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What a Modified Tutorial Method Could Mean for Students

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As universities across the country brace for the impact the COVID-19 crisis might have on the upcoming fall term, Inside Higher Ed brainstormed 15 possible scenarios, ranging from a return to normalcy to a continuation of fully remote learning.

Last week, in an effort to offer a student perspective on the ongoing debate surrounding learning options for the fall, I offered my thoughts about the HyFlex model. This week, I would like to take a closer look at Inside Higher Ed’s penultimate scenario: a Modified Tutorial Model. Below, I’ll offer a brief description of this scenario before evaluating its pros and cons.

Modified Tutorial Model Overview

Many possible variations of the Modified Tutorial Model exist, but the general premise entails a reversal of the traditional academic course structure, which:

  1. Places all lectures online for asynchronous viewing
  2. Reserves in-person class time for small-group meetings hosted by a professor, TA, or tutor in a tutorial-type setting

Rather than physically attending lectures in a classroom two or three days each week, students would instead view a common lecture remotely before attending a small-group discussion that emphasizes individualized instruction. Depending on the size and number of these small groups, professors could receive help from TAs or peer tutors to facilitate these tutorial sessions.

For students who are currently taking or have previously taken classes in the midst of the pandemic, this approach to learning may appear rather familiar. In the face of fully remote learning, many professors have already experimented with “flipping the classroom” — as Inside Higher Ed put it — recording lectures for asynchronous viewing early in the week and then hosting small student discussion sections later via video conferencing software. In a Modified Tutorial Model scenario, this structure would continue, only the small-group tutorial sessions would move to in-person settings as circumstances allow.

The size of these small group meetings depends heavily on both university capacity and student body size, ranging from one-on-one meetings between an individual student and their instructor to larger, five-to-ten student groups.

Above all, “the goal of any tutorial model, modified or otherwise, is to develop deep, meaningful and perhaps even personalized learning experiences,” according to Inside Higher Ed.

Modified Tutorial Method Pros

Given the likelihood that social distancing guidelines continue into the fall to some extent, perhaps the biggest benefit of a modified tutorial model is that it greatly reduces the amount of students physically together in a classroom at a given time. Instead of cramming a hundred students into a lecture hall, the same material can be learned remotely and then discussed more safely in smaller groups.

Outside of its ability to accommodate certain restrictions that the current time period presents, a modified tutorial model is attractive from a student perspective for two main reasons:

  1. It makes better use of class time. In larger lectures, there is truly very little student-professor interaction — that is, the professor usually talks at a large group of students for the duration of class period. That seems to be a poor use of everyone’s time, seeing as students could get the same value out of viewing the lecture online as they do attending it in person. Instead, in-person class time could be reserved for more meaningful and direct student-instructor interaction, where individual students can actually engage with TAs, tutors, and professors in a way that is not possible in larger group settings. Individualized, small-group instruction would be a far more valuable use of both professor and student time.
  2. It has the capacity to involve student facilitation of tutorial sessions. Universities may not have the staff (in terms of professors and TAs) to facilitate all of the small-group sessions that would come with the adoption of a modified tutorial model. However, in the case of a staff shortage, institutions of higher ed could rely on peer tutors to fill in the gaps, allowing students to engage with course material in a more active and involved manner. Both the peer tutor — whose knowledge of the material is only furthered by re-teaching it — and the students being instructed — who can engage more actively and intimately with a peer tutor — have a lot to gain from this model. Universities could either draw from the vast number of potential peer tutors on campus who have aced the courses previously or allow students currently enrolled in the course to rotate as the weekly discussion facilitator.

Modified Tutorial Method Cons

Many schools already structure their courses such that there is a mix between larger lectures and smaller discussion sections, so a modified tutorial model can hardly be viewed as a drastic departure from the norm.

In fact, seeing as the only proposed changes involve moving lectures to an online setting and reducing the size of discussion groups, it is difficult to find much to complain about with regards to this modified tutorial scenario. Here are the (admittedly minor) foreseeable downsides of these changes to learning:

  1. Attendance. Asynchronous lectures may make it difficult for professors to keep track of who is actually keeping up with class material. Absent oversight, students may take advantage of the opportunity to cut corners and skip lectures, which ultimately would lead to less fulfilling, if not painfully silent, small-group discussions. Students need to be sufficiently incentivized to attend lectures or else the corresponding discussion sections will suffer the consequences. Online tracking, quizzes, or assessments could be employed to ensure lecture attendance.
  2. Quality of Discussion. To be perfectly honest, reducing the size of discussion sections could have both positive and negative impacts on the overall quality of discussion. On the one hand, it’s easy to envision a scenario in which three or four relatively unprepared or shy students suffer through a miserable 50 minutes that is filled largely with silence. In that case, the group isn’t sufficiently large to maintain a quality discussion throughout the duration of the meeting — no student wants to sit through that. On the other hand, diffusion of responsibility may disappear as discussion group sizes shrink. With fewer peers to rely on to facilitate discussion, each individual student may approach these new, smaller group discussions with a different level of seriousness and preparation, ultimately leading to more robust and lively debates.

Closing Thoughts

Overall, a modified tutorial model serves as an appealing workaround to social distancing restrictions and offers the potential to engage students in a more meaningful manner. Upsides seem to far outweigh downsides, as issues related to lecture attendance and small-group discussion quality can be easily solved for by proactive instructors.

Certainly, during a time in which it is best to limit superfluous human interaction, this model seems to make the most of the limited class time students and professors will able to spend together in person.