HETL Global Communities

Tutorials – who needs them? Tutees’ and Tutors’ Perspectives

November 30, 2014 in Volume 4

IHR Note: We are proud to present to our readers the first of two articles that draw on, and extend conference presentations made at the 2014 HETL Conference in Anchorage, Alaska (USA). The work of Dr Gail Hopkins explores how knowledge is created and disseminated when tutor based instruction becomes part of the teaching and learning process. This empirical study investigates both tutors and tutored; its findings indicate that in order to increase tutorial value and engage students all participants need to have clear expectations and good understanding of the learning outcomes. More importantly tutors need to be well trained in the subject matter and confident in their delivery.

GailHopkinsPhotoAuthor bio: Gail Hopkins has been a lecturer for the past 14 years at the School of Computer Science, University of Nottingham, UK. She has extensive experience in teaching both undergraduate and postgraduate students and in the mentoring of other teaching staff. She is involved in assessing university teaching staff as part of the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education and the Associate Teachers’ Programme. She is currently Senior Tutor for the School of Computer Science and responsible for the design and implementation of the tutorial system within the school as well as overseeing the roles of personal tutors more generally. Gail is passionate about creating an optimal learning environment and enhancing student experience. She researches into e-learning and the use of technology to enhance learning and has a number of PhD students working in this area. Gail is also a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Contact: [email protected]

 

Tutorials – who needs them? Tutees’ and Tutors’ Perspectives

Gail Hopkins

University of Nottingham, UK

Abstract

A study of first year tutorials has been conducted with tutees and tutors at a School of Computer Science at a UK university; with the aim of investigating what students want from tutorials and what tutors consider to be important tutorial activities. The survey included 55 computer science students across all years and was followed up by five interviews. A focus group was then held with nine personal academic tutors. Results showed that tutees clearly valued problem based tutorials which supported their taught modules but felt that tutorials should cover more complex material. However tutors reported concerns about not being expert enough to give such tutorials, and about declining student numbers. A number of practical implications have arisen from this study. Expectations of tutors and tutees should be more clearly defined. There should also be opportunities for tutors and module conveners to discuss learning outcomes and key ideas to be conveyed in tutorials. In aligning tutors and tutees more effectively it is anticipated that student satisfaction and attendance can be improved. Examining perspectives of both staff and students has allowed key differences to be identified and recommendations made for how to bridge the gap in expectations.

Keywords: Tutorials, higher education, computer science, expectations, attendance.

Introduction

In the current higher education climate, increasing pressure is now on universities to provide excellent standards of education along with a rich and rewarding student experience (MacLeod, 2013, p. 15). Currently degree courses in the UK commonly cost students around £9000 per year in tuition fees in addition to living expenses (Ward & Shaw, 2014) and student loans have significantly increased in the past few years (Universities UK, 2013) to enable students to attend degree courses. A significant part of a student’s overall experience of their degree is the contact and communication they have with academic staff members (Hixenbaugh, 2008). The personal tutorial is an important component in this (Stevenson, 2009) and it is common-place in the UK for students to be allocated a personal academic tutor whose role is to support them during their studies (Cook, 2006; Robbins, 2010). First year tutorials are of particular importance as they help new students to settle in to their studies and allow staff to get to know their students better (Watts, 2011). As such, tutorials tend to be more common in the first year of a student’s studies than in subsequent years and are considered to offer a number of core opportunities: to support the learning outcomes of taught modules; to provide a place for personal development and to give pastoral support (Earwaker, 1992). However, university teaching styles are changing, with more online teaching and assessment (Massingham & Herrington, 2006), and a trend towards dropping student attendance has been observed for many years (Rodgers, 2002; Hughes, 2005; Massingham & Herrington, 2006; Cohn & Johnson, 2006; Gump, 2006). Therefore it is a pertinent question to ask what students want from first year tutorials.

First year tutorials, at the University of Nottingham, UK, are intended to provide a forum for piecing together learning across the curriculum and developing a range of skills in addition to offering pastoral care. The development of communication skills, enhanced independence, responsibility for learning and professional engagement with the discipline are among the key intended outcomes (University of Nottingham, 2014a). Different subject disciplines offer different types of tutorial (University of Nottingham, 2014b). However, it is expected that all personal tutees should meet with their personal tutor at the start of each academic year and at least three times in each academic year (University of Nottingham, 2014c).

