Supervising postgraduates brings the research and teaching aspects of an academic career together. To do it well, Postgraduate Supervision is demanding and challenging, requiring careful attention to details, policies, students’ needs and interests, as well as academic integrity and
rigour. However, it can be exciting, rewarding and a wonderful learning experience for both the supervisors and their students.
semester, the Department of Mathematics hires about ten local
and foreign graduate students as tutors. In order to help its
graduate tutors provide quality teaching, the department has
conducted a graduate tutor training workshop since 1999, in
addition to the training programme organised by the university.
Conducted by the authors, the training workshop enables the
department to focus on issues related specifically to the teaching
of mathematics and the needs of our undergraduate students.
Besides, the training workshop allows us to monitor the teaching
performance of our graduate tutors.
The first training session, comprising one hour, is usually
conducted at the beginning of the academic year and highlights
the importance of active learning and non-verbal communication
skills (e.g. maintaining eye contact with the students while
talking). The workshop also stresses the importance of making
the tutorial sessions conducive for active learning as the
students rarely have opportunities to voice their doubts during
lectures. In addition, the graduate tutors also view video
clips of tutorials conducted by previous graduate tutors to
pick up pointers on how to run tutorials.
In the two weeks following the first training session, the
trainers will make video recordings (each segment lasting
from five to ten minutes) of a typical tutorial session conducted
by each of the graduate tutors. We try to capture the following:
- The level of class participation,
- The clarity of the tutor’s explanation,
- Bad habits that the tutors may not be aware of, and
- Whether the tutor can initiate discussion among the students
During the second training session, the trainers and graduate
tutors watch the tapes together. It is common for tutors to
initially feel awkward about watching themselves on video,
but we remind them that everyone feels the same way and that
watching the video is a necessary step in learning to improve
their teaching. After viewing each segment, the trainers and
the tutors will discuss what we have seen on the tape and
focus on whether the students asked any questions during the
tutorials. It is interesting to observe from the video recordings
how some of the top tutors are able to get a good discussion
going with the students. In fact, in some tutorial sessions,
the students are doing almost as much talking as the tutors!
However, other tutors are just talking to themselves throughout
the whole segment. Getting the first question from the students
often seems to be the most difficult part. As soon as one
student has spoken up and receives a helpful answer, the questions
start flowing! After watching the tape, we also discuss the
general performance of the individual tutors if time permits.
Following the session, technicians from the department convert
the video clips into files that are sent to the tutors for
The exercise helps the department identify its top tutors
to nominate for the faculty’s Outstanding Teaching Assistant
Awards. In the past, clinching the award has boosted the teaching
careers of tutors who were teaching scholars in the department.
As the intake of graduate tutors continues to increase, the
department believes that the training workshop plays an important
role in improving the quality of teaching in our department.
To conclude, here’s a summary of the essential aspects
of the teaching assistants’ training workshop:
- Start early. It is better if the first session is conducted
before the start of the semester as changing the teaching
style of a tutor can be difficult once the tutor has started
teaching in a certain way.
- Make the tutors feel at ease with watching themselves
and others fumble. Remind them that everyone is going through
a learning process to improve themselves.
- Design a way to follow up and assess the tutors’
progress. As graduate tutors are usually appointed for two
semesters, we can monitor and see if a tutor has improved
in the second semester after attending the workshop in the