Classroom Management Strategies
Tutorial session

Common challenges

No two tutorials will operate in the same way and there may be things that go wrong. One of these common challenges can be the behaviour of students – some may be dominating, some may be appear disinterested and do not contribute. Establish ground rules for expected behaviour, participation and how the tutorials will be run. Some students may bring their troubles to you. Listen to their problems and deal with academic matters which fall within your expertise, but encourage students to seek further appropriate professional counselling if this is needed. The following sections discuss strategies for dealing with some common scenarios: passive students, dependent students, confrontational students, unprepared students, dominating students, when the tutor doesn’t know the answer and late arrivals and early leavers.

Passive Students

Inevitably you will encounter at least one or perhaps a group of students who sit quietly, never answer or ask questions, don’t participate in group discussions, and don’t ‘seem’ to be engaged in learning at all.

It is important to consider why the students are not interacting – is the task beyond their capabilities, are they experiencing personal problems, do you need to consider more engaging activities? A method for dealing with passive students is to try to engage them in activities within a group situation. This encourages interaction with peers and being part of a group activity means that the student is given a specific responsibility and others are dependent on their participation. Students are then more confident to respond before all students. An awareness of which students have not contributed to discussions enables you to draw them into discussions early in the tutorials.

If a student is called on by name, it becomes harder for them to avoid participation (see using student names). If you feel the student is shy or reserved, give them time to prepare a response and return to them later or start with a low risk question.

Some ‘quiet’ students are not necessarily uninvolved but listening and absorbing the discussion. You might ask that student to check out a point in the discussion and report on it next session.

Here are some strategies for including passive students:

Dependent Students

Some students will find the level of independent study that is expected of them at university to be quite different from their prior educational experiences and may need support to achieve independence. Students may require carefully structured and specific steps (scaffolding) to complete a set task. As the student becomes more independent in the learning process, the scaffolding – or level of support – is gradually withdrawn. If you feel students are heavily reliant on you to provide the structure for their learning, you must work at establishing self-confidence in how the student will understand, and meet, the expectations of the task.

Discuss their work with them and compliment them on their accomplishments and steer them to considering how they might approach the next stage of the task. Pre-planning and establishing a structure can be the first step in gaining independence. Gradually lessen your involvement in setting the steps of how the students will operate.

Guide students to where they will be able to find material and if you feel it may be helpful, discuss with students what they will be endeavouring to research. Clarifying objectives may be a starting point for these students. It is often getting started which blocks some students.

Making time for students to discuss in small groups how they are approaching a task may help students draw support from their peers and improve their understanding of the parameters of the task.

Have a look at the resources in the fostering independent learning section.

Confrontational Students

Most students will act in an appropriate manner during tutorials. However, there are occasions when some students will test the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Deal with the behaviour calmly and professionally; do not embarrass students in front of their peers as this can escalate the problem. Listen to the student and address concerns but be firm in stating that you cannot continue discussing aspects with one student when others are waiting for the tutorial work to progress. Do not get involved in arguments within the tutorial.

It is best to deal with the student privately on a one-to-one basis rather than speaking across the class. Explain why you are finding their behaviour disruptive and the negative effect it is having on other students’ learning and tutorial time. Be factual and objective. Try to find out why the student is behaving in this manner. Reiterate your expectations of behaviour and ask the student why they are not able to meet these standards. Make a direct appeal to the student’s sense of fairness to the other students and to yourself. If consistent inappropriate behaviour continues, you may need to consult with the lecturer in charge or the head of the department.

Here are some strategies that may be helpful:

Unprepared Students

Lack of preparation by students is a continual problem in tutorials. Students are often committed to part-time jobs to support paying for their fees, or have personal problems which impinge on their preparation, or may be under pressure from commitment to other subjects.

If you establish the level of preparation you expect for each tutorial, it is more likely that students will respond to this expectation. Participation marks can be a useful source of motivation for students.

Other strategies include:

  • It can be helpful to make an oral check of what stage students are at with any set tasks
  • Provide students with advice on how to approach out-of-class work
  • Ask students to report at least one solution or even a question relating to the pre-work
  • When a student(s) hasn’t done the work, show that you expect a contribution regardless, for example, have that student restate the question, have them start solving the problem
  • If a large number of students haven’t attempted the work, you may quickly divide up the problems or question and allocate to small groups
  • As much as possible avoid the temptation to simply provide the answers or solutions, far better to have students attempt the tutorial work

Have a look at how one tutor deals with this issue:

Dominating Students

Occasionally you may have a student who exhibits dominating behavior, for example excessive questioning, speaking more often than others, interrupting other students. As with many of these behavioral challenges it’s important to recognize that there is no single motivation. Domination may be genuine belligerence or it could be the frustration of a high-achieving student about the lack of their peers preparation.

As much as possible you want to acknowledge their willingness to participate but also to allow for contribution from other students. A range of strategies include:

  • Invite other students by name to enter the discussion
  • Ask the dominating student to hold comments for a while, for example say ‘Trevor, hold that thought and I’ll come back to you’
  • Ask the dominating student to listen to all points of view of other students and then offer a synopsis of the discussion
  • Incorporate an activity where all students write out a response to a question and then choose some students to read these
  • State that time is running out and limit each student to a minute/thirty seconds
  • You might consider the use of tokens, allotting three/five to each student for each discussion topic. When the students have ‘used’ these, they are not able to enter the discussion until the next topic of discussion begins.

If the student persists, state your intention to include other students so that there is greater diversity in opinions as everyone benefits from this range of ideas. You may need to speak to the student outside of the class and re-iterate that you value the student’s comments but that you must insist on ensuring others are offered the opportunity to enter discussions.

Tutor doesn’t know the answer

Many new tutors or tutors new to subject worry that they will not know enough to be able to teach their students adequately. Adequate preparation for the tutorial is the clearest way to boost your confidence prior to the tutorial. If you have done the preparation and have discussed any problems you may have with the material with either the lecturer or your fellow tutors it is unlikely that you will have a problem.

However, you cannot plan for every eventuality. There will always be a time when you do not know the answer and need to acknowledge this. It is best not to try to bluff your way out of a mistake or hide that you don’t know the answer. If a student asks a question that you cannot answer you can do one of several things:

  • Throw the question to other students. This helps to establish that learning is a partnership between the lecturers, tutors and students.
  • Tell the students that you don’t the know the answer and will get back to them either by email or at the next tutorial. Start the following tutorial with the answer to the question, reminding students first what the question was.
  • Depending on the nature of the question you could try to work the solution through with the help of the group.
  • If the question is not central but is of interest you could ask the student who posed the question to do some research and report back to the class at the next tutorial. Reward the student for the extra work by thanking them or taking this into account if there is a participation mark for the subject.

Coping with late arrivals and early leavers

The extent to which an individual tutor accommodates late arrivals or early departures varies from tutor to tutor. One thing which is important is that it’s incumbent on you to start and finish the tutorial on time out of respect for those students who arrive on time.

Late arrival or early departure from tutorial groups may become a problem if it happens regularly and becomes disruptive. You need to develop strategies for dealing with this issue before it happens. Clarifying expectations and setting and reminding students of the ground rules can be very helpful. With late arrivers it is important to be courteous but not to indulge the late arrivers by going over material that you’ve just gone through with the group.

Click here to view some strategies: