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?
One thought on “Why do some students choose not attend tutorials?! – Walid Omran (International TA Developer)”
Before discussing the article above, I wish to remind readers of the definition of a tutorial. As defined by the online dictionary of Princeton University (http://wordnet.princeton.edu/), a tutorial is “a session of intensive tuition given by a tutor to an individual or to a small number of students.”
I have previously discussed the subject of attendance to tutorial sessions with some of my former professors. One of the main points of contention was the purpose of tutorials. Two principal purposes were generally proposed. The less prominent purpose was to provide tuition beyond the subject matter covered in class and the other was to provide “a session of intensive tuition”.
If the professor of a given course decides to use tutorials as an opportunity to provide additional subject matter, there are two potential issues that may arise. Firstly, if students are not interested in the material, they may determine that their time is better spent on alternate activities, such as studying or resting. This will be less of an issue in upper year courses or in more specialized courses. Secondly, if a tutor is responsible for providing the instruction during such tutorials, he should clearly demonstrate proficiency with the matter at hand or else the students will most definitely stop attending the tutorials. This second point will apply to any teaching instance, be it a veteran professor or an uninitiated teaching assistant.
If, for a given course, the purpose of tutorials is to provide “a session of intensive tuition”, then there are various factors that will influence the number of attendees. If the tutor has opted to do exercises relating to the material taught by the professor in class, three elements will determine the numbers of students in attendance. The most critical of the three is the variance of the level of understanding or skill between the students. As is the case with the majority of first and second year classes, if there is a large variance between the level of understanding or skill between the students, it will prove to be very difficult to tailor the tutorial to serve all students. Those with great understanding of the subject will be bored by the simple examples and those with little understanding will be lost in the more complexe examples. If the tutor decides to do examples of average difficulty, both groups will most probably lose interest. Although they may be a small group, I would recommend to the tutors to provide tuition at the lower level, since those with greater understanding will be able to solve more advanced problems on their own. If not, they could always consult the professor or the tutors outside of class and tutorial time.
Alternatively, if multiple tutoring sessions are available for the same course, it may be advantageous to offer them at differing levels of complexity. On the other hand, if the students are all of similar calibar and skill, the tutor should be vigilant to ensure that the material taught during the tutorial is not of much greater or of lesser difficulty than the understanding of the students. If it is, interest will wander elsewhere.
If the tutorials are not catered to the specific levels of understanding of a student, mandatory attendance (i.e. marked attendance) could potentially prove to be a waste of the time of the student that could be studying the material in an alternative format or studying other, more difficult, subjects. There may an increase in the number of attendees, but grades of many students may decrease in other courses.
Often times, I have also found that I could complete the exercises covered in tutorials in less time were I to do them in another setting. Unfortunately, I have also found that tutors often rush through the exercises to complete as many as possible before the end of the session. As such, I believe that many tutorial sessions would benefit if the tutors focused more on the format and procedure for solving a general class of problem than on the content of a specific problem, that is to provide more qualitative information than quantitative information. Although the tutor would be solving a specific problem, emphasis could be placed on the methodology behind finding the proposed solution; therefore provinding students with the tools to solve a wider range of problems and possibly even using these tools to solve problems in other domains, which is one of the supposed side effects of higher education.