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Tutorials and tutorial observations: what works and what helps tutors?

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 25 Oct 2017, 14:02

As a part of an OU funded eSTEeM research project about tuition and tutorial observations, I ran two short focus groups for associate lecturers at an Open University AL development conference which took place in Leeds between 5 and 6 May 2017. 

This blog post represents a set of notes that have been expanded from comments made on flipcharts during the focus groups. Follow on research is to run a focus group with staff tutor colleagues, and then to consolidate all findings by way of internal and external publications about educational practice.

I’m sharing a summary at this early stage, since I feel that it’s important to be open in terms of the research that has been carried out. Plus, through a blog, anyone who has any opinions about the subject or the session should be free to get in contact.

Introducing tutorial observations

A tutorial observation is, as it suggests, an observation of a university learning or teaching event. It can take place either face to face, or online. 

Ever since joining the university I have been aware that different colleagues (within different departments and faculties) have done observations in slightly different ways. One colleague in one school has used a complex form which was a bit like a questionnaire. Another colleague in my school has had a really very simple form to capture a free form description of what happened during a tutorial.

My research question is: what is the best practice that helps associate lecturers? Given that the university has recently completed a faculty merger, this seems like an ideal time to ask this question. 

Accompanying questions are, of course: what are tutorial observations for? An obvious answer is: to ensure that students are given good quality tuition. Although this may be true, a more detailed answer might be a bit more complicate and nuanced.

Introducing the focus group

In order to find out more, my AL support and professional development said that I could run a workshop that gently masqueraded as a focus group. The ‘focus shop’ had the title: Tutorials and tutorial observations: what works and what helps tutors?

The workshop had the accompanying abstract: do you remember when you last observed during a tutorial? If so, what happened, and were you happy with the feedback that you received? This session is all about the concept of a tutorial observations, both on-line and face to face. Chris Douce is leading a research project that aims to learn more about different observation practices, both inside and outside the university. The research project aims to ask two very important questions: (1) what do tutors need? And, (2) how should staff tutors and faculty managers run effective observations? Other questions include: what feedback would help you the most, and do you have any thoughts about how observations should be run when you do team teaching? All welcome and all feedback appreciated; this session can help to develop and (hopefully) enhance tuition observation and develop online and face to face teaching practices.

What follows is a set of notes gathered from both focus groups.

Points captured from the focus groups

Tutors were asking the important question of: what are observations for and what it its purpose? Is it something that is done to monitor the performance of tutors? There was a view that observations shouldn’t be done in a cursory way, or be paying lip service to an administrative process. 

There are a number of different dimensions to observations: they can range from being formal to being very informal. They can also vary in terms of their participants: they can be of an individual, or they can be of a group of tutors. There are further questions: what about recordings? The question about recordings helped us to start to consider other dimensions of observation: in addition to using discussion forums some tutors have, in the past, created their own podcasts, or used tools such as Jing. A suggestion from a tutor was to ask the question: ‘which recordings would you like me to look at?’ and ‘what would you like me to look for?’

There was an awareness that observations have the potential to be negative (or, as noted, be destructive); they can negatively impact on a tutor’s confidence. There was also the point that observations can be used as a way to facilitate a dialogue between a tutor and a tutor manager; after an observation and the receipt of an observation report, tutors may be invited to offer a ‘right to reply’. Another comment was that it should be ‘a two way thing’.

An important question was: how often should observations take place? Opinions about frequency ranged from every two years to every four years, and perhaps be connected with a tutor’s appraisal (which takes place every two years). One tutor reported that they had been observed twice in ten years; another tutor reported they had been observed two times in six months. This raises an accompanying question: now that tutor line management is a lot more complex, who is actually going to carry out an observation? (We now have tuition task managers, lead line managers and cluster managers). 

So, what about the practicalities of carrying out observation? Giving a warning, or notice, was considered to be important. There was also a practice of sending tuition plans to staff tutors in advance of a tutorial so they could see what is planned; some preparatory work needed to be done.

Accompanying the details of the tutorials and the plans, there are other important questions to negotiate; one of those challenges is the extent to which a tutor may wish a staff tutor to be involved in the actual tutorial. Staff tutors might ask the question: ‘what would you like me to do?’ as a way to being negotiation about the extent of involvement. The practicalities of engaging in a tutorial can, of course, depend on the subject and its level.

Feedback was a theme that recurred a number of times. To prepare for an observation, one tutor suggested the use of the question: ‘what would you like me to look at?’ There was also a suggestion that staff tutors should look at only a few things during a tutorial. There was also an emphasis on the importance of expectations. 

A further comment is that feedback should emphasise the good bits, and this is something that could be done immediately after a tutorial. A key phrase I noted down was: ‘how do you phrase things not to be critical?’ An immediate response was to use a ‘feedback sandwich’. 

As expected, the way in which feedback was presented to tutors differed: the school of health and social care used a form, whereas in the school of maths, tutors were sent a letter.

