help wanted – what should a tutor do?

This post is from Alan Mackie, Edinburgh University. Alan blogs and tweets as oldmanmackie.

Having recently been given the responsibility of tutoring a class, I asked Pat for some advice on the do’s and don’ts of the role. For clarity, I’ll be tutoring a third-year undergraduate class of about 15 for ten weeks. These forty-five minute tutorials will be taking place immediately after the lecture. Pat suggested that instead of giving me advice, I write a wee blog and reach out to others to share experience and tips – so here I am.

Having done some lecturing already in some ways I feel like I have put the cart before the horse, but I am pretty certain that the two roles are quite different. You don’t do any teaching during a tutorial, right? Well, that’s my first question for folks. Whilst looking for advice online I came across conflicting advice on this issue – should you be teaching during a tutorial? Aren’t you there simply as a facilitator of discussion? Other advice seemed to position the tutor as a modern-day Socrates, revealing the knowledge already buried within our charges through critical questioning and reasoning. I ended up more confused than before I started.

I decided to take a step back and look up what the definition of a tutor is, ‘that’ll throw some clarity on the situation’, I thought. But again, rival descriptions abound and much of the information was on personal tutors, rather than class tutoring. So that’s my second question – how would you define a tutor? I sense that in some ways the answer to this question will help us toward answering the question in the previous paragraph.

The tutor had some difficulty accepting that now was the time to stop talking.

The tutor had some difficulty accepting that this was the time to stop talking.

My third question is a more general one – for those who have tutored, do you have any hints or tips that you can share? I remember one of my first tutorials at university with a particularly eccentric tutor. He silently rose from the desk at the front of the class, clutching a banana ahead of him, staring at it wild-eyed. He turned it upside-down and began peeling it from the bottom. This took a bit of time until the fruit within was finally revealed. ‘We’ve been doing it wrong, all these years’ he exclaimed, ‘it’s much easier to peel them from the bottom.’ We all laughed and the ice was broken.

I hope to hear your thoughts on the first two questions and to get any helpful stories and advice from your experiences in tutorials. My own feeling is that I am there as a facilitator of discussion – the less my voice is heard the better – but I could be wrong about this. Thanks for any input. And bananas at the ready!

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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19 Responses to help wanted – what should a tutor do?

  1. “should you be teaching during a tutorial? Aren’t you there simply as a facilitator of discussion? ”

    Haven’t you leaped to a conclusion??? That a tutorial slot must revolve around discussion not doing. With 15 students, you’ve got 112 manhours to use up. Why not do something active and meaningful rather than discussions where at any one time the majority of the class will sit in silence (even if you break them into small groups).

    Third years are people who have been imprisoned by the University system to sit passively around – your role as a third year tutor is to partly break their conditioning so its not too much of a culture shock when they leave.


    • Alan Mackie says:

      I did have my own conclusions, I think that was supposed to be my point, sorry if I didn’t make that clear. I think I am going to do that – small groups and task-oriented activity. Be interesting to see if that plan can be challenged by others though. Thanks Charles.


      • Not sure what you mean by “challenged by others” – unless you work at an odd university, the students have likely have many many hours of going blah blah blah – do they need any more practice at that skill?

        As well as you have well structured activities with meaningful outcomes that fits with the module descriptors tell them to take a running jmup (but use the normal polite passive aggressive language of the academic when doing so).


