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.
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:
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:
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).
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).
|Study method||Class set-up||Resource||Purpose||Process|
|Think, pair, discuss, share||Pairs||Problem or question||Collaborate for a negotiated view||Students 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, share||Small groups||Problem or question||Develop analysis skills in a small group context||Students analyse a problem or question with the tutor roving to provide elaboration or clarification as required|
|'Expose' - identify, apply and evaluate||Individuals, pairs or teams||Problem or issue||Apply theory and evaluation tools to set problem/s||Students analyse a problem applying relevant theories, concepts, models, formulas or frameworks|
|Team debate||Two debating teams||Problem or issue||Develop critical thinking skills||Two teams of students debate each other (one 'for' and one 'against')|
|Case analysis||Individuals, pairs or small groups||'Real world' cases||Unpack problems and develop solutions||Students given a case study and must develop recommendations for improvement|
|Collaborative problem solving||Pairs or small groups||Business problems||Develop critical thinking and problem solving skills||Students 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 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:
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).
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.
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]The value of the feedback following teaching observation
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]
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]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).
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]
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]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.
Giving/Sharing more real life tutoring experience in the Department would be a good addition. [Tutor#26, Finance]
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]
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.
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.
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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|Department:||Accounting||Economics||Finance||Management & Marketing|
|I found the first session of the Tutor Training Program...||SD||D||N||A||SA|
|1||Provided helpful information on a range of teaching strategies.|
|2||Gave me ideas on how to start a tutorial.|
|3||Provided ideas on how to engage students so that they would participate in the tutorial.|
|4||Helped me to gain the confidence I needed to be a tutor.|
|5||Provided opportunities for me to meet and interact with other tutors.|
|6||Provided the opportunity to learn about the experienced tutors in the Faculty/Department.|
|7||Provide useful basic information on where to go for further information, advice, and support about tutoring.|
|8||Was useful overall.|
|9||Was well taught/facilitated.|
|10||Structure is appropriate to my needs.|
|11||The most useful aspects of the program for me were:|
|12||The least useful aspects of the program for me were:|
|13||Please feel free to suggest any improvements to the program today.|
Thank you for your feedback.
|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.|
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.
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