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The importance of the tutor in an online world

Lady on a laptop

By Stuart Pedley-Smith, Head of Learning at Kaplan

In his 1791 biography of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell made reference to a quote from the famous author, lexicographer and poet:

"Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book..."

Words of wisdom, or was Dr Johnson not recognising the importance and complexity of learning?

The same mistake can easily be made today – with the vast resources available online via a plethora of mediums, it may seem that there is nothing that a student can't achieve working in isolation.

However, there is one key aspect of the learning experience that cannot be replicated simply through the learning materials - namely, the contribution made by the tutor.

Tutors1 do more than simply turn the written word into a verbal version and this article will look at the key attributes that tutors bring to the learning experience, and why they are just as important in an online environment as they are in the classroom.

Making the complex simple

The main objective of the tutor is to change student behaviour. In effect, as a result of a learning experience, a student should end up doing or thinking something differently.

In order to facilitate this, a tutor clearly needs subject knowledge. However, this alone is not enough - they also need the ability to make the 'complex simple'.

In my view, this is the most important attribute of a good tutor. Equally, the difficulty in doing this should not be underestimated - in order to make something simple the tutor themselves has to have a deep understanding of the subject.

This understanding of the subject serves another purpose, as it enables the tutor to provide alternative explanations for students if they don't understand or fail to grasp what is being said. The good tutor will come at it from another angle, by using different examples or changing the context until the student gives a nod of approval that it now all makes sense.

This is personalisation at its best and shows why tutor contact is so important for the student in helping them develop a deeper understanding of the subject.

There are two other attributes of a good tutor that should be mentioned; firstly the ability to motivate, and secondly the ability to make what they are saying memorable.

Motivation and memory

If all students were highly motivated then maybe they would just read textbooks and we would have no need for the lecturer, but human nature is complex and self-motivation is not within everyone's grasp.

The motivation often has to come from the tutor and it's their job to inspire, persuade and cajole the student into studying and learning. Most tutors will have a real love for their chosen subject and the passion and interest that they can bring is contagious, making what at first appears dull and uninspiring into one of the most interesting subjects in the world.

Finally, a good tutor can always make content memorable. What is the point in teaching if after the event no one can remember what you said? This simple idea was one of the reasons I became so interested in memory over 25 years ago.

Tutors need to deliver content whilst thinking how best they can present it in a way that cannot be easily forgotten.

This goes far beyond simple acronyms and acrostics and into the use of colour, images, repeating key words and the telling of stories that contain important facts. Interestingly when the student thinks back on the day, it is most likely the stories and pictures they will remember, not the pages in the book.

People matter even more online

Many of the skills and qualities outlined above can add real value to an online learning experience, but not without thought. For example, it is not sufficient to just record a tutor in the classroom.

That is why when Kaplan decided to build an online tutor-led course, they spent time learning from media experts, trained all of their tutors in how best to present to camera, and asked them to think carefully as to the most important points they were to present. For instance, attention spans are short online and content needs to be broken down into manageable chunks – around 4 to 6 minutes is best. This proved challenging even for our most experienced tutors, as any form of reduction is hard.

As Blaise Pascal said:

"If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."

Motivation is arguably more important on-line as students are often working on their own. That is why we decided to use tutors presenting to camera to help guide them through the learning material's. A friendly face, supported by a passionate delivery can be all some students need to help them stay on track.

But if that's not enough we believe tutors have one final role to perform. That is to be both coach and online subject matter expert. If a student encounters a problem whilst studying, being able to speak to a tutor who can explain in detail how a concept may be thought of differently or a calculation prepared is the final piece of the learning jigsaw.

Education may be moving quickly to embrace new technologies and media, as they offer many benefits, but it must be ensured that one of the most valuable aspects of learning is not lost - the importance of what the tutor can bring.

1. Although it may be possible to draw a distinction between a lecturer, tutor and teacher, on the basis that each has the job of effecting change we will treat them as if they were the same.

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