Survival of the fittest Why the structure of tutorials need to change at McMaster


By: Elizabeth Ivanecky

With course evaluations available until Dec. 8, McMaster University needs to adjust the structure of tutorials that often accompany lecture-sized classes. Tutorials simply do not accommodate all types of personalities and learners.

The choice to remain anonymous in lecture halls isn’t present in tutorials. This tutorial strips more reserved students of this anonymity and forces them to share their opinion.

What do shy students do then? Do you let the system change you or show the system it doesn’t own you, but lose easy marks in the process?

Thankfully, many professors and TAs are aware of students who have more difficulty expressing themselves among their peers and do offer ways for such students to make up their participation mark in ways that go beyond oral expression in classrooms. They opt for giving such students the opportunity to write up written responses to a set of issues discussed in tutorials. Even with professors and TAs who are more attuned to the personalities of their students, there are other problems with the tutorial set-up that need to be addressed.

The main problem is the fact that tutorial discussions benefit a certain kind of learner or student. Those of us who absorb information best through lectures are most likely going to excel in tutorials where we learn by listening to our peers and expressing ourselves. No doubt those of us that learn by reading and writing can take notes during tutorials in order to retain some discussion material.

However, for those of us that learn by doing things, there are few alternatives. Unless our professor gives us an assignment where we find examples in the Hamilton community of what Marshall McLuhan meant by “The medium is the message,” then we are probably not going to get much out of a discussion of issues.

Similarly, those of us who are visual learners will also have difficulty in this rigid setting. It does help when professors and TAs show diagrams of the functioning of body systems or flow charts showing timelines of historical changes, as it would with any learner. For a visual learner, these actions need to be consistent.

Perhaps the faultiest thing about tutorials is the mark breakdown. In a typical tutorial worth anywhere from 10, 15 or 20 per cent of our grade, we are expected to make at least three to four significant comments showing we engaged with the readings discussed to gain full marks.

But the math doesn’t add up. Say you have a 50-minute tutorial with 14 other peers and on a regular basis, the TA or professor leading this tutorial is guaranteed ten students who come to class. In an ideal world, if all 15 students were determined to receive full marks for tutorial participation, they would each have to make three or four strong points for discussion. With the assumption that these points take time to develop in an oral delivery, you’re looking at around five minutes of class time for each student to make these points.

The main problem is the fact that tutorial discussions benefit a certain kind of learner or student.

This does not even include the regular commenting that a TA or professor would provide during such discussions. Already, the time allotted for these small-group discussions is not nearly adequate in meeting the student’s bare minimum needs of success let alone inspiring thought-provoking discussions.

Although tutorials are meant to be spaces where students have the opportunity to voice their opinions, they often either get led by a select few students or become strings of awkward silences echoing in the minds of students reluctant to be present for that.

It’s time to say goodbye to tutorials that are led by the few and welcome a space that makes students actually want to come to tutorials.


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