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Challenges and rewards of being a sessional tutor in a university setting

Tara Blanchard and Kylie Smith
School of Psychology
Edith Cowan University


Lecturers and sessional tutors provide teaching at ECU. Lecturers offer formal teaching for all students enrolled in a unit, covering topics in the course outline. Tutors on the other hand, teach between 20-25 students and extend the information covered by the lecturers. Sessional tutors usually do not have formal teaching qualifications and have less than two years full time teaching experience in a tertiary institution (ECU Policies & Procedures, 1997).

Tutors are often at the beginning of their professional teaching careers and thus, have to learn to negotiate their way around a classroom. To assist with this transition, ECU offers sessional tutors the opportunity to participate in a six hour teaching skills program conducted by the EDU. This program has a strong emphasis on effective teaching and learning strategies, covering topics related to tertiary teaching, tutoring small groups and, marking and assessing students.

As first time sessional tutors we attended this comprehensive and informative training session which provided basic tutoring skills. We found that while this was a beneficial course nothing actually prepares you for the experience of university tutoring. We aim to provide an insight into experiences that we have encountered as sessional tutors. We also aim to conduct a brief literature review related to university tutoring.

Literature states that tutors should engage in reflective practice (Dahlin, 1994; Moallem, 1997). Reflective practice involves a tutor examining "the relationship between what they know and what they do" (Dahlin, 1994, p. 57). This enhances the initial process of learning to teach and the professional growth of the tutor (Moallem, 1997). The EDU course encouraged tutors to engage in reflective practice by assessing their own performance each week.

Large class sizes may have a significant negative effect on the performance of students (Scheck, Kinicki & Webster, 1994). At ECU students attend lectures which are large classes attended by all students enrolled in the unit, and tutorials which are smaller classes attended by 20-25 students. While lectures are important to impart large amounts of information to a large group of people, smaller tutorials enhance what is taught in these lectures and have a positive effect on student learning (Scheck, et al., 1994). This underlies the importance of sessional tutors to enhance student learning.

Another important factor on student learning is tutor behaviour (Scheck, et al., 1994). Positive tutor behaviour correlates with student motivation with a direct positive impact on performance (Scheck, et al., 1994). Tutor behaviour is often related to experience, skills, knowledge, and self efficacy (Ghaith, 1999). Self efficacy is "the belief in one's capacity to cause some intended event to occur, or to perform some task" (Bee, 1998, p.545). Self efficacy often occurs with experience (Ghaith, 1999). Therefore, the experience gained in being a sessional tutor increases self-efficacy and thus, facilitates student learning.

These were the three main findings from the literature. Our personal experiences related more to micro experiences that arose through sessional tutoring. As sessional tutors we discovered that these experiences encompassed challenges and rewards. We will now discuss our experiences and how these relate to the literature.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was time management. Over the last four years we have established time management skills related to submitting our assessments however, tutoring has added an extra element to be incorporated into our schedules. We found this to be a constructive experience as it involved balancing our workload and being well prepared for conducting tutorials each week. Time was also allocated to marking, to ensure adequate feedback was provided to students on their assessments.

Detailed feedback makes tutors reflect on their practice and ensures consistency in the marking of assessments which in turn benefits students (Dahlin, 1994). Furthermore, detailed feedback gives students an indication of areas that need improvement and areas done well (Dahlin, 1994). This makes tutors more effective because it increases the awareness of what they are doing, giving them the opportunity to better their practice (Dahlin, 1994). We found that marking and giving feedback to students helped to improve our own work as we revised assignment writing techniques. However, a peer support network would ensure greater consistency in marking across tutors.

Ethical issues may also arise. Before commencing tutoring we were unfamiliar with the range of ethical issues facing a tutor. However, we were soon faced with situations of a sensitive nature. For example, a student approached one of us for another student's grade. To ensure confidentiality, we did not divulge the grade. Another ethical issue that arose was abandonment. It was important to not abandon students with emotional distress issues who came to see you when class was over. However, at the same time it was important to not neglect the next class of students waiting for tutorials to begin. To solve this issue we needed to be aware of appropriate avenues of assistance for student referral. For example, we could direct the student to the student counsellor, academic skills adviser, or medical services staff. These ethical issues increased our awareness of and ability to cope with ethical issues.

University policy states that mobile phones and pagers should be switched off while students are attending tutorials to minimise disturbances to other students (ECU, 1997). However, when tutoring first year students, who may be unaware of this policy, it is important to establish ground rules regarding mobile phones and pagers. We discovered that it is important to establish this in the first few weeks to alleviate potential problems instigated by the use of mobile phones. This has provided us with negotiation and facilitation skills.

We found that there is a fine balance between feeling responsible for students learning and students being responsible for their own learning. However, it is important to not reflect students poor grades on your own teaching style when you have done all you can, and especially when the majority of your students pass. In addition, we needed to empathise with different learning styles and incorporate this into our practice. This meant that we needed to spend additional time and effort with students who required extra assistance. This again relates to time management skills, and reflective practice, and also strengthened our empathic abilities.

