Giovanna Pasquariello

As doctoral researchers we are most likely required to gain teaching experience at some point of our PhD programme. In most UK universities at least, this takes the form of teaching tutorials to undergraduate – and some times to postgraduates.

Tutorials are thematic sessions for smaller groups of students, and focus on specific topics from the course. While lectures are argumentative, organized talks by the course organizer – widely covering the module’s topic(s) -; tutorials are interactive discussions instead. Students are often expected to go through the tutorial’s material beforehand and to discuss the questions around it during the lesson.

The tutor’s main role is thus to moderate conversations, and guide the students through the provided material’s analysis. For some tips on how to structure a tutorial, give a read at some of our blogs: Teaching Undergraduates for the First Time, Tutorial teaching: Some Hints and Tips, Opening up about teaching.

One thing I have experienced most often is that students are not always willing to participate in class. Some of them are just shy, other may be afraid of judgement, other may want to speak but are not sure about their arguments/answer. This can make the tutor’s job difficult, as you can find yourself dealing with an awkward silence, and an hour lesson to cover. There are some tips, however, that can help you break the ice, facilitate discussion, and make the conversation flow – so that you do not have to make a lecture out of your tutorial.

1. Be nice

It may sound pretty obvious, but showing that you are friendly, non judgemental, and open to informal discussion can make a huge difference. Some students are just afraid to appear ‘silly’, so just show that judging someone for what they respectfully say during a tutorial’s discussion is not an option.

2. Make the expectations clear

I have found that starting your first tutorial by an honest introduction of your expectations is fundamental. Make clear that:

  • Students are expected to go through the tutorial’s material beforehand, and to bring it in class (if applicable).
  • The aim of the tutorial itself is not to indoctrinate them with additional information, but to make them critically think about the topic(s) in analysis. Hence discussion is key to the success of the tutorial.
  • Students are usually not evaluated for what they say during discussion. Marks are most often just given for the scheduled assessments.
  • There is no wrong nor right answer. Critical thought, method and respect are the “right answer”.

3. Set the framework

Before diving deep into the tutorial’s topic, set the framework. Ask the students direct questions on what the topic of the day is about, help them contextualise precisely what they are going to discuss later.

4. Ask precise questions

In most cases, the course organizer will have prepared them for you (the idea behind it is that all tutorial groups will be discussing roughly the same things, and that students will have roughly the same preparation on the topic). There will be a set of questions/topics you will have to cover during the tutorial. You most likely will not have to cover ALL of them, and you can be moderately creative about it, as long as the core of the tutorial is there. Fundamental is, however, that you ask the students direct, precise questions. Avoid ambiguous phrasing or tricky questions that may require too much of an argumentative response by the students: it would hold them back from participating. Trickier arguments and wider conclusions can be discussed – under your lead – at the end of the tutorial.

5. Use visual support

May this be a whiteboard or a PowerPoint, I have found that pointing at something visual makes the students focus better – and gather more ideas for discussion. While asking questions and collecting answers, write down keywords, make bullet points, highlight relevant information. This will give the students a visual proof of the direction the tutorial is taking and make them more comfortable with participating and giving their own contribution.

6. Call them by their name

Tutorials are usually made of around ten people. Make the effort to remember their names. This will build closer contacts and give you the chance to ask questions and make the students interact with each other more freely.

Here were some basic tips, but most importantly: have fun! Teaching can be very rewarding, so be creative about your methods and enjoy!

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Giovanna Pasquariello is Chair of “Pubs and Publications: the PhD experience”. She is doing a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, studying something old, very old: the vocabulary of ancient Greek inscriptions on the Celts. Apart from this, she swears she is a fun person.