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Tutoring first year Social Science students at university: Tips for sessional tutors

Simon Stevens
Curtin University of Technology

My experience

For the past two years I have tutored first year students in two history units. My initial training came in the form of advice from the unit or course controllers and the book Tutoring at University: A Beginner's Practical Guide, by Pat Bertola and Eamon Murphy. I have since read other books on tutoring, though Bertola and Murphy's book is perhaps the best. Still, my own experience as a sessional tutor has had its own lessons, some of which are not fully covered in any book on tutoring. In other cases I disagree with the advice given in books.

The following is a summation of a few things I have learnt about tutoring. It is not exhaustive by any means, but will hopefully be of some help to inexperienced sessional tutors.

Coping with stress

The pressures on sessional tutors can lead to acute stress, even depression. Among these pressures are the heavy workload (usually including a PhD thesis), lack of training for tutoring, the university's stifling bureaucracy, and sundry other matters. If taken into the classroom, stress can create an oppressive and unproductive atmosphere. The tutor must, as far as possible, attempt to leave all their worry and stress behind them before they enter the classroom. Taking out one's problems on the students is not uncommon. But how does one deal with this if it rears itself in a subliminal way. One way is to spend a little time relaxing just prior to the tutorial. Also, you can literally tell yourself that you must not and will not take out your problems on the students. Another way of coping with stress is to speak to a confidant, someone you can trust. Perhaps one of the best ways to avoid stress in the tutorials, is to learn how to become a good tutor. This means reading books on tutoring, and seeking the help and advice of other, more experienced, tutors. This is the first step in your preparation as a sessional tutor.


As a sessional tutor you need to contact the unit controller and found out what they require of you. They may want you to take a certain approach to students. For example, they may ask you to raise the standard of tutorial presentations, or they may decide that you should run the tutorials in a certain way. Though most unit controllers do not require sessional tutors to attend lectures, it is best that you do. This will help you gain a better understanding of the approach the lecturer takes on a whole range of issues. You will thus be in a better position to explain the lecturer's views to the students.

You will also need to familiarise yourself with the unit plan or course outline. You need to know what the assignments are, what those assignments require the student to do, and the type of assessment used. For example, is there an exam? What style of referencing does the unit controller require for essays? And so on.

Depending upon the purpose of the tutorials, being a good tutor may not necessarily require you to be an expert on the content of the unit.

The purpose of tutorials

In order to tutor effectively it is essential that you understand the purpose of the tutorials. You can glean this from the unit controller and unit plan or course outline. The nature of tutorials varies from course to course, and from school to school. In the Social Sciences, most tutorials are basically seminars, whereas in other schools they are nothing more than supplementary lectures.

Social Science tutorials almost invariably contain set readings around a set topic, and usually have set questions to answer. The tutor is not required to give a talk on the subject or even to introduce it. They are there simply to facilitate or oversee a discussion among the students. That is, Social Science tutorials are there to provide an opportunity for students to test their ideas out, and develop their analytical and communication skills. This means that if the tutorial goes well, the tutor will hardly speak at all.

With first year students this is unlikely to happen in the first few tutorials. Students need to adjust to the new environment, and gain confidence to speak. So it is important for the tutor to help students adjust and settle into that environment.

The new environment

University can be a very intimating place to first year students. Not only do they have to undertake four units, but they also have to learn how the university operates, and where everything is. For example, they need to learn where the library is, and how to use its resources. Then there are administrative details to deal with. The tutor can help by supplying information and advice about a whole range of matters relating to university life.

By their second year, students are largely familiar with tutorials and with university life. More can be done to encourage them to facilitate their own learning, and generally improve their presentation skills.

Getting to know you

It is important to get to know all the names of your students very quickly. Nothing establishes a rapport quicker than getting to know a student's name. Similarly, not knowing a student's name will prevent such a rapport from developing. If you forget a name, the student will feel that you consider them to be unimportant. First year tutorials are usually not very long and there will be little time for any getting to know you exercise. The simplest and quickest way is for each person to tell the group their name and a little bit about themselves.

