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Key Strategies for Effective Tutorials

For many graduate students, teaching tutorials is often their first – and in some instances, only – chance to apply and develop their teaching skills. Running tutorials (also called “seminars”) can provide challenges for both teaching assistants (TAs) and faculty members. Numerous teaching aspects are involved in making tutorials productive learning events. Among the most important are: planning, communicating, delivery, question strategies, activities, and motivation. Below you will find useful strategies to help you deal with each one of these aspects.


  • 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. Then communicate these goals to your students. Focus not on “covering material” but rather encourage active learning among your students.
  • Define guidelines and rules from the beginning. Devote time early in the term to familiarizing students with essential guidelines for successful and productive learning. Tell them your guidelines, and ask for their input and opinions about them. You will also likely have a number of non­negotiable rules (e.g., due dates), but be flexible when possible (e.g., time for submitting assignments, locations for assignment submission, etc.). Provide students with an accurate copy of the goals and guidelines for your tutorial. Make sure that the penalties for infringement are clearly explained (i.e., 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, examples, or activities in case students want or need additional practice. If you need to demonstrate equipment use, practice before the tutorial.
  • For more ideas, check the following Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) teaching tips:


  • Encourage students to participate. Make sure you are not the only one talking in your classroom. Mention explicitly that you expect students to participate and that they should feel free to make comments and ask questions. Provide opportunities for participation (e.g., pause periodically and ask if there’s something that students would like to say).
  • Comment on student performance and behaviours. 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. Remember to commend good work too. The more your students get out of your tutorials, the better their attitude (and attendance) will be.
  • 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.
  • Avoid excessive formality, but don’t get too close. Some tutorial leaders may feel insecure or 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. You need to ensure that students do not question your objectivity.
  • Do not ignore 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.
  • For more ideas, check the following CTE teaching tips:


  • Keep pace with lecture progress. Tutorials normally follow up a lecture. Try to attend lectures yourself (seek lecturer’s consent first). Alternatively, arrange for a pool of students to bring you a copy of their notes after the lectures, so that you have a better picture of what students have learned.
  • Make connections among parts of the course/tutorial. Help students visualize the ‘big picture’ and integrate together the tutorial contents 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.
  • Use solid delivery skills. 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 student attention. As well, move naturally around the room. Circulating around the room while students are working allows them to ask questions easily.
  • Avoid speaking to your visuals. Whether you use the blackboard or a screen (for overheads or electronic presentations), 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 you and you can see their responses to your teaching.
  • For more ideas, check the following CTE teaching tips:


  • 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. But 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 and attitudes. To help accomplish this, carefully design questions before the tutorial sessions. Even when you expect students to have enough 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?" Many education experts believe this type of question is somewhat wasteful. 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 … , you would know how to answer?" This usually increases students’ desire to understand the concept and elicits questions. Be sure to wait up to 10 seconds 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. A general rule of thumb is to give 25 percent of your eye contact to the questioner and 75 percent to the rest of the audience. By using this “25/75 rule,” you help to include everybody in the room.
  • 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. If you don't know the answer to a student's question, 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.
  • For more ideas, check the following CTE teaching tips:


  • Favour high-learning activities. Taking notes, listening passively and pretending that they understand are behaviours that students should not be displaying during tutorials. Some subject­related tasks 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 lectures. It is all too easy for tutorials to degenerate into an extension of lectures, and for students to be as passive in tutorials as they may be in lectures. You 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 lecturer.
  • For more ideas, check the following CTE teaching tips:


  • Students’ attitudes toward tutorials may need changing. Students often regard tutorials as optional and their attendance may be erratic. If it is possible to divert some of the syllabus coverage – and some of the associated assessment – into academic tutorial times, it is more likely that staff and students will take tutorials more seriously. Be sure that your tutorials add value to the course.
  • Never put students down. Showing respect for all students is critical. Students can be highly sensitive to snubs or sarcasm, especially if they’re feeling insecure. You need to act professionally at all times.
  • Acknowledge and thank participation. Short phrases such as, “that’s a good point,” “thanks for saying that,” 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 – in ordinary conversation it would be considered extremely disrespectful to do this. However, be sure to provide or elicit an accurate response so the class has correct information.
  • Don’t be afraid to 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.
  • For more ideas, check the following CTE teaching tip:

Other strategies

  • Save time by making time. If you need to be available to students outside of class, set up office hours, post them on your office door or website, and be there! 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 a fellow TA or a faculty member, she/he will most likely have accumulated experience and insight to share with you as well as suggestions. In difficult cases, Waterloo's Conflict Resolution Support Program may be the best source of help. 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’re 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. Check whether or not they have mastered concepts that have been covered already. Also, consider having an anonymous website where students can post opinions and suggestions for you.
  • Don’t wait until after the midterm or end of the term to get feedback. The instructor evaluation forms will not help you diagnose and address problem areas in real-time. You have to constantly monitor your tutorial. Evaluation data are also helpful for overall reflection on your teaching and they provide evidence of your teaching effectiveness.
  • For more ideas, check the following CTE teaching tips:


  • 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.
  • Prepared for the TRACE Workshop, “Teaching and Tutorials: Purposes, Roles, and Strategies.” September 18, 2003.