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Issues In Educational Research, 2012, Vol 22(3), 213-227
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Enhancing the quality of tutorials through peer-connected tutor training

Angelito Calma and Mark Eggins
The University of Melbourne

This paper investigates how a peer-connected tutor training program can lead to quality enhancement by helping tutors to develop more effective teaching strategies and promoting better learning approaches among business students. It uses 2007-2010 evaluation data from 343 program participants from accounting, economics, finance and management and marketing departments. The analysis focuses on identifying what participants considered useful, not useful and what would be a good addition to the program. Patterns and themes were observed and analysed using NVivo. Results show that one of the most valuable aspects of the program was the opportunity to learn from peers - a group that includes experienced tutors and fellow new tutors. The study would benefit tutors in universities by considering a proposed model for a peer-connected tutor training program.


This paper presents a case of quality enhancement that focuses on a peer-connected tutor training program at a large, research-intensive university in Australia. The program aims to enhance the quality of teaching in tutorials, in particular through a variety of feedback opportunities and peer interactions, to help tutors provide better small group learning experiences for students. Such learning environments are critical as positive teacher-student (Hattie, 2009) and student-student (Topping & Ehly, 2009) interactions are integral to effective learning. The main focus of this paper is on describing a faculty-embedded tutor training program, evaluating participants' feedback about the program, and introducing a model of tutor training that emphasises peer connections. Peer connections between students themselves can also be developed in interactive study methods that foster reciprocal learning used by new tutors in their classes.

Biggs (2001) argues that staff development centres should have formal relationships with each teaching department. In most universities, central centres or units exist and establishing formal relationships that are focused on improving teaching and learning in the disciplines can be challenging. We describe in this paper a discipline-specific and Faculty-embedded program that has the potential to provide better training for new tutors, particularly if it emphasises connections with experienced tutors and fellow new tutors.

Such a context also raises several important questions:

This paper addresses these questions and reports on recent program evaluation data highlighting the significant contribution of a number of peer connections made during the training. This includes experienced tutors sharing their experiences during the initial training session, the feedback new tutors receive following review of their teaching and the opportunity they have to discuss challenges and solutions with fellow tutors during follow-up sessions.

What is good tutoring?

Ramsden (2003) argues that good teaching is context-related and continuously improvable. What makes this paper a case of quality enhancement is its focus on improving tutoring to enhance pedagogy and learning. The training program does not focus on discussions about tutoring in general but about tutoring in the business disciplines and features continuous improvement.

So what do tutors do? This question needs to be unpacked in relation to Australian universities' conceptions of teaching broadly and tutoring more specifically. In general, teaching in a university in a 'western' context entails a number of key responsibilities including: making the structure of the course and its topics explicit; eliciting responses from students; building on students' existing knowledge; and confronting and reducing students' misconceptions (Biggs & Tang, 2007).

It is vital therefore that students are given many opportunities to participate and interact with peers in class. Instruction should accordingly be balanced to include content-centred and student-centred components along with surface and deep learning objectives (Hattie, 2003). One of the most common contexts for peer interaction is in small group environments like tutorials. Improving interaction in these tutorials can lead to a number of benefits including: increased awareness and understanding of different perspectives; better preparation for the workplace; improved English language skills (especially for international students); and a greater feeling of belonging (Arkoudis et al., 2010).

However, the tutorial context can be very challenging for both students (Morosanu, Handley & O'Donovan, 2010) and tutors. Ramsden (2003) has suggested the issues include too much teacher talk and students coming to classes with the sole purpose of obtaining solutions to previously set questions. Other research has highlighted problems in facilitating group interaction and participation as well as collecting feedback from, and giving feedback to, students (Bell & Mladenovic, 2008). Tutors therefore need comprehensive training including "knowledge of a variety of instructional strategies and the flexibility to change them" (Rüütmann & Kipper, 2011, p. 60).

