A message from the student from up the back, on the left

We don’t often talk about undergraduate teaching on the Whisperer, but I am beginning to think we should since so many of us do it. Unlike primary and secondary school teachers, those of us teaching in universities do not always have the benefit of a specialist qualification (ironically the PhD itself is the defacto ‘qualification’ for becoming an academic… but that’s a debate for another time!)

My colleague, and ‘go to’ person on all things teaching related, Ruth Moeller was kind enough to write a guest post for those of you who are looking for some tips to improve your teaching. Ruth is the Senior Advisor on Learning and Teaching in the Design and Social context college at RMIT University and contributor to the Teaching Tom Tom blog. This post is written from the point of view of a student in your class who has some ideas for making your teaching better. Enjoy!

Dear Tutor,

Welcome back to a new semester. I hope you were able to take a time off over the summer! I know your research is pretty full-on when we are not about. I have been thinking about last semester’s tutes and would like to offer you some feedback and ideas. I want to make all our lives easier, so please take my ideas in the spirit in which they are offered.

Please start on time:

Waiting for “just a few more to turn up”, is punishing those of us who made the effort to get here on time. If you begin the ‘rule’ of starting on time and stick to it the others will soon learn. If you are concerned we will be missing important new stuff, start with a 10/15 minute review of the lecture/reading so we are using the time productively.

Names are important

I’d really like you to know my name – I know it’s hard when I am one of 300.  There are games and activities that can help with this, but an easy, no cost way to help is name plates. Yes, they may be slightly daggy, but it means that you can call us by name. It will also remind me of the name of the person sitting across from me whose name I’ve forgotten but who I’ve wanted to ask out for a coffee for a long time now…

3. Make the link

Your tute is a great opportunity for me to check I understood (or really didn’t) the key points from the lecture. Can I suggest you use the first 10/15 minutes of the tute to review, reinforce and reflect on the key points? (this may be the first time some of my fellow students have heard the material…).

I have some ideas on how to do this. You could ask us students to take a minute and write down 5 key points from the lecture. This is a chance for me to reflect on what was covered and then discuss with the group, or in smaller groups if the group is large. You might also ask “Are there any parts of the lecture that need clarification?” (Never “that you don’t understand” – I always feel like you are judging me when you say this). To address any points, you can either get other members to help explain their understanding, and /or do it yourself. This ensures that we understand before you add more.

4. Questions

“Does anyone have any questions?”


I know it can be frustrating when you ask for questions and get none, or just from the same people all the time. Here are some ideas that may help:

  • “Any questions?” is too broad and unfocussed. Try “What questions do you have about … “ this gives focus and is based on the assumption that there will be questions.
  • “What comments or questions do you have?” Often I may not have an actual question, but I may have a point to make, or an example to offer.
  • When you have asked a question – pause. Wait. Give me time to think. I need to formulate my question then respond (and never ask “any questions before we finish/go to lunch” – you have just signalled that we are out of here and I am thinking about that coffee date!)

We are all adults

Yes really, and one of the most important things that you can do to foster an adult relationship is to ensure that I am treated with respect and dignity. I should do the same to you.

There are many traps I have seen tutors fall into:

  • If I give a wrong answer, try “what do others think?”, or “that’s a common mistake”, rather than “You are wrong, can someone tell me the right answer” – that puts everyone on edge.
  • If I haven’t read or done the calculation sheet, don’t make a fuss. Yes, it’s annoying, but it is my loss not yours.
  • If you need someone to read, ask for volunteers, not “I choose you!” – there may be may reasons why reading out loud isn’t for me.
  • If I am late, again no need to make a fuss, just continue. Asking “why am I late, did I know what time the class starts?” etc doesn’t help anyone in the room.
  • If I treat you or anyone in the group inappropriately – address the behaviour quickly. You have a responsibility to ensure that the tutes are ‘safe places’. An effective response is, “this is like a workplace and that behaviour is not appropriate for this environment”.

And one final thing, share your research with us, let us know what you are doing and how it relates to what you are teaching. This gives us a chance to see the discipline in a broader context and what opportunities there might be for us to contribute to it later on. When I think about all the tutors I have had, their research is rarely mentioned except perhaps as part of an introduction. It’s  certainly not used as illustration of what we are learning. We are interested! But just be careful of lapsing into ‘war stories’ about your thesis. What a buzz kill!

Thanks for listening and see you in class!

Kind Regards,
The Student from up the back on the left

22 thoughts on “A message from the student from up the back, on the left

  1. Irene says:

    Great post.

    One thing about asking for questions. I’ve heard that the key is to wait 60 seconds; if you wait that long a question will be posed. Most people only wait a fraction of that time.

    (And yes, 60 seconds feels like a long time, but it’s worth the wait.)

    • teachingruth says:

      Can I suggest that 60 seconds (1 minute) is a lot of silence – 15 -20 would be more realistic and comfortable to us all. A trick can be to find something to do , eg check your notes, to allow for thinking time.

      • debwain says:

        60 seconds is indeed a long time for silence to envelop the class. It could make people feel very uncomfortable UNLESS you preface that’s what you’re going to do: “I’m going to give you one minute to think of anything else you’d like to ask or any comments you’d like to make.” If that becomes your ‘thing’, it won’t be uncomfortable & students will quickly pick up on the practice as an opportunity for thinking time & reflection.

  2. Loz (@Lozzz123) says:

    I think these are some great points – especially the one about asking questions. I’m definitely guilty of the “any questions before we finish” one!

