By Jim Lusted and Claire Maguire
Tutors are increasingly being asked to teach together with a colleague – often called ‘co-tutoring’ – delivering both face-to-face and online tutorials as a pair. But what are tutors’ experiences of co-tutoring and can it play a role in developing their teaching practice? These questions prompted us to embark on a SCiLAB-funded scholarship project to find out more.
The co-tutoring rollercoaster
Co-tutoring appears to provoke a range of feelings among tutors. Consulting with fellow SEMs, we were aware of the ‘mixed’ experiences of teaching with a colleague – ranging from the sublime to the sometimes ridiculous! Lots of stories of really rewarding working relationships with others contrasted with the occasional frustrating experience. The teaching equivalent of Marmite – tutors appear to either love it or hate it.
As SEMs working on two new undergraduate Business modules, we had adopted a co-tutoring approach, intuitively feeling that it had a lot of potential benefits but without much evidence to go on. Little is known about the impact of co-tutoring, particularly on teaching practice, although it has been seen as useful in mentoring less experienced educators (Lester & Evans 2009). We were aware that new tutors are often asked early on to co-tutor with a more experienced tutor to help learn the ropes of Adobe Connect and develop their synchronous online teaching skills.
There is little, if any, formal guidance on co-tutoring at the OU – both for tutors themselves and for SEMs managing co-tutoring. We felt there was a need to gather an evidence base from tutors to inform future planning around co-tutoring and help get the most out of the team-teaching set-up.
What are Tutor experiences of co-tutoring?
We undertook semi-structured interviews with 17 tutors who had co-tutored on 2 new Undergraduate Business modules. This first round of interviews was mainly conducted with quite experienced tutors, who often seem to take the lead in co-tutoring arrangements and had been teaching online often for many years. We will shortly be conducting more interviews with less experienced tutors.
Early analysis of our data has generally painted a positive view of co-tutoring and, encouragingly, elicited lots of examples where a tutor’s teaching practice has developed in the process. We have identified three key stages which help examine the experience of co-tutored sessions – the set-up, the delivery and the legacy.
Tutors said that the set-up of co-tutoring ranged quite a bit – from very deliberate pairings of suitable tutors maintained across all tutorials on a module, to an apparently randomly allocated and frequently changing pairings. Some tutors would deliver individual and co-tutored tutorials on the same module. In general, tutors preferred a consistent approach – working with the same tutor across a module was less time consuming and allowed for a stronger relationship to develop with the ‘partner’:
“…all five tutorials were co-tutored with the same person. And that actually worked really well because we got to learn what each individual’s strengths and backgrounds were and what experiences we could bring, and they actually complemented each other very well”
Many tutors discussed the importance of planning and preparing a co-tutored session in advance. It was commonly felt that prior contact with the tutor was important – to help develop rapport and to establish some common assumptions and expectations of each other and, of course, to discuss how exactly the session would be delivered and what each tutor’s role would be. This could take quite a lot of time and effort, particularly when working with ‘strangers’ that they needed to get to know.
The experience of the session itself was often influenced by the prior relationship between tutors, and the extent to which the perceived teaching ‘styles’ of tutors were complimentary. At its best, co-tutored sessions were seen to significantly enhance the student learning experience when tutors could ‘play to their strengths’ both in terms of subject expertise and teaching skills:
“if your co-tutor forgets something or you’ve got a perspective that might be slightly different that you can add, you have the opportunity to do that. So, I think the students are learning from two people rather than just one and that does make it a richer student experience”
Some tutors also felt more confident and supported when co-tutoring the session.
Negative experiences were reported when tutors felt the workload and input wasn’t fairly distributed – either feeling they had to do all the work or were side-lined by a dominating partner. A clash of personality, style and/or expectations between tutors also led to problems. This suggests getting the partnerships right from the start might reduce the negative experiences of co-tutoring.
It was promising to see that tutors had developed their own skills through co-tutoring. This seems particularly related to developing technical skills in using Adobe Connect, as one tutor suggests:
“…even though I’ve done all of the training on [Adobe Connect] and I’m reasonably IT literate, it’s been great to learn from co-tutors about bits and pieces that I didn’t know”
Tutors also mentioned the valuable peer feedback that can be provided from co-tutoring – whether it be during the session, immediately after or some time later. Co-tutoring seems to offer an important space for individual and paired reflection on teaching sessions.
Our next steps
Once phase two interviews have been conducted and analysed, we will focus on the creation of two sets of guidance documents – one based on how tutors can improve their teaching practice and the other designed for SEMs to assist the set-up and management of co-tutoring arrangements. We hope to make this guidance available during the summer of 2021.
Jim is currently on a secondment in the WELS faculty as a Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, having joined the OU as a Student Experience Manager in FBL in October 2018. He has held a variety of roles in Higher Education institutions, working previously as a Senior Lecturer in Sport Studies for 10 years, before moving into a variety of teaching and learning roles including Learning Designer and Professional Development Advisor. He has a long-standing research interest in social inequalities particularly those related to issues of ‘race’ and racism and has become increasingly interested in scholarship, including the influence of co-tutoring on developing teaching practice.
Claire is currently a Lecturer and Student Experience Manager (SEM). She was previously employed as a Career Coach for the MBA programme at Cranfield University and previously having worked in the NHS as National Lead for a range of talent management programmes. Claire’s career has always been focused on the development of people and organisations. Claire enjoys her scholarship work which has included using predictive analytics to enable Associate Lecturers to effectively support students. This research project investigating how Co- tutoring can support colleagues’ skills and competence was congruent with her passion for developing others.
This blog represents the views of the individuals, not SCiLAB or the Open University