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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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