online tutorial

Tutorials supplement learning that has occurred in lectures by providing further opportunities for students to discuss course material, ask questions, practice skills, and receive formative feedback on their learning. A good tutorial session is interactive and learner-centred; it emphasizes active learning and fosters instructor-to-learner and learner-to-learner interaction.

This teaching tip highlights the key strategies for planning and delivering online tutorials in any discipline, and is targeted primarily at instructors. This document is a companion to the broader Key Strategies for Effective Tutorials Teaching Tip Sheet, which includes advice for both in-person and online tutorials. Teaching assistants (TAs) may find that more in-depth tip sheet helpful.

Online tutorials can be offered in different modalities: synchronous, asynchronous, or a combination of the two. For affordances of each modality, refer to the Synchronous and Asynchronous Online Learning resource. The Tools and Technology resource will also be helpful in deciding the best approach for your context; keep this resource in mind as you read through this teaching tip. If course tutorials are offered synchronously, be sure to provide an asynchronous option.

Similar to in-person tutorials, planning, communication, delivery, question strategies, activities, and motivation are all important aspects to consider to make online tutorials productive learning events.

Planning

  • Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOS): Check that it is possible to meet your ILOs in the online space and then adapt them if necessary, focusing on the key outcomes.
  • Scheduling:
    • Synchronous: If these sessions are not scheduled by the Registrar, coordinate with other instructors and TAs who are running synchronous sessions to avoid scheduling conflicts. Ask students to fill out a survey indicating their own potential scheduling conflicts, including time zones. Always have an asynchronous alternative available (e.g., recordings to view in tandem with a discussion board).
    • Asynchronous: Provide students with a clear schedule for when the various parts of the asynchronous activities are due and include when you will respond to their questions and give them feedback. Consider maintaining a weekly schedule as you would on campus to provide a familiar pattern for the students to follow.
  • Guidelines: Be proactive and make instructions as clear as possible so students can be as independent as possible. This approach will also benefit you as you won’t need to field as many emails. Provide an outline for each session and explain how students will participate in it.
  • Technology and materials: Use what technology makes sense in your context, and nothing more. Simplicity is key and do not try to learn new technologies on the fly. Make sure in your planning step you have made students aware of the materials and technology requirements of your tutorial.
    • Synchronous: Practice! Build in time for you and your students to learn the technology. Cue your visual aids (i.e., slide show, images, problem sets, virtual white board, etc.) in advance. Have a back-up plan if technology fails and make sure your students know it too. If you struggle with writing equations on the virtual whiteboard, prepare full solutions ahead of time so you can point to them as you explain. Know how to record and share the session for students who are unable to attend and be aware of the privacy requirements.
    • Asynchronous: As much as possible, try to stay ahead in your preparation while keeping your tutorials responsive to students’ needs and questions so as not to lose the “just-in-time” nature of tutorials. You may wish t0 create a demo video or a screencast to explain or work through the concepts/problems or provide them the tutorial problems and give them a space to collaborate (such as a collaborative document or discussion board). .
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Communication

