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Key Strategies for Effective Tutorials

Two whiteboards with post-itsFor many graduate students, teaching tutorials is often their first — and in some instances, only — chance to apply and develop their teaching skills. Tutorials will run differently depending on your discipline, with the most common tutorial types based on discussion, problem-solving, question and answer, and review. Running tutorials can provide challenges for both teaching assistants (TAs) and faculty members. Numerous teaching aspects are involved in making tutorials productive learning events: planning, communicating, delivery, question strategies, activities, and motivation.

Planning

  • Tutorials should have their own learning goals. Check that your goals are congruent with those of the course instructor 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.
  • Define guidelines from 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 non­negotiable rules (e.g., late policies), but be flexible when possible (e.g., provide time for submitting assignments, locations for assignment submission, etc.). Be sure to provide students witha 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 session. Begin with your learning objectives for the session as a way 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 (i.e., overheads, handouts), make sure they are legible and concise. If you plan to use the chalkboard, 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.

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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. Explain what’s wrong, where and why. Put it in writing, if possible. 
  • Make an effort to 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. Faculties have codes of conduct between staff and students. 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.

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Delivery

  • Keep pace with lecture progress. Tutorials typicall follow up on a lecture. Try to attend lectures yourself (seek the instructor's consent first). Alternatively, arrange for students to bring you a copy of their notes, so that you have a better picture of what students have learned.
  • Make connections between the tutorial and the course. Help 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…” You may also ask students to make such links.
  • Use relevant examples. Illustrate 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. Maintain eye contact during your tutorials so you can see raised hands and develop a 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; this allows them to ask questions easily.
  • Avoid speaking to your visuals. Whether 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.

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Questions

  • Tutorials are the best times to ask detailed questions. Make 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.
  • "Are there any questions?" Such inquiries are often viewed by students as a "ritualistic" exercise on the instructor's part and are usually met with silence. When asking for questions, be sure that your question is genuine and has a clear purpose. 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 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 questions. By 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.

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Activities

  • Favour active learning activities. Some activities to engage students and that can help students to learn by doing are: solving problems, discussing different perspectives, asking questions, answering questions, working out different approaches to problems or case studies, and engaging in debates.
  • Give clear instructions. Before 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 the goals and the “take home” message.
  • 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.

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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 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 feel 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 tutor wants to hear. However, be sure to provide or elicit an accurate response so the class has correct information.
  • Commend good performance. Receiving praise for doing something well is highly motivating. Sincere praise from a tutor for insight, achievement, participation, or helpfulness will make students feel good and more likely to participate again.

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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. 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. In difficult cases, Waterloo's Conflict Management and Human Rights Office may be a source of assistance. Though the tutorials are your responsibility, you’re 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). Check whether or not they have mastered concepts that have been covered already. 
  • Don’t wait until after the midterm or end of the term to get feedback. 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

  • Centre for Teaching Excellence TA Manual
  • 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.
    Lubin, J. (1987). Conducting Tutorials. Kensington, NSW: Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australia.
  • 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. and 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

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