PhD students who teach: Tutor training programme in Philosophy

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In this final post for May’s issue on ‘Staff development practices’, Alix Cohen, Tutor Coordinator at the Philosophy department, talks about the innovative tutor training programme she created in 2016 to support PhD tutors in developing their teaching skills and tracking their progress through tailored feedback mechanisms. An initiative that was praised by external examiners and, consequently, expanded to all departments in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences…

When I joined the Philosophy department at Edinburgh in July 2014 and started engaging with the graduate community, I quickly realised that our PhD students played a central role in the teaching of our pre-honours courses: sometimes tutoring over 500 students per course, in six courses spread over our first and second year. Their contribution to our teaching offerings was an integral part of it. They often knew our pre-honours students better then ourselves, worked with them closely on a weekly basis through tutorials, and thus played a crucial role in the way students engaged with us as a department and with philosophy as a discipline. And yet they received little to no training or support, and this showed. The quality of tutoring at pre-honours level varied immensely depending on the tutor, and there has been very little oversight or help available to remedy poor tutoring.

At the time, tutors were overseen by the Director of Undergraduate Studies – someone with a huge administrative load, in charge of overseeing all our undergraduate courses. This struck me as odd at best, and I convinced my then Head of Department to create a new administrative position, that of Tutor coordinator. In this role, I wanted to achieve a number of goals. First, and most importantly, to create a training programme that would enable me to support our tutors through their tutor practice. This would ensure that our pre-honour students get quality tutoring across the board. Second, to set up a number of rules that would regulate their work allocation. This would render the hiring process fairer and more transparent. Third, to create an observation scheme that would allow the tutors to get regular tailored feedback on their teaching. This would enable them to progress more quickly and reflect on ways to improve their practice, while providing me with first-hand information on each tutor’s progress from semester to semester, and flagging up problems that could be addressed quickly through one-on-one meetings. Thanks to the departmental support I received, I was able to implement my plan in the summer 2016. Following its implementation, this programme was praised by external reviewers as a great innovation, and it was rolled out school wide in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences in 2018. The Teaching Progress Report in Philosophy stated:

2.8.3  The Tutor Coordinator role and the current post-holder are commended. The Coordinator is responsible for the recruitment, allocation, training and observation of Philosophy’s Postgraduate Tutors, and has developed a bespoke training programme and bank of Philosophy-specific resources for tutors to use. This is bringing greater consistency to the Tutor role, particularly in the areas of marking and feedback. The Tutor Coordinator is also working towards putting in a place an equitable system to give the Subject Area’s postgraduate research students lecturing experience.

‘Teaching for diversity’ talk with tutors, photo by Alix Cohen.

Here is a brief summary of the various measures I implemented:

  • Tutor training course (compulsory for all tutors): It consists in at least two training sessions per semester led by the Tutor coordinator on tutoring methods and feedback. It includes a tutoring clinic that deals with problems brought up by tutors. When they have attended all the sessions, the tutors get a teaching certificate they can add to their CVs. In the second year of the training, I added a third session dedicated to ‘Teaching diversity’. Its content varied from year to year, but it tackled issues such a gender or race.
  • Tutor observation: All tutors are observed at least once per course, get an observation report and fill a reflection form describing how they will change their practice on the basis of the feedback they got. It is uploaded on an online database on Learn in their Teaching Portfolio. Tutors also have the opportunity to observe staff running a tutorial.
  • Teaching Portfolio: Each tutor has an online file on Learn that contains all their observation reports as well as a summary of their teaching experience and any additional information gathered during their tutoring, including teaching awards. The information is used to assist in improving tutoring practise as well as providing a sound evidence base for tutors’ own personal development and future allocations. It is also available to supervisors so that they’re able to write well informed references about their students’ teaching experience.

A central objective of this programme was, of course, to enhance the quality of the teaching of our pre-honours students. But an equally essential aim was to emphasise the importance of teaching early in the development of our PhD students, thereby furthering their potential on the job market.

Here are testimonies from PhD students who went through the Tutoring programme:

 John O’Connor, Lecturer in Moral Theology, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Glasgow:

Every semester the head tutor for the course sits in on a tutorial and takes notes about what was good and what could be improved. It was done in a gentle and constructive way. I found the tips I received in the report afterwards really helpful. And when I applied the advice I received and got used to this way of doing things in my teaching, I wondered why I hadn’t done these things from the outset! Then, in my second year of tutoring, to my genuine surprise, I got nominated by some tutorial students for a Student Association Teaching Award. This had not happened me the previous year. I did not think my teaching style had changed that much. What I think happened is that with the guidance I received (along with extra experience) I got better at teaching without realising it. But the student feedback strongly suggested that the training had made a big difference. And once you get these skills and insights, there’s no looking back!

Antonio Salgado Borge, Current PhD student at Edinburgh:

My formation as a tutor has benefited greatly from the tutor training programme offered by the Philosophy Department. Each session is an opportunity to reflect on my practice, to learn from the director of the programme and more experienced tutors, and to develop skills that I later put into practice. One of the most valuable features of the training sessions is that they commonly involve useful exercises. I have found particularly relevant for my formation those related to teaching scenarios. For example, in one occasion we simulated tutorial environments featuring challenging situations or questions difficult to handle. Apart of being fun and a good occasion to converse with colleagues, this exercise gave me tools for creating a better atmosphere in my tutorials. I have also found particularly useful those sessions dedicated to the development of marking skills. Without those sessions it is difficult to see how I would have been able to learn the department standards and good practices. I believe that the department is doing a very important effort in training us as tutors. One that help us in our academic careers and that also greatly benefits the department’s undergraduate students.

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen joined the University of Edinburg in summer 2014 as a Chancellor’s Fellow. She is now a Reader in Philosophy. She is currently Tutor Coordinator, Deputy Head of Department and Director of Postgraduate Teaching. Her research focuses on Kant’s philosophy.

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