One way to address such issues is for tutors to include more peer learning in their sessions. Tutorial sessions are typically spent reinforcing concepts, applying models, frameworks and concepts in solving particular problems, and developing shared understanding through collaboration with small groups. Peer learning in a tutorial setting can have a number of positive outcomes (Boud, 2001) including:

When students do tasks together with the tutor and other students in small groups, it can also foster the development of generic skills (e.g. communication skills, team work, critical thinking) regarded as critically important in workplaces (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000).

Moreover, when students take specific roles as the 'tutor' (as opposed to the 'tutee'), this has additional benefits, such as 'increased social skills and attitudes to self' (Topping, 1976 in Biggs & Tang, 2007).

Tutorials indeed need to play a key role in enhancing quality assurance at a tertiary institution. That is, they can ensure students learn the content of their discipline as well as develop a number of generic skills that can help 'transform' students and tutors alike. This final point relates to exposing students to a variety of perspectives, making theory-practice links explicit and broadening tutors' perspectives in terms of their conceptions about their role (Harvey & Green, 1993 in Biggs, 2001). However, it should be noted that the positive effects of tutoring, albeit in school settings, hinges not only on the presence of the tutor but also on the 'training of tutors, the reasons for selecting the tutors and the quality of the program' (Hattie, 2006, p. 101).

What are some common study methods often used in tutorials?

Tutorials typically complement lectures with their emphasis on discussion. "Tutorials allow [students] to link together what [they] hear in lectures and read in textbooks and discuss these ideas. Discussion is critical; without it, a tutorial is not a tutorial." (Davies & Beaumont, 2004, p. 2). Tutorials are also small in class size (approximately 15-20 students) and usually one hour in duration. Thus, study methods employed in tutorials should focus on students having the opportunity to discuss ideas through collaboration with peers.

The Faculty of Business and Economics (FBE) at Melbourne University has an emphasis on further improving student engagement in tutorials, transitioning first year students into the tertiary learning environment and providing collaborative opportunities for both local and international students. Such collaboration can hopefully lead to "the purposeful creation of situations from which motivated learners should not be able to escape without learning or developing" (Cowan, 1998, p. 112).

A variety of tutorial approaches are required in FBE as the Departments of Accounting, Economics, Finance, and Management and Marketing offer different subjects and have varying learning objectives and related assessments. These influence how students participate and the activities they undertake. Nevertheless, a number of study methods can be selected from for all disciplines including those in the table below (Table 1).

Table 1: Some selected study methods in tutorials

Study methodClass set-upResourcePurposeProcess
Think, pair, discuss, sharePairsProblem or questionCollaborate for a negotiated viewStudents first think about a problem individually, then discuss their ideas in a pair and finally share their negotiated views with the whole group
Think, group, discuss, shareSmall groupsProblem or questionDevelop analysis skills in a small group contextStudents analyse a problem or question with the tutor roving to provide elaboration or clarification as required
'Expose' - identify, apply and evaluateIndividuals, pairs or teamsProblem or issueApply theory and evaluation tools to set problem/sStudents analyse a problem applying relevant theories, concepts, models, formulas or frameworks
Team debateTwo debating teamsProblem or issueDevelop critical thinking skillsTwo teams of students debate each other (one 'for' and one 'against')
Case analysisIndividuals, pairs or small groups'Real world' casesUnpack problems and develop solutionsStudents given a case study and must develop recommendations for improvement
Collaborative problem solvingPairs or small groupsBusiness problemsDevelop critical thinking and problem solving skillsStudents given business problems they must solve through applying concepts & mathematical tools
N.B. These methods are not mutually exclusive. That is for example, think-pair-discuss-share can be used in case analysis.

The CELT tutor training program

The Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), formerly the Teaching and Learning Unit and based at the Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne has run a tutor training program for more than a decade. The program trains new tutors from across the four Faculty departments: Accounting, Economics, Finance, and Management and Marketing. It introduces new tutors to excellent teaching practice, offers practical ways to improve their teaching and enhance students' learning, and provides them with several opportunities to learn from more experienced peers. This re-affirms Donald's (2006) view that tutors, similar to teaching assistants and PhD students, should be given training in teaching and supervised opportunities to practise their skills.