There are a variety of ways of remembering names. Some tutors ask students to attach a signifier to their name, that is, relate some aspect of themselves that the tutor can associate with a name. For example, Susan the cat lover or Michael the jazz enthusiast. Another way is to attach a certain physical attribute to the student. For example, Carmen the brunette with bob or Jason the tall, blue eyed blonde.

Just as the tutor needs to get to know their students, so the students need to get to know their tutor. Most of them want to know their tutor as a person they can deal with, rather than a functionary who seeks to control them. You can further establish a rapport with your students by telling them a little something about yourself.

Once the introductions are over, you must establish and explain the ground rules for tutorials.

Explain the ground rules A tutor may get into serious difficulties if they do not fully establish and explain the ground rules for tutorials. The basic rules are:

  1. Come on time;
  2. Come prepared;
  3. When someone speaks, everybody listens.
  4. No shouting, put downs or personal abuse.
If any student infringes these rules, they are violating the rights of their fellow students. For example, most students who give presentations prefer to start straight away. If anyone comes late then they are interrupting the presentation, which is not fair to the presenter. Every student has the right to an education free from any form of intimidation, whether it be sexual harassment, personal abuse, humiliation or anything else.

Setting the example

Some tutors are the worst offenders when it comes to breaking the ground rules. They believe that such rules only apply to the students. With such an attitude they risk alienating their students, and will probably never gain their trust. If you want students to come prepared and on time, and generally participate in a constructive way, then you must set the example. That means, arriving to class on time, being prepared, listening to students, and treating students respectfully and in a polite way. The tutor can do all this, and manage the tutorial group as well.

Group management skills

Tutors need good group management skills. The first step is in knowing the aims of the tutorial, and what the unit controller requires of the students. That is, you need to know what you are to manage exactly. In the Social Sciences many ideas are contested, and open to a variety of interpretations. Therefore tutorials need to be a venue for free and open discussion. And that is what the tutor needs to manage, to ensure that students feel that the environment is safe and secure enough for them to express themselves freely and openly, without fear of intimidation.

The worst type of tutor is the control freak who seeks manipulate or mould their students in a certain way. They may do this in a forthright way, or in subtle and subliminal ways, with realising it. Sometimes such a tutor will aim to encourage students to take a particular point of view on a subject. They will commend those who agree with them, and 'correct' those who do not. Here the tutor is using their position to press home their own particular perspective. This approach does not allow or engender a free and open discussion. On the contrary, students will feel that they cannot openly express their own opinions without being 'corrected' by the tutor. Students will react in a variety of ways to this. Some may openly challenge the tutor. Some will remain silent. Others will say whatever the tutor wants to hear, regardless of, and perhaps contrary to, their own personal beliefs. In the latter case, I have known tutors who think their tutorials go well, when in fact they are nothing more than Dorothy Dix sessions. The students are trained to respond, through punishment and reward, to do the tutor's bidding. Yet training students to 'behave' is not the same as imparting to students the analytical skills required for educational self advancement.

The most important thing for a tutor to do is butt out of discussions as much as they can, and to encourage all the students to debate.

Encouraging debate

During formal debates, many students feel that they are being tested by the tutor. They feel exposed and become self conscious. One way around this is to begin the tutorial with informal chit chat, perhaps about a certain news item, movie or other piece of information. As long as it relates in some way to the tutorial topic, then you may find that a healthy discussion will ensue.

The nature of the debates will depend, in large part, upon the type of students in the tutorial. There will be different levels of understanding, confidence, self esteem, and so on. To simplify matters, and for the purpose of this paper, I have divided students into two broad categories: dominant and quiet students.

Dealing with dominant students

There is a widespread misconception that dominant students are trouble. This is simply not true for most dominant students, on the contrary, they are more often a boon to tutorials than a hindrance. Many tutors take it as gainsaid that no single student or group of students should dominate the tutorials. Yet seeking to control them is often a self defeating exercise, since it sends out mixed messages to the class. At one moment the tutor is encouraging students to participate, and the next they are attempting to silence those who often do. This really comes down to a process of levelling, whereby the tutor expects each student to participate in the same way, and to the same degree as others. This completely ignores the fact that all people are different, have different skills and levels of understanding. Some students have more to give tutorials than others. Why should we attempt to circumvent this?

