Leaving the most important teaching to chance

Something is bothering me about teaching at university: we are leaving the most important teaching to chance.

In most tutorials, there is an opportunity to try out things with a tutor there to talk to about it, or deep discussion of course content, or at the very least worked examples of using the ideas in practice with a higher chance of asking questions. In a lot of ways the tutorial is the place where the majority of the classroom learning actually happens in a university course. Indeed, students often say that tutorials are the most important part of their learning at university and will go to them even if they don’t go to lectures. I talked to a student just the other day who was still catching up watching the lectures online from two months ago, and yet has been able to do his assignments because he has been attending the tutorials.

So, if the tutorial is the most important class for student learning, then you would think that the tutorial would be the class where you put the most effort into making sure it was as good as you could achieve. Yet in so many disciplines in so many universities, the tutorials are given to their current postgrad students to teach, with minimal or no training. (Not to say the postgrad students can’t be great teachers, just to say they don’t have much teaching experience yet.)  By not carefully considering our tutorials and training the tutors, it’s like we’re leaving the most important teaching to chance.

Even more than this, most initiatives to improve teaching at university focus on the lecturers. We give support for designing what happens in lectures and online, but somehow we don’t provide any time or resources for training the hundreds of tutors running the thousands of tutorials. Again, we spend all this effort improving lectures, but leave the most important teaching to itself.

This really surprises me, and I really wish there was something I could do about it. What I wish for is a funnelling of funding into designing effective teaching in tutorials, and even more importantly, funnelling funding into training tutors in effective teaching in tutorials. I think this might have a huge impact on learning at university.

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