for tutorials, he says. He has found it useful to get students to submit "position papers" outlining their stance on a particular subject before a tutorial, which are graded and commented on. This ensures that everyone in the tutorial has thought and read about the topic. During the tutorial, they discuss the various positions, and then produce a follow-up paper, which is also graded, outlining how their opinions have been modified.

He says this works particularly well in the first year when there are few essays and exams and when it is useful for tutors to get an idea of students' abilities, and for students to get in the habit of preparation.

Livingston says that feedback has to be constructive. "An essay returned with a tick at the bottom of every page is of no use to anyone," he says.

Rather than being told their ideas are not up to scratch, students should be led to more interesting or advanced answers. They should also be given an idea of what degree class they can expect, although Livingston warns of problems arising from false expectations.

He says it is important to have anonymous mechanisms for students to give feedback to supervisors, and for supervisors to pay attention to that feedback. Procedures for changing supervisor should also be made clear.

MacMillan stresses that you have to vary how you conduct a tutorial depending on how you relate to individual students. Some will need their confidence building and should be encouraged to state their views more clearly, and others will need to be challenged.

And don't forget you should be getting something out of the process too.

"When it works well, with committed, bright, interested kids and committed academics, it's a two-way process," Palfreyman says.

Further Information
Making First-Year Tutorials Count in Active Learning in Higher Education , by John MacMillan and Monica Maclean, 2005
The Oxford Tutorial: Thanks, You Taught me How to Think , edited by David Palfreyman, the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, 2001.



Make sure the students know what they are there for

Quality control

Do not appear drunk, tired or bored


This is not a lecture; allow for a free flow of ideas and don't just jump in if it all goes quiet

Be enthusiastic

Encourage a sense of excitement without being a know-all

Vary the approach

Some students need a challenge, others more help

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