In order to achieve these tutorial outcomes, the School of Computer Science at the University of Nottingham offers two types of personal tutor-led tutorials to its students; first year group tutorials run throughout the academic year and individual tutorials offered to all students for the purposes of overseeing progress and pastoral care. The School of Computer Science uses a subset of staff as tutors, hand-picked for their skills, which results in each tutor having around 50 tutees across all years. For the past few years the group tutorials have involved personal academic tutors conducting problem based learning with their personal tutees, with problems provided by different module conveners as the weeks progress. Each tutor has around 12 or 14 first year tutees and they run the same tutorial for two weeks at a time, seeing half their first years one week and half the next, in order to keep group numbers low. Tutees therefore have group tutorials with their personal tutor fortnightly.

Despite the use of group tutorials in on-going support of first year taught modules, it has been observed that attendance markedly declines through the academic year. This paper reports on a study of tutorials conducted with both tutors and tutees. The aim of the study was to investigate what tutees want from tutorials and what tutors think is the most effective tutorial activity to promote student engagement in their learning environment.

Literature Review

Tutorials are a traditional part of university education and are commonly used as forums for small group teaching and problem-based learning (Barrows, 1986; Barrows, 1996; Dolmans, De Grave, Wolfhagen, & van der Vleuten, 2005). A tutorial group is a specific form of cooperative learning (Dolmans, Wolfhagen & van der Vleuten, 1998) where small group learning is facilitated by an academic tutor who aims to engage the students in problem solving and discussion whereby they can build upon their prior knowledge in a constructivist manner. Tutorials often have further aims including encouraging students to work together (Cook & Naughton, 2006), familiarising students with the learning and assessment requirements of higher education (Cook & Naughton, 2006) and dealing with problems (Cook, 2006).

The role of the tutor is commonly to scaffold learning (Schmidt & Moust, 1998; De Grave, Dolmans, & van der Vleuten, 1999). The tutor is also expected to facilitate the learning process through motivating engagement and stimulating interaction in the group (Dolmans, et al. 1998; De Grave, Dolmans and van der Vleuten, 2002). Whilst providing academic help (Robbins, 2010) and having content expertise (Kassab, Al-Shboul, Abu-Hijleh, & Hamdy, 2006) is considered important, tutors will not necessarily be experts in all taught subjects (Dolmans, Wolfhagen and Schmidt, 1996). Indeed, when students become more experienced and self-directed in their studies, the influence of an expert tutor is reduced (Schmidt, 1994). However, tutors should possess a certain subset of skills to get the most out of their students including a good knowledge of group dynamics (Dolmans, Wolfhagen, Scherpbier, & van der Vleuten, 2001), the ability to give feedback and the ability to reflect on experiences (De Grave et al., 2002) as well as skills in establishing rapport with students (Kassab et al., 2006). Different tutors have different styles of tutoring (De Grave et al., 1999) and different skills (Das, Mpofu, Hasan & Stewart, 2002). What is important, however, is a tutor’s ability to understand and to express him or herself at the students’ level of knowledge (cognitive congruence) (Schmidt & Moust, 1998).

Despite the various roles of tutors outlined above, in the UK there seems to be no fixed idea of the purpose of tutorials (Cook, 2006) and tutor responsibilities have been poorly defined and thus interpreted differently (Watts, 2011). Also tutors differ in what they consider to be their roles as tutors (Schmidt & Moust, 1998; Ashwin 2006; Watts, 2011). Problems are often encountered in tutorials; tutors can be either too directive or not give enough guidance (Dolmans, De Grave, Wolfhagen, & van der Vleuten, 2005; Dolmans & Wolfhagen, 2005), or they fail to deal with ineffective group behaviours (Tipping et al., 1995). Whilst tutorials are supposed to be collaborative in nature (Griffiths, Houston and Lazenbatt, 1995) they can end up with some students letting other people do the work for them (‘sponging’) which, in turn, can lead to them ‘withdrawing’ their engagement (Dolmans et al., 1998).

