Saturday, April 4, 2015

Effective tutorials, II.

I think one of the weakest aspects of my teaching is running tutorials. In Australia, for most upper level undergraduate courses there is a weekly one hour tutorial [problem solving session] that is run by the lecturer.

Mostly I have run these tutorials according to a traditional format. There are a set of problems that the students are meant to attempt before the session. At the tutorial I then work through the solutions on the board. There are many problems with this approach. Students often don't attempt the problems beforehand because they are not assessed. It is just like a lecture. Students are hesitant to ask questions and just write down what you write on the board. It is somewhat boring. I am not sure the students get much out of it.

Previously, I posted about a different approach that my colleague Joel Corney introduced for a large second year class we were co-teaching. I thought this was quite effective. But, it also required TA's (grad. student tutors) to help.

For PHYS4030 [a solid state physics class with 15 fourth year undergrads] I finally did something I have wanted to do for a long time. Each week I have assigned two students in the class to run the tutorial. They can opt out if they want. They are meant to attempt them beforehand. They then stand at the board and do what they can. Other students offer suggestions and ask questions. I only speak up when essential.

I think it is going well. The students seem more engaged.  Furthermore, it is very helpful for me to see what they find difficult or are confused about; sometimes things that I think are basic and gloss over too quickly. On the other hand, I think you do need a critical mass of motivated and engaged students. Unfortunately, not every class has this.

I welcome other ideas.


  1. How efficient is the method? It sounds like a good way to engaging the students but it could be rather time consuming. How many problems can you cover in an hour-long tutorial?

    1. Thanks for the question.

      Based on just 4 weeks, I think it is quite efficient. It actually isn't much slower than when I do the problems.

      However, even if it is slower, I think the greater level of understanding and engagement, would be worth covering less material.

  2. One obstacle that I have noticed, is that there are many times when students are unable to recognise that and how they are making mistakes. For example, to find an electric field in electrostatics, you might first find the potential by integrating a scalar dV over all space, then take the gradient. If a student decides to go in the opposite direction, and finds the electric field by integrating dE over all space as if it were a scalar, then integrates the magnitude of force along some path to find the potential, it is obvious to me that they have done several things wrong, but it's not at all obvious to a novice.

    Perhaps the way to address this is to look carefully at common mistakes on an exam or assignment, and have the lecturer or tutor first go through the process on the board the wrong way (being clear in advance what you are doing, of course), then the right way, leaving the wrong way up and very clearly showing what the difference is. Of course, choosing a very simple example problem where the mistake shows up, to avoid distraction.

    It's not enough to be shown the right way: students need to be very consciously shown the specific differences that distinguish the right way from a plausible wrong way.

  3. I have adopted a similar style to your colleague which I feel works well. I am a grad student TAing a junior/senior undergrad level quantum mechanics course, so I am in charge of the tutorial/recitation. I create 2-3 problems of considerable depth and difficulty that address conceptual errors I see being made on HW and quizzes. I print out these problems and have the students work on them and circulate through the room as they work in groups. I break the problems down into many small steps and sort of hold their hands through it, taking breaks to work things out at the blackboard. This way I can expose flaws in understanding and cover more advanced topics without it seeming overwhelming. (And FWIW, I have received better feedback than the prof teaching the course...). I like your idea though! I might borrow elements of that myself.