Six Tips for Running a Tutorial for the First Time

Sep 18, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

While research may be the primary focus of most PhD students, doctoral studies also comprise other tasks and responsibilities. One of the most intimidating of these, for many graduate students? Running tutorials, AKA “sections.”  These small group sessions facilitated by PhD teaching assistants (“TAs”) are designed as a complement to larger lectures, and may include presentations, discussions, projects, debates and other classroom techniques designed to support student engagement.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed when preparing to run your first tutorial, you’re not alone. Luckily, there are some things you can do to set yourself up for success. Read on for a roundup of six ways to run a positive and productive tutorial.

1. Respect your students.

It’s easy to fall into the pitfall of thinking of teaching -- and students, by proxy -- as an impediment. However, this mindset doesn’t just interfere with what students take away from the experience, but from what you take away from it, as well. Rather than viewing teaching as an obstacle, think of it as an opportunity. The first step in getting there? Respecting your students.

If you can’t take it from us, take it from physics icon Richard Feynman. “I found two good reasons to teach tutorials,” he wrote in Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! “First, I enjoyed it. I liked imparting my knowledge to students and helping them learn. I am amazed at how quickly students absorb knowledge and I am often impressed with the depth and intelligence of their questions. The second reason to teach tutorials is to learn the material. Of course, you probably know the material, but if you really want to know it, then you should teach it.”

2. Be punctual and present.

Put yourself in your undergraduates’ shoes: How did you feel when your professors and TAs were late? One of the simplest ways to show respect for your students is to start and end the class on time.

However, being a good TA is about more than punctuality, it’s also about being present: Arriving early and lingering after class gives students a chance to approach you informally. This not only establishes a rapport with students, but also gives them the opportunity to ask for help if and when they need it.

3. Don’t let on that you’re a newbie.

While you may not have taught before, your PhD status proves that you’re qualified to teach in your area. Unfortunately, announcing your status as a first-timer unnecessarily undercuts your authority. Rather than accepting your expertise, students may start looking for perceived shortfalls as evidence of your lack of experience. (Don’t blame them -- it’s human nature.)

While you’re at it, resist the temptation to apologize for things like poor handwriting, which could prompt students to develop unfavorable impressions of you.

4. Prepare, prepare and prepare some more.

Feeling confident in your knowledge enough to think you can just wing it? Think again. Teaching is more than merely knowing the material; it requires true fluency. You must also be able to communicate the material in an intelligible way while also being prepared to answer any questions students may come up with. The best TAs devote an ample amount of time preparing for tutorials -- some averaging at least two hours of preparation for every hour they’ll spend teaching.

In addition to preparing on a microscopic level, it’s also important to prepare macroscopically. This means factoring in everything from expected enrollment to course goals to how to strategically develop assignments and exams aimed at helping students grow in their understanding of the material.

5. Incorporate a variety of teaching methods.

Speaking of understanding the material, not all students take in information the same way. Don’t assume that what works for one student (or for you) works for another. Integrating a variety of teaching methods ensures that you’ll reach the widest range of student preferences and needs. This can include readings, class discussions, visuals and multimedia, as well as hands-on, project-based activities. Ultimately, the best tutorials focus on active learning and reflection in order to bring the material taught in lectures to life. 

6. Accept the awkward silence.

Many of us are familiar with the “Anyone? Anyone?” moment immortalized in the classic movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. However, if you find yourself rushing to fill awkward pauses which arise during discussions, you may be doing your students an injustice. By allowing ample time for students to respond -- even when the silence gets uncomfortable -- you may be giving them the time they need to formulate an answer and be brave enough to share it. The longer you wait, the more you increase the likelihood that someone will speak up.

Conversely, if you jump in too early, you reduce the chances that less inclined students will eventually contribute. (Not to mention that your students are also likely to find the silence awkward, which may encourage them to be more prepared to speak up in the future.)

Sure, you could look at teaching as a drag, but why would you when you could look to it for inspiration instead? Richard Feynman got so much out of teaching that he once said, “I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don't have to teach. Never.”  Embracing these six tips may help you find equal fulfillment in your own tutorial duties.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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