Tutorials and Quality of Higher education

It may come as a surprise to many that the tutorial system, which is a distinctive feature of British higher education, is completely absent in our public higher educational institutions. This is the more surprising since our higher education institutions are based on the British model in both its structure with its Senate, Council, Faculties, Departments, Pro-Vice Chancellors, VC as well as its curriculum, and its validation mechanism through external examiners. Yet the tutorial system, which is the lynchpin of the learning and teaching process, is completely absent.

By tutorials, we mean the regular meetings, which lecturers have with a very small number of students usually not exceeding 5 or 6 or in science subjects practice tutorials organized after laboratory workshop practice.

During a tutorial, the lecturer interacts closely with students on a particular topic, which students have to prepare one or two weeks in advance on a prescribed set of readings. Sometimes one student has to make a short presentation before discussion starts. The discussion takes place between equals where the lecturer and students exchange views, clarify issues and, most important of all, stimulate critical thinking.

A tutorial is a very challenging and enriching experience. Very often, after two weeks at the beginning of semester, a student may be asked to write a two-hundred word book review and this is very daunting for any fresher but highly rewarding in terms of developing self-confidence. However, it also happens that in the course of a tutorial, a student may come up with new bright ideas in the discussion, and the lecturer may concede a couple of different viewpoints on an issue and even have second thoughts about it.

Students benefit a lot from this kind of meeting with the lecturers. These lecturers are experts in their fields and have written monographs and books on this area. Meeting regularly such lecturers and discussing with them can be exhilarating and transformative moments. An author a student may have known only by reading his book appears in person discussing with him and his fellow students is a thrilling experience. It motivates students and brings confidence as students suddenly realize that they too can be innovative and have the potential to achieve in the future. Usually a student will discover in his or her three years of undergraduate education one or more of such persons who are inspiring and become role models in his or her future career.

Given the importance of tutorials in the education of undergraduates, one can legitimately ask why it did not become an integral part of the learning process in our institutions. Part of the answer lies in the fact that the University of Mauritius, which has become the template for all our public institutions of higher education, was developed as a developmental university. Initially it had only three Faculties – the Faculty of Agriculture, the Faculty of Industrial Technology and the Faculty of Administration with links established with Universities of Manchester and Birmingham for administration, Reading for agriculture and Hatfield Polytechnic for technology.

While the tutorial system is well established in the Arts, Humanities and Social Science departments, it is less so in Science and Engineering although it is also used widely in these departments. Therefore, right from the start, given the emphasis of these three faculties on applied science and social sciences with a lot of time given to projects and laboratory work, it was not thought necessary to resort to tutorials, especially so in view of the fact that, in the early years, the student enrollment was small. It was more appropriate to have classroom teaching than lecturing and tutorials.

Since in later years it was these three faculties which were represented in the Senate of the University and which dominated the teaching and learning model, no attention has been given to the distinctive nature of other disciplines and their methodologies. In the 1990s when the issue was raised at the time the Department of Humanities was being set up, it was dismissed because ‘Senate has decided’. Unfortunately the same trend has persisted ever since with the modularization of course programmes following almost blindly the template developed for engineering courses.

Several attempts have been made towards setting up a tutorial system and a few lecturers on their own initiatives did organize small groups for discussion. In one institution, lecturers were encouraged to come up with some form of tutorials. A first step was taken to split three-hour block teaching into a one-hour lecture, followed by several seminar groups.

When there was a class of 60 or more, groups of 20 were formed to be taught at different times or a group of ten when there was a smaller class but it could never develop into a proper tutorial because of a number of difficulties. Classes were too big to be split in too small groups with not enough lecturers to attend to them. Infrastructure posed an insuperable problem. There was not enough rooms or small rooms and students could not be accommodated in the lecturer’s room where it was too small or when the lecturer has to share his room with another lecturer. Part time lecturers found it difficult to implement a new addition to their responsibilities as they did not want to come more than once to the University for tutorials, given their meagre fees. The experiment was a failure.

More importantly tutorials can be introduced in a programme or course only when there is at least four full-time lecturers teaching that programme and all of them can also teach their specialized modules for years 2 and 3 and with classes not exceeding 25-30. In these conditions, all lecturers can lecture on all general or introductory courses in Year One and teach their specialist courses in Years 2 and 3 provided modules of Years 2 and 3 are all yearly modules. In addition, the lecturer should not teach more than 3 modules per week.

In the present situation with many classes having more than 50 or 60 students, lecturers have no other option than to limit themselves to lecturing, with many students being reduced to becoming unknown and passive learners and examinations being reduced to a regurgitation of notes. It is not surprising that critical thinking and communication skills are totally absent in learners’ development and this is the one major criticisms levelled at our graduates trained in Mauritius.

However, there is still hope that the tutorial system can be introduced for certain specific programmes where there is already an adequate number of lecturers and where the enrollment is presently being reduced to not less than 30. It is imperative that heads of schools in the Humanities and Social Sciences give serious thought to introducing the tutorial system and provide a model for other departments.

I have particularly in mind the English Department where there is adequate staff with enough fields of specialization, with many of them having experienced the benefits of the tutorial system in their undergraduate days. It is imperative they should pass on these benefits to their students. This will definitely enhance the quality of our graduates.

  • Published in print edition on 7 August 2015

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