tutorial at a tableWhether in-person or online, facilitating tutorials is an opportunity to work closely with students and understand where they are in their learning. For many graduate students, teaching tutorials is often their first and sometimes only chance to apply and develop their teaching skills.

Tutorials will run differently depending on your discipline; the most common tutorial types are:

  • Discussion-based tutorials: these tutorials focus on a deeper exploration of course content through discussions and debates.
  • Problem-solving tutorials: these tutorials are common in math, science and engineering and focus on problem solving processes and quantitative reasoning.
  • Review and Q&A tutorials: in these tutorials, students ask questions about the course content and assignments, review key course content in preparation for tests or exams, and consolidate their learning in the guiding presence of their instructor or Teaching Assistant (TA).

In the case of online tutorials, they can be offered in different modalities: synchronous, asynchronous, or a combination of the two. If course tutorials are offered in a synchronous mode, be sure to provide an asynchronous alternative by recording it and making it available to all students. For platforms that can be used for various types of online tutorials, please refer to synchronous and asynchronous online learning and tools on the Keep Learning site. For requirements about privacy when recording a synchronous session, please refer to Privacy and Remote Teaching resource.

Numerous aspects are involved in teaching tutorials and making them productive learning events: planning, communicating, delivery, question strategies, activities, and motivation.

Planning

  • Tutorials should have their own learning goals. Check that tutorial goals are congruent with those of the rest of the course and that they clearly define what students will do. Communicate these goals to your students. Focus not on “covering material” but rather encourage active learning among your students. Give them the opportunity to practice, with feedback, the core concepts or skills for the course.
  • Establish guidelines at the beginning. Devote time early in the term to familiarizing students with your guidelines for how the tutorial will be run. Ask for their input. You might have non-­negotiable rules (e.g., late submission policies), but be flexible when possible (e.g., provide some leeway for submitting assignments). Be sure to provide students with a copy of these guidelines. Make sure that the penalties for infringement are clearly explained (e.g., how many marks will be lost).
  • Prepare a lesson plan for each sessionBegin with your learning objectives for the session to help you limit your content to 2-3 main concepts for a 50-minute session. Make sure to include time estimates for each section of the tutorial.
  • Have your supporting materials ready. If you plan to use visual aids (e.g., slide show, handouts), make sure they are legible and concise. If you plan to use the chalkboard in on-campus tutorials, determine how to partition and use it. It’s also a good idea to prepare a few extra problems and examples in case students need additional practice. If you need to demonstrate equipment use, practice before the tutorial.

Considerations for Online Tutorials

  • Select online tools for running tutorials and inform students about the tools you’ll be using. If you are a TA, make this selection in consultation with the course instructor. Provide clear guidelines to students on how online tutorials will work.
  • If tutorials are offered in a synchronous format, coordinate with other instructors through your department scheduling rep to avoid scheduling conflicts.
  • For synchronous tutorials, provide an outline of the session and explain how students will participate in it.  Make sure you know how to share your slides, mute and unmute your microphone, use the chat tool, mute your students’ microphones, and share your screen with students.
  • For discussion-based tutorials, consider making discussion questions available in advance in LEARN so that students can access the questions if screen sharing does not work.
  • If sharing slides in advance via LEARN, share as PDFs, so that students can access the material on their phones.
  • For asynchronous tutorials, provide students with the problems or discussion prompts with clear instructions for participation expectations.

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Communicating

  • Encourage students to participate. Mention explicitly that you expect students to participate and that they should feel free to make comments and ask questions. Provide opportunities for participation.
  • Give students feedback. With large classes, tutorials may be the only time when students can get expert feedback on their work. Engage with them to help uncover their misconceptions. Explain what’s wrong, where and why. Put your feedback in writing, if possible. 
  • Learn students’ names and use them. You could use name tents, ask students to say their name when asking questions, or return assignments to them personally. Students will regard the tutorial as more important if they feel that they are known to you, and that you will notice if they are absent.
  • Act in a professional manner. Some tutorial leaders may feel nervous and behave in an overly strict or stand-offish manner. Assess your work climate by watching how your colleagues relate to students. Try to act naturally. If you are close to students in age, you may be tempted to socialize too much with them. Remember that your job may require assessment and that you need to ensure that students do not question your objectivity.
  • Address disruptive student behaviour. Although dealing with it can be awkward, you need to resolve it as soon as possible because it can deprive other students of their right to learn. Ask the disruptive students if they have questions. Remind students of expected classroom behaviour stated on the first day of class. You may also need to speak to the student(s) involved outside of class.

