How thoughtful, content-rich tutorials can help science students learn

Tutorials are a space where students can test and develop their knowledge. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Learning is not a spectator sport. Students need to make what they learn a part of their everyday lives. Tutorials are an excellent way to achieve this at university level. When they’re properly designed, tutorials can be spaces where students are grouped in smaller numbers and can be guided to make sense of the work, practice their skills, cultivate critical thinking and learn from and with each other.

Tutorials were initially used in numeric subjects where they were practice sessions to work out problems. They’re now part of many more disciplines and formats vary. In a language subject, for example, a tutorial could entail speech practice. At Cambridge and Oxford they are fundamental to the teaching method – also, this is where it all started in the 15th century. Financial and staff constraints mean that not all higher education institutions have them.

But there’s a problem. There isn’t consensus in university faculties and departments about what constitutes a well-designed tutorial. How can academics ensure that their tutorials are achieving all they aim for? What should be done to develop tutorials that facilitate learning rather than becoming a chore for students and academics?

My research explores how to establish tutorials as learning spaces, particularly in the sciences. I argue that there are four role players in this environment: a lecturer, a tutor, a student and well-chosen content.

Based on my research I concluded that for tutorials to be successful, lecturers must take the time to carefully plan what’s being taught. They must prepare properly. Students need to learn that problem solving during tutorials is much more than covering the content – it’s an opportunity to obtain a deeper conceptual understanding of that content, as well as to discuss and reason with others in a process of peer learning. They need to come to tutorials prepared.

Different roles

Each role player in the tutorial system has different responsibilities.

Lecturers should avoid leaving tutors – usually senior undergraduates or postgraduate students – in charge without providing any guidance. Weekly meetings are ideal; there, tutors can ask questions about the material and clarify any concerns they have. Tutors should also be trained in “soft skills” such as questioning techniques, communication skills and how to handle “difficult” students.

The tutors are not there to teach. Their role is to facilitate and supply feedback on students’ attempts. Tutorials should be a space to rectify students’ misconceptions; to elicit questions and create an environment in which students can get things wrong without fear of reprisal.

Tutors need to remember that the emphasis should not be on supplying the answers, but on reasoning, discussing and arguing the answers.

Students often enter higher education with a “hidden contract” that states: “You the teacher will agree to not challenge me, force me to work hard, embarrass me, or make me struggle, and I the student will not act out, disrupt the class, embarrass or challenge you in any way”.

This means they think they can memorise facts, reproduce them during tests and receive a good mark – probably because that’s the approach they followed during their school years. Students must be prepared to approach their learning differently in tutorials.

One way of communicating this message to students is to set clear ground rules on day one, share with them strategies about the growth mindset and do formative assessment using colour cards or clickers (not counting any marks) to highlight to them (and the tutor) where the misconceptions are. When students understand the “why”, they are willing to do the “how”.

Content is key

Then there’s the content. This is what should be mastered by students in tutorials, with their tutor’s guidance. My research suggests that tutorials shouldn’t include assessment because that changes the academic task to finding the correct answer rather than developing thinking processes.

I found that quizzes to determine students’ conceptions before or after a tutorial helped students to be more engaged and, they said, to learn more. If the quizzes are conducted during the tutorial it may also involve an element of peer learning, but then it does not count marks.

A pre-tutorial quiz acts as a “warm-up” exercise for the tutorial. It helps tutors assess students’ typical misconceptions and guides the discussion towards resolving them. And, rather than springing the quizzes on students, lecturers who “advertise” the tutorial activities during lectures, and connect to them, reported better results.

A quiz that takes place after the tutorial serves as “closure” for the session and students get a sense of achievement when they can see they have mastered the work. Those who were not successful yet can get an early warning to practice more.

A boost for learning

The bottom line is that lecturers should plan their tutorials as an integral part of the learning programme, not as an add-on. By doing so, they create more space in which their students can engage with and learn the necessary work. And that’s beneficial for everyone.

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