Attendance is also a common problem in most universities (Rodgers 2001; Kirby & McElroy, 2003; Baderin 2004; Cook, 2006; Cook & Naughton, 2006) and has, in fact, been a problem for decades (Massingham & Herrington, 2006). Various research studies have postulated reasons for non-attendance including illness and social and work commitments, (Hunter & Tetley 1999; Longhurst, 1999), travel time to and from university (Kirby & McElroy, 2003) and focussing on parts of the course that were assessed (and not tutorials), having a full timetable and clashes with assessment deadlines (Cook & Naughton, 2006).

Attempts at improving attendance have included incentives such as reducing marks for non-attendance (Rodgers, 2002) and making assessment part of the tutorial (Cook, 2006). However there is debate amongst the literature as to whether an increase in attendance improves performance (see for example Rodgers, 2001; Rodgers 2002; Sharma, Mendez, & O’Byrne, 2005).

The studies reported in this paper examine the role of the tutorial from the perspectives of both tutees and tutors and the paper makes conclusions as to how tutorials might be tailored to be of the most benefit to students.

Tutee study

Method

A questionnaire was developed to investigate what students want from their first year tutorials. The questionnaire consisted of 14 questions, 13 of them closed and one open-ended. The first eight questions each allowed the respondents to select one option and asked about their current degree, year of study, details about their attendance at tutorials and preferred frequency of tutorials. Questions 9 – 11 asked about what activities students thought should take place in tutorials and which were most useful. Question 12 then asked about what would encourage attendance at tutorials. Questions 9-12 allowed the selection of more than one option. Question 13 asked respondents to rate a series of statements about tutorials on a five point Likert scale ranging from strongly agree through to strongly disagree. The final question was open-ended as it aimed to get qualitative data on what was perceived as useful in tutorials. The questionnaire was initially piloted and some wording was clarified according to comments received. It was then placed online using SurveyMonkey® and all students were emailed and requested to complete it. Students were ensured of their anonymity and confidentiality.

Subsequent to the survey, interviews were conducted with students with the aim of getting more qualitative data on why students did or did not attend tutorials and what their prior expectations of tutorials had been.

Survey Results

A total of 55 students across all years (1-4) completed the survey at the end of the academic year. Of these, 38% were in their first year, 35% in their second year, 20% in their third year and fourth year students, the smallest cohort in the school, accounted for 7% of the respondents. The degrees for which the respondents were registered at the time of completing the survey are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Number of respondents and the degrees for which they were registered

Registered Degree (n=55) Number of Respondents %
BSc Computer Science (3 yr) 24 43
MSci Computer Science (4 yr) 12 22
BSc Computer Science with AI (3 yr) 2 4
MSci Computer Science with AI (4 yr) 4 7
BSc Software Systems/Software Engineering (3 yr) 5 9
BSc Joint Honours CS with Management (3 yr) 6 11
MSci Joint Honours Maths with Computer Science (4 yr) 2 4

 

Attendance

During their first year, students were offered group and individual tutorials with their personal academic tutor. A description of these tutorials and their frequency is shown in Table 2 and reported attendance at these during their first year is shown in Table 3.

Table 2. Types of tutorial offered to students

Type of tutorial Group tutorial with personal tutor Individual tutorial with personal tutor
Activity Exercises/activities provided by different module conveners, e.g. mathematics, algorithmic problem solving, database systems, functional programming; some pastoral care Pastoral care, reviewing exam results, advising about issues such as accommodation and further study.
Frequency Once per fortnight At least 3 times per year; more if requested by student

 

Table 3. Attendance at tutorials

Attendance (n=55) Group tutorials with personal tutor % (n) Individual tutorials with personal tutor % (n)
All of them 49 (27) 71 (39)
About three quarters 27 (15) 7 (4)
About half 7 (4) 9 (5)
About a quarter 9 (5) 6 (3)
None of them 7 (4) 7 (4)

 

Table 3 shows the highest reported attendance at individual tutorials (71% reported attending all) with 49% reporting that they attended all group tutorials. When asked what would encourage them to attend group tutorials, 73% stated that getting coursework marks would encourage them to attend, whereas being told that tutorials are compulsory would only encourage 46% to attend and 35% would be encouraged to attend if they knew the school would write to them about their non-attendance.

