Survey: Students Uncertain About Tutorial Quality

Over the past number of weeks, the Tribune has conducted an investigation into Tutorial practices within the Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences in UCD. The aim of this investigation has been to gain testimony from tutors regarding the tutorial process, and to gauge undergraduate students’ opinions on the status quo. The findings suggest a large disparity between the teaching abilities of tutors, a dissatisfaction from undergraduate students and a demand for change in induction and tutor feedback policies.

The Tribune conducted a number of interviews with current and alumni UCD tutors with the aim to uncover how tutors themselves feel about the current system and policies surrounding tutorials. On the flip side, we investigated how undergraduate students felt about tutorials through a survey recently circulated online. Our investigation has uncovered numerous eye-opening facts which have led to a number of recommendations.

Interviews conducted with tutors have allowed us to deduce a number of consistent feelings amongst tutors and have brought to our attention some criticisms and recommendations. With regards to a tutor’s motivation into becoming a tutor, it has been most commonly cited that financial gain plays a large part in their motivation. Indeed, a passion for the subject was present but the average of €3000 or usually 50% fee remission for postgraduate students has been evident as a large motivator.

The training and induction process differ amongst the various schools in the Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences faculties. Due to this difference in induction, we have found clear evidence for disparities between quality of tutorials between schools. Some tutors opted to take a general tutoring session, while others are allowed to go into the classroom with little more than an application and a confirmation. An alumni tutor who wished to remain anonymous said that there is a ‘large disparity’ between the teaching abilities of UCD tutors, with many tutors ‘winging it’ when it comes to grading assignments. The source went on to say: ‘There is definite evidence for a disparity between [the quality of] tutorials due to the tutor’s teaching capability.’ This finding has been consistent amongst the Tribune’s investigation, with other tutors also commenting on a clear disparity. The same anonymous source also recommended for tutorials to be ‘more structured’, tutors to be given ‘sufficient amount of training’ and the ‘training should be mandatory’.

Conor Keogh, a Sociology PhD student gave his testimony on the induction process saying, ‘the training was marginal, technically if any at all’, going on to explain his short application process which was followed by an allocation of hours, no formal interview, and he then began tutoring. Keogh cited his ‘passion for the subject and value for teaching’ as an incentive for tutoring but admitted that his €3000 fee remission had a part to play too. He also mentioned that the payment scheme for tutorials is ‘the most unclear system’, and in Week 7 of this semester he had not been paid, a fact that Keogh attributed to the complexities of the system. Keogh also pointed out the lack of feedback tutors receive from students leaving him in the dark to whether he is doing a good job. Although he noted its faults, he was not overtly unhappy, conceding: ‘It’s not a perfect system’.

Robert ‘Bob’ Smith, a PhD student and a Philosophy tutor detailed his induction process for the Tribune. His experiences were largely different from others we interviewed with Smith receiving official training from the School of Philosophy and having a one on one meeting with the lecturer for the module. Smith suggested that there should be some ‘mid-semester feedback for tutors’ which could help tutors know if they need to improve in certain areas. He also recommended ‘shadowing existing tutors’ as a way to learn from their techniques. One thing that stood out for Smith was ‘how quiet Irish students are comparatively to other students’. He went on to say that Irish students have ‘an impenetrable shyness’.

From conducting these interviews, the Tribune discovered a number of consistent criticisms, one being a large disparity between teaching abilities among tutors. In an effort to further investigate the claims from these interviews, the Tribune conducted a survey on over 120 undergraduate students. The data confirms much of what the tutors testified to:

  • 65.9% attend tutorials consistently, 20.3% Frequently. This suggests that tutorial attendance is, for the most part, pretty good.
  • 62.6% attend all tutorials and almost never missing one, yet 24.4% admit to not attending 1-2 tutorials each week.
  • Most respondents reported that four or less students actively participated in a tutorial of ten, with 25.2% reporting 4, 25.2% reporting 3, 17.1% reporting 2 and 4.1% reporting 1. This tendency suggests that most students do not actively participate within tutorials across the arts & humanities and social sciences.
  • When asked on respondents’ own participation within tutorials, the results were as follows: Active Participation – 20.3%, Frequent Participation – 26%, Participate when prompted by tutor – 33.3%, I attempt to avoid participating if possible – 20.3%. These results suggest that 1 in 3 students will only participate when prompted by the tutor, a statistic that reflects the findings of our UCD tutor interviews. 1 in 5 students attempt to avoid participating if possible.
  • The survey suggests that the tutor has a large effect on the tutorial with 78.1% responding ‘Strongly Agree’ or ‘Agree’ to the statement: ‘The tutor has a large effect on my enjoyment of the module’. This suggests that the tutor is an essential component in the class, and their teaching abilities. 63.4% strongly agree that the teaching abilities of an individual tutor has a substantial effect on the quality of the tutorial, with almost 30% answering ‘Agree’. This supports the theory that the tutor has a large effect on the quality of the tutorial, and respondent’s consistency with their answers suggests that students thoroughly agree that the tutor affects the quality, be it positive or negative. From our interviews conducted with UCD tutors, this data supports the claim that some tutors are capable and more skilled at tutoring than others.
  • 70.8% believe that the grading methods and academic opinions of an individual tutor has a substantial effect on their grades. This would suggest that students are in some way aware of a potential disparity between grades due to the abilities of the tutor that grades the assignment or exam.
  • The survey results have not suggested any overt call for group activities to be increased, with a large number of respondents indifferent to the topic.
  • 68.3% of students responded ‘Sometimes’ to the statement ‘Do you feel like tutors have adequate teaching skills?’. Only 17.9% answered yes, suggesting that students are not absolutely unhappy with the teaching abilities of tutors, but rather this reaffirms the argument that there is a great difference between tutors’ teaching abilities.
  • The survey suggests that 2 in 3 students state that student participation has a large effect on their enjoyment of the tutorial. Perhaps certain class atmospheres inhibit introverted individuals from feeling comfortable in speaking up? Such talk is purely speculative, but with an increase in teaching quality, perhaps student participation may increase.
  • 80.5% are happy with class sizes in tutorials, suggesting class sizes is not an issue for students.
  • A question posed by the tribune in its survey: ‘Does UCD care about you?’, produced some interesting results. 28.5% responded ‘Yes’, 26% responded ‘No’, 27.6% responded ‘Maybe’ and 17.9% responding ‘Unsure’. This almost equal split is a curious finding and suggests that there is no dominating attitude towards UCD’s care regarding their students. It still cannot be ignored that, according to this data, 1 in 4 students believe that UCD does not care about them.
  • The overall satisfaction rates with tutorials are not overtly negative, but the spread suggests that students are moderately content with tutorials in UCD, with most respondents answering between 5-8 when asked to rate their overall experiences on a scale of 1-10.

This survey was conducted with the aim of evaluating undergraduate’s feelings towards the current tutorial practices within UCD. From our investigation, we have observed a clear narrative: Tutorial practices within UCD are not universally disliked by students and tutors themselves feel similarly, but there is clear evidence that there is a significantly large disparity between the teaching methods of UCD tutors. Without a standardised induction process, there are tutors with greatly varying abilities. With financial gain being a large incentive for tutors, there may be grounding to the theory that a significant number of tutors are not passionate about tutoring (a finding that emerged through our interviews). It is difficult to suggest a clear change in policy, but the facts are clear: the disparity of tutors’ teaching abilities is having a clear effect on students’ enjoyment, participation and quality of learning in UCD tutorials. Perhaps a change in policy is needed, be it standardised across the various schools or in certain departments more. One thing can be said with confidence: There needs to be a change.

 

By Conor Capplis – Features Editor

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