There were a number of other really interesting points that were raised. A question was: perhaps we should ask students what they want? Also, there are opportunities to share examples of practice, activities and reflections. This raises an interesting question about the importance and use of peer observations. This is, of course, connected to the important issue of trust between the observed and the observer. Other points were made about the connection to the importance of correspondence tuition and the role of mentoring.

There was an important acknowledgement that tutorials and tutorial observations can, of course, be stressful and a recognition that personalities play a fundamental role in shaping the teaching environment in which teaching takes place.


The two focus groups were very different in their composition, but there was a lot of crossover between the themes that emerged: both suggested, for example, the idea of focusing on a selected number of aspects, and there were different experiences in terms of how frequently observations were carried out.

These notes are influenced by one very big factor: myself. I am the researcher, but I am also a tutor, as well as a line manager of tutors. This means that I am the observer as well as being the observed. All this means is that my own views have necessarily affected how I have interpreted and presented the points that have arisen from the two focus groups. This closeness to the subject will, inevitably, cause me to emphasise some points over others.

As mentioned earlier, the next steps in this project is to run a series of focus groups for staff tutors. 

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AL Development conference: Leeds, 6 May 2017

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 29 Jul 2017, 15:26

I’ve been busy this year; I’ve been to a fair number of AL development events up and down the country. The Leeds conference, which was run in May 2017, was a ‘residential’ which meant that the associate lecturers are given the opportunity to travel to the conference venue the night before. During the evening, everyone was given a simple activity about ice breakers, tutorials and running online sessions. I understand that our ALSPD colleagues will collate the results and share them with everyone when they get around to it. I look forward to reporting something via this blog!

Keynote: Josie Fraser, Executive Dean

The keynote presentation of the conference, which focused on the university redesign project and accompanying strategy, was given Josie Fraser who is the executive dean of STEM. Josie began with some personal reflections; she used to be an OU associate lecturer many year ago (which is something that is very heartening to hear), and she talked about how university study had touched members of her family.

When she started to speak about university strategy, she mentioned the funding challenges the Higher Education sector is faced with; an issue that isn’t unique to the OU. It was sobering to hear that there will be a curriculum review, and there will be emphasis on internal university processes. A message that I heard was that it is important to make things easier for ourselves (and I assume this means everyone in the university), with a view to simplifying and investing, where appropriate.

Another point was the reflection that curriculum production and development is costly, and this varies significantly across the institution. Underpinning this point is the acknowledgement that costs need to be reduced. A thought is that it might be a good idea to develop smaller chunks of curriculum (which is something that is already happening in the level 1 computing and IT programme). There will also be an emphasis on taking the cost out of non-student facing elements. The message was pretty clear: there will be change, and people and jobs are likely to be affected. 

Faculty session

After Josie’s keynote, everyone went out into our respective faculty groups. These being the faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (WELS), The faculty of Art and Social Sciences (FASS), The Faculty of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and the OU Business School.

I went to the STEM session, where a colleague from the former Faculty of Science, Janet Haresnape, introduced an online associate lecturer programme she has helped to establish, called ByALsForALs. One of the greatest advantages of attending AL development sessions is that you have an opportunity to share practice and experience with fellow tutors. Janet’s programme has the same objective: to share experiences. Any STEM tutor can attend one of the ByALsForALs sessions, and any tutor can create a proposal to run session. I have to personally admit that I haven’t (yet) been to any of them, but all the sessions are recording, so there is a good set of resources that tutors can now draw upon – so, I shall be listing to one or more of them.

After the STEM session, we split into school groupings. During the Computing and IT school update, I talked through some slides that had been delivered at a school meeting. Some key points were recruitment for new modules was continuing, that the university is making progress in terms of its engagement with degree apprenticeships, and there will be some changes to the level 2 (and level 3) computer networking curriculum. During this session, I also remember some debate about the challenges that accompanied the introduction of the group tuition policy. 

Workshop sessions

I seem to make things difficult for myself. I seem to remember that the Leeds event may well have been the third AL development session I have given since the programme was announced, and every single session I seem to be doing something totally different!

During this session I ran two focus groups about the topic of tuition observations: I wanted to listen to tutors, and to ask them what they thought about them, and how they felt they could help their continuing professional development. The second of the two sessions was very well attended, and there were two very noisy discussion groups (and I write this meaning ‘noisy’ in a good way!) Opinions have been collected, and this will inform some university scholarship which will hopefully go some way to offering an updated set of institutional guidance about how to carry out effective observations.

My next step is to organise a focus group for staff tutors!

Final thoughts

The new ALSPD team are getting very good at running these events! From the presenter’s perspective, everything seemed to run very smoothly (but, of course, I didn’t do any of the rushing about behind the scenes). STEM session went very well; I do think it’s useful to have someone guiding the ‘all the schools from the faculty’ session, which is something that staff tutor colleagues have to work on. Also, from here I was sitting, I personally felt that the keynote speech went down very well, and the forthcoming challenges were made clear.

A final point returns to the thought that I should make things easier for myself: the next AL development session that I’m going to be running, which takes place in Windsor (or Slough, depending on your persuasion) is going to be all about delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly. I haven’t run this session before, but I’m hoping it’s going to be both useful and fun.

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