The program comprises a three-hour initial training session, an observation of, and feedback on, tutors' teaching practice (a standard feedback pro-forma is used for this purpose) along with a 'drop-in' and follow-up session. Tutors are given their feedback individually to maximise the amount of relevant feedback and to consolidate key points (Hattie, 2006, p. 102). The drop-in and follow-up sessions in particular encourage tutors to reflect on their success in achieving the intended learning outcomes (ILOs) for their subjects in a small group of peers and any alternatives to their current teaching and learning activities and assessments that could be considered to improve their ILOs.

Tutors also reflect on the training itself both at the end of the first session and at the end of the follow-up meetings. Tutors are asked to evaluate the nature, scope and quality of the program, facilitator effectiveness and other aspects. It is hoped that the range of activities new tutors undertake can further improve their practice given that "a period of consolidation after prolonged learning greatly enhances retention" (Biggs & Tang, 2007, p. 109).

The program emphasises situated learning and the development of a community of practice of new tutors, with active participation in the community critical in the learning and identity development of the participants (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The program offers new tutors a number of opportunities to interact with peers in their shared domain of interest including:

The involvement of peers in the tutor training program is non-judgemental and developmental (Lomas & Nicholls, 2005, in Bell & Mladenovic, 2008). In detail, the program offers mutual support, sharing ideas about teaching; reflecting on understandings, feelings, actions and feedback and trying out new ideas'' (p. 3). It is important to note that all feedback is strictly formative in line with Biggs and Tang's assertion that:
peer review should form a major part of the overall teaching quality enhancement process, but only peers should be involved, not those in a position to make personnel decisions (2007, p. 269).
Such information sharing includes the initial training session where an experienced tutor helps to model to peers "the specification[s] of what excellent teaching looks like" (Ramsden & Martin, 1996 in Toth & McKey, 2010, p. 74). This hopefully gives new tutors a "common framework and... set of assumptions" regarding effective pedagogy (Biggs & Tang, 2007, p. 46). The drop in and follow up sessions meanwhile are designed to facilitate 'learning conversations' that are learner-focused and generate critical reflectivity also through interaction with peers (Byrne, Brown & Challen, 2010). Thus teaching practices become shared rather than remaining a private activity (D'Andrea, 2002) to encourage reflection on teaching and foster debate about and dissemination of best practice (Hammersley-Fletcher & Orsmond, 2005; Orsmond, 2004, in Bell & Mladenovic, 2008).

Overall, participants in the program are encouraged to actively engage in critical self reflection and collaboration with peers in order to improve their professional practice and begin to develop a network of supportive peers (Byrne, Brown & Challen, 2010).


The data was collected from new tutors in one Faculty (Business and Economics) in a large research-intensive university in Australia. Respondents were new tutors from four different departments, who filled in a questionnaire following the initial training session. The questionnaire included 10 Likert-type questions and three open-ended questions (Appendix A). The open-ended questions are the subject of this study. This article draws only on the three open-ended questions, which explored aspects of the training: what they found most useful, least useful, and what they recommended as good additions to the program.

Data from a total of 343 program participants (Accounting: N = 91; Finance: N = 107; Economics: N = 126; and Management & Marketing: N = 59) during 2007-2010 (eight semesters) was collected. Tutors from the Economics department were most represented (33%) while tutors from Management and Marketing comprised the smallest number (15%). During 2007-2010, an average of 96 tutors participated annually (2007: N = 125; 2008: N = 110; 2009: N = 87; and 2010: N = 61).

The data was organised by question in NVivo 9, which formed the nodes or categories (i.e. "The most useful aspect of the program for me was ..." = Node 1; "The least useful aspect of program for me was ..." = Node 2; and "A good addition to the program would be ..." = Node 3). This "structural coding" (MacQueen et al., 2001) was conducted to facilitate data sorting by question. Subsequent coding and analysis was made at each node. Word frequency queries provided a starting point in identifying recurring ideas (Ryan & Bernard, 2000). Patterns and themes were observed at each node using word frequency counts, which helped develop the sub-themes during this stage. This content analysis "evaluate[d] the frequency and saliency of particular words or phrases... in order to identify keywords or repeated ideas" (Namey, Guest, Thairu & Johnson, 2007, p. 138). Each reference to a particular sub-theme was analysed, and those that did not relate to the three questions were eliminated. This data reduction technique (Namey et al., 2007) ensured only relevant data was included in the analysis.

