Wednesday, January 8, 2020

What Skills and Knowledge do Tutors Need?

I was asked to help with training of university tutors for computer science and engineering. So I looked at some of the training materials used around the world. But what do tutors need to know and be able to do? The term "tutor" is used by Australian universities for casual contract staff, usually later year undergraduates, and graduate students, who teach small groups (tutorials, or workshops), or supervise in a laboratory. In the USA these are referred to as Graduate Teaching Assistants, or just Teaching Assistants, and are usually PhD students.For simplicity, I will use the term tutors.

Tutors may take on many roles, apart from teaching small groups, including giving lectures and in some cases running whole courses (under the supervision of a Professor). However, my interest here is in what a beginning tutor, who has been asked to supervise a small class needs to know and be able to do.

UK Professional Standards Framework 

The UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) breaks what a university teacher needs to be able to do into three categories: Areas of Activity (A), Core Knowledge Professional Values (K), and Professional Values(V):

"A The Areas of Activity
  1. Design and plan learning activities and/or programmes of study
  2. Teach and/or support learning
  3. Assess and give feedback to learners 
  4. Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance
  5. Engage in continuing professional development in subjects/disciplines and their pedagogy, incorporating research, scholarship and the evaluation of professional practices 
K. Core Knowledge
  1. The subject material
  2. Appropriate methods for teaching, learning and assessing in the subject area and at the level of the academic programme
  3. How students learn, both generally and within their subject/ disciplinary area(s)
  4. The use and value of appropriate learning technologies
  5. Methods for evaluating the effectiveness of teaching
  6. The implications of quality assurance and quality enhancement for academic and professional practice with a particular focus on teaching
V. Professional Values
  1. Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities
  2. Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners
  3. Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research,
    scholarship and continuing professional development
  4. Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates recognising the implications for professional practice"
From:  UK Professional Standards Framework, HEA, 2011

Under the UK PSF Graduate Teaching Assistants (ie: tutors) are expected to have covered at least two of the five Areas of Activity (A1 to A5), core knowledge of the subject matter and how to teach it (K1 & K2), a "commitment" to appropriate Professional Values (V1 to V4), professional practices, subject and pedagogic research and/or scholarship of these, professional development activity (A5).

Areas of Activity

 The Areas of Activity seem a good place to start. It may seem curious that the first item on the list is not teaching (it is second). This may be because tutors, and university teachers generally, do not simply teach pre-prepared materials, they design activities for their students, and in many cases, carry out some of the assessment. So A1, A2 and A3 would appear essential for a tutor.

It is less clear that tutors can, and should, develop learning environments and approaches (A4). Beginning tutors will not have the experience, or training to do this. More clearly, tutors should be undertaking continuing professional development (K5).

Core Knowledge

Obviously, the tutor will need knowledge of the subject their student are to learn (K1) and how to teach it (K2). Undergraduate students who are tutoring will generally be at a later stage in their studies at the same institution, in the same field as the students they are tutoring. Thus these tutors will be familiar with the subject matter. However, PhD students may have finished their studies years ago, in another country and in another part of the discipline, as so will need to study up on what they are teaching.

Practitioners from industry may also be less current with the subject matter, however they will have a depth of practical experience, which students value. Subject matter knowledge is something I don't think needs to be covered in tutor training, except to say the tutor needs to review the teaching materials.

More problematic are methods for teaching and assessment (K2). Practitioners, and PhD students may not be familiar, or comfortable, with modern teaching and assessment methods. These tutors may assume students attend lectures, and assessed via examinations and individual assignments assessed by staff. However, a constructionist approach is increasingly used, particularly in fields such as computing and engineering.

With a constructionist approach the focus is on students undertaking projects, working in teams. There may be videos and computer based instructional materials, in place of lectures, and peer assessment of project work. This can be very confronting for tutors who have not learned in this way, especially when challenged by students who are not familiar with it either. There is a temptation for the tutor to fall back on what they know, giving lectures, and marking student work, instead carrying out their expected role.

Those teaching tutors, I suggest, should lead by example. Giving lectures to tutors telling them they should not give lectures will not send the intended message. Instead the same approach with videos and online materials should be used for teaching the tutors. The tutors should be given group activities to undertake, with most of the learning time spent on this. Even if their training is not to be formally assessed, they should be set the task of assessing each other, so they have experience of this.

How students learn (K3) need not be covered in detail. Some tutor training courses make the mistake of assuming they are training education academics, rather than practitioners. I suggest it is better to briefly mention learning theory, and then apply it, via the tutor training materials and activities. Similarly, learning technologies can be introduced by using them as part of the tutor training. Ideally the same tools should be used for tutor instruction, as they will use for teaching students.

Methods for evaluating teaching (k5) and quality assurance (K6), should be confined to peer review, which can be practiced during the training, and whatever standard evaluation surveys the institution uses. Those training teachers should resist the temptation to turn them into apprentice education researchers, or assistants for the trainer's research projects, as few of the tutors will go on to a career in academia.


Higher Education Academy. (2011). The UK professional standards framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education. URL

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