  • Communication strategy: How will you interact with students online? What tools and technology will you use? Are those tools and technology supporting your learning goals or complicating students’ achievement of them? Tell students your communication strategy. Be explicit with them about the guidelines for participation; norms for chats, discussion boards, virtual meetings, or breakout rooms; timing of when replies are expected; and expectations for communicating in online, professional contexts. Be sure in either mode to allow opportunities for understanding checks and feedback.
  • Feedback: 
    • Synchronous: Use this opportunity to address students as a group, but also provide a written or recorded version of your feedback for students who were not present during the synchronous session. Even students who were present will benefit from your written comments or solutions for reference. Also, capitalize on the real-time approach, and conduct comprehension checks frequently to ensure students are following along.
    • Asynchronous: Keep to the schedule and communication strategy to which you’ve committed. Students benefit from feedback in regular intervals, and this is especially important when there is no scheduled, face-to-face meeting time. For example, in a one-week asynchronous tutorial task, you can schedule 1 or 2 check-ins that scaffold the task for students. Avoid giving feedback only at the end of the task.
  • Tone and professionalism: Strive to model the right tone for students. Whether oral (e.g., audio/video) or written (e.g., chats, discussion boards), it’s important to maintain and model professionalism while being personable. In the online environment, you also need to work a little harder on portraying your human side. Be sure to model the engagement, curiosity, respect and motivation that you are looking for from your students. Be responsive and thorough when students ask questions. Check in to make sure your responses were helpful, and ask clarifying questions when needed to help students ask clear and useful questions.
    • Synchronous: This delivery mode usually involves some form of live chat and/or virtual meeting, which may or may not have video enabled. Without facial expressions for feedback, use technology’s features to your advantage. Most virtual meeting platforms incorporate a visual signal so that you know who is talking as well as reaction symbols that represent raised hands, confusion, etc. Make sure you learn what to look for and where to find it, and tell students if you want them to use those features and how to do so.
    • Asynchronous: Remember to be clear and concise in your communications to your students to avoid confusion and misunderstanding.
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Delivery

  • Aligning tutorials with lectures: Tutorials typically follow up a lecture. Depending on the online setup, tutorials might follow a video, a series of short videos spliced with self-directed activities, readings, etc. Ensure that you’re aligning your tutorials with your lectures, whether demonstrating, expanding, or discussing a concept in depth. Make connections between the tutorials and the lectures, both temporally within the course (“Remember when we…” and “Looking ahead, we’ll…”) and to students’ personal experience, world events, and other texts and media encountered throughout the course and beyond. Follow up on theories explained in the lectures and other online materials. Solve example problems, introduce advanced and more challenging problems in a scaffolded way, and seek to prepare students for assessments.
  • Timing:
    • Synchronous: Plan and manage your time and students’ time well. You may have agreed to meet synchronously, but students may still be in different time zones or have a multitude of obligations for which they also need to stay on schedule. Some virtual meeting platforms time out; ensure you know your platform and build in buffer time if needed. It’s a good idea to survey your students and adjust your plan as needed, based on their input. Also, keep an eye on the time: it can be very easy to go overtime when there isn’t another class waiting to get into the room as there would be on campus.
    • Asynchronous: As in your communication strategy, give students a timeframe for completing activities and give yourself a timeframe for providing feedback and answering students’ questions. Use techniques that make the most of your time, such as providing global feedback, as it’s easier to lose track of time spent by you and your students when managing activities in an asynchronous online environment. Aim to account for all the time that you and your students are spending on the course in your planning, delivery, and administration.  
  • Mode: Synchronous, asynchronous, or a mix of the two may be used for tutorial teaching. See what best suits your context. You can use discussion boards, collaborative documents, pre-recorded walkthroughs, or dropboxes for key milestones in the task needing feedback. You can also make use of peer review and/or self-managed group collaboration.
    • Synchronous: Use virtual meeting platforms to facilitate a discussion, solve a problem, or demonstrate an experiment. Take advantage of the virtual white boards available in virtual meeting rooms. Also consider using a physical whiteboard if you find it easier to write equations and scaffold problem solving there. When filming, be sure that sound is directed appropriately for your recording setup, and if you must film yourself talking be sure to look at the camera.   Remember to make your writing large enough for students to see. Use chats for a low-bandwidth way of facilitating a text-only discussion. Record your sessions, save your transcripts, and share them with students afterward.
    • Asynchronous: Use discussion boards to post problems or prompts for students to work through on their own and post replies. Facilitate the discussion happening there, and consider dropping in at different times to monitor and encourage student activity. This mode gives students the advantage of flexibility with respect to time, giving them a chance to think things through and ask questions (even those who typically won't speak up in class).
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Questions