Emergent themes were categorised using NVivo according to the same questions and the results are discussed below in relevant sections.


Theme 1: The most useful aspects of the program

The 341 responses received for this question revealed a strong positive experience of meeting other new tutors in the same department and listening to the experienced tutor. Additionally, new tutors also found the feedback from the individual teaching observation report and initial training session which taught them 'how to conduct a tutorial' helpful. These findings are reported in detail as follows.

The opportunity to interact with fellow new tutors and learn from more experienced tutors
There were 178 (178/343 or 52%) references to new and the more experienced tutors in regard to this item, largely pertaining to the value and contribution of sharing experiences (the former) and learning from the experiences of the latter. One hundred and forty of those referred to the usefulness of meeting and interacting with fellow new tutors, sharing ideas with them, and sharing common concerns or issues in tutoring. Twenty of those related to the value of learning from the more experienced tutors, mainly the tips given by them and their discussion of problems they had encountered and solutions they had devised to deal with them.

The following comments encapsulate this sub-theme.

Being given tips on how to deal with certain situations in tutorials such as silence after asking a question was useful.[Tutor#173, Economics]

It provided an opportunity for [new and experienced] tutors to discuss the common problems we face and the different solutions to use to solve these problems.[Tutor#197, Finance]

Addressing concerns that tutors have from the onset, and then having a follow-up training session where additional problems can be addressed by the tutors was useful.[Tutor#147, Accounting]

The value of the feedback following teaching observation
A large number of new tutors (82) rated the feedback report as useful. The feedback report provided an individual assessment of a single nominated classroom teaching hour during Weeks 6-8 of semester and focused on seven key aspects: introduction/opening; student participation/interaction; organisation and clarity of explanations; use of questioning and feedback; presentation and delivery; use of audiovisuals and other teaching aids; and conclusion/ending.

Some representative comments included the following.

[The observation gave] me advice on the ways to improve my tutoring (e.g. encouraging students' participation). [Tutor#155, Accounting]

It provided useful and important advice to a new tutor like me. The subsequent follow-up session gives feedback and solutions to the challenges I met during the tutes. [Tutor#177, Economics]

The observation - the feedback was constructive and enabled me to gain more confidence and change little aspects of my teaching. [Tutor#147, Accounting]

As to the least useful aspects of the program, most of the references to the question were related to its usefulness rather than an absence thereof. A few other references related to two other matters: cutting down the length of the initial training session from three to two hours and reducing the quantity of resources supplied (these included staff guides, slide notes and readings).

Theme 2: Suggested additions to the program

The 218 responses received in this question reflect, quite significantly (69%), the need to do more on what was covered in the initial training session and to include new topics or activities. When compared with the other themes, the sub-themes are consistent with Theme 1 sub-theme 1, referring to the need to include more case studies and personal experiences from the facilitator and experienced tutors.

More case studies, examples, tips and strategies from experienced tutors
It was evident that tutors valued the interaction with the experienced tutors to the extent that they wanted to hear even more from their more experienced colleagues. Specifically they wanted to hear more about tips, strategies, and ways of dealing with common classroom situations in the Faculty (more than 150 references related to this sub-theme).

[I would like to] meet more experienced tutors and hear from their experiences. [Tutor#24, Accounting]

Giving/Sharing more real life tutoring experience in the Department would be a good addition. [Tutor#26, Finance]

They made specific references to the value of modelling their tutorial with how the experienced tutors do theirs, learning from the challenges they faced and how they resolved them, and the department-specific practices they share. These results indicate the importance of inviting tutors from the same department to speak during the initial training session.

