Effective tutoring 1: Getting started successfully

The role of the tutor

What is a tutorial? Tutoring normally involves working with small groups of students, and involves discussion, facilitation and interaction on a first name basis. Since lectures generally involve large class settings, tutorials are the primary personal, face-to-face contact for students in their subject, and in their university life. While demonstrators and facilitators differ from tutoring in some ways, all these still involve teaching small groups.

The tutorial may fulfil particular learning needs according to the subject and program goals, and this can be discussed with the subject coordinator. The assessment needs of the subject are likely to be a central concern of tutorials. To get the best out of working with groups in tutorials, the tutor should focus on learning activity; that is, engaging students in active learning rather than imparting or transmitting knowledge.

  • Active learning engagement can involve three dimensions:
  • Learner to content: engagement of students with subject content, subject goals and assessment
  • Learner to tutor: engagement based on shared expectations between students and tutors
  • Learner to learner: as peer to peer relationships between students (Anderson, 2003)

Active learning is most effective when the third of these dimensions: peer to peer relationships between students is well developed. Then the tutor has applied Pelz's (2004) principle of pedagogy: "Get the students to do (most) of the work."

Working with coordinators

Before entering the classroom with students, you need to be ready to answer the following questions:

  • Why am i here?
  • Who am i tutoring?
  • What precisely am i expected to do
  • What resources do i have?
  • What students need?

Planning how best to promote and support student learning in your tutorials starts with a conversation with your subject coordinator.

Questions for your subject coordinator
Who are my students? 
What mis of cultures, genders and age comprises this class? What language backgrounds do they have? Do they have life or work experience that may be drawn on as a resource?
The subject guide
Make sure you have a semester plan/schedule and the assessment requirements. What assessment tasks are relevant to my tutorials? What tutorial activities do I have, or am I expected to develop my own tutorials and materials? If so, are there past examples of activities? Are teaching materials available, such as textbooks, student learning guide, lecture notes, references/readings, laboratory manuals etc?
What knowledge, skills and technologies will I need for this subject?
Is training available? For example, if I am using Moodle (LMS) or Turnitin; is there any university or School-based training?
Is marking students' work required? What are the marking criteria for each assessment task? What is the expected turn-around time for marking? How are plagiarism cases handled? Is there moderation of marking meetings that I should attend?
Am I expected to attend lectures?
Is this part of my paid work or expected as part of my own preparation?
What University resources a I allocated as a staff member - email account. network access, office, phone, photocopying/printing allocations, stationary, library card, parking permit, etc?
Will I need to undertake evaluation of my tutoring? If so, in what form, when and how?
Meeting and communication
How will we keep in touch during semester so I can inform you on how students are going in my class, how I am going, and clarify matters? Will there be meetings with you or with other tutors? If meetings are not feasible, will email communication be sufficient?

Building trust and developing an environment for learning

An important component of tutoring is building the relationships and trust amongst the tutorial participants. A positive, inclusive social environment will make the content and task-oriented focus of the tutorial more effective and dynamic. Activities to help the group get to know about one another and learn each others' names can start with icebreakers. Through positive interaction, the similarities and differences within a group of people can become the bases for building positive relationships that support learning. A group's social, geographical; language and cultural diversity can be creative resources. Two strategies for getting off to a positive start with your groups are icebreakers and learning names.


Fast icebreakers – Conducted with participants present: Who is in this room?

  • Introductions: students introduce themselves for one minute and include something memorable about themselves.
  • Find someone who activity: Prepare a list of questions and ask students to match a person to the question. For example, find someone who plays a musical instrument.
  • True/False: Write three facts about yourself, one false. Ask students to do the same. Swap lists and guess true or false facts about each other.
  • Re-organise the group: Individuals are asked to relocate themselves in the room according to the following markers:
    • Arrange people according to their place of birth in relation to Melbourne
    • Group people according to the number of languages they speak
    • Group people according to their astrological sign, Chinese animal zodiac, or even
    • Japanese personality blood type
  • Speed introductions (similar to speed-dating rules).

Slow icebreakers – that build peer/group relationships

  • Profile: Each student briefly interviews, then is interviewed by a colleague, and then presents a one minute profile of a colleague, including an "unofficial" or memorable detail about their colleague.
  • Name archaeology: interview a colleague and present their name story.
  • Family Migration: interview and present a colleague's family migration story (Caution: some migration stories are traumatic, so allow an alternative).
  • Decades: (Good where your class spans a large age group). Students form groups based on when they went to high school. Each group brainstorms a list of signature items from that decade, such as music, clothes, events, and social mores. Each group reports their lists, and together discusses insights from the activity.

Links for icebreakers

One key to building productive interaction and active learning with your group is learning names and acknowledging all students on a first name basis, particularly those with unfamiliar or difficult to pronounce names. This needs to be accomplished at the start of the semester, and learning names can be part of the process of getting started.

Learning student names

  • Introductions: Use the Introductions or Profile icebreaker exercise to build familiarity with names.
  • Name Badges: Prepare pin-on name tags based on your class lists and give these out as people arrive. Use large fonts so that they are easy to read. Sticky labels can also be used as name badges. If you bring marking pens, students can make their own tags/labels.
  • Place cards: Have students make place cards on the first day of class that can display on the desk in front of them.
  • Who is talking? Make a group protocol that students give their name before they speak. This can be continued until everyone (both teacher and students) feels they know each other. Also try and use students' names as often as possible. Frequent use will speed memorisation.
  • What shall I call you? When you encounter an unfamiliar name – particularly if it is an international student's name – check pronunciation with the student and ask them how they wish to be addressed.

Setting expectations and ground rules

Students may arrive with different notions and expectations of a tutorial. The students in your tutorial will likely reflect a diverse range of cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, and experiences of education. For a student who is the first in his or her family to go to university, the concept of a tutorial or seminar may be unfamiliar. Even among tutors and lecturers, tutorial expectations vary across disciplines. For example, where tutorials in some disciplines typically involve much lively discussion, those in other disciplines normally involve substantial portions of quiet individual or group work and problem-solving. Don't make your students guess what will go on in your tutorial; let them know from the start.

All tutorials need to become shared learning spaces, and you will likely need to negotiate expectations and set guidelines for the social aspects of learning. To make tutorials work well, it may help to find out what your students' goals (hopes) are for tutorials, perhaps by collecting them in written form, then establish shared goals and build ground rules.

For a new tutorial group, an effective strategy is to establish expectations and build ground rules with help from the students themselves. Involving the students can build cohesion and ownership of the tutorial as a learning space.

To start this process, you may want to suggest a few initial ground rules. Keep them in view throughout the first session and refer back to them at various times during the semester.

Ground rules … Some suggestions

  • All members make a contribution to the discussion
  • Do preparation and pre reading
  • There is no such thing as a 'stupid' question
  • Respect other people's point of view
  • Don't interrupt anyone when they're speaking
  • Mobiles off
  • Respect differences: don't make negative or humiliating comments
  • Criticise other people's arguments, not their personality
  • Listen to what other people are saying
  • Treat the tutorial as a shared space, not your private space
  • Keep group discussions confidential outside the group
  • Remain focused on the specific tasks
  • Members should feel responsibility towards achieving group aims
  • Perform required preparation tasks outside the group
  • Group members accept the ground rules

Adapted from: Exley and Dennick, (2004, p.21).

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