Small Group Tutorials for Psychology Postgraduate students

 In 21st-Century Higher Education (HE), teaching is required to be of high-quality and deliverable to large groups of students at low-resource. This task is not straightforward: as with all public services nationally and internationally, we are facing substantial challenges with funding, and the rise in student numbers augments this issue. This project sought to address this challenge by developing a paradigm for flexible, small-group tutorials provided to students by senior-peers that could be applied to a range of academic disciplines.

The project is comprised of a pedagogical research element (“do flexible, small-group tutorials improve the student experience?”), and a practical one (which includes the provision of sessions, development of a training program and introducing processes for future use at low resource and planning future expansion). In order for this to be applicable and deliverable, we utilised a model of small-group tutorials (SGT) adapted from the traditional “Oxbridge” tutorial paradigm for our population and resource allocation. In our SGT approach, tutees were required to commit to attending all organised tutorial sessions then allocated into groups of 3-5 students with one tutor, followed by a set number of regular sessions with the same group to support an existing course students are undertaking.

During 2014, 101 tutees and 24 tutors participated in tutorials. The project findings show that the delivery of small-group tutorial sessions is both feasible and useful, for tutees (Postgraduate Taught students) and tutors (Postgraduate Research students) alike. Although we observed no change in students’ relatively stable traits such as self-esteem and academic confidence, students rated the program as useful and beneficial, containing relevant content and improving their academic understanding and knowledge. The tutees valued the tutor, and felt increased motivation and encouragement for their studying. Tutors reported increases in their enjoyment of teaching, and felt more confident in teaching. Qualitative analyses illustrate that both groups felt that the flexible nature of tutorials was particularly helpful, while also indicating that there were some difficulties with scheduling/attendance: we are addressing this by modifying the briefing session so that all tutor groups can initially meet at this event and discuss scheduling and aims, meaning that immediate examples of difficult scheduling situations can be dealt with at an early stage. Some feedback we received suggested that the students did not feel that the tutors had sufficient knowledge about what the expectations were of assessors from the course tutorials were connected with. We are approaching this in a number of ways; by highlighting in briefing sessions the aims of tutorials as being broad and transferable, and the lack of expectations regarding course specifics from the tutor. However, we are also ensuring that tutors have access to course details if this is something that they choose to focus on with the group. We posit that this perceived drawback is linked to difficulties with deciding on content to cover. We are currently creating an improved version of a document which lists possible topics that can be covered so that, for example, students could check boxes of what they would like to cover so that tutors have a concrete idea of tutee needs. This is also assisted by the introduction of a “Learning contract” into the training package, which aims to help identify students’ weaknesses and goals and promote feedback from the tutor throughout the program.

Because we were not able to recruit a control group, or measure a greater number of individuals over a longer time period, our results are not thoroughly explanatory of the nature and extent of the benefits of small-group, flexible tutorials. However, we believe that the positive results identified demonstrate short-term general benefits that could be improved with a greater frequency of tutorial sessions, and with an enhanced understanding of tutorial aims and scope prior to participation. Therefore, in 2015 we are investigating the effects of a tutorial program that includes an enhanced training package.  In the future we hope to investigate more enduring effects of the SGT model (for instance, including a follow-up evaluation or analysis of students’ eventual course marks in comparison with a control group who have not received additional tutorials) and to measure additional ‘state’ representations, such as of self-efficacy.

This evidence that both tutors and tutees benefit from peer-led learning is highly encouraging for the continuation of the SGT project, which is continuing.