    However regarding reviewing the lectures, as I’m only a tutor and not the course coordinator, I do not set the schedule of what is to be done in the tute. This means there usually isn’t 10-15 minutes to go over the lecture material if it’s not in the agenda. I also think if the students didn’t go to the lecture, that’s part of the not doing homework/ their loss type of thing in the “we are all adults part”. The students who did attend may be pretty bored to hear the lecture regurgitated.

    • teachingruth says:

      I am not suggesting your ‘regurgitate’ the lecture – make us do the work, it is a chance to clarify and review our learning from the lecture. Reflection, recal and review are ways to help us engage with the lecture material rather than let is wash over us. Small activities such as the muddiest point can help with this eg ask students to write down the muddiest point from the lecture, in small groups can they clarify for each other, and anything that can’t be dealt with is then ask of the tutor or whole group.

  3. M-H says:

    Good point about the student who hasn’t prepared. I used to get really annoyed as an undergrad when the tutor would allow time for people to skimread the work for that tute. I’d done it, and I felt my time was being wasted while they did that. It encourages people not to be organised.

    • teachingruth says:

      My suggestion of review is about improving the learning opportunity for us all, for those who went to the lecture it helps them to engage with material more deeply and the spin off benefit is that those who weren’t there also learn something too.

      • Tim E-H says:

        …and, to add to teachingruth’s comment, a conversation about the lecture content at the start of the tute can improve subsequent tute activities that may be linked to that content (because if they didn’t go to the lecture, they probably didn’t read the set text either). So we have a triple win: attentive* students engage with and integrate the material, non-attentive* students learn something about the material, all students gain more from activities then linked to that material. Oh, and a 4th win: we (as tutors) learn what was actually covered in the lecture and how the students interpreted it (which is not always as lecturers intend).

        *OK, yes, I’m using the term “attentive” very loosely. Who knew that thesis-type people would be word pedants?

  4. Elizabeth (@mskalita) says:

    Also, if your lecture/tute is being recorded for the benefit of external students, and I’m assuming many are as more universities are catering to distance education, please try and remember it’s being recorded. Positioning yourself near the microphone, describing what you’re writing on the whiteboard, repeating a question asked by a student are all wonderful things. Even better: If you refer to a powerpoint presentation or other notes please put them online so your externals can see them too 🙂

  5. Jasmine says:

    Good post!

    Something else I have learnt from tutoring: If you don’t know something, say you don’t. Don’t make up an answer just to get past the student’s question. Tell the student you will come back to him/her next week. (Make sure you do!)

    I generally find that making yourself seen as a helpful and credible tutor helps build bonds between the student and the tutor.

  6. Katrina says:

    I’m not sure if I entirely agree with not asking all students to speak in class. The tutes I have run are very much meat to be about students talking through theory and issues and I tend to ask everyone to speak at some point, in a nice way of course. I have seen gentle encouragement turn otherwise silent students into regular, insightful contributors by the end of a subject. Maybe I’m missing the point made in the post but would be interested to hear that expanded on more.

    • teachingruth says:

      You are absolutely right, it is all about engaging us but in a non threatening way. Setting the expectation of contributions from everyone, ensuring that everyone and their ideas are treated with respect, and that if I am wrong or don’t know that I am not humiliated.

      A couple of strategies that can be useful, depending on what you are doing are: when you ask a question, give a chance for thinking then ask an over head question, and follow up with direct questions eg Sam what do you think… If no answer is forth coming, that’s ok just move on. Another one is to let the group you will be looking for contribution from everyone and if they don’t know they can pass it is an option rarely used but that takes the pressure off.

      Hope that clarifies things for you.

  7. Barry Peddycord says:

    This is wonderful advice! I’ve never really thought about any of them, but just finishing up my undergrad education, they all seem like common sense when I read them here.

    One thing I’ve noticed in the past few years is that talking about research is the best way to reach the students who would be most likely to be engaged. Many of my professors have used their work as relevant examples to their lecture materials, and those are the professors whose names I still remember.

    Then there was the professor who told us literal “war stories” about his research – that was an interesting class.

    • teachingruth says:

      Thanks but you need to remember, especially when teaching that common sense is only common because you know it. One of the great traps is assumption of fundamental discipline knowledge and language.

  8. shasasomnomnom says:

    I am currently in my Grad Dip study for primary school teaching, and I find that this can be transferred to even teaching in a primary school setting! Just wanted to let you know, I thoroughly enjoyed this read! Very helpful! Has been saved and placed in the future knowledge section of my computer!

    • teachingruth says:

      Thanks. I have to agree that primary school teacher actually learn about the fundamentals of teaching far better than anyone else., you can’t hope your students will learn on their own, with primary schools students you actual have to teach. Many of the teaching strategies you will learn transfer beautifully to adult setting. Eg students love crossword, matching and jigsaw activities as ways to review material. Don’t fall into the trap that adult learners don’t like to be active learners!

  9. Thesis Man says:

    After a semester of tutoring on subjects like media policy and having tried almost everything to keep the students interested. Here are a couple of strategies that worked for me:

    1. Relate the discussion topics in tutorials/lectures to employment outcomes and career pathways.
    (Ex: A journalism student needs to be aware of the implications of the Convergence review as much as an advertising student or a game design student. The “Why and how?” of this fascinates students and they sit up when tutors are able to connect/link the discussion to the bigger picture as to why they are there in that classroom.)

    2. Trivia works!
    A 10-15 minute trivia session is an awesome way to wind down. I tried this in the last 3 weeks of tutorials and not one student left the room early.

  10. Graduate Jobs says:

    From a student perspective these are some really good tactics – especially the key points one. Retaining/ going back over information that’s gotten hazy is my downfall & definitely something I want to master before I start applying for Graduate jobs or PHDs.

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