The opportunity to observe other more experienced tutors and senior lecturers
A possible useful addition to the program could be the opportunity for new tutors to observe experienced tutors and senior lecturers "in action". Tutors wanted to see in practice how tutorials are conducted, emphasising the importance of "learning through observation". Quite significantly, they viewed this as more effective when observing tutors teaching the same classes that they will teach.

Opportunities to observe more experienced tutors - more subject-specific training would be good. [Tutor#155, Econ]

I would like to attend an experienced tutor's tutorial class to learn more. [Tutor#163, Econ]


Examining the impact of a program on participants involves exploring the relationships that exist within and are promoted by a program, and more importantly, including the tutors' connections with students. This calls for a model that describes these various relationships, as discussed below.

What are the relationships between teaching, study methods and students' learning outcomes?

As mentioned previously, peer connections are emphasised in the tutor training program. These relationships can be illustrated by Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Peer connections in the tutor training program

As Figure 1 illustrates, new tutors are presented with various opportunities for connecting with various stakeholders, which, when leveraged properly, can result in more meaningful teaching practice. Following from this, it is argued that meaningful learning derived from these connections can translate to more effective teaching and learning in tutorials.

The primary aim of the program is to develop reflective teaching practice among tutors and consequently to provide a richer learning experience for students. As mentioned earlier, the most significant factor is the feedback that they receive on their teaching. This detailed feedback that is given to new tutors (generally one on one directly after the lesson observation) provides information about, and suggestions for improvement in their teaching areas such as communicating clear learning outcomes, engaging with students, providing feedback, questioning and gesturing. If the feedback cannot be given immediately following the observation it is emailed (within 48 hours) so tutors can consider any changes as soon as possible for the remainder of the semester.

Moreover, the input that various kinds of peers supply to the new tutors is especially useful given that peer-assisted learning can provide rapid feedback, supply additional insights and develop a variety of transferable skills (Topping & Ehly, 2009). These results are also possible in the often more reciprocal peer relationships that can form via peer interaction of students that takes place in the study methods covered in the tutor training program. As part of the program, new tutors are encouraged to use such methods in their tutorials.

What roles do different kinds of teaching and study methods play in the business curriculum?

The more obvious answer to this question is one that relates to quality enhancement of the teaching and learning experience overall. It would be difficult to find a direct link between participation in a tutor training program and the quality enhancement of student learning. We do not argue here that the CELT tutor training program directly leads to increased achievement of learning outcomes as this cannot be proven by the data collected from the program alone. Moreover, other factors may well have an impact here including changes in tutoring staff, selection processes and student demographics however these are outside the scope of this study.

Nevertheless, the positive feedback from tutors regarding the program and the peer connections it engenders (along with the literature that supports the pedagogical value of such connections), suggests that as a result of the program, they go into classes prepared for the many challenges they face. This is especially so in relation to the enhanced skills, confidence and cohort building noted by new tutors they have developed through connecting with peers.

Moreover, other faculty-derived data (including data related to accreditation of the faculty and students' experience of subjects) can provide further complementary insights on how quality enhancement in learning outcomes can be achieved in student learning (including in the tutorial context).

The university recently achieved The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accreditation. The university is one of only two which have business schools that have obtained accreditation in both business and accounting disciplines. The Faculty of Business and Economics is also the first in Victoria to have achieved accreditation. Therefore it can be assumed that the quality of the programs offered can at least in part be attributable to the standard and quality of teaching and learning in the Faculty, of which tutoring plays a significant part.

Student experience survey
The student experience survey is a university-wide, end-of-semester survey given to students. There is a clear trend from the survey over a six-year period that according to business students in the Faculty the quality of teaching has improved markedly. This is shown in detail in Appendix B. In summary, Table 2 shows the overall improvement in the mean scores of students on the item "The subject is well taught." (1 Strongly Disagree; 5 Strongly Agree). Table 3, moreover, shows the overall improvement in satisfaction of students. Table 2 shows an increase in satisfaction in teaching quality of 6% over the total period while Table 3 shows an even greater increase in overall satisfaction.