I would place dominant students into three broad categories. The first two are positive, and the third is negative.

  1. Enthusiastic students. This group usually consists of the top students, who follow the ground rules closely, and whose eagerness to participate in tutorials is infectious. They will often speak more than the other students, and one may even take onto themselves the role of facilitating discussion. A good tutor should not feel threatened by such students. As long as all the students are making progress, and they observe the ground rules, there is no problem.

  2. Politicised students. This group will have a point to make. Often it can be controversial and lead to heated discussions. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as the students obey the ground rules, and the tutor ensures matters do not get out of hand.

  3. Domineering students. To this group belong those students who have to have their say regardless of the rules or their lack of understanding about the subject under discussion. They often do not obey the ground rules, they put down other students, talk over other students, and generally demonstrate other forms of intimidating behaviour. The tutor needs to remind these students of the ground rules, and if they persist in ignoring them, then their behaviour should be discussed in the group. If left unchecked, a domineering student can completely wreck any of the good work done in tutorials. Therefore, it is important to nip all such problems in the bud.
A tutor who places all dominant students in one basket, is making a big mistake. At one moment they will encourage students to talk, and then seek to shut up a student who is eager to participate. The upshot of it all, is that the students will clam up, leaving the tutor to wonder why their effort to get people to speak is ineffective.

In my experience I have dealt with only one student who fell in the third category. They are not as common as many imagine. The biggest problem in tutorials is not the dominant or talkative students, but in getting the silent ones to speak.

Dealing with quiet students

The tutor needs to create an atmosphere in which quiet students feel confident enough to speak. This means creating a safe and friendly environment, free from intimidation. Here the tutor requires plenty of patience.

If students are very quiet, there are a number of things a tutor can do.

  1. Ask to hear from people who have not spoken.
  2. Go round the class, asking questions of each student in turn.
  3. Ask questions of only the quiet students.
The first approach is probably the best. The other two do not involve students volunteering to speak. If you ask the first question, and no-one answers, wait. Let the room remain silent for a while. Silence has a profound psychological effect on people. Some students will feel so awkward that they will speak, if only to break the silence. If you jump in too soon, without letting human nature take its course, then the exercise will be futile. Do not be afraid of such silences yourself, they can be quite productive. They give time for students to think. They also place pressure on students, without singling any one person out. Students do not like silence. A few instances of it can often work wonders in getting quiet students to speak.

There are various reasons why students do not say much in tutorials. The two main reasons I have encountered are low self esteem and fear of critics. The critic students most fear in the tutorials is the tutor. Therefore, you must reassure your students that they are not required to be experts, and that the ground rules also apply to the tutor. Raising a student's self esteem takes longer. Most people with low self esteem believe that they are alone. Yet it is a social problem, and one that requires a social solution. Making such students feel that they are not alone, and that others have similar feelings, is the first step towards raising their self esteem. The creation of a safe, friendly and supportive atmosphere is also vital to advancing the students' own self worth.

While quiet students fear speaking in a debate, they absolutely dread presentations.


Most first year students fear giving presentations. There is something unnatural about being stared at by a group of other people. The presenter feels exposed, opened to criticism. There are ways to overcome such fears. The tutor can reassure their students in several ways. First, they are not expected to be experts. Second, it is OK to feel nervous. Even professional public speakers get nervous. And third, the tutorial is a safe environment for giving presentations, as all the other students will empathise. After all, they have to give presentations as well.

One of my students, who gives excellent presentations even though she hates them, told me that she always uses interesting overheads. This will lead other students to look at the overheads, and not at her. This takes away the unnerving aspect of being stared at. Here are 5 tips for better presentations that I give students:

  1. Passion. If you're not interested why should anyone else be? Therefore, always try to choose a subject, or angle to it, that interests you.

  2. Focus. If you're dealing with a very general topic, concentrate on three or four basic points, give an example for each one, and no more. Overall, it's best to narrow your topic down. Concentrate on a single aspect, rather than cover the lot.

