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All change, but does tuition in cluster groups work?

Project leader(s): 
Helen Jefferis

In recent years tutors have been asked to commit to a timetable of tutorials some time before the start of a module so that a full list of available tutorials can be provided to students as soon as they start their studies. If students want to see upcoming tutorials in their module study planner they need to ‘book’ a place otherwise they will get no automatic notification of upcoming tutorials. Previously any tutorials being run by the student’s tutor appeared in the module study planner. For online tutorials the cluster arrangement means that students can choose to attend any online tutorial within their allocated cluster, previously this required special permissions to be set up.

Although this arrangement appears to give students more choice tutors still report that many students don’t attend, even if they have booked. In a previous project Lambie and Law, (2017) found some evidence that one reason for not attending might be because many Open University (OU) students work fulltime. However, whilst this previous research project was also based on level 1 computing students (TU100) it took place before the cluster tutorial arrangements, so students were more limited in their choices.

In this study we sought to understand the students’ perspective by asking students to report on their views and experiences near the start and then again near the end of the module. In a pilot project 282 students from 2 regions on the 20D (April) presentation of TM111 were asked to respond. The results from this informed the full survey in which 624 students across all the regions on the 20J (October) presentation were asked to respond. In both surveys students were given the opportunity to add free text comments for all the answers, and this has helped to get a much richer idea of what they were thinking and the reasons for their answers. Analysis of the completed surveys showed several areas that, if acted on, could help to increase student attendance at tutorials.

One of the key findings was that several students were confused about tutorials. This confusion included not being sure where to find out about tutorials, expecting more tutorials to be released during the module and not being aware that they could attend tutorials without booking. There was also confusion about the naming of tutorials as students felt this did not give them a clear idea of what would be covered. In addition, some students were unsure of the purpose of tutorials; this confusion was expressed by both new and continuing students. It is therefore recommended that module teams provide much clearer information to students about tutorials e.g. how to find them; the need to book (or not) and the content and purpose of tutorials.

It is also clear that booking tutorials too far in advance meant that students were often unable to attend the tutorial, either because they forgot or because they had other commitments. The automatic reminders about the tutorials were not always helpful, with some students not noticing them and others finding they came too early. It is therefore questionable whether providing a list of all the planned tutorials right at the start of a module is really an advantage to students in addition arranging tutorial timing so far ahead also means that tutors are unable to respond to the particular needs of a student cohort as all their tutorial hours are already allocated. Students stated that they expected to book tutorials throughout the module; however, without prompts and reminders it seems likely that many forget to do this.

Traditionally OU tutorials have happened on weekday evenings and on Saturdays. However, for both new and continuing students there was no clearly favoured time nor day for a tutorial to be held. It would therefore be sensible to try and offer a variety of times and days to cover all students’ requirements. Students were also asked if they had attended any tutorials that were not a good use of their study time. Whilst a few had some criticisms overall students felt that the tutorials (and specifically the tutors) helped them with the module and many made very positive comments. It would be good to make this much clearer to all students as early in their studies as possible so that they could all benefit.

It should be noted that this project was conducted during a time of multiple Covid-19 lockdowns with many students therefore working from home and some having extra responsibilities such as home schooling.

Related resource

Jefferis, H., Chetwynd, F. and Gardner, C. (2021) All change, but does tuition in cluster groups work? eSTEeM Final Report (PDF)