Preparing tutors to hit the ground running: Lessons from new tutors' experiences
University of Melbourne
Tutor development is an essential part of academic staff development, yet is comparatively under-researched. This article examines what tutors value as most and least important in a program. Using data from more than 300 participants in three years, and using the dimensions or worth, merit and success as an analytical framework, the article illustrates some of the perceptions of new tutors of a training program in a business and economics faculty. Results indicate that tutors find the opportunity to interact with fellow new tutors and learn from more experienced tutors most valuable and the feedback following teaching observation most helpful. The article by rethinking such training programs and offers suggestions on how to capitalise on the peer connections that exist in tutor development programs which may be of interest to staff responsible for academic development policy and practice decisions.
Despite many articles written about the experiences of tutors, tutor development research still lacks breadth. The aim of this article is to primarily examine what tutors value most when commencing tutoring. The contribution of this article lies in its offer of a more refined understanding of what helps tutors the most in transitioning to their new role, emanating from the many voices of tutors in a business faculty. In the latter part of the article, a suggestion is made to look more carefully at enhancing the peer connections that exist in a tutor development program. The main argument is that a program provides a more meaningful experience for tutors when it is designed to capitalise on the connections tutors have with various stakeholders, instead of simply providing advice on "how to teach". Hence, the article concludes with some discussions about enhancing interaction between the following groups:
The program consists of an initial training session prior to the start of the semester, classroom observation at the middle of the semester and a follow-up session a few weeks prior to the close of the semester. A separate tutor development session is organised for tutors from each of the four departments and is facilitated by academics trained in staff development. Some facilitators have a disciplinary background in business.
Tutorials also vary within the disciplines. In both finance and economics, some of the mathematically orientated topics may involve between three and seven problems that require calculations. Tutorials in these disciplines differ significantly from the issue or discussion-based tutorials in marketing and management. With the former, tutors often think about getting through the calculations as quickly as they can, which can result in time for discussion and small group activity being sacrificed. This can influence the level of student engagement and active learning strategies that can take place. This is not to say that all finance and economics tutorials feature less active learning and discussion. Observation of over a hundred tutors in the past two years revealed a number of tutorials in various subjects in finance and economics that involved deep engagement with the material, excellent interaction between students, and outstanding tutor facilitation of group work.
In marketing and management tutorials, I observed flexibility in tutors' delivery. As with economics and finance tutorials, the structure is well defined and flexibility is reflected in the preference for discussion and group activities. A greater proportion of time is spent on eliciting ideas from students, tossing ideas between groups, and tutors working closely with students to examine topics and issues in depth. In contrast, in finance and economics tutorials, a greater proportion of time is spent on calculations and application. However these are very broad generalisations. Not all finance and economics subjects involve a great deal of calculations and not all management and marketing subjects involve the discussion of issues and application of concepts, models or theories on cases, problems or examples. The differences may be driven by the nature of the fields, the historical delivery approaches or the ethos within the department and suggested approaches preferred by subject coordinators and tutors, among other things.
In this article, important questions under-explored and addressed are:
Worth "depends on the theory of value one holds and the moral principles to which one is committed" (Fenstermacher & Berliner, 1983, p. 16). It suggests that a program must contribute to goals, its activities be fair and acceptable, and must yield evidence to show that it works and can be improved. Fenstermacher and Berliner further suggest that evaluation is less difficult for programs that have been running continually. Such evidence can come from research, past activities and relevant personal experience. These factors have been considered in assessing the worth of the tutor development program.
Merit is referred to as "the quality of the process in which recipients are engaged during the activity and its subsequent application to the classroom" (Fenstermacher & Berliner, 1983, p. 21). Merit embodies the existence of a tutor development program and how tutors discuss with peers issues associated with teaching and learning and subsequently apply their skills and knowledge in tutorials. The dimension of merit is explored in light of the questions posed above to discuss tutors' reflections on the quality and usefulness of the program, its processes and activities.
The success dimension informs the program through its attainment of set objectives. Fenstermacher and Berliner (1983) argue that examination along this dimension refers to ensuring clarity of objectives, the quality of the training, congruence between the needs and abilities of tutors, the usefulness of what is learned and the provision of time for mastery and practice. The current evaluation does not cover all these aspects. However, in tutor development, evaluation on the basis of success can be viewed using tutors' perceptions about the quality of the training and the usefulness of what they learn. The third research question and its respective data can indicate congruence between needs and abilities, while the program's scheduling of classroom observation until later in the semester may indicate tutors' rehearsing their skills in tutoring.
All data related to the questions above have been collected and analysed with a view to interpreting them as dimensions of worth, success and merit. This is discussed in the following sections.
A total of 343 program participants completed the questionnaire over eight semesters, during 2007-2010. The number of participants from each discipline was: accounting: N = 91; finance: N = 107; economics: N = 126; and, management and marketing: N = 59). Tutors from the economics department represented the largest percentage of participants (33%), while tutors from marketing and management represented the smallest percentage of participants (15%).