When asked how frequently students would have liked to have been offered tutorials 51% stated that they would have wanted group tutorials with their personal tutor once a fortnight (Table 4) and 25% only once a term with 9% not wanting group tutorials at all during their first year. Individual tutorials were desired less with 36% wanting a tutorial once a term and 38% not wanting individual tutorials at all. Students were asked if they thought they should be offered tutorials more frequently at the start of their first year and less frequently as the year progresses and 62% said yes.

Table 4. Frequency at which students would have liked tutorials during their first year

Desired frequency of tutorials (n=55) Group tutorials with personal tutor % (n) Individual tutorials with personal tutor % (n)
Once week 15 (8) 9 (5)
Once a fortnight 51 (28) 16 (9)
Once a term 25 (14) 36 (20)
Never 9 (5) 38 (21)

 

Purpose of tutorials

The next part of the survey focused on the purpose of tutorials – the activities that students thought should take place within the group tutorials offered by their personal academic tutor. Students were first asked what they thought the overall role of group tutorials should be in terms of academic, pastoral or personal development-related. The majority, 82%, said that group tutorials should cover material to support modules they are taking; 71% said that they should also provide an open forum for questions to be asked relating to anything. Only 42% said that they should be used to do activities related to their personal development. The following two questions asked more specifically about which module-related activities and which personal development-related activities would be most useful if they were offered in group tutorials. Students were able to select more than one option and the results are shown in Table 5. Of the module-related options, students clearly valued opportunities to revisit difficult module topics (75%) and to work through exercises (58%) as well as being able to get feedback from their coursework (62%) and going over these in more detail in tutorials (51%). Receiving coursework marks and practicing writing computer programs were not rated that highly (36% and 29% respectively). In terms of personal development-related options, the most valued activities were critiquing sample reports or coursework (55%), discussing interview techniques (51%) and practicing writing a CV (47%). However, 15% stated that none of the personal development options would be of preference, compared to only 2% selecting “none” in the module-related categories.

Table 5. Preferred activities in group tutorials

Module-related (multi-response, n=55) Personal development-related (multi-response, n=55)
%  (n) %  (n)
Going over coursework that I have handed in 51(28) Practice writing a CV 47 (26)
Working through exercises that support modules I am taking 58 (32) Discussion of interview techniques 51 (28)
Going over difficult module-specific topics 75 (41) Practicing a short presentation 36 (20)
Practicing writing programs 29 (16) Critiquing sample reports/coursework 55 (30)
Getting feedback from my coursework 62 (34) Reading a research paper and preparing a discussion 27 (15)
Receiving marks for my coursework 36 (20) None 15 (8)
None 2 (1)

 

The penultimate question asked students to rate a series of statements about tutorials using a five point Likert scale. Response categories from this were recoded into three categories by combining ‘strongly agree’ and ‘agree’ as one category and ‘disagree’ and ‘strongly disagree’ as another, with ‘neutral’ left as the remaining category. A Pearson’s chi-square test was done on the three categories to determine levels of significance for the statements (labelled S1-S9). The responses to the statements and χ2 values can be seen in Table 6.

Table 6. Perceived purposes of tutorials      

Statement Strongly agree %

(n)

Agr-ee         

%

(n)

Neu-tral  

%

(n)

Dis-agree  

%

(n)

Strongly disagree%(n) Total Average ra-ting χ2 Re-ject H0?
S1: Group tutorials should be the place where I receive marks for my coursework 11(6) 33(18) 24(13) 16(9) 16(9) 55 2.95 1.27 No
S2: Group tutorials should provide me with feedback on my assessed work 31(17) 42(23) 18(10) 7(4) 2(1) 55 2.07 27.95**** Yes
S3: Group tutorials should only be used for pastoral purposes (help with problems) 6(3) 32(17) 19(10) 39(21) 4(2) 53 3.04 0.25 No
S4: Group tutorials should only be used for personal development (non-module specific) purposes 0(0) 20(11) 24(13) 45(25) 11(6) 55 3.47 9.55* Yes
S5: Group tutorials should only be used to support modules I am taking 9(5) 45(25) 31(17) 11(6) 4(2) 55 2.55 15.09*** Yes
S6: Group tutorials should be compulsory 4(2) 20(11) 37(20) 24(13) 15(8) 54 3.26 11.28** Yes
S7: Individual tutorials should be compulsory 15(8) 20(11) 37(20) 22(12) 6(3) 54 2.83 10.17* Yes
S8: I should *only* have an individual tutorial if I need/ask for one 11(6) 39(21) 22(12) 22(12) 6(3) 54 2.72 3.50 No
S9: I dislike feeling that I have to attend tutorials 7(4) 32(17) 26(14) 22(12) 13(7) 54 3.02 1.28 No
*p <.01, **p<.005, ***p<.001, ****p<.0005