While a direct causal relationship between tutor training and these encouraging results regarding student satisfaction related to teaching quality can not be established, it is important to note that tutor training is compulsory and a substantial number of new tutors are recruited each semester (in some semesters as many as 100). Therefore it is possible that the steadily increasing satisfaction rate of students with teaching quality may be at least somewhat attributable to concurrent increases in tutoring standards in the faculty.


Tutoring is a critical part of higher education teaching and learning tutoring indeed and forms a significant part of the undergraduate experience of students, part of this experience is the peer connections students make with each other (including in small group learning environments like tutorials, as presented in this paper). New tutors can also learn a great deal from the experiences of their peers in the same or related discipline (be they experienced tutors or relative newcomers) to help them build confidence and skills in transitioning from students to teachers in classrooms.

It is understood that "monitoring of the quality of a university's learning and teaching should be inextricably linked in practice with the continual work of improving, or enhancing, that learning and teaching" (Hodgson & Whalley, 2006, p. 510). Therefore, the CELT tutor training program has always focused on continuous improvement with the aim of enhancing the teaching and learning experience. The program also seeks to redefine tutoring with a more explicit focus on student learning (Martens & Prosser, 1998, p. 30) and to develop not only the individual tutors' pedagogy and confidence but also create an environment where both surface and deep learning fostered by peer connections can occur. Such objectives can be vastly enhanced by tutor training that offers a supportive community of peers who can offer feedback at several stages of development. While acknowledging that tutors generally do not have an impact in all areas of pedagogy (such as curriculum and in particular assessment design) this paper has demonstrated they do have a critical role in student learning and that learning from their peers can play a big part in this process. It is therefore hoped that tutors can further leverage the connections and learning they have made in the tutor training process to enhance not only their students' learning but also their professional careers, even beyond their tenure as tutors.


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Appendix A

Tutor Training Program
Initial Training Session Feedback Form

Please tick (tick box) the following to indicate your opinion about the Tutor Training Program Initial Training Session
(SD=Strongly Disagree; D=Disagree; N=Neutral; A=Agree; SA=Strongly Agree).

Department:tickboxblank" Accountingtickboxblank" Economicstickboxblank" Financetickboxblank" Management & Marketing
Gender:tickboxblank" Femaletickboxblank" Male

I found the first session of the Tutor Training Program...SDDNASA
1Provided helpful information on a range of teaching strategies.tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"
2Gave me ideas on how to start a tutorial.tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"
3Provided ideas on how to engage students so that they would participate in the tutorial.tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"
4Helped me to gain the confidence I needed to be a tutor.tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"
5Provided opportunities for me to meet and interact with other tutors.tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"
6Provided the opportunity to learn about the experienced tutors in the Faculty/Department.tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"
7Provide useful basic information on where to go for further information, advice, and support about tutoring.tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"
8Was useful overall.tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"
9Was well taught/facilitated.tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"
10Structure is appropriate to my needs.tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"tickboxblank"
11The most useful aspects of the program for me were:

12The least useful aspects of the program for me were:

13Please feel free to suggest any improvements to the program today.

Thank you for your feedback.

Appendix B

Table 2: Student experience survey - teaching quality (2004-2010)

Undergrad Subtotal3.713.673.723.753.823.723.873.823.833.93.93.923.923.93

Table 3: Student experience survey - overall satisfaction (2004-2010)

Undergrad Subtotal3.603.803.603.653.703.653.783.743.743.843.903.903.863.90

Authors: Dr Angelito Calma is a Lecturer in Higher Education at the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, Faculty of Business and Economics, The University of Melbourne. His research interests overlap business and education. His work focuses on staff development and quality assurance.
Email: calmaa@unimelb.edu.au

Mark Eggins is the Learning Support Specialist at the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, Faculty of Business and Economics, The University of Melbourne. He works in academic support for both undergraduate and graduate students and on staff development.
Email: meggins@unimelb.edu.au

Please cite as: Calma, A. & Eggins, M. (2012). Enhancing the quality of tutorials through peer-connected tutor training. Issues In Educational Research, 22(3), 213-227. http://www.iier.org.au/iier22/calma.html

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