Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

How do you tutor your tutors?

R. D. Loss and M. G. Zadnik
Department of Applied Physics
Curtin University of Technology


Each year since 1992, before the start of first semester, the authors have coordinated a half-day workshop to assist incoming new and inexperienced sessional staff. These workshops have focused on aspects of effective teaching and learning, and administrative and logistical matters likely to be encountered during the following semester.

While feedback obtained from the participants of the 1994 workshop (Loss and Zadnik, 1994) revealed a high degree of satisfaction with the workshop it also identified a number of shortcomings including:

What was needed was a concerted effort to create an environment in which sessional staff would be encouraged to examine and explore effective methods of instruction and student interaction. This type of professional activity has been highly successfully in the Social Sciences at Curtin University, a major outcome of which has been the publication of guide for tutors in the Social Sciences (Bertola and Murphy, 1994)

A second factor was that of the social and professional isolation of sessional staff (Coorey, 1996). Although this had not been specifically identified in the past in our sessional staff (possibly because the majority are senior students and most know each other) we were concerned that this may be affecting their teaching.

With these issues in mind the authors applied to and received support from the Curtin Quality Office in 1995 to fund a project in which sessional and senior physics staff could attend a series of workshops during semester to develop reflective teaching strategies and to discuss problems and solutions. A substantial report which documents and discusses the process, contents, operations and evaluation of these workshops is available (Loss and Zadnik, 1996).

Workshop Program

A list of the topics covered in workshops at the start of semester 1 1996 is shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Program of Workshops

1.3Introductory half day workshop
  • the basis of effective instruction
  • student centred learning
  • constructivist instruction
  • learning to learn
2.1Planning a tutorial/lab session
4.1Designing interactive learning activities
5.1Reflective practice
6.1Designing effective presentation
7.1Use of technology in interactive learning
8.1Evaluation of tutoring tutors

Further details of the topics and samples of the materials used during the workshops are available in Loss and Zadnik (1996).

A total of 16 different staff attended the workshops during the first semester of 1996. Of these, 13 were sessional tutors and laboratory demonstrators and 3 were full-time lecturers. During this period, the Department of Applied Physics also employed an additional 5 sessional staff. Although all sessional staff were invited to the workshops the reasons given by non-attendees included lack of interest and conflicts with other classes and/or commitments.

At each of the workshops the participants were required to submit a one page written reflection on their teaching activities undertaken in the previous week. These were to include;

Aspects of the reflections were fedback to the workshop coordinators and other participants during discussions in the following workshops. Unfortunately we did not ask any of the full time staff to submit reflections.

From the very first of the one hour sessions, the workshops began to exceed their allocated hour by as much as 30 minutes. This was due to the intensity of the discussions and complexity of the problems being discussed. After session 5 the group decided to increase the frequency of the meetings from fortnighly to weekly, alternating each week between formal and informal sessions.


The effectiveness of the workshops was measured by several means. The first of these was indirectly through the weekly reflection/feedback provided by the participants and during the 15 minutes dedicated to general discussion at each workshop. The second of these was a substantial survey and major discussion session held during Workshop 8.

A copy of the survey form along with a detailed discussion of the responses is available in Loss and Zadnik (1996). Briefly, the survey form consisted of 27, 5 point multichoice questions (strongly agree, agree, neither disagree or agree, disagree, strongly disagree) on specific aspects of the workshops followed by 5 open ended questions which required written responses.

Evaluation Results: Multi-choice component

Of the 27 multi-choice questions, 19 showed up as clearly reflecting a strong position (i.e. 7 or more out of the total of 10 respondents who participated in the survey ) while the remaining 8 questions showed mixed positions.

Seven or more of the 10 respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with;

Q1.Initially I was reluctant to attend these workshops.
Q2.The workshops are mostly much a waste of my time.
Q4.The discussions that took place during the workshops was of little use in my day to day teaching.
Q6.Material presented in these workshops were of little relevance to my classes or students.
Q8.The advice provided by the workshop supervisors during the workshops was not all that useful in the classroom situation.
Q9.These workshops should be split into sessions (i.e. one for lab demonstrators and one for tutors).
Q11.The materials and ideas presented at the workshops were not all that easy to understand.
Q15.I have not really learned much about teaching from attending these workshops.
Q16.Teaching is not all that complicated, anyone can do it, you just have to put in the hours of planning etc.
Q17.Now that I have attended these workshops I would not attend similar workshops again.
Q25.These workshops have not met my initial expectations.
Q27.There was too much time spent in the workshops discussing individual problems.

Seven or more of the 10 respondents agreed or strongly agreed with;

Q3.The information provided during the workshops was of direct use in my day to day teaching.
Q5.The information and experiences of the other demonstrators and tutors attending the workshops is a valuable part of the workshops.
Q10.The presenters of the workshops were well organized.
Q12.I would attend these workshops even if I was not paid to attend.
Q13.I would recommend all new lab demonstrators and tutors attend these workshops.
Q14.I would recommend all lecturers attend these workshops.
Q18.I would make it compulsory that all new tutors and lab demonstrators attend these workshops as a condition of their employment.
Q19.I would make it compulsory that all new tutors and lab demonstrators attend these workshops before they are employed.
Q23.I would be prepared to video myself teaching for private discussion and evaluation with a supervisor.

