Facilitating tutorial discussions
What to think about when facilitating tutorial discussions
Discussions play a central role in tutorial and small group teaching in Oxford. When facilitated effectively, they help students to actively engage with challenging material, to appreciate different approaches to academic problems and to respect a diversity of perspectives. The following ideas provide some key points to help you to facilitate these discussions.
If students in a tutorial pair or group are from different colleges, or if this is the first time they’ve met you, set aside time at the start for brief introductions. This can help put students at ease and serve as an ‘ice-breaker’ activity before the tutorial gets underway.
Discussions won’t always follow your plan. Students may take longer or significantly less time than you expected on a particular topic; they may ask unexpected and/or challenging questions, or enter into lengthy debates with one another. The tutorial setting enables these important academic discussions to take place. Having a tutorial plan that identifies essential topics and any that can be skipped or added if necessary, is a useful way to ensure key content is covered, whilst allowing some flexibility for the unexpected.
Students will be formulating ideas on the spot in tutorials, so it can be helpful for them (and other students) to hear their ideas reflected back. In this way you can ensure that everyone is clear on the point being articulated.
This is a way to keep the discussions on track during the tutorial, and can also help students to reflect on their learning. Summarise what you have discussed in the tutorial at key stages and any conclusions that have been drawn. Consider asking your students to create these summaries, outlining their main takeaway points and any follow-up questions they may have.
Encourage students to find the answers
Tutorial discussions will ideally involve your students asking searching questions of you and each other. There may be times when you are asked a question that you don’t know the answer to. You can ask students to discuss how they might approach the question and identify resources that may help, following up with them in the next tutorial if appropriate. Facilitating opportunities for students to discuss problem-solving processes with one another is an important aspect of tutorial teaching.
Vary activities from week to week
Engaging students in different activities is an inclusive teaching practice that can help bring everyone into the discussion. Variety enables students develop a wider range of skills and demonstrate strengths in different areas. You could stage a debate, present students with new material such as visual sources or a quote from a key text, ask students to briefly present their essay arguments or comment on each other's introductions, or use a whiteboard to visually work out a problem or create a mind-map, you for example.