  • Preparation: Work through the online course content and review students’ submitted work well in advance so that you can prepare questions and discussion topics that are responsive to students’ needs and evolving levels of understanding. Consider crowdsourcing questions before the tutorial. You might do this by creating a shared collaborative document for all tutorial sessions or one for each tutorial session or discussion boards in the learning management system.
  • Tools: The tools you use to collect questions (asynchronous) and field questions (synchronous) will likely be the same tools you use to deliver your tutorials, so ensure question strategies are part of your early considerations.
    • Synchronous: If using a virtual meeting platform, repeat questions just as if you were in a physical space to ensure everyone has heard the question. You may have a student managing the chat, and they can type the question there as well for you. If you are working from a document of collected questions or pre-set questions in the course notes or textbook, be explicit about the question to which you’re referring. You can also share that document/your screen through the virtual meeting platform. If you’d like to call on an individual student, many virtual meeting platforms allow you to send a private chat message; leverage this to ask them if it’s okay that you call on them.

Activities

  • Active learning: Active learning involves students doing tasks to construct their own knowledge. This may seem like a tall order for the online space, but you can encourage this type of learning by engaging students in solving problems, discussing different perspectives, asking and answering questions, and debating.
    • Synchronous: Provide clear guidelines for engagement and participation, including instructions on the tool you’re using. Use breakout rooms in virtual meeting spaces for students to work in small groups and monitor their work. Use the collaborative whiteboard function in problem solving sessions to foster collaborative learning. Provide feedback to small groups and individuals, but use the main room to provide global feedback.
    • Asynchronous: Post materials or short videos on LEARN (max. 500 MB) or link to materials or videos that already exist. Consider using gamification in learning platforms when appropriate. For example, use a conditionally released widget in LEARN as an award to students who have made certain accomplishments (e.g., got a high score in a quiz, contributed in the discussion board, etc.). Give students a timeframe for completing activities and  the tools and space to work together if that's your goal (collaborative documents and discussion boards are great for this). Give students plenty of guidance and feedback and let them know how to get help if they need it.Student participation: Diving deeper into lecture topics, working through more complicated problems, and practicing new skills or methods with feedback are part of tutorials, but if you find yourself turning tutorials into lectures, you may need to return to your learning goals to ensure they’re being met during your lectures or through the other learning materials being used online. Scaffolding large tasks and creating defined check-ins with students or groups of students is recommended.
    • Synchronous: Turning tutorials into lectures may be especially tempting in the synchronous mode. To facilitate student participation, ensure you are giving them time to learn how to interact with the software used for activities to engage with you and each other. Just like in class, count slowly to ten in your head to give students adequate time to process and respond.  Avoid the temptation to fill in silences with lecturing. If no one engages, you may need to cut the session short or have a workaround/technology backup to make sure students can actually interact (e.g., your settings may be wrong resulting in students being unable to turn on their mics).

Asynchronous: It is even more important to have clear guidelines for engagement and participation and tool instructions when you are running asynchronously, as you don't have a chance to explain and answer questions before students begin the activity - your written instructions must do that.

Motivation

  • Barriers: Perceived isolation and lack of motivation are significant barriers to learning in online courses. Consider strategies for connecting with students and supporting them that  you can use in online tutorials. You could write a short self-introduction or post a short welcome video and encourage students to do the same, share strategies for being a successful online learner, or offer tips for learning the course materials.
  • Availability: Create a supportive learning environment by being available to help your students. Hold virtual office hours and let students know what they can expect from you regarding email timelines (e.g., you will return emails within 24 hours on weekdays, but weekends may be more erratic). Be available but keep in mind your own needs. If you make a habit of responding to emails at 1 AM, that will become an expectation you hold for yourself and that students hold for you. Be sure to check in to the discussion boards/chat tool or any external communication tools (e.g., Piazza, Slack, etc.) regularly if your students expect your answers there.
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