Tutoring 1

This paper sets out to bring together some familiar and some not-so-familiar ideas to explore the culture and characteristics of the successful teaching-learning encounter. I say "teaching-learning" because the focus is on the system rather than the elements (the teacher, the learner and the subject). It is consistent with other ideas on this site, but comes at them from a different angle. At times, I shall concentrate on the traditional individual tutorial (now almost extinct as a teaching device, of course), because it presents the simplest model, but there is nothing here which does not apply in principle to rather larger groups, as long as they have a substantial interactive element.
Incidentally, this paper is also published as:
Атэртон Дж  (2008) “Теория Тьюторства” на Сироткин С Ф, Гребенкин Д Ю (Отв. Ред.) Тьюторское Сопровождение проектной и исследовательской и проектной  деятельности в университете Удмуртский Государственный Университет Институт Развития Образования---or
Atherton J (2008) "The theory of tutoring" in S V Sirotkin and D U Grebenkin (eds.) Tutorial Support; project and research and development programme at the Udmurt State University Institute for Educational Development, Russia

For once, let's start from a common-sense position. Teaching has two bits: the presentation of new information on the one hand and getting people to learn it on the other. This paper is about "getting people to learn it". It is clear that the way in which material is presented affects whether or not or how people learn it, but that is not the present concern. For present purposes "tutoring" means "getting people to learn something".

The practice of teaching generally consists of moving between the two elements. Sometimes the process is clear:

    "Henry VIII had six wives. The first was..." (new information)

      "How long was Henry married to Katharine of Aragon?" (question to test knowledge, and to promote student activity and engagement with the subject-matter)

— and sometimes not so clear:

    "This reaction is pretty inefficient. How might we improve it?" (Information leads to problem formulation)

      "Increase the proportion of catalyst?" (Speculative answer based on thought processes

    "Let's try it, then..." (Testing in real world)

Obvious or not, there is a continual movement between engagement with external ideas and information, and internal processing. Piaget called it "adaptation". It operates at a number of levels and on a "wheels within wheels" basis. In the figures below, I shall adopt the convention of the "external" world being at the top of the figure and the murky internal world of the learner being towards the bottom.

Figure 1

Teaching is concerned with the management of that learning process. Much of the time, we are our own teachers, because we manage our learning for ourselves, but this paper is addressed to people who have to manage it for others: it argues that the tutorial task — the "getting them to learn it" — is about promoting reflection, and stepping back from practice to do so.

Figure 2

"Reflection" in this discussion is not necessarily as self-conscious as Schön (1983) and Moon (1999) imply: "processing" is an alternative term.
Aware of it or not, we are continually moving (oscillating) between the active and the reflective positions in learning, while the overall trend is towards activity. As the Reynolds model shows, when the learned material or practice becomes "second nature", we may hardly think about it as such — although we may still be thinking about it in a wider context.

Figure 3

Readers familiar with the Kolb learning cycle will recognise the fit between that model and this one. They describe a movement between four points in the cycle:

Figure 4

This model effectively pairs these stages off, emphasising:

This model



Active Experimentation and Concrete Experience



Reflective Observation and Abstract Conceptualisation


The simplification is not (on this occasion) to question the validity of the Lewin/Kolb cycle, but to adapt and develop it for the explication of tutorial practice.

Figure 5

So: if you stretch out the cycle, over time, you get a picture like Fig. 5 above, and the fit, at the process level, with the tutorial model in Fig. 2 is quite marked.

How then does this translate into tutorial practice? (Remember that we are not looking exclusively at the one-to-one or one-to-small group "Oxbridge" tutorial, but at that part of teaching concerned with getting people to learn the material.) The mapping is actually very straightforward.

... and so back to the fray.

Figure 6

So the tutorial sequence may be:

This process may of course be repeated for several topics within the same session.

It is easy to derive a simple protocol or agenda and a tutorial record sheet based on this pattern:

So far, so good: this has been a rather banal discussion of a way of working which most of us have arrived at anyway — but it does have some implications and variations which are worth exploring in the next section:

1  2  3 Notes

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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