Welcome to a new entry in the Glossary of Confusing Words! The person who submitted this one didn’t give us any context, just the single word – tutorial. But it’s a good word, because it can have several different meanings in relation to a university education. So thanks to whoever sent it in!
In general, a tutorial is any sort of specialized or intense instruction. It’s related to the word “tutor,” and technically describes a session taught by a tutor. These days the “tutor” tends to be someone on the internet who has prepared learning materials on a specific subject. So you could watch a Photoshop tutorial on YouTube if you wanted to learn how to color correct photographs, for example.
At university you will encounter this meaning of “tutorial” as a set of instructions for learning a specific skill. Here are some tutorials that the University of California offers to help students learn how to use their library.
But at universities, a tutorial can also imply something much closer to its original meaning. You may have heard of the tutorial system in connection with Britain’s Oxford and Cambridge Universities, where students meet each week in groups of two or three to engage in deep discussions facilitated by a faculty “tutor.”
A small number of American universities offer tutorials based on the Oxbridge system. But it’s more common for American universities to use tutorial-style sessions as a discussion-based companion to traditional classes. At many universities students meet outside of their class sessions in smaller groups, often led by a teaching assistant. These sessions are intended to talk about the class material, to reinforce what was taught in class with additional practice, and sometimes to teach material not covered in the lecture.
Not all universities hold tutorials, and many that do don’t use that terminology. Princeton University, for example, includes small discussion sections as a component of its classes but calls them “precepts” (and the facilitator is called a “preceptor”). Many other universities that include discussion sections as a component of their courses call them “recitations.”
What can you expect if your university asks you to attend tutorials?
The University of Pittsburgh’s guide for teaching assistants is useful for getting a sense of what a tutorial might be like. It suggests that the discussion in a tutorial should help “to clarify confusing materials and to develop students’ critical and evaluative skills.”
“In a discussion section, students are encouraged to express their own ideas and to discover applications for the concepts and theories they have learned in the lecture class. In a math class, discussion may be used to explore alternative approaches to solving a problem; in a literature class, you might critique D. H. Lawrence; in a political science class, you might spend your time examining the practical consequences of environmental policy.”
Essentially, you should go in having done the necessary reading or homework, and ready to discuss some of the concepts it raised. The guide suggests that discussions could take the form of: small group conversations, case studies, exercises, role-playing, question and answer, and group brainstorming.
And, with all its tips for TAs who are struggling to start discussions or to keep the conversation flowing, the guide’s also useful for something else: remembering that no matter how intimidated you are to speak up in a discussion session, your TA is just as intimidated worrying that the discussion might not go well!
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