Tutorials in transnational education 

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In this post, Michael Daw draws from his experience as a lecturer on a joint programme between The University of Edinburgh and Zhejiang University in China to discuss the art of leading tutorials, training tutors, and fostering a participatory classroom environment. Michael Daw is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Quality in the Deanery of Biomedical Sciences. This is the seventh post of the Learning and Teaching Enhancement theme: ‘Focus on the Internationalization of Teaching & Learning.’

I am a lecturer on a joint programme run between Biomedical Sciences and Zhejiang University based in Haining, China (previously discussed here: https://www.teaching-matters-blog.ed.ac.uk/transforming-educational-partnership-in-china-the-zhejiang-university-university-of-edinburgh-institute-zje/ and here: https://www.teaching-matters-blog.ed.ac.uk/successful-transitions-transnational-transitions/ ). The programme is taught entirely in English and, to date, the majority of students are Chinese nationals. To encourage and develop the students’ ability discuss science in English we place a strong emphasis on tutorials with first year students having up to 5 tutorials each week. When the programme first started, one of the questions I was most often asked by colleagues was whether the students were less willing to contribute in tutorials. This reflects a widely-held view, that Chinese students are hardworking but quiet and unwilling to speak out in front of others. Indeed, research supports the view that Chinese students are reluctant to speak out or challenge others’ opinions (1, 2)This has, however, never been my experience. In fact, in one of my first tutorials in China, I was rebuked by one of the students for talking too much and ruining the students’ discussion. Of course, it is not always like that. Much like tutorials I have been involved in anywhere (as tutor or student), sometimes the discussion flows easily, other times no student wants to be the first to say something and the whole session is hard work. The dynamic can change in the same group of students from week to week. The same approaches that can be used in Edinburgh to break, or better avoid, these impasses are effective in China too. For example, especially in larger groups, I normally start by asking the students to discuss questions in groups of 2 or 3 before opening the question to the whole group. Even if this does not encourage them to speak out to the whole class, it ensures that all students engage with the topic at some point.  

The big difference for tutorials in China, however, does not relate to the students but to the tutors. Our teaching is carried out by staff from both universities with many of them being newly-recruited to lecturer-level positions. For Chinese staff that often means that, not only have they never delivered a tutorial, but they have also never experienced one as a student. Some are confident from the outset whilst others are anxious about how to lead tutorials. Feedback told us that some students were unhappy with tutorials delivered by our Chinese colleagues because tutorials were treated more like a small-group lecture than an interactive discussion. Whenever possible, we now try to give a better introduction to new tutors. This starts with asking inexperienced staff to sit-in on tutorials led by experienced tutors then having one-on-one discussions with the staff member who planned the tutorial before delivering it. This has resulted in improved student feedback. At the same time there are challenges. We have an expanding number of courses and new tutors at the same time as when Edinburgh staff are unable to travel (Chinese domestic students have been back learning on campus since September 2020). This may have set back that progress. 

There are lessons here too for everyone. Although tutors who are postgraduate students are normally guided in their first experiences of teaching, there is a common assumption that anyone in an academic position knows how to deliver a tutorial. We experienced teachers are often worried that suggesting someone might not know what they are doing might cause offence. However, many staff in lecturer-equivalent positions are recruited for their research background and may have little or no experience of teaching. This was certainly the case for me in my previous position: I was hired directly from a research institute with no teaching opportunities and would have welcomed more guidance than I got. The key message here is to never make assumptions about experience or be afraid to offer guidance whatever environment you are teaching in. 


  1. Durkin K. Adapting to Western Norms of Critical Argumentation and Debate. In: Jin L, Cortazzi M, editors. Researching Chinese Learners: Skills, Perceptions and Intercultural Adaptations. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK; 2011. p. 274-91.
  2. Wu Q. Re-examining the “Chinese learner”: a case study of mainland Chinese students’ learning experiences at British Universities. High Educ. 2015;70(4):753-66.

Michael Daw

Dr Michael Daw is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Quality in the Deanery of Biomedical Sciences. He was an Edinburgh graduate in 1998 and returned in 2010 as a Research Fellow before developing an increasing interest in teaching and learning.

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