  3. Prepare well. The more you read about, research and discuss your topic the more confident you will be in speaking about it. Remember, less is expected of a first year university student than a professor. So don't believe that you're expected to be what you're not. Just like an essay, planning your presentation will give it a sound structure that will hold it together and prevent you from falling apart.

  4. Edit. The biggest mistake first time presenters make is cramming all their research into their presentation. Stick to the basic points, and keep the rest in reserve.

  5. Rehearse. The best way to know whether your presentation will keep to time, is to rehearse. Do this in a place you feel comfortable, in front of a mirror, friends, colleagues or relatives, and keep an eye on the time. Also, the more practice you have in giving presentations, the more professional and confident you should become.
While presentations are often the most nerve racking assignment for students, essays are perhaps more important.


In the Social Sciences, essays usually form a large part of the assessment. Therefore, it is essential that students are regularly reminded of the requirements and the due dates. I even give my students a handout on essays. It includes tips on referencing and writing bibliographies. When it comes to writing academic essays, most first year students do not know the basics. This means that most of your time will be spent imparting basic rules, mostly technical, to the students. They will need to learn how to structure an essay, reference it, and supply a bibliography or reference list. I do not expect a high level of critical analysis or argument from first year students. This is something that can be developed much better in tutorials, and later transferred to essays (usually from second year on).

Most essay assignments in first year require referencing. You will need to know if there is any specific form of referencing required. For example, in History we use footnotes, whereas in Anthropology we use the Harvard System. Even there, certain schools apply the rules differently. For example, in many Psychology units they use the Harvard System, but the student is not required to supply a page number, unless directly quoting someone. In many Anthropology units, a page number is almost always required. Some units require students to use footnotes with the traditional Latin phrases (ibid., op cit., etc). In other units a simplified, non-Latin form of footnotes will be acceptable.

These days most word processors have footnote facilities, which make it easy to use this style of referencing. This is one of the advantages of new technology. However, an over reliance on technology can hinder learning rather than aid it. We need to place technology in its proper perspective.

Putting technology in perspective

Modern technology is highly overrated. Much of it is expensive, cumbersome to use, and often faulty. While there are certainly technological advances that are useful (word processors are a case in point), there are other 'advances' which do not add up to much. For example, despite the hype about the Internet, I am sure many of us would agree that it is packed to the brim with rubbish. These days it is little more than a glorified version of telemall shopping. The threefold price one pays (to the server provider, telephone company and Internet retailer) is often too high for what one gets. What little there is of any academic value is hidden in a maze of advertisements and trashy chit chat. Like many technological advances, the Internet is not what some have promised it would be.

Then there is Murphy's Law: if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. I have never encountered a case of faultless technology, whether it be my computer, word processor, email facility, or any of the technical apparatuses at university. I have attended many lectures where invaluable time has been wasted trying to get various machines to work. Unfortunately, technocrats do not believe in Murphy's Law, no matter how many times they encounter it. They have an almost fanatical religious zeal when it comes to technology. But for the rest of us mere mortals, Murphy's Law is an everyday reality with which we have to contend.

We need, therefore, not to be too enamoured by flashy lights and technocratic propaganda. Technology has its place, and can be very useful, but people are still our best 'device' for tutoring.

Finally, here are

10 tips for better tutoring

  1. Come prepared.
  2. Explain the ground rules, don't just lay them down.
  3. Draw out the connection between the ground rules and students' rights.
  4. Set the example.
  5. Get to know the names of all your students within two weeks.
  6. Relate your own experiences.
  7. Ask open ended questions (questions that do not require a 'yes' or 'no' response).
  8. Commend students who do well, but do not patronise them. NOTE: This does not apply to commending students simply because you agree with them.
  9. Remind students of the requirements and due dates for every exercise or activity. Do not just expect that they will have read the unit plan or course outline.
  10. Listen to, and learn from, your students.


Bertola, P. and Murphy, E. (1994). Tutoring at University: A Beginner's Practical Guide. Perth: Centre for Educational Advancement, Curtin University of Technology.

Please cite as: Stevens, S. (2001). Tutoring first year Social Science students at university: Tips for sessional tutors. 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. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/stevens.html

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