 

Table 6 shows that H0 for statements S2, S4, S5, S6 and S7 could be rejected. Of these statements S2 (χ2 (2, n = 55) = 27.95, p<.0005) and S5 (χ2 (2, n = 55) = 15.09, p<.001) were found to be statistically highly significant. S2 – “Group tutorials should provide me with feedback on my assessed work” – had a response of 73% who agreed or strongly agreed. S5 – “Group tutorials should only be used to support modules I am taking” – again had the majority of answers selecting either agree or strongly agree (55%).

There was a mixed response as to whether students thought group (S6) and individual (S7) tutorials should be compulsory with some agreeing (24% and 35% respectively) and some disagreeing (39% and 28% respectively). Despite the fact that the chi-square test showed some level of significance, (p<.005 and p<.01 respectively) it can be seen from the figures that a large proportion selected “neutral” to these questions. It can also be seen that 39% agreed or strongly agreed that they disliked having to attend tutorials, but the chi-square test showed no significance for this statement.

Effectiveness

The final question was an open ended question about tutorial effectiveness; students were asked to look back over the group and individual tutorials they had received during their first year and comment as to what has been the most useful in terms of their studies or personal development. Of the 55 respondents, 36 answered this question with 16 choosing to skip the question. A number of activities were cited as being useful ranging from module-specific activities such as going through problems and exercises set by module conveners to more pastoral activities including advice regarding module choices, discussing exam results, and personal development activities such as discussing organization skills. However, of the 36 comments received, 13 directly commented that module-specific exercises had been the most helpful to them, 7 stated specific pastoral matters were helpful such as help with settling in and discussing future career plans, only two mentioned personal development activities and ten stated that they had not found anything from their tutorials helpful. Two comments stated that the tutorials covering module-related material were helpful in the cases where they got a different explanation from their tutor than that given by their module convener: “it was useful to get a different approach to solving problems”, but not otherwise:  “if the tutor for that module’s tutorials does not give any different explanations than the lectures, then the group tutorials are practically useless”.  Another stated that he preferred individual tutorials for this purpose: “because a [sic] individual explanation was better than a lecture environment, because I can interrupt and ask questions”.

In terms of attendance, one student commented that: students will only go to tutorials if they feel like it will help them improve their marks.” Another stated: “the general group tutorials were really not of much help at all, they were put forward as compulsory but had very low attendance”. Yet another commented: “the module specific tutorials should be very useful but they [sic] tasks provided for them seem to focus on the easy parts of the module… [ ] They need do be more challenging if we are supposed to learn from them.” A further comment related to expectations of attendance: “as for personal tutorials, there is no point in having personal tutorials because the University has decided that it is time for me to do so…  [ ] Forcing people to have meetings because “it’s time” is not a good strategy in any situation – it would be better to instead advertise the availability of personal tutors for meetings to [sic] that students feel that they can talk to them when a problem comes along.”

Interview Results

Five students were interviewed and asked about their expectations of first year tutorials and their reasons for attending or not attending. Of the five interviewed, three stated that they had initially assumed the purpose of tutorials was to get careers advice from their personal tutor and to discuss module choices. One student stated that he would have liked his tutor to have told him which modules students tended to get better marks on so that he could have used this to aid his module choice. Two students stated that they considered material supporting taught modules to be useful.

When asked why they did attend tutorials, only one student confirmed that he attended, and this was because his tutor had very convincingly told him that tutorials were mandatory. Four of the students stated that they didn’t bother attending tutorials but cited different reasons for this. One said that he thought he should go, but at the point of deciding to go he didn’t bother. He stated that “there is a complete culture of disengagement”. When asked why he thought this was the case he said he didn’t know, but said that nobody goes to lectures either – “there is a culture of not attending – you only do what you think other students are doing”. He cited a “Snowball Culture”“if 3rd years tell you don’t need to go then you don’t bother” and that “online resources mean you don’t have to attend”. He further added that “people aren’t really here to learn anymore; they are here to get a degree”. Other reasons for not attending were the early times (10am) of tutorials, poor communication from tutors, coursework deadlines and that students did not see what the point of tutorials is; “if there is no purpose to it, I won’t go”.

