Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Teaching at university: structuring tutorials

Long-time readers of my other blog, Educational Reflections, are likely to be familiar with my personal model of curriculum design, the Bones Model. The Bones Model is a tool designed to assist academic teachers to design curriculum that aligns learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities, and assessment. Once the curriculum has been designed, though, it's down to the chalkface, where teachers are face-to-face with their students, or off to the online learning environment, where teachers have to maintain enthusiasm and create engaging learning environments for students they rarely or never see.

At this stage, it really helps if a teacher has a kitbag full to teaching techniques and strategies.

That is the purpose of this blog.

To start with, I'm uploading information about two generic tutorial designs. These can be adapted for use with any discipline, although the first - the 4-part tutorial - is more likely to suit positivists and objectivists, and the second is more likely to suit constructivists. So, before you start, reflect on your understanding of knowledge.  Must it be empirical in nature (positivism)? Is it determined by the nature of reality, to be discovered by one's mind, and not created by the thoughts one has (objectivism)? Is it constructed as humans interact and not, in fact, discovered (constructivism)?

These will be followed with a range of other generic tools, tips, tricks, applications, references, techniques, strategies, and other teaching methods.
For some academic teaching staff, the tutorial is the right time and place to review and revise material that was covered in the lecture, for others it is an opportunity to demonstrate worked examples, and for yet others, it is a chance to discuss case studies or work through problem sets. There are tried and true methods for conducting tutorials, and these should not be abandoned.
Occasionally, however, tutors ought to take the opportunity to mix it up.
Here are two ideas that will help you to re-design or re-think tutorials. Both build on the idea that there is a flow to teaching and learning: the teacher teaches something, the students learn something, and then the teacher makes a judgment about how much or how well the students have learnt the material covered in the tutorial. If this judgment is formative, no marks will be allocated, but the tutor may decide to re-teach some point or to direct students to revise some material before moving on.

The teaching-learning flow

The 4-part Tutorial
The four parts of the 4-part tutorial are starter-guided-independent-plenary.
  1. Starter: For about 10 minutes at the beginning of the tutorial, set an activity that engages and challenges the students, and sets the pace and focus for the session. This should be something short and sharp, e.g. a pair discussion about a cartoon or a newspaper clipping, a short video clip, or a very brief report by a class member on something relevant of interest to the group. Whatever it is, cut it short; don’t let this activity take longer than 10 minutes – it’s not the main game. If necessary, encourage students to continue their discussions outside the class or online.
  2. Guided: In this section of the tutorial, the tutor’s task is to tell the students about the topic, show them how to apply this new knowledge, and model how it might be useful.
  3. Independent: In this section, the students’ task is to practice the material they have just learnt, to check that they have understood it correctly, and to apply their new knowledge in solving a problem or analyzing a case study or completing some other task.
  4. Plenary: In the final few minutes of the tutorial, the tutor checks that students have understood what they were taught, and whether or not they have any final questions.
Beadle’s take on Philosophy for Children
In his book How to Teach, Phil Beadle describes a model of teaching based on the Philosophy for Children movement.
This gives us a useful process, stimulus+questions-connections-discussion, that works well for university tutorials. It looks like this.
  1. Stimulus+Questions: The stimulus is a piece of writing, an image, or an artefact related to the topic of the tutorial. It is presented to the class at the beginning of the tutorial to introduce the topic and focus the class’s attention. As the teacher presents the stimulus item, members of the class are required to write down any questions they have. They don’t ask them at the time; they record them. So – the students listen or watch as the tutor presents the stimulus. At the end of this section of the tutorial, students should all have a list of questions. It helps if the tutor stops throughout the presentation to check that questions are forming in the minds of the class members. “Do you have any questions about … ? Write them down.”
  2. Connections: Once the stimulus has been presented, divide the class into pairs or small groups and direct them to discuss the questions they have written. Ask them to put their questions into categories; in doing this, you will be teaching them to make connections between the ideas that the stimulus has provoked.
  3. Discussion: This bit works best if you are able to form the group into a circle.  Then, you ask a question: “Who has questions in the area of …?” After that, you should merely have to nudge the conversation along; the students should be able to carry it off themselves, by talking about the questions they have and offering answers to the questions posed by other class members.
Both of these techniques could easily be adapted for a blended or online learning approach.
For example, in the 4-part model, the online version could look like this.
  1. Starter: Post a stimulus item to the website, and direct students to discuss it in a discussion forum for no more than 24 hours.
  2. Guided: Post a reading, or your lecture notes, or some other information about the topic, along with an example of how the information can be used to do something.
  3. Independent: Set students a task similar to the example you have just posted. Give them 2-3 days to complete the task offline and post their answers. Give them feedback on their work.
  4. Plenary: Summarize the mistakes made by the class as they attempted the task. Post a single document outlining these errors and suggesting remedies.
A blended version of the second model might look like this.
  1. Stimulus+Questions: Set students something to read or examine that will prompt them to formulate questions, e.g. an academic journal article, a sculpture, an annual report, an unusual profit and loss statement, or a government policy document. If they are new to this mode, set some focus questions that will cause them to pay attention to certain aspects of the artefact. Ask students to post their list of questions to the online discussion forum.
  2. Connections: Using the groups tool in your learning management system, divide the group up for a online group discussions. Allow the discussion to run for three days before the scribe of the group posts a summary back to the class discussion forum (so that each group can see what the others have come up with).
  3. Discussion: Run a whole-class discussion, where the focus of the discussion is on comparing and contrasting the summaries from the group discussions and asking for clarification.
To read more about Phil Beadle’s tips on teaching, read his book: Beadle, P. (2010). How to teach. UK & USA: Crown House Publishing. 

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