  2. francesbell says:

    I loved that you said ” the less my voice is heard the better “. When I was a lecturer and had to use a large group slot in a lecture theatre I found it challenging to find ways of engaging with students that weren’t me droning on for 50 minutes but there are some activities that are feasible in a lecture theatre. So I loved the small group slots that offer many more possibilities. I can’t make any concrete suggestions as I don’t know the topic but I did want to say that I think activities where the the teacher doesn’t talk much are a very important aspect of teaching. The great thing about small groups is that the listening can be richer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Eleanor says:

    I think that flexibility is key, but I do always focus on tutorials being about students talking or doing an activity rather than me ‘teaching’ (except when I really am needed to answer a direct question, about an assignment, for example).
    I always go with some activities prepared, often with the aim of breaking into smaller groups and getting them to work things through for themselves (and that often does involve discussion in my humanities subject area). Since they’re third years they might also be good at presenting their ideas back to the group, which means you can get each group doing slightly different tasks before presenting back, so that more can be shared in that 45 minutes.
    However, some classes really like large group discussions, and once they have gelled over a few weeks (4 weeks is normally the minimum, in my experience) then I play it by ear. If they want to talk as a group, with my interjections and questions guiding the direction, then I’m happy to do that from time to time at least (as long as it’s not just a couple of people doing all the talking). I’ve had groups where almost everyone speaks, and even quieter people can be relatively easily drawn out to have their say.


  4. Irene says:

    I don’t know what your subject is, which might make a difference. A few years ago I created and ran tutorials for first year physics laboratory demonstrators to help them to think about and understand their role. One of the techniques I used were small group discussions combined with an opportunity to share what they thought with the whole class. The sharing also gave me the opportunity to add my input to the discussion; agreeing with their frequently good ideas and extending them where appropriate, or helping them to think about something a bit differently.

    To help break the ice at the start I posed a relatively straight forward question to which they offered many answers (which I categorised and then shared where those categories came from). The key thing about this was to demonstrate that it was a friendly environment and that their ideas were wanted/of value.

    I think there are many types of tutors depending on the situation. My belief is that the key is to facilitate active learning by, in part, taking a real interest in what students think/know and helping them to feel comfortable sharing (even if they may be misguided).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. maelorin says:

    I work with each of my classes to find out what they need (I often start with what they think they want, and build on from there). Some good suggestions have already been offered above. I believe a teacher facilitates student learning: my role is to help students engage with the material and activities that develop their knowledge and skills – but it is the student who has to do the work to do the learning.

    I find each class has it’s own personality, and responds differently to teaching styles. I have a rough scaffold for each lesson – what needs to be covered, what is gravy – and work with that. Sometimes I have to trick a class for a whole semester to get them to learn something. Other classes jump right into the work at hand.

    FYI I mostly teach first year IT, but have taught high school (ages 11-12 through 16-17) and undergrad and masters level courses across management, law, IT schools. Sometimes the subject matter drives the class, but the students are always a major factor in how I approach teaching them.

    I try to encourage students to engage and to participate actively in their own learning. Sometimes that involves bribery, sometimes trickery, always active involvement myself. I try to model the behaviour I want to see, and I set out explicitly what I expect – and what will happen (or not happen) if they engage – or disengage.

    [I have a broad academic, employment, and social/cultural, background – including formal education and experience in education and teaching. I draw upon all sorts of stuff to make classes as interesting, and as ‘real’ as I can. I use my own weaknesses, as well as my strengths.]

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Susan Edmondson says:

    I also felt that tutorials should be for the tutor to facilitate and encourage discussion. However, the course co-ordinator was adamant that we include ‘mini-lectures’, upon which the assignments would be based. I can see that this extended the amount the students learnt, but I think it was at the expense of allowing students the opportunity to be more proactive, and have practice at speaking in front of others (a skill that is good to develop early, as they will certainly need it if they carry on in academia).

    Liked by 1 person

    • “However, the course co-ordinator was adamant that we include ‘mini-lectures’,”

      I really cannot stand this sort of thing – when I run a module – I provide some activities for the seminars every week but its down to the individual tutor if they want to do them or they want to do something else relevant related to their own expertise – I just let them get on with it. We aren’t school teachers.

      Having said that, module leaders and course leaders often forget they (generally) have no line management, none at all.