The number of tutors participating in the program varied in each semester and year. This depended on the needs of the faculty and was influenced primarily by student enrolment. Between 2007-2010, an average of 96 tutors from across the four departments participated annually. However, numbers have declined each year over those four years: 2007: N = 125; 2008: N = 110; 2009: N = 87; and, 2010: N = 61.
The data were 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 easily sift through the data by question. Subsequent coding and analysis was made at each node. Word frequency queries provided a good start in identifying recurring ideas (Ryan & Bernard, 2000). Patterns and themes were observed at each node using word frequency counts, which helped developed 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 dimensions of worth, merit and success were eliminated. This "data reduction technique" (Namey et al., 2007) ensured only relevant data was included in the analysis.
The themes identified during the coding and analysis steps involved an iterative process. I was looking at what everyone was writing about in any of the categories that related to worth, merit and success. At first, there were mixed responses. I did not include some of the comments which did not talk about the main idea behind the category (e.g., administrative concerns) and managed to come up with a reasonable list of recurring themes. I had to return to the original data and re-examine each of the responses to check whether I could reduce the data further and focus on the most prominent themes. By doing so, it resulted in a more refined list of sub-themes. From the raw data I then identified the best examples of quotes I could draw on, which best related to worth, merit and success in each of the sub-themes. I have reported these in the following section, where relevant.
Where quotes are added, these are provided in brackets followed by the quote (e.g., "Tutor #15, Finance" means Tutor code #15 from the finance department).
The opportunity to interact with fellow new tutors and learn from the more experienced tutors There were 178 (178/343 or 52%) references to new and the more experienced tutors, largely pertaining to the value and contribution of sharing experiences with the former and learning from the experiences of the latter. One hundred and forty of those all refer 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 relate to the value of learning from the more experienced tutors, mainly the problems they encountered and tips on how they dealt with them.
The evidence around this sub-theme showing that the program works and can be improved (worth) is best captured in comments that highlight, not just the importance of sharing ideas with and learning tips and techniques from experienced tutors, but also how the program facilitates that. Whether this was through the 15-minute Q&A session following the experienced tutors' talk or via the questions raised with the facilitator, comments were on how the sessions facilitated some important connections and discussions between the new tutors and the experienced tutors and facilitators were prominent. Some examples are provided below:
[The session] provided me the advice and techniques to draw discussion and participation in class. [Tutor #68, Economics]With regard to how the program can be improved, new tutors observed that some parts of the session could be omitted (e.g., theories related to learning and teaching) and that the resource pack was 'too comprehensive'. This provided good feedback to examine further the worth of the program.
[I received] valuable info about the teaching/tutoring experiences of the experienced staff members in the faculty. The discussion about 'engaging students' and 'increasing participation' was especially valuable. [Tutor #31, Finance]
The initial tutor training and follow-up sessions, as well as the individual feedback I received from observation - it was very encouraging. Networking with and learning from the ideas and experiences of other tutors was very helpful. [Tutor #163, Economics]
Patterns that show how new tutors were engaged with the activities in the program and how they might apply what they learn in their tutorials were observed (merit). Specifically, this related to tutors thinking about what they would take away from the program and 'test' in their classrooms.
[It helped] me to establish principles which can be used for preparation and conduct of tutorials. [Tutor #11, Accounting]Success has a number of facets, including clarity of and the program's ability to meet its intended objectives, and tutors' overall satisfaction perception. The program was rated highly, with consistently good feedback from new tutors (no lower than 4 out of 5 on average in each year using its regular evaluation questionnaire; 5 being most satisfied). New tutors also commented on specific aspects that can be associated with its success:
[I found most useful] the role-playing, through which we can see some of the techniques and issues discussed during training. [Tutor #32, Finance]
The case study was a great way to illustrate the theory. It is hard to translate it into practice and it helped illustrate how it could be done. [Tutor #56, Management and Marketing]
The use of real life issues faced in tutoring, being asked to act out a scenario of a problem being faced [was useful]. [Tutor #279, Economics]
The clarity in expectations that was layed (sic) clearly. Some of the tips and techniques given are really helpful. [Tutor #51, Management and Marketing]
Two other sub-themes that relate to the most useful aspects of the program and the dimensions of worth, merit and success were found. They pertain to what the tutors will do soon after leaving the initial training session and hearing from their observer once a teaching observation is made.
Learning how to conduct a tutorial
Ninety three (93) tutors rated the initial training session as useful, with particular reference to learning how to conduct a tutorial and the techniques used (e.g., managing difficult students, improving student participation, running the first tutorial). New tutors were particularly interested in 'hitting the ground running'. Similar to a battlefield, a classroom with students can sometimes be overwhelming, and the experience of teaching for the first time daunting. They wanted to get as much training as possible in dealing with common situations. References to this sub-theme further revealed clear links to the role of the facilitator and the experienced tutor. Tutors wanted to learn quickly the practical things to do when confronted with challenging situations. They wanted their 'survival kit' to be filled with as many practical strategies as possible.
