When I was assigned my first duty as a TA in one of the electrical engineering courses, one term after arriving to Canada, I was keen to know more about Canadian students. Thus, I started asking other experienced TAs about undergraduate students and how to teach them effectively. One comment that I still remember until today and after being a TA for more than 6 courses was about the students’ attendance in the tutorials. One of my colleagues told me: “If you get ten students in your tutorial out of the hundred students enrolled in the course, then you should be happy”. To tell the truth, I was really disappointed to hear this, especially before my first class. I thus asked about the reason and my colleague said: “What do you expect? the tutorials are not graded and students are not obligated to attend”.
This discussion and many other discussions with my fellow graduate students made me think about this issue and ask myself a question: Why do many students choose not to attend the tutorials? Is it really because many of the tutorials are ungraded?
After some thinking, I figured out that one of the possible reasons that can contribute towards this issue is the TA who runs the tutorials. If the students feel that the TA is not knowledgeable enough or not being able to communicate with them efficiently, many of them might choose not to attend the tutorials. This is true in some cases, however, in other cases, some students don’t even give a chance to the TA to prove his/her abilities as a teacher. This is because these students will not even attend the first tutorial to evaluate the TA.
The second reason that I can think of is due to the attitude of the course instructor. Some instructors provide the students with all the information about the topic during their lectures. They also solve some problems from the assignments and even make the solutions of the assignments available on the course website. Doing so, will make the tutorials somehow seem to be redundant because the students think that they are getting all their needs from the lectures!
Another possible reason can be the time of the tutorial itself. I once had a tutorial that started around 8:00 pm in the evening and I was shocked when I entered the class to find only three students out of fifty one sitting in the class. I was lucky though that this tutorial was not on a Friday evening otherwise the situation could have been much worse. The time specified for the tutorial can definitely affect the students’ attendance. Tutorials that are scheduled before or after lunch might be better for the students than those scheduled early in the morning or late in the afternoon. However, controlling the time assigned for each tutorial can be a difficult task, especially during busy terms.
The last reason that I can think of is due to the students’ learning styles. I know that most of the undergraduate students are very busy; they have a lot of things going on. Besides their studies, they have their part time jobs, voluntary work, social relations that they try to keep, and above all, their fun times. Thus, many of these students seem to be strategic learners; they try to achieve high grades by exerting less effort. Thus, for them, attending tutorials might seem to be a waste of time, especially if something that discourages them from attending exists.
There is no doubt that tutorials are very important for the teaching process of undergraduate students. The role of tutorials is not only to discuss the material being presented in the lectures or to solve some additional problems from the assignments. The role of the tutorials extends to train the students on how to think in a logical, critical and creative manner in order to help them solve real life problems that they might face in the future. Moreover, tutorials can be a good opportunity to train the students on how to present and defend their ideas, and how to evaluate others’ ideas. Thus, motivating the students to attend tutorials is something that we have to think about thoroughly. As TAs and course instructors we should ask ourselves several questions about this issue and try to find out their answers.
Some of the questions that I ask myself and would like you to share with me your ideas are: How can we motivate our students to attend the tutorials regularly? If the attendance is included as part of the course grade, would it make a difference? Or is it better to let the students decide on what is more useful for them than us doing so? Can the TA and the course instructor help in increasing the attendance in the tutorials? What can they both do to achieve this?