Considerations for Online Tutorials

  • Decide on your communication strategy for online tutorials and ways to interact with students online. If you are a TA, discuss your ideas with the course instructor.
  • The Tools and Technology section of the Keep Learning site contains a list of digital tools for communicating with students, with introductions and basic instructions for their use. Ensure that the tools you use to communicate with students are approved by the course instructor.
  • Communicate to students the guidelines for tutorial participation, norms for discussion boards or breakout rooms, timings of when replies are expected, and expectations for communication in an online environment.
  • Model professional communication in online environment, but it is also important to be yourself and let the students see you as human.

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Delivery

  • Keep pace with lecture progressTutorials typically follow up on a lecture. Try to attend lectures yourself (seek the instructor's consent first). Alternatively, arrange for students to share with you a copy of their notes, so that you have a better picture of what they have learned. 
  • Make connections between the tutorial and the courseHelp students visualize the "big picture" and integrate the tutorial with the rest of their experiences in the course. Make statements like, “remember when we learned how to calculate x earlier in the term?” or “later on in the term, you will learn about…” Ask students to make such links.
  • Use relevant examplesIllustrate points with examples taken from the field under study. When possible, share personal, research, or real-world experiences to help students visualize practical applications of concepts.
  • Engage your students. When on campus, maintain eye contact during your tutorials so you can see raised hands and develop rapport with your students. Speak loud enough and with enthusiasm to keep students’ attention. Circulating around the room when students are engaged in individual or group work allows them to ask questions easily.
  • Avoid speaking to your visualsWhether you use the blackboard or a screen, you may be tempted to look at and speak to your visuals. Remember to point your toes to the back of the room before you speak so that students can hear and see you and so that you can see their responses to your teaching.

Considerations for Online Tutorials

  • Keep up with the course materials and course-related communication on the LEARN site and any other learning platforms that may be used in the course. 
  • In synchronous settings, it’s important to plan and manage tutorial time well. Keeping on time is key. In asynchronous situations, give students a timeframe for completing activities and then provide feedback and answer student questions. Give yourself a timeframe too and use techniques that make the most of your time, such as providing global feedback when possible.
  • Consider the mode of lesson delivery. Will you post problems or discussion prompts on a discussion forum? Will you post a recorded lesson? Or will you host a live synchronous session? See the University supported tools and technology for available options and instructions.

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Question Strategies

  • Tutorials are the best times to ask detailed questionsMake sure that students are aware of this. Suggest that they jot down questions and issues as they arise during lectures and bring their lists to the tutorial. Also let them know that you expect them to search for answers by themselves before coming to you.
  • Prepare questions in advance. Challenge students to venture beyond their current knowledge. To help accomplish this, carefully design questions before the tutorial sessions. Even when you expect students to have questions during the tutorials, having prepared your own set of questions (and answers) can help you to improve their learning and increase your confidence.
  • Be sure that your question is genuine and has a clear purpose. Such inquiries as, “Are there any questions?” are often viewed by students as a “ritualistic” exercise on the instructor’s part and are usually met with silence.  Ask for questions on specific topic areas. If your question is met with no response, be prepared to use follow-up probing questions, such as: “So if I were to ask you on an exam whether …, how would you answer it?” This approach usually increases students’ desire to understand the concept and elicits questions. Be sure to wait 10 seconds or more for a response.
  • Before answering, repeat questionsBy doing this, you will ensure that everybody has a context for your answer. An additional point to remember is to look at the whole class when responding, not just at the questioner. 
  • Admit when you don’t know the answer. You will lose more credibility by trying to fake an answer than by stating that you don't know. Compliment the student on the question, then ask the class if anyone knows the answer (be sure to verify any responses). If there are no answers, volunteer to find the answer yourself and report back at the next class or ask the student to do this.

Considerations for Online Tutorials

  • Use various LEARN tools available for asking questions (e.g., LEARN’s discussion forums, LEARN’s chat rooms, email) or other tools such as Piazza. The Keep Learning site provides a list of tools that can be used for questions.
  • You can crowdsource student questions before the tutorial. For example, you can create a shared collaborative document for student questions that you can use for all tutorial sessions. Alternatively, you can create a shared document for each tutorial.

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Activities

  • Favour active learning activitiesSome activities to engage students and help learn by doing are: solving problems, discussing different perspectives, asking questions, answering questions, working out different approaches to problems in small groups, and engaging in debates.
  • Give clear instructionsBefore starting an activity, make sure that students understand what to do. Explain the goals and provide time breakdowns, then form groups if necessary. Write the instructions on the board or consider providing printed instructions. When an activity is over, be sure to debrief to reinforce key concepts or problem-solving approaches.
  • Avoid the temptation to turn tutorials into lecturesYou may decide to expand on lecture topics from time to time; however, if this becomes a trend in your tutorials, it may indicate that the learning goals are not being met during lectures. If you suspect this is the case, talk to the instructor.
  • Check for understanding. Check whether they have mastered concepts previously covered