Students were asked what would encourage them to attend tutorials. One student said that he thought students would go if they got marks early from their personal tutor (i.e. before the official release date). Another said that he would only go when he needed help and yet another said that he would only go to a tutorial if it directly made a difference to his marks. One stated that his considerations are “what do I need to do to get a degree?”

Outcome Summary

The key findings from the tutee survey indicate that there was a strong preference for module-specific material to be covered in tutorials, but only if the material was challenging enough and if they were able to get alternative explanations from their tutor. In the absence of this, tutees felt that they did not learn anything and did not see the point in attending. Responses indicated that many tutees did not think they should be forced to attend tutorials and that they should only be offered individual tutorials when they needed them.

Of particular significance was the fact that students stated that group tutorials should only be used to support the modules they are taking and that they should receive feedback on their assessed work in group tutorials. There were no strong feelings that group tutorials should be used for pastoral support or personal development. However, when asked about this in interviews, students said that their prior expectations had been that tutorials would be for careers advice and advice regarding module selection.

Attendance was much higher at individual tutorials than group tutorials, which is to be expected due to the fact that one would be conspicuous in one’s absence at an individual tutorial. Also, individual tutorials are arranged by mutual agreement to a much greater extent than group tutorials. However in the survey, a large proportion (76%) of tutees reported attending at least three quarters of their group tutorials but only one of the interviewed students stated that he had attended tutorials. In terms of frequency, from the survey, half the students preferred to have group tutorials once per fortnight, with 25% preferring to receive them only once per term. In contrast to this, far fewer students were concerned about individual tutorials with 36% only wanting them once a term and 38% stating that they never want individual tutorials.

Several students agreed that receiving coursework marks in tutorials would encourage attendance, but did not think they should receive marks in tutorials. Several also stated that revisiting coursework and getting feedback on their work would encourage attendance but that formal actions taken by the school such as writing to them regarding non-attendance would not particularly encourage them to attend.

Tutor study

Method

A focus group was conducted with nine personal academic tutors. The focus group lasted for the duration of one hour and asked about the purpose of tutorials, what tutors felt would be useful activities to conduct in tutorials, the effectiveness of existing tutorials and attendance.

Results

Attendance

Tutor responses with regard to attendance were mixed: two tutors stated that attendance was good whereas others had experienced low attendance. Attendance was reported by half the tutors as having gone down from 12 to around four or four tutees after the first three or four weeks and this had led one of them to combine his two tutee groups and run just one tutorial per fortnight, with an “open office” session in the intermediate weeks. One tutor stated that he would chase missing tutees and these tutees would then come to the next tutorial but then others would be absent and it was a cycle of chasing alternate tutees each fortnight. Another said that it was mostly the same students who attended and these did not need chasing. A few tutors agreed, however, that due to the fortnightly cycle of tutorials there was some confusion amongst students as to when they were supposed to attend.

Of the two tutors who reported good attendance, one of these said that he made a point of emailing his students to remind them to come and that this was generally effective. Others had also taken to regularly emailing reminders but stated that once they had stopped emailing then attendance had dropped.

A few tutors commented that when they have asked tutees if they find tutorials useful the answer has been “yes”, but then they had still observed non-attendance. Upon asking students why they did not attend, students have cited coursework deadlines as a significant reason and most tutors seemed convinced that this was indeed the primary reason. One tutor said: “students say tutorials are useful, but they are obviously not as useful as doing coursework”. It was widely acknowledged that tutorials are important for keeping in contact with tutees and catching those who are struggling, but that students could not be made to attend.

Tutors were asked about ideas to encourage attendance. These ranged from explaining the benefit of the tutorial exercises to timetabling tutorial slots so that they immediately follow a core programming lecture. It had been observed that there was a gap in the timetable following the current (morning) tutorial slot and tutors suspected some students were not keen to come in to university for their tutorial and then have to wait around for lectures. One tutor suggested monitoring attendance and discussing this in tutorials but others felt that this could be seen as too critical and may make it more likely for students to give up attending. One suggested calling the tutorials “exam preparation” but another did not like this as he did not want to feel in a situation where he had to answer more challenging module-related questions.