As tutors, we faced boundary and personality issues. It was important to negotiate extensions. Several students requested extensions for assignments the night before, on the day, or after the due date. We used discretion to determine legitimate reasons for requests on short notice but established ground rules to avoid last minute extension requests and to ensure fairness to all students and tutors. In addition, as with any other profession, we met a wide range of people with different personalities. This presented a challenge at times as tension occurred. As tutors therefore, we needed skills to diffuse these situations. Therefore, handling extension requests and personality differences increased our negotiation and conflict management skills.

With different personalities come different points of view. Conflicting points of view encouraged class discussion. We were aware of and forwarded contentious points of views, setting ground rules so students participated responsibly in these discussions. While it was a challenge, facilitating class discussion was also a rewarding experience as most class members contributed. Literature states that when functioning effectively, the tutor takes on a facilitator role, which is conducive to effective adult learning (Grasha, 1994).

In addition to the challenges, there were also rewards. As facilitators, sessional tutors are an important resource of universities, as they provide an interface between students and lecturers. Facilitation empowers students in their own learning and provides tutors with the opportunity to build student/tutor relationships (Grasha, 1994). We found facilitation had three functions. Firstly, it allowed us to be viewed as approachable. This encouraged students to consult with us. Secondly, working as a facilitator helped to identify students needing extra assistance, as there were increased one to one interactions between the student and us. This is a benefit as we found students were more comfortable discussing issues on an individual basis rather than in front of the entire class. Thirdly, we observed that the facilitation approach improved interactions between students. As a result of these interactions students formed peer networks which they found to be useful not only in regards to their assessments but as a form of support. This facilitative approach has been rewarding for our students and us as it has increased rapport between all parties. Facilitation assists with student learning and improves interactions between students providing them with an opportunity to build peer support networks and work effectively with others (Grasha, 1994).

The experience of tutoring has been rewarding as it has helped clarify previous knowledge and integrate new knowledge, as well as providing us with new teaching skills. This has increased our interpersonal skills and teaching efficacy while providing the opportunity to assist students. It is a rewarding experience knowing that you can make a difference to student learning. The added bonus of tutoring is that we are paid to do something that we enjoy.

Based on the literature and personal experiences we recommend four points. Firstly, it is important to have an effective tutor peer support network in place because issues can arise that may present difficulties for the tutor. Peer networks provide the opportunity for support and advice among tutors. Secondly, to ensure tutors provide the best teaching practices we recommend a regular review session with the lecturers. Thirdly, tutors should engage in reflective practice to evaluate and further develop their teaching skills. Finally, we recommend training include role playing to increase tutors self efficacy.

Future research should further examine the interaction between student learning styles and tutor teaching styles. By examining this interaction it may indicate which tutor teaching style is the most effective when combined with a particular student learning style. This would improve teaching and learning benefiting both students and tutors. In addition, more research needs to be conducted on tutor experiences and these experiences need to be disseminated to relevant tutors to assist with their teaching and reflective practice.

In conclusion, we have found sessional tutoring to be rewarding and challenging. As we were at the beginning of our tutoring careers the six hour teaching skills program offered by ECU was a useful introduction to tutoring. However, we discovered nothing actually prepares you for the experience of university teaching. The challenges that we faced included marking, boundary and personality issues, ethical issues, the use of mobile phones in class, the balancing act between dedicating time to tutoring and time to your own assessments as a postgraduate student, reflective practice, feeling responsible for your students, different learning styles and facilitator role. The rewards included the feeling of helping students, continually expanding your knowledge and improving your teaching skills, effective facilitation, and getting paid to do something that you enjoy. Our recommendations were to have a tutor peer support network in place, and a regular review session with the lecturers. Future research should further examine the interaction between student learning styles and tutor teaching styles and future research should also explore tutor experiences.

References

Bee, H. (1998). Lifespan Development (2nd Ed). New York: Longman.

Dahlin, A. (1994). The teacher as a reflective professional. College Teaching, 42, 57-64.

Davis, B. G., Wood, L., & Wilson, R. (1983). Tools for Teaching. California: Jossey-Bass.

Edith Cowan University (1997). Edith Cowan University Policy and Procedures. Perth, WA: University Publication, Edith Cowan University.

Ghaith, G. & Shaaban, K. (1999). The relationship between perceptions of teaching concerns, teacher efficacy, and selected teacher characteristics. Teacher and Teacher Education, 15(5), 487-496.

Grasha, A. (1994). A matter of style: The teacher as expert, formal authority, personal model, facilitator and delegator. College Teaching, 42, 12-24.

Moallem, M. (1997). The content and nature of reflective teaching: A case of an expert middle school science teacher. The Clearing House, 70, 143-151.

Scheck, C. L., Kinicki, A. J., and Webster, J. L. (1994). The effect of class size on student performance: Development and assessment of a process model. Journal of Education for Business, 70, 104-117.

Please cite as: Blanchard, T. and Smith, K. (2001). Challenges and rewards of being a sessional tutor in a university setting. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology.
http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/blanchard.html


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