Considerations for Online Tutorials

  • Decide on online learning activities that can be used in your tutorials. If you are a TA, discuss your ideas with the course instructor. Consider various methods of interaction (student to student and student to tutorial leader) that can be used in online tutorials. The Student Collaboration section of the Keep Learning site provides examples of tools that can be used for online activities.
  • For synchronous tutorials, provide clear guidelines for online engagement and participation and instructions on the tool you are using. When students work on activities or group discussions (for example, in breakout rooms), monitor their work and provide feedback. Be sure to read the university guidelines on making recordings of synchronous teaching, including tutorials, and the notification requirements.
  • For asynchronous tutorials, post materials or short videos on LEARN (max. 500 MB) or link to videos or materials that already exist. Give students a timeframe for completing activities and then provide feedback and answer student questions.
  • For discussion-based tutorials, use specific, structured questions, and let students know expectations for their responses. See our recommendations on fostering effective online discussions.

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Motivation

  • Be sure your tutorials add value to the course. Students can regard tutorials as optional and their attendance may be erratic. If it is possible to divert some of the course content and assessments into academic tutorial times, it is more likely that students will take tutorials more seriously.
  • Never put students down. Showing respect for all students is critical. Students can be highly sensitive to snubs or sarcasm, especially if they are feeling insecure. 
  • Acknowledge and thank students for participation. Short phrases such as, “that’s a good point” or “I see what you’re saying, but have you considered…?” allow students to develop insight instead of feeling inadequate or foolish. Acknowledge all answers whether they are accurate or not. Students get disheartened if their response is passed over without comment because it is not what the instructor or TA wants to hear. However, be sure to provide or elicit an accurate response so the class has correct information.
  • Commend good performanceReceiving praise for doing something well is highly motivating. Sincere praise from an instructor or TA for insight, achievement, participation, or helpfulness will make students feel good and more likely to participate again.

Considerations for Online Tutorials

  • Perceived isolation and lack of motivation are significant barriers to learning in online courses. Consider strategies for connecting with students and supporting student motivation that could be used in online tutorials. For example, you can write a short self-introduction to share on the course site, post a short welcome video in Announcements on the course Homepage, share strategies for being a successful online learner or offer tips for learning the course material.
  • Create a supportive learning environment by being available to help your students, using motivational language and fostering a sense of connectedness among learners.
  • If tutorials are offered in a synchronous format, consider what to do if some students can’t participate due to connectivity issues or personal circumstances. If you are a TA, discuss this issue with the course instructor. For example, you can record live tutorials (but not discussions in breakout rooms) and post the recording so that students can view it later (see privacy guidelines). You can also summarize the live discussion and students can participate asynchronously over a set period of time. For problem-solving and Q&A tutorials, you can post a written summary of tutorial materials later.

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Other strategies

  • Set office hours. If you need to be available to students outside of class, set up office hours, post them on your office door or website, and make sure you are present. Office hours can minimize the interruptions to your research work that can occur when students do not know when best to approach you.
  • If you need help, ask somebody. If you are a TA, your first resource should be the course instructor or coordinator. Whether it is a fellow TA or a faculty member, she/he/they will most likely have accumulated experience and insight to share with you as well as suggestions. You may also want to connect with the Centre for Teaching Excellence. In difficult cases, Waterloo's Conflict Management and Human Rights Office may be a source of assistance. Though the tutorials are your responsibility, you are part of a team that can help you.
  • Keep good records. Make notes about attendance, topics covered, questions asked and student difficulties with the material. Such records will be very helpful if you are involved in running the same tutorial again and may provide useful feedback to the course instructor.
  • Solicit student feedback. Ask how they are finding their learning experience and what they think you should stop, start, and continue doing (and you can choose to do this anonymously through a survey).
  • Get feedback early in the term and throughout the term. The instructor evaluation forms will not help you address problem areas in real-time. Monitoring how your tutorials are impacting students will help you address issues right away. Evaluation data are also helpful for overall reflection on your teaching and they provide evidence of your teaching effectiveness.

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Resources

  • Nilson, L.B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
    • Part 3 of this book offers tips on facilitating effective discussions
    • Part 4 of this book offers tips on problem-solving, quantitative reasoning, and labs
  • Nyquist, J.D., Wulff, D.H. (1996). Working effectively with graduate assistants. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
  • Race, P. & Brown, S. (1998). The lecturer’s toolkit: A practical guide to teaching, learning, and assessment. London, UK: Kogan Page Limited.
  • Wankat, P.C. & Oreovicz, F.S. (2015). Teaching engineering (2nd ed.). West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.
    • Chapter 5 (Problem Solving and Creativity) offers tips on teaching problem-solving skills

teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Key Strategies for Effective Tutorials. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.