This post first appeared as part of the Pubs and Publications blog site in the College for Humanities and Social Sciences and is reprinted with their permission. You can find the original post here.
For the past eighteen months, I’ve been working in the Institute for Academic Development as part of a team supporting tutors with their teaching and development. In that time, I’ve been lucky enough to meet lots of tutors, from those just about to facilitate their first tutorial, to those who’ve been tutoring for decades. But, whatever stage you’re at with your tutoring, it’s always helpful to get back to basics.
So, let’s talk tutorials:
While the lectures address a whole year group and provide an overview of a topic, tutorial classes bring students together in smaller groups and provide a chance to go into more depth, ask questions, and work on related course work (e.g. preparing for essays and exams). Students usually have one tutor for each of their courses, alongside a series of lecturers who often come and go with different course topics. This is a great advantage of the tutorial – you can really get to know your students.
So how do you go about structuring a tutorial? Well, this depends on several things: how long the tutorial is; where it’s taking place; what exactly you are covering; how many students you have; the stage of the semester; what you’ve done in previous tutorials… the point is, that it’s important to think about your tutorials in context (of your own teaching, as well as the wider course).
The educational developers Baume and Baume created a useful outline structure for tutorials, organised around the following areas:
- Appropriateness – the way each activity contributes to the learning outcomes should be clear to both you and your students
- Variety – students learn in different ways (and we all get bored). Try to include a range of activities (group tasks, individual writing activities, posters, debates), change the pace, and swap groups around for discussions.
- Predictability – if you offer some consistency (e.g. always start with a review of the week before and end with a summary) students will gain confidence and be more comfortable with more risky activities.
- Consultation – students have some pretty good ideas about their own learning. Ask your students for their input and ideas – this not only gives you some planning help, but makes students feel included and invested in their own learning.
- Feedback –You can produce quick, unofficial feedback forms to ask students what they liked, what they didn’t like, what you should do differently next time. A simple, quick way to structure these is the ‘stop; start; continue’ method – ask students to write down (or say) one thing they’d like to stop; one thing they’d like to start (that isn’t already happening); and one thing they’re enjoying and would like to continue.
Finally, it’s important to be aware that even the best planned tutorials can go wrong sometimes. The students might be silent and not contribute to the discussions, students might not have prepared, or a student might simply not be keeping up with the class. These are very common issues that almost every tutor will encounter at some point. The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to try and solve these!
If students are not talking, try asking them to speak in turn, or work in groups. Establishing ground rules at the start of the semester might help, and you could change the structure of the tutorial or activities if you think that might be the issue. If students haven’t prepared, ask yourself: was the task clear? Was it focused? Did you give adequate time? It’s helpful to have a back-up plan for the tutorial just in case (bringing a primary source is a good idea).
And if a student seems to be falling behind, consider what the reason might be. Is it personal issues? Difficulties with the material? A lack of motivation? A friendly private chat with the student might be appropriate. Having a range of activities is often helpful, in particular pair work, which encourages engagement without burdening individuals). Remember, too, that all students have Personal Tutors who are there to help students with their studies and with pastoral care.
There are lots more resources you can access freely on our web pages (as well as information for tutors based in Edinburgh on workshops, gettingprofessional accreditation, and networking with other tutors), and remember that you can ask your local support team for help, training and guidance.
Good luck with your tutoring!
 Baume, D. and Baume, C., (1996). “An example of a small group discussion session” and “Planning grid for a small group discussion session”. Learning to teach: training materials for research students. Running tutorials and seminars. Headington, Oxford Centre for Staff Development, pp.7-8.
About the author
Dr Amy Burge is part of the IAD’s support team for tutors and demonstrators at the University of Edinburgh. She provides training, development and resources for tutors and demonstrators from across the University, in particular those working in the humanities and social sciences.