Tutoring with strategies and creativity: Teaching assistant to construct an engaging learning environment – Raphael Ngai Tsz Fung

Conducting an undergraduate tutorial is never an easy job. It has been unsurprising to hear tutors complaining about their students for not being prepared for class or not participating actively in discussion. Yet it is more worrying to see that students lose interest in tutorials because of the misunderstanding that it is all about competing to speak and they are graded based on how many times they speak. All these distort the nature of tutorial, which is a collaborative, interactive and intellectually inspiring learning experience. Bringing together my teaching experience in history tutorials and the knowledge gained in the teaching assistant certificate course, this article attempts to examine how tutors can construct an engaging learning environment through adopting group work activities, helping students learn step-by-step, utilizing classroom facilities and conducting assessment holistically, and to suggest how they can further review and improve their teaching.

Similar to students in other disciplines, history undergraduates are usually given reading materials to study before attending a tutorial. Yet in the classroom, tutors often find themselves confronted with a group of students who share different levels of preparation. The majority of students read things superficially while some do not even read at all. As a result, most students remain silent, give short answers or keep elaborating on seemingly relevant real life examples to avoid explaining the reading. Although there are still one or two students who have done comprehensive preparation, they usually dominate the discussion. The imbalanced participation among students cannot constitute a successful tutorial, which ‘implies not only a shared interest in a subject but also something that each party has to contribute’ (Abbott, 1994, p. 183).

To cope with the above situation, group work activities can be adopted to maximize learning effectiveness. The tutor can ask students to form a group of two to three, who will look at a particular part of the reading or answer a question and discuss among themselves. After that, every group will give an oral presentation of two to three minutes so that everybody can learn the main ideas of the entire reading. The division of students into groups for discussion can allow more capable students to help the weaker ones and prevent dominance by passionate students. Tutorial is an occasion, which is quite different from lecture, on which students can sit closely together, exchange thoughts and learn directly from one another. A collaborative and harmonious atmosphere rather than a competitive and hostile one benefits students most. Working with others enables students to learn to communicate, question and organise ideas, and get to know their classmates deeper and hopefully develop friendship.

The tutor can also play an active role by employing several strategies to facilitate students’ learning and encourage their participation. They can start the class by raising easier questions and invite everyone to take turns, or call on individual students, usually the passive ones, to respond. Students are thus warmed-up before moving on to more advanced questions or joining the open discussion in the tutorial. In the first tutorial session of the course, the tutor can actually study the reading materials with students together for one time, guiding them to grasp the major ideas of a text by looking at the introductory and concluding paragraphs, topic sentences, remarks in footnotes, etc.; or highlight a few important paragraphs and explain them to students. From the second session onwards, the tutor can assign guiding questions to help students understand the reading, and gradually, encourage them to evaluate and challenge the author’s view and eventually establish their own arguments confidently.

The tutor might also want to make use of the physical setting of the classroom to arouse students’ learning interest. If there are computing facilities, including a computer, a screen, a projector and loudspeakers, the tutor can play short video clips, show old photos and political cartoons, or introduce online resources such as database and archives. The whiteboard is another useful tool for teaching and learning. The tutor can write down important terms, points made in discussion, a brief rundown of the tutorial, or special remarks, i.e. important dates for submitting assignments, etc., to remind students, and at the same time, invite students to write or draw something on the board, as a way to let them move a little bit and get them more engaged in class. Movable chairs and desks also allow opportunities for forming small groups and collaborative activities such as debate and role-play. Every possibility lies in the tutor’s observation skills and creativity.

Assessment in tutorial is based on students’ participation and contribution in discussion. The tutor not only looks at students’ frequency and quality of responses, but also their ability to raise questions and comment on others’ responses (Cheung, 2006, pp. 65-66). Apart from that, the tutor should also consider students’ efforts of preparation, which can be observed from their handwritten notes or highlighted lines on the reading materials. Some discretion can be granted to first-year undergraduates, who are still adapting to study in university. However, to ensure a smooth running of the tutorial and a positive learning environment, the tutor should take students’ punctuality and attentiveness in class seriously. Some notorious examples of the latter would be chatting on the smartphone or daydreaming. At the beginning of the class, the tutor can draw a seating plan in order to be familiarized with students’ location in the classroom and make notes of their performance.

Lastly, tutors should seize every opportunity to collect feedback and evaluate their own teaching instead of leaving it until the official course evaluation, which takes places at the end of a semester. They can always talk to students at the end of a tutorial, asking them if the readings are too difficult, what they like and perhaps dislike about the current way of conducting tutorials, or if they have any comments about the course. ‘Lecture content is normally highly related to tutorials which follow, and lecturers often direct [students] to the subject matter for discussion in the tutorials’ (Huxley-Binns, Riley & Turner, p. 30). Tutors are highly recommended to attend lectures in order to follow students’ learning progress and establish connections with their teaching in tutorials so as to help consolidate students’ knowledge. Moreover, they can always discuss their teaching progress and problems with the lecturer and exchange ideas with other teaching assistants. The Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning also provides tutors with training by organising the certificate course as well as other support such as classroom observation and offering professional advice on their teaching. Utilising the available resources to improve own teaching, exchanging thoughts with students and other colleagues, and being strategic and creative to adjust teaching methods, include new teaching materials, and try out different possible activities are always the key to running a successful tutorial.


  • Abbott, A. S. (1994). Tutorials and independent study as methods of instruction. In K. W. Prichard & R. M. Sawyer (Eds.), Handbook of College Teaching: Theory and Applications (pp. 179-188). Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
  • Cheung, S. K. (2006). Engaging students in critical discussion of assignments. In D. Carless, G. Joughin, N-F. Liu & Associates (Eds.), How Assessment Supports Learning: Learning-oriented Assessment in Action (pp. 65-67). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
  • Huxley-Binns, R., Riley, L., & Turner, C. (2014). Unlocking Legal Learning (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
Raphael Ngai Tsz Fung
Raphael Ngai Tsz Fung

MPhil Postgraduate (2014-17)
Teaching Assistant in HIST 1014 Early Modern World (2014-15) and HIST 1017 Modern Hong Kong (2015-16)
Department of History, The University of Hong Kong
Thesis Title: The University of Hong Kong and the Preservation of Chinese Culture during the Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937-45.

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