The value of the feedback following teaching observation
Eighty two (82) students rated the feedback report as useful. The feedback report provides an individual assessment of a single nominated classroom teaching hour during weeks 4-8, which focuses 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. Two comments below represent this recurring sub-theme:
The feedback I received in week 4 of the semester [was most useful]. Since I knew [the facilitator] had observed dozens of other tutes that week, her feedback also gave me idea of my performance relative to the standard across other tutes which was very helpful. [Tutor #297, Economics]
The observation, the feedback was constructive and enabled me to gain more confidence and change little aspects of my teaching. [Tutor #147, Accounting]
Although the other responses were quite varied, two other sub-themes are worth mentioning, despite the limited number of references to them (17 or less).
The duration of the initial training session was perceived as too long
The initial training sessions are held prior to the start of the semester and are three hours long. Usually one session is held for each department. The perception was these sessions are long. The fact that these are offered past 5 pm may have contributed to these perceptions. Suggestions were made to condense the topics and run the session in two hours.
The first session ran too long. [Tutor #237, Finance]The need to train in more specific aspects of tutoring
It could probably be done more quickly (i.e. 2hrs) [Tutor #16, Accounting].
The level of engagement of the new tutors to the activities was high (e.g., role playing, case scenario analysis, Q&A with the experienced tutor) and this explains powerfully the program's merit. On the basis of success, the quality of the training, congruence between the needs and abilities of tutors, and the usefulness of what is learned are reflected in the many positive comments received in this theme. However, with regard to examining worth, the two sub-themes point to evidence for use in continuous improvement. This has resulted in cutting the introductory training session into two hours and offering one-hour workshops on specific topics throughout the semester, offering new tutors some flexibility. This demonstrates how a program is informed by feedback from participants, particularly when collected over time.
More case studies, examples, tips and strategies from experienced tutors
It was evident that tutors wanted to hear more from the experienced tutors' personal experiences, specifically relating to tips, strategies, and ways of dealing with the most common classroom situations in the Faculty (more than 150 references relate to this sub-theme).
It would be a good addition to hear more stories from experienced tutors and more chances to talk to them. [Tutor #16, Accounting]New tutors made specific references to the value of modelling their tutorial on those of their experienced tutors, learning from the challenges they faced and how they resolved them, and the department-specific practices they shared. This proves how important it is to invite tutors from the same department to speak during the initial training session.
It would be good to observe more experienced tutors - more subject-specific training. [Tutor #155, Economics]
It would be good to facilitate some sort of session with tutors and lectures to discuss common problems/issues and how lecturers/tutors can work together to address these. [Tutor #253, Finance]
The opportunity to observe other more experienced tutors and senior lecturers
A good addition to the program would be the opportunity to observe experienced tutors 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.
I would like to attend an experienced tutor's tutorial class to learn. [Tutor #163, Economics]
More opportunities to maybe observe experienced tutors. [Tutor #382, Management and Marketing]
Suggestions are provided about how these existing connections can be best fostered. I have proposed earlier the creation of opportunities for interaction between a number of groups and I present below examples of these and the benefits of such interaction.
Upon closer examination, the existing and new connections fostered in tutor development programs such as those examined in this paper, do not feature prominently in research. Davies and Beaumont (2004) explained that tutorials should promote active learning. However, if new tutor development programs only focus on interactions between new tutors and facilitators, this may not provide enough opportunities for new tutors to translate what they have learned into practice that promotes and best facilitates tutorials. If tutor development programs are also viewed using the worth-merit-success framework, improvements will continue to strengthen the value of such connections.
This article also explored the framework of evaluating a program by examining its worth, merit and success dimensions. Analysis using this framework helped reveal what works, what does not, and what aspects of the program could be improved. The same framework could be used to evaluate other professional development programs. Its limitation, however, is the lack of distinction between the three dimensions. Overlaps between dimensions exist in the use of the framework, but these may not be an issue.
As a final word, I found that discussions around the key characteristics that make a tutor great appeal to most new tutors. Discussions about what to expect in classrooms are often the most anticipated in the training sessions. Hence, tutors wanted to know more about how they, and their students, are or should be. On the one hand, 'knowing oneself' as a tutor reflects the approaches that tutors will use in classrooms to encourage participation and engagement, the strategies that they will likely employ when managing situations and how they will manage the discipline-based learning approaches inherent in accounting, economics, finance, management and marketing. On the other hand, questions about 'knowing students' relate to responding to the needs of local and international students, their different learning styles and preferences, the prior knowledge that they bring into the classroom and the academic expectations placed upon them. These areas deserve investigation on their own.
There are only a few universities in Australia and elsewhere that have centres embedded within specific faculties that offer programs designed to provide techniques specific to business disciplines. Nevertheless, even programs delivered by central units can be evaluated using the worth-merit-success framework used here. Where such evaluation occurs, it is hoped that the many peer connections that exist within such programs are also explored.
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|I found 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 aspect of the program for me was:|
|12.||The least useful aspect of the program for me was:|
|13.||A good addition to the program would be:|
|Author: 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, Australia. His research interests include staff development, generic skills in business, academic leadership, graduate supervision, educational technologies and student engagement. He is an Associate Editor, Higher Education Research and Development.|
Please cite as: Calma, A. (2013). Preparing tutors to hit the ground running: Lessons from new tutors' experiences. Issues in Educational Research, 23(3), 331-345. http://www.iier.org.au/iier23/calma.html