The following resulted in a mixed response.

Q7.I found the written reflection component of the workshop to be of benefit during the following weeks classes.
Q20.I found the written reflection component of the workshop to be difficult to write.
Q21.The activities in the workshops should allow more time for individual reflection.
Q22.The workshops should be run every week of every semester.
Q24.I would be prepared to video myself teaching for discussion and evaluation in these workshops.
Q26.These workshops are too short and should be extended by 30 minutes each.

Results: Open-ended questions component

Apart from the overall support for the workshops, the responses to these questions did not reflect any particular themes which perhaps indicates the broad range of problems encountered by these staff. This is reflected in responses to, Which of the individual workshops was most useful to you and why? , where the two of the respondents stated, "All sessions were useful" whereas the other respondents identified specific activities of workshops relevant to them.

The responses obtained to, What do you think are the better features of these workshops? indicated that the "creation of a forum for the discussion of common problems and issues" was the best feature. During discussions held in the evaluation session, one of the participants also said that as a result of the workshops he felt a decreased isolation from other departmental staff and activities. Three of the participants said they appreciated "gaining wisdom" from the input of the experienced staff at the workshops and that the workshops made them feel as though the Department "cared about their work". This the presenters believe was a significant outcome of these workshops. On reflection it unfortunate that these points were not specifically surveyed in more detail.

In response to Which features of these workshops need to be improved? several participants were concerned that the presenters of the workshops were "not staying on track". This was a deliberate action by of the coordinators who believed that the participants should have some control of the direction of discussions. Perhaps the presenters should have stated this explicitly earlier in the semester.

Self evaluation: Written reflection component

In the first few workshops, the written reflection responses average about one and a half printed pages in length. The contents of these commonly highlighted problems associated with the lack of preparation on the part of the participants and students in their own classes. By the end of semester most participants were only writing about a third of a page and concentrating on issues related to the (poor) standards of student work and how to motivate students.

Several of the comments obtained describe the problem that can arise from successful senior students instructing a range of junior students with weak backgrounds and a lack of interest in the subject. It appears we need to assist sessional staff with ways of motivating and supporting such students early in the semester.

The written reflections were also used by the participants as prompts for discussions during the workshops and then submitted to the coordinators at the end of that session. While most participants believed that there was some value in writing these reflections most indicated they had less time as semester progressed to devote to this activity. The varying impact of the written reflection is also demonstrated in responses to the survey questions: "I found the written reflection component of the workshop to be of benefit during the following weeks classes", and "I found the written reflection component of the workshop difficult to write". Responses to these questions are evenly spread across all categories. Perhaps a more direct feedback from the coordinators about specific issues raised in these reflections would have increased their value to participants.


We realize that in 12 one hour sessions over one semester it is simply not possible to provide the depth of coverage and treatment of highly complex educational issues that is normally covered in a full educational teaching qualification. With this in mind, the areas we sought to focus on were those of a practical nature that would assist sessional staff in their day to day teaching. Any degree of success is difficult to measure. Learning to teach is unfortunately a long a slow process and any benefits from these workshops may take a considerable time period to manifest themselves. The only real gauge we have so far are the responses of the participants themselves who all indicated the workshops to be of value.

A survey of the students taught by the participants may also have provided another prespective on any changes in the teaching over the period of the workshops. A comparison with the responses of these students with those taught by tutors and laboratory demonstrators who did not attend the workshop may also have been valuable since some anecdotal evidence of general dissatisfaction with their instruction was obtained from the latter group of students. An analysis of retention rates and performance for students in both groups is currently being undertaken although it may be difficult to extract any incremental benefit of these workshops from amongst the myriad of variables in the current educational matrix.

Some Outcomes


Dilemmas for you to consider


Curtin University Quality Office for funding support for this project.

Mrs Alex Radloff, Curtin University Teaching and Learning Group for valuable discussions on staff development and student interactions.

Mr A. Murphy, Curtin University School of Social Sciences and Asian languages for discussions on staff development and presenting our case in 1994 to a CAUT workshop (Murphy et al., 1994).


Bertola, P. & Murphy, E. (1994). Tutoring in the Social Sciences and Humanities: A beginner's Practical Guide. Perth, WA: Curtin University Publishing.

Coorey, M. (1996, April 3) Case of the 'invisible part-timer'. The Australian, p22.

Loss, R. D. & Zadnik, M.G. (1994). Report on the 1994 Workshop for new and inexperienced physics laboratory demonstrators and tutors. Report SPS 622/1994/AP 40, School of Physical Sciences, Perth, WA: Curtin University Publishing.

Loss, R. D. & Zadnik, M. G. (1996). Reflective Teaching Strategies for Part-Time Physics Tutors. (In preparation).

Murphy, A., Zadnik M. G. & Loss, R. D. (1994). Improving the teaching and learning opportunities in Physics tutorials. Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching Workshop for benchmark projects, Canberra, 9th July 1994.

Please cite as: Loss, R. D. and Zadnik, M. G. (1997). How do you tutor your tutors? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p197-203. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/loss.html

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