  7. Claire says:

    In my experience so much depends on the dynamics of the particular group you are teaching – some have no difficulty in sustaining their own momentum for discussion, but with others it’s just crickets chirping for an hour…..
    I have a background as a secondary classroom teacher and so when it comes to my uni teaching I tend to over-prepare for tutorials – icebreakers, small group activties, stimulus for discussion and the like. I often end up not needing to use these tools, but I feel better having them up my sleeve.
    A real sticking point for me seems to be poorly prepared students who haven’t done the background reading – sometimes the tutorial will come down to one or two interested and articulate students and others will just sit in silence. Making tutorial participation assessable can increase participation, but then it feels a little forced and student involvement not as spontaneous and authentic as I’d like it. A diversity of experiences/ resources/ activities is a great idea.
    Perhaps the key is establishing (or negotiating) what you and the students want to get out of the tutorials at the outset so everyone is on the same page and they feel invested in the experience.


  8. Bob says:

    It’s a good topic you’ve brought up. But there aren’t any easy answers or one-size-fits-all approaches.

    I’ve had quite a few years of tutoring undergraduate compulsory electives. All of my students do not sign up for the classes I teach, and their backgrounds vary tremendously. In some senses, this is the hardest type of class to tutor for because many are intrinsically unmotivated and they do not always have the existing skills or knowledge to do well in the class. It’s always a steep learning curve. Consequently, I’ve learnt a lot of lessons:

    1. Tutoring, as with teaching in general, is always performance. You have to read your audience, and improvise. What works for one cohort may not work with the next.

    2. You must always, always have lesson objectives. Whether the students meet them is a separate issue, but this has to be stated upfront, every time. It sets the parameters and expectations. It gives you a goal for the class to work towards to. Without objectives, discussions can meander and be confusing.

    3. Have a bag of tricks to give your class a discussion framework. I usually have 2-3 questions that should be discussed as a lesson objective. For better classes, that’s good enough to get things going. For more challenging classes, breaking the class down into smaller groups helps where they present responses to those questions helps. For even weaker classes, assigning specific roles may be what is in order. I sometimes show a video, or distribute some material in class, as a prompt to get a discussion going. Regardless, you need to have options at hand.

    4. A tutorial should always be tied to a lecture. Ideally, they’d flow seamlessly. My experience suggests they often do not. So students may enter a lecture confused about how the two relate to each other. Some lecturers are also pretty lousy, so students may be confused about content. This is how the tutorial becomes a mini-lecture – if the students don’t know what the heck was going on in the lecture, it’s unreasonable to really expect them to have a meaningful discussion. I usually set aside a small percentage of the tutorial to clarify the lecture. It is not an ideal situation, but sometimes unavoidable. The only solution is to nudge the lecturer to improve his/her lecture and for there to be greater synergy between lecture and tutorial. It’s not always possible, though.

    5. The first few tutorials will set the tone for the subsequent ones. If you keep talking, and your voice dominates, this tends to become the norm for subsequent classes. If you have a full semester of tutorials, then this matters a lot. You’ve got to make your students work from the get-go. It’s not easy but get them involved in the tutorial, at least physically initially (eg. moving into smaller groups, assigning spokespeople for the group’s findings etc.). I don’t like awkward silence so I’ve a tendency to fill in the void with my own voice. This has only made things worse thereafter. I think being comfortable with silence is a teaching skill. Be used to pauses.

    6. Foreign students may be uncomfortable with speaking up. It’s OK. It’s just a cultural, or maybe a language thing. You just need to find a way to reach out. Again, think about your bag of tricks.

    7. Be likeable. I’ve had colleagues who have described students rather unflatteringly, and I’m sure that disdain rubs off onto their classroom demeanour. Don’t be like that. You’re not to be their best friend, you don’t have to bend over backwards for them, but be encouraging and supportive. Affirm responses, and try to turn even poor ones around into something useful. I find that if the class sees that you’re trying to help everyone along, they’ll warm up. Doesn’t always translate to more responses, but at least it’ll be a more pleasant environment.

