Tutorial Torture

28 November 2019

Last semester, I graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Science. I am overall complimentary about the teaching I experienced, but one area my experience has been inconsistent, to say the least, is tutorials. This got me thinking: what is the best way to support students consolidating what they learn in lectures? I spoke to students, tutors and lecturers to see how they felt about tutorials. What I found was that many factors influence the (sometimes contradictory) opinions people have about tutorials at Unimelb.

A big issue, of course, is student engagement. A lot of this comes from confidence and experience, as a 23-year- old friend of mine who just started his first degree at Deakin texted me recently: “for some reason the 18y/o jaffy’s [sic] who have gone straight into more study weren’t as passionate as I on defining their definition of spirituality and its differences to religion”. Something I have also observed firsthand, especially in science tutes, is the fear of speaking in front of peers and getting an answer wrong. Social confidence gives students an academic advantage: math tutors mentioned how two or three people end up asking most of the questions and monopolising their time.

But what about the students who want to talk but don’t feel like they can? Especially in discussion-driven tutorials, we can sometimes see one or two students dominate the entire discussion. Students I talked to emphasised the importance of the tutor in managing the class to prevent it being a monologue by the loudest students. This echoes what was found in the University of Melbourne Student Union’s (UMSU) 2017 Respect Week ‘How Privilege Manifests in Tutorials’ workshops, where most attendees expressed that at one point or another, they felt unheard or unable to speak in a tutorial. Proposed solutions included negotiating expectations as a class, more training for tutors (particularly in cultural awareness) as well as teaching strategies such as providing students time to write down and think about answers to questions, and activities that encourage students to lead tutorial discussions. Strategies suggested by those I spoke to are smaller (eg. within a table) discussions that don’t place you on the spot in front of everyone, as well as smaller tutorial sizes in general. The use of anonymous online polls is another option that students praised for allowing them to contribute without feeling judged. Those of us who are more confident in tutorials also have a responsibility to provide others with the opportunity and space to have their voices heard (and I think we can all agree that participation marks for tutorials are the literal worst; making 10 per cent of someone’s grade dependent on them being confident enough to talk is a little bit fucked).

Let’s talk about tutor style for a moment. Just as the lecturer can make or break your appreciation for a subject, the same goes for tutors and their tutes. Something that I think both lecturers and tutors could afford to understand about attendance is this: you don’t deserve student attendance. If students don’t feel that they are learning from you, they will not attend. When students stop turning up, however, it can be a vicious cycle: an economics student mentioned how disheartening it was going to a tutorial where only six out of thirty students attended. This further discouraged them from attending. Students mentioned that good tutes have a tutor who shows clear interest in the content and especially teaching it. The best tutors are those who acknowledge when things are hard and confusing at first; you’re unlikely to get students to answer a question they are unsure of if you preface it with: “you should already know this” or “this is easy”. The matter of separate tutors compared with lecturers taking tutes is somewhat a contentious one. Some students said they prefer the lecturer so that they are sure what they are taught is correct for the exam, while others prefer a different person able to explain things in another way. Teaching staff commitments is one reason cited for holding only a single tutorial, but I remain unconvinced that the benefit of having the lecturer as the tutor outweighs the negatives of full cohort tutorials.

I was gratified to learn that many students shared my beef with ‘lectorials’, my term for tutorials held in lecture theatres. Something about the enforced hierarchy of the room seems to further reduce the students willing to speak down to zero. A lecturer noticed a clear reduction in students willing to contribute in tutorials when their subject shifted from two tutorials held in tutorial rooms to a single lectorial style tute. Obviously, the benefit of lectorials is that they can be recorded, but is this really a plus if they’re not even worth listening to? Beyond the issue of having so many in the room, students mentioned the impracticality of trying to work with others when you’re sitting in chairs welded into rows. Rooms that students consistently praised were the new classrooms in the Arts West Building, where large space and chairs on wheels can be used flexibly as required. A masters subject coordinator raised an issue with tutorial rooms I hadn’t considered: room availability. Some coordinators are unable to book tutorial rooms and end up having to use lecture theatres out of necessity. I hope that this is something Unimelb can address when it plans new learning spaces moving forward.

Unsurprisingly, content was the most important factor mentioned informing student satisfaction with tutorials. Surprisingly, however, the content of tutorials also shaped students’ attitudes about the other factors above. For example, an engineering student’s favourite tutes involved questions to attempt beforehand with the tutor providing a summary sheet at the start of the tutorial and working through the solutions to problems. In this format perhaps lectorials are an option. For subjects involving problem solving at their core, tutorials with set questions can work quite effectively. The most important question to ask is: what are tutorials for? A tutor emphasised how in maths, where some lecturers are notoriously bad at watching their notation, tutorials are good for teaching good habits. When tutors can provide different perspectives and approaches to the lecturer, students are encouraged to attend and engage. Tutorial styles that were praised by science students included psychology and some ecology tutes with smaller student numbers where discussion is encouraged, and the set work has collaborative and problem-solving elements. As one student said: “good tutes encourage discussion and make you use your brain.” A problem arises when the subject content defies a discussion format. Arts subjects are easier to have debates about. Science is more about learning facts. Biology often involves rote learning a lot of facts, so what is the best way to consolidate this in tutorials? Many biology tutorials tend to involve questions or work- sheets that students are set prior to the tutorial and either complete (or don’t) before attending class. Often solutions aren’t provided except for in the tutorial or afterwards, but if they are straightforward questions with straightforward answers that are Google-able or can be found in the lecture notes, students may not see the point in attending tutes. It is these subjects that I think would really benefit from collaborative discussion-based tutes. Clearly establishing with students what purpose the tutorials hold in a subject is an important first step in ensuring they know what they are in for and that tutes are a success.

So, if tutorials aren’t working, what is the alternative? One student I spoke to had struggled to engage with traditional lecture and tutorial formats but found a much better alternative in a subject they took that used a flipped classroom style. Flipped classroom is a fairly buzzwordy term that is thrown around a lot but essentially refers to a teaching format where the bulk of content traditionally taught in lectures is delivered outside the classroom, often online, and activities typically considered homework into the classroom, with time used to explore topics more deeply. They found in-person seminars a good halfway point between getting lectured at and doing independent study. Usage of online polls was praised for allowing everyone to contribute and test their knowledge.

Of course, it is hard to come up with the definitive tutorial format because the many varied subjects taught at the University of Melbourne require different strategies to consolidate ideas and information. But I think tutorials and the purpose they serve should be considered across the University to ensure they are providing students with the best learning support that they can. A month ago, I started a master’s at the University of Helsinki and an immediate positive I have noticed is the benefit of small class sizes, which encourage greater discussion and a more positive learning environment. This isn’t always possible at Unimelb, but it is ideally what tutorials should make up for by supporting a smaller group of students to consolidate new ideas together. To finish on a positive note, the fact that the coordinators and tutors I spoke to are thinking about formats and how to improve tutorials is a good sign. Even for those taking dreaded lectorials, there is a desire to make the best of a bad situation. One lecturer mentioned leaving the lectern to approach students, and the use of flipped classrooms which I took as a promising sign that I’m not the only one who sees a problem and is thinking of alternatives.


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