Purpose of tutorials

Whilst university guidelines are clear, the purpose of tutorials had clearly not filtered through to all personal academic tutors. One of the tutors commented that he felt there was no clear purpose to the first year group tutorials and so he was not sure of the reason for conducting them. Another asked, “what is our goal?” whilst another commented that being given worksheets to use in tutorials was “like the tail wagging the dog”. Other tutors, however, stated that they understood that the purpose of these tutorials was to “keep an eye on students”. One tutor stated that he used the first 15 minutes of each tutorial to check on pastoral matters and also felt that this was a good opportunity to get feedback from students related to their modules. However, when tutors were asked if they thought that tutorials should be just for pastoral purposes, they said that they did not think students would attend tutorials if this were the case. It was agreed that something was needed to encourage students to attend group tutorials.

When asked if the current system of holding fortnightly tutorials covering module-related exercises was useful, tutors’ responses varied. Two tutors did not think that module-specific exercises were useful because the attendance at tutorials was not very high. Another tutor stated quite strongly that he did not think he should be covering teaching material in support of students’ modules as it was not serving any purpose and that this should be left to the modules themselves. He also felt that he was not knowledgeable enough to be able to conduct tutorials in certain areas. Others were in favour of module-related tutorials and felt that these were potentially useful for catching those students who were not understanding the material. One tutor questioned whether exercises that were done in the tutorials should be representative of exam questions and that his tutees had asked about this. There was some thought amongst tutors that this might encourage attendance and another suggested that this would be a good way to get their tutees “self-testing”. However, other tutors felt that this should not be the purpose of the tutorials and that the exercises covered should be “quite easy”. One tutor stated that exercises should be a way of getting tutees talking and then for the tutor to be able to ask them how their studies were going.

However, when tutors were asked for alternative ideas, they admitted not knowing what else to do in tutorials. One tutor suggested doing more pastoral activities such as brainstorming over revision skills. Another tutor stated that previously he had collected a box of tutorial sheets and ideas and suggested that this might be useful for tutors to pick from. However, whilst one or two tutors felt this could be interesting the majority did not express a great deal of interest in this. Two tutors had no preference as to what they covered in group tutorials as long as they were told what to do and did not have to think of activities themselves.

Effectiveness

Two tutors thought that the current model was not working. They reported wanting to offer pastoral care and that they were happy to give feedback from module assessments, but that conducting module-specific exercises was not useful. Others said that it would work if attendance was good. One tutor expressed the opinion that if tutorial exercises were kept the same from year to year then he would find it a lot easier. He reported struggling with the exercises for one module in particular and others agreed that this had been challenging and that they had spent some hours working on the exercises themselves in order to understand them. One tutor had taken the approach of asking his tutees to explain the problem to him and had hypothesized that: “at least one person should be able to”. He said this had worked well with one topic but not others. Another tutor said this approach had not worked at all for him and that his experience was that students did not interact much in his tutorials; they were very one-sided.

One tutor commented: “tutorials are good but they no longer fit with the modern university system”, but that “I’m not sure how we can improve [tutorials] given the modern attitude that if it is not worth credits then they won’t come.”

Workload

Several of the tutors stated that having around 50 tutees was too much and that they felt that the expectations of them were too great. Tutors acknowledged that timetabling 15 minutes per student for individual tutorials in addition to the group tutorials took a great deal of time and that if one tutee didn’t turn up: “it’s not like you can have this time back”. Tutors also agreed that there was a limit to the size of group tutorials – one commented that if they had more than 10 tutees in a tutorial: “it’s a classroom rather than a tutorial”.

Outcome Summary  

Tutors differed in their opinions about the purpose of tutorials. They also reported problems with attendance and seemed to feel disillusioned with running tutorials due to this. However, tutors agreed that they did not really know how to fix this problem. They agreed that the primary importance was to keep an eye on tutees, but that without a compelling purpose behind tutorials, other than for pastoral reasons, tutees would not attend. They also commented on the fact that their workload was high due to the number of tutees that they had (across all years) and the fact that they had to prepare for group tutorials for subjects which they did not all feel confident in teaching.