    8. If there’s an online learning platform with a message board or forum, try using that. Perhaps for bonus marks. Again, hit or miss. But I’ve had at least one class which was a lot more comfortable discussing online, than offline.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Alan Mackie says:

      Thanks Bob – that’s a really helpful list, cheers for going to so much trouble. Appreciated.


    • francesbell says:

      Great points here. Just occurred to me as I read through all the comments that I was thinking of lecturer doing some of the tutorials but some comments seem to suggest that wouldn’t be the case. Maybe lecturers would get better tutorial experiences for students and tutors it they took at least one tutorial themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bob says:

        This varies widely from course to course. Generally, lecturers who tutor as well are most invested in course, and consequently, tutorial design.

        That said, whether classes work, or not, ultimately depend on how much faculty and tutors care about teaching. The original poster obviously cares a great deal as he’s seeking advice. But many others don’t really care. As long as they’re in class and don’t say anything offensive that will get them into trouble, they’re happy campers. They aren’t that keen to teach, or actually, learn how to teach. And this in turn affects course design and syllabus, if they’re in charge of that. I’ve had to tutor a class with a very awkward tutorial structure because the lecturers didn’t really think the whole course through. It was simply another box he had to check.

        This is in line with how universities tend to reward staff – teaching doesn’t count for as much as research. This is changing, but I think it’s too little, too late, in many cases.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Your suggestions for tutoring? | Exploring Youth Issues

  10. Pam says:

    I think it depends a lot on how the tutorial fits within both the unit of study and, more broadly, the course. I’ve recently tutored a group of 26 students (but only 24 chairs in the room, so chair-poaching was always the first task of the day if everyone turned up…) where there was no preceding lecture. On a later day in the week a guest speaker would provide a presentation related to the overall theme. There were also three other concurrent tutorial groups (a total intake of 110 students in the unit). This had two immediate consequences: my approach had to be consistent with the other tutors and guided by the unit coordinator, and there had to be a certain amount of up-the-front teaching. I’ve tutored a smaller group in a different unit in a different institution where I was ‘It’ – in that situation I had a lot of autonomy and could be far more creative in how I structured the session, but lacked the peer support of other tutors.

    So many things I’ve learned through this, but my word of the day for you is ‘environment’. I always aim to be there before the students arrive and set the room up. (Oh, and we started on time every week. Waiting five more minutes is a recipe for progressively later starts, and I like to reward those who are punctual by doing something engaging at the beginning.) In terms of chair arrangement, I like to ‘mix it up’ a bit if the room allows – different set-up in different sessions, sometimes a single circle, sometimes small groups around a table, sometimes tables into a U-shape with chairs around…depends very much on what you have to work with, though. I am also a bare-faced manipulator of group dynamics. I let students sit with friends initially but before they get too comfy I make sure they have to move around. One of my class was entirely made up of international students, and they would (understandably) sit with others from their own language group. I used coloured popsicle sticks and a lucky-dip box – once they were seated with their pals and had maybe done a task or two, I would get them to pull a stick out of the box, and then they would have to rearrange themselves into new groups according to stick colour. It was confronting for some initially, and i was always sensitive to that, but ultimately very successful.

    I found it helpful, actually necessary, in the 26-student 3-hour tute sessions, to break the session up so that some exercises were in pairs, some in small groups, some in the large groups, and some individual reading/journalling. If we brainstormed, I would put half a dozen whiteboard markers at the front and invite them to come up and write their ideas on the board directly – gets everyone up and milling around, which is very helpful, and emphasises a sense of joint ownership and participation.

    Final suggestion: there’s a book called “53 interesting things to do in your seminars and tutorials: Tips and strategies for running really effective small groups” (Strawson et al – published by Allen & Unwin) that I dip into when I’m needing inspiration.

    Good luck, and have fun!

    Liked by 1 person

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