How to Set Up Tutorials

What is a tutorial? How does it differ from a practical or lecture? What can you use it for and how do you do that? What are benefits and points of interest? All explanations about tutorials are offered in this education tip. 

What is a tutorial? 

A tutorial is a collective interactive learning situation in which students learn skills or techniques under supervision, practice, apply knowledge or discuss and develop a problem definition or case. 

A tutorial is not the same as a practical. A practical involves an independent learning situation in which students are not approached collectively or to a very limited extent. In a tutorial, students in smaller groups (about up to 30 students) perform a certain learning task under the supervision of a teacher. The total group of students is limited. In this way, the supervisors can monitor the learning progress of all participating students, make adjustments (in class) where necessary and provide individual supervision (or per group). 

A tutorial is not a lecture in a small group. In contrast to a lecture, in which the interaction mainly takes place from the teacher towards the students, a tutorial involves more frequent forms of interaction in which students communicate with each other or students interact with the teacher. The student’s active participation is important. 

How do you organize a tutorial? 

Tutorials are more than a ‘consultation hour’. As a teacher, it is important to have clear objectives for each tutorial and to communicate these to students explicitly. What should a student know, be able to do and be after each tutorial? Base this on the competencies stated in the course unit’s course sheet. (Partial) competencies forming a coherent whole across the various tutorials promotes learning. 

Tutorials are very suitable for teaching higher order skills in students. Think of reasoning, thinking critically, problem-solving, practicing interpersonal skills (listening, speaking, discussing, leadership) or learning certain attitudes. 

Depending on what you want students to have achieved at the end of the tutorial, you as a teacher will choose different work, assessment and feedback formats during the tutorial. Some examples: 

  • Do students have to apply certain knowledge? Have (groups of) students do exercises under limited or extensive supervision depending on the level of difficulty and the expected level. 
  • By giving (groups of) students a design assignment or by presenting a complex problem or case, you can teach them to analyse, apply concepts and finally create a new solution. 
  • Students also learn to apply and analyse concepts through (class) discussions. In addition, students practice their speaking skills. 
  • An educational learning discussion can be a way to teach students attitudes; by asking questions as a teacher, you teach students certain insights. 
  • Etc. 

What are the advantages of a tutorial? 

Tailor-made differentiation and guidance 

Because of the small group, the teacher can detect (individual) problems more quickly, offer students with difficulties extra guidance or challenge the stronger (groups of) students. This closer contact with students also makes it easier for a teacher to receive useful feedback: what are students still struggling with, which part of the theory was not explained clearly enough or went too quickly, what prior knowledge do students already have that they can actively use, what level differences are there in the group, etc. 

Social contact 

For many students, and certainly for first-years, tutorials provide important social contacts with fellow students and teachers. Do not underestimate the added value of those contacts. These contribute to the learning process as well. For example, students learn to cooperate with different people, they learn different study methods from each other (cf. how do my peers approach the processing of this piece of study material?), and they can support each other in adopting an active study attitude (cf. motivating and activating each other by asking each other questions, thinking critically together, thinking through the input of the others, etc.). 

Which points of attention are there during a tutorial? 

Limit the group size  

Aim for a group size of a maximum of 25 to 30 students to make sure all students have sufficient opportunity to participate and receive guidance. Due to the limited group size, organizing tutorials in study programmes with large student numbers is very labour-intensive. When a tutorial is strongly teacher-driven, with little need for active student participation, it is more efficient to opt for lectures in larger groups. 

Frame the tutorial for students 

Clearly explain what the objectives are of each tutorial and outline the relationship each time: how do the assignments relate to the theory (e.g. given in the lectures)? By immediately submitting the expected level, students can get started on their own faster. That way, no time is ‘wasted’ figuring out what the exact assignment is. By making explicit links with the theory, students are stimulated to link practical examples and theoretical concepts. 

Encourage active participation 

  • Have students come to class prepared, so that you can immediately get to the core of the tutorial. 
  • Make clear agreements about the organization, attendance, assessment, assignments and deadlines, etc. and about the expected student behaviour linked to the objectives of the tutorial. For example, “The goal is for you to gain a deeper understanding of this theme. That is why I expect a rich discussion in this tutorial in which different people contribute.” Or: “The goal is that you can solve exercises independently. That is why I expect that during this tutorial you always try to get as far as possible during each exercise before calling in help.” 
  • Introduce the tutorial, but then let students get to work themselves. For example, do not solve all exercises yourself on the board. Let students try for themselves first, walk around to give feedback, and let students indicate which exercises they want to go through in class at the end. A successful student/group is one that can work on its own without constant help from a teacher.
  • Motivate students by, for example, working with authentic (elements of) cases. 

Let students make mistakes and provide feedback 

It’s OK to make mistakes during a tutorial - this can be very educational! Create a safe learning environment for this; be approachable as a teacher and give adequate and good feedback. Giving feedback during a tutorial can be done in various ways: providing a model answer to the students at the end of the lesson, walking around and giving feedback to students individually or in small groups, or having students give each other feedback. Encourage students to consult each other before asking for your help. Do not forget: check whether students have actually achieved the intended objectives at the end of the tutorial. 

Provide a suitable room 

Find a suitable space. Fixed furniture, arranged in rows, is not ideal for students to consult with each other (in varying groups) or for giving feedback to different students or groups as a teacher. Do you want to have a discussion with the entire group? Then make sure that students can see each other by providing a circular arrangement. 

Work interdisciplinary (if possible) 

Because tutorials take place in small groups of students (allowing for a lot of supervision) and because they are often assignment-oriented, they are the ideal moments to bring together elements from different course units. For example, process topics from other course units in cases that students have to work with. Let students practice skills that they will need to use fully later on in the course unit, such as writing skills or speaking in front of a group. Or, even a step further, let students make an integrated elaboration, in which they have to use concepts from different course units. 

End with a summary or conclusion 

Repeat the objectives of the tutorial and how they were achieved. Put students further on track with the subject matter by: 

  • Summarizing the core 
  • Distinguish main and side issues 
  • State what should definitely be included 
  • Identify common mistakes and how to avoid them 

How can a tutorial be built up? 

Get inspired by the course of a tutorial in which a patient case is discussed in subgroups: 



Introduction by the teacher 


Framing the tutorial: objectives and place within the study programme.  



The teacher introduces a patient case: 

  • Current symptoms 
  • Findings from the first examinations 
  • Short medical history 



Students discuss in group: 

  • Possible diagnosis or diagnoses  
  • Which actions need to be taken immediately  
  • Which additional examinations they would carry out 



The teacher gives more information on: 

  • Which (initial) diagnoses were made in the actual case  
  • Which immediate actions were taken 
  • Which additional investigations were carried out 



Students consult in groups about similarities and differences between their proposal and the actual approach. Within the group, a consensus is reached about the desired approach. 



Classroom exchange and discussion about the different approaches of the different groups. 



The teacher provides more information about the results of the additional examinations performed. 



Students consult in groups whether they have to adjust the diagnoses based on the received information. They work out a proposal for further actions to be taken. 




Classroom exchange again. 



The teacher completes the case; how did it actually continue? 

The teacher concludes the tutorial with a conclusion and ‘What have we learned today?’ 


Want to know more? 

Read the sources on which this education tip is based: 

  • Kallenberg, A. J. (2003). Leren (en) doceren in het hoger onderwijs. Boom Koninklijke Uitgevers. 
  • Newble, D., & Cannon, R. (2013). Handbook for teachers in universities and colleges. Routledge. 

UGent Practices

Last modified Feb. 21, 2022, 4:30 p.m.