Discussion and Conclusion

It is widely acknowledged that there needs to be a mechanism for keeping in contact with students on a course as universities have a duty of care towards their students. Traditionally this mechanism has involved tutorials with a personal academic tutor. Tutorials also provide the opportunity for small group teaching and thus can help to promote a feeling of identity with a course (Cook, 2006). However the educational climate has changed over the past 30 years (Massingham & Herrington, 2006) and student attendance is declining.

This study examined the perspectives of tutees and tutors involved in first year Computer Science tutorials at the University of Nottingham with the aim of finding out what they think the purpose of tutorials should be. Tutees strongly opted for tutorials to be problem-based with material supporting the modules they were taking. However, these are only useful if they are challenging enough. Tutors, on the other hand, had mixed views about the role of tutorials. Whilst some were happy to hold problem-based learning tutorials, others were unhappy with the fact that they felt poorly equipped to teach certain subjects. This is something that has been identified to an extent in the literature (Cook & Naughton, 2006), but begs the question as to what to do about it.

Supporting students’ learning is the most desirable purpose from tutees’ points of view, but many feel they aren’t getting anything useful from tutorials and others feel they don’t want to spend the time attending given their other assessment commitments. While many tutees want more challenging content in tutorials, tutors feel that content should be simple, either because they do not feel knowledgeable enough to teach it, or they don’t have the time to prepare, or because they feel that the content should be simple to get students talking. This idea of students’ and tutors’ expectations from tutorials differing is not new (Das et al., 2002; Baderin, 2004). However, it is clear that as long as the two do not match up, attendance will not improve and our mechanism for overseeing student welfare will be rendered less valuable.

Certain measures can be taken to encourage attendance, but then tutorials need to provide some perceived value (Massingham & Herrington, 2006) to students otherwise they may harbour resentment at being made to attend. Whilst a large percentage of tutees reported high attendance at group tutorials in the survey, the interview data and tutors’ observations disagreed with this and tutors stated that attendance had been a long-term problem. Changing patterns of student engagement with Higher Education has been acknowledged in the literature (Krause, 2006; Harvey & Drew, 2006) and this is something that has been observed by tutors in this study and also cited by some of the interviewees. The difficult question is how to still provide that source of support given the fact that student expectations have changed and they more regularly turn to online resources rather than face-to-face contact (Massingham & Herrington, 2006). As Robbins (2010) explains: “if students do not work with their tutor in good times, they are hardly likely to seek our help when things get tough.”

The study reported here gives strong arguments as to why the tutorial system in computer science at Nottingham University is not working, in its current form. Given the current climate of student fees and increasing student expectations it is crucial that this is dealt with. Addressing this problem will be two-fold: staff need to be given the confidence to deliver what students want; and student expectations of what they will receive from tutorials needs to be managed. It is proposed that module conveners providing tutorial material for personal tutors should do so in advance and that regular sessions should be held with tutors where key ideas to be conveyed in group tutorials are discussed. It is anticipated that this would enhance knowledge and help build confidence in discussing areas outside of tutors’ expertise. It is further proposed that the purpose and goals of tutorials are clearly outlined to both tutees and tutors in order to align the two parties. These should be clearly publicized to both staff and students. It is hoped that the consequences of these steps will be: tutors who feel more able to give tutorials with more challenging content; tutees who know what is expected of them and who feel value in the tutorials they attend; increased student attendance when delivery is aligned with expectations; and a teaching and learning environment that meets the expectations of students in terms of value for money and being a supportive place to learn.

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to acknowledge the help and support of the students and staff at the University of Nottingham who took part in this study. The work was presented in part at the International HETL Conference 2014, Anchorage, Alaska (USA), with an abstract published in the conference proceedings (Hopkins, 2014).

This academic article was accepted for publication in the International HETL Review (IHR) after a double-blind peer review involving two independent members of the IHR Board of Reviewers and two revision cycles. Accepting editor: Dr Lorraine Stefani (University of Auckland, New Zealand), Senior Editor, International HETL Review.  

Suggested citation:

Hopkins, G. (2014). Tutorials – who needs them? Tutees’ and tutors’ perspectives. International HETL Review, Volume 4, Article 11, URL: https://www.hetl.org/academic-articles/tutorials-who-needs-them-tutees-and-tutors-perspectives

Copyright [2014] Gail Hopkins

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