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Staff tutor focus group: tutorial observations

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 23 Oct 2018, 10:27

On 7 November 2017, I facilitated a number of focus groups for STEM staff tutors to elicit views about tutorial observations. During this session, I asked the following open questions:  (1) What is the most important reason to carry out an observation? (2) What procedure or procedures do you follow? (3) How do you record an observation? (4) What do you look for? (5) How do you share feedback? (6) Is there anything special about online observations? And (7) Should there be standardised guidelines for STEM?

This blog has taken quite a bit of time to prepare, since I’ve been involved in all kinds of other things, most notably, trying to get everything sorted for the October starts. It seems that November is a month when I can start to do other things.

In some respects, this post is a sister post to the one that I made about some tutor focus groups, that had the title: Tutorials and tutorial observations: what works and what helps tutors?

During this session, each group was asked to make notes about the discussions that took place, and to summarise some of the key themes in a plenary session. What follows is a summary of some of the themes that were discussed in each of the groups, followed by a brief summary of the plenary discussion.

Since a number of discussion points were common between different groups, I have chosen to highlight sections from each group that appear to be the most significant.

Group 1

Group 1 began with the first question: why is it important to carry out observations? Observations can be linked to and connected with staff development; it can facilitate a two way process that is also linked to quality assurance. It also represents an opportunity to get to know associate lecturers. There are other reasons too, which is: staff tutors can get a feel for what is happening ‘on the ground’ and understand how distance learning materials are being used and interpreted by students and whether the tutorial strategy (which is sometimes designed by a staff tutor) is working as planned. Also, observations can help facilitate discussions during a tutor’s appraisal.

Group 2

Group 2 gave a very notable answer to question 4, what to look for: the answer will depend on the level of study, i.e. whether they had recently started at the university, or were coming to the end of their studies. For introductory level (level 1) students, staff tutors would look for: encouragement, enthusiasm, positivity, bounce, involvement, thank students for attending, and whether they were motivating. For final equivalent (level 3) students, staff tutors would look for expertise and subject knowledge, competence, confidence, ability to respond to questions encouragingly and supportively, using the question well, understand where the students ‘are’ and the range of abilities, and how to address any gaps of understanding between where student is and where a student needs to be.

Group 3

Regarding the question of procedure or procedures, group 3 mentioned that observations could relate to an associate lecturers probation period (which lasts for two years), but an observation need not necessarily take place in the first year. A related reflection is that the idea of a ‘one off visit’ to provide support or to ensure that teaching quality may be okay could now be outdated due to online tuition; it is now possible to look at a ‘bigger’ picture (and more points of interactivity).

Group 4

This group gave some reflections about online tutorials, stating that a staff tutor or line manager watching the recording can also be considered as a form of online observation. It was also reflected that online observations does offer unique challenges, in that it is very difficult to observe the effectiveness of online group work. In terms of feedback to tutors, it shouldn’t be in the form of a formal report, but there could be verbal feedback which is then supplemented by written feedback.

Group 5

Group 5 emphasised procedures. A memorable suggestion was: don’t visit the first tutorial for a new associate lecturer. Also, ask tutors which tutorial they would like their line manager to visit so they can showcase a session that they might have been particularly proud of, and also include a visit to the tutor’s tutor group forum to gain a complete picture of their online teaching. Gather observation feedback using a form and if the tutorial is good, send the form to the tutor and give the tutor a copy of the feedback form in advance, so they know what they staff tutor is going to be looking for. If there is a need for development, have a discussion with the tutor. 

Group 6

Group 6 referenced the use of peer observation, which could be used in situations where staff tutors might not have sufficient time to carry out their own observations. There were differences in terms of how tuition observations were recorded: 2 line managers used a proforma with space for qualitative feedback, 3 line managers write notes and then write a summary, and 2 line managers use of a loose proforma to provide semi-structured notes. 

Group 7

Following on from the discussion about recording observations, group 7 noted that the former Faculty of Science used a form. A form should also help to emphasise what went well (within a tutorial), what not so well, and what might be potentially improved. Like the previous group, peer observations was also referenced, in the sense that tutors could present to other tutors. 

Group 8

This final group raised many of the points were highlighted earlier, but placed particular emphasis on online tutorials. Some key points that line managers would look for included: whether or not tutors were prepared, whether they were clear vocally and had a relaxed attitude, whether they encouraged interaction from students and designed interactions. After an observation, members of this group would have an informal chat with a tutor which would be followed by an informal letter. The tone of this correspondence is important: suggestions rather than instructions for improvements would be offered. 

Plenary discussion

Towards the end of the session, there was a facilitated discussion to draw out key discussion points from each of the groups. What follows is a brief summary of the main points, any commonalities between the groups and implications for practice.

An early comment was that observations are important not only in terms of quality, but they also help to develop the line manager’s relationship with the tutor. A useful perspective was that a line manager’s view of tuition of teaching should not begin or end with an observation. Instead, an observation should contribute to a holistic view of tuition practice. One participant made reference to the concept of a ‘learning walk’. 

There were also messages that were common between the groups. In terms of practice, the importance of an informal conversation with the tutor after an observation was emphasised, followed by a letter or an email. There was also the view that there should not be a ‘ticklist’ or standard form that staff tutors should apply to complete observations. Instead, there should be guidelines rather than mandated procedures, to offer flexibility. 

Regarding online tutorials, tutor managers should look for interactivity. Since observations can also be through recordings, it was also noted that the choice of the recordings could be directed by the tutor. 

A further point acknowledged the challenge of online teaching. Online teaching using synchronous tools and live environments requires significant skill, knowledge and experience. Reflecting the TPACK model, tutors need to acquire and apply technical, pedagogical and content knowledge, and dynamically respond to the needs of students. Acknowledging these challenges, one tutor manager reported that it important to tell the tutors that it is okay not to present or deliver a session that is ‘technically perfect’, and what really matters is whether student learning is taking place. Put another way, the tutor line managers cannot only have a role in developing practice and teaching quality, they can also have a role in developing tutor and teacher confidence too.

Reflections

One of the tasks that I have to do in my day job is to carry out tutorial visits. I’ve seen a variety of different sessions, ranging from very informal sessions, sessions that are tightly structured around a PowerPoint presentation, and sessions that showed the use of software tools that are taught within an Open University modules. There have also been these occasions when I’ve been left astonished and the skills and abilities of tutors to convey technical concepts in interesting and creative ways.

In my career as a tutor, I’ve also been observed during a tutorial. I think I’ve been observed three times; once during my first year, and another occasion when only a single tutor arrived at a tutorial. My line manager did some of the things that were mentioned by my peers: there was an informal chat, there were suggestions (and not instructions) about how my teaching might be improved, and I was sent a letter that summarised the observation (and also what happened during the tutorials that I facilitated). Importantly, this always felt like a positive process. I really felt that my line manager had taken the time to listen to and respect what I had done.

I’m sure it comes across in this post that I think that tuition observations are important. My own view is that they should be about developing and supporting tutors (and teachers) first, and about institutional and organisation management second. They should also be fun too.

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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.

Summary

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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