2018 saw the launch of an innovative tutor development short course by the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL) at Rhodes University. A group of 20 tutors from third year to Masters Level from the faculties of Humanities, Science and Law participated. The course involved regular interactive workshops over three terms, along with critically reflective written pieces towards a portfolio of work.
Through the Engage NQF Level 5 Short Course in Small Group Facilitation, tutors have had regular opportunities to grapple with issues such as integrating assessment for learning and teaching; working with diversity in tutorial contexts; facilitating groups for engaged learning; as well as the potential value of feedback and evaluation processes for teaching and learning.
The course awards ceremony took place in mid-October, celebrating the achievements of its first cohort of 20 tutor graduates. Tutors were joined by staff from the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL), relevant Heads of Department, Tutor co-ordinators and Deans.
“Tutoring is so much more than meeting with students in a room for 45 minutes and spending hours marking,” explained tutor Karabo Baloyi. “How you engage with a course, how you engage with students, definitely plays a role in how they engage with a course,” she said.
Karabo and tutor peers Senamile Zungu and Sasha-Lee Schafli spoke at the awards evening. Each person shared anecdotes of her tutoring experiences and her understanding of the CHERTL course. Speakers’ faces were animated as their words drew occasional chuckles from fellow tutors. “You often sit there and you think, ‘why am I doing this?’” reflected Senamile. “And I’ll tell you it’s not because of the remuneration,” she continued, tongue-in-cheek. The room erupted. “Coming to the Engage [tutor development] course was really affirming. It reminded me of why I wanted to do this in the first place,” said Senamile.
Professor Jo-Anne Vorster, CHERTL Head of Department, addressed tutors on the occasion of their awards. Prof Vorster outlined the importance of tutors as role models and mentors in today’s university experience, something attested to by tutors during the evening. She went on to talk about CHERTL’s Engage Short Course in Small Group Facilitation. “The title of this course signifies what we think the primary role of the tutor is - to engage students so that they can learn from others and contribute to the learning of fellow students.” Professor Vorster, along with Dr Chrissie Boughey Dean: Teaching and Learning were the impetus behind this course, a first for Rhodes University, funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training: South Africa.
Professor Vorster reflected, “The reason I thought [the course] was important is because it’s useful to do a three-hour tutor orientation, but it’s not enough. I think tutors need ongoing development and support and they also need to learn about the scholarly nature of tutoring – it’s not just a common sense thing.” She added, “This is something I’ve been wanting to do myself for Rhodes for decades so when funds became available and Nicky was available, there was just no question about doing it.” Prof Vorster noted that the course enables tutors to develop critical reflexivity. She emphasised the importance of developing a community of tutors who gather regularly and assist one another, “I think there’s a wealth of experience and ideas, and it’s great that it’s shared.”
“When I started the Engage experience I was a bit apprehensive,” said Senamile Zungu. Amidst her excitement and anticipation, she was concerned that the course would be too demanding and detract from her academic work. When Senamile first saw the course companion workbook she was taken aback by its enlivening, approachable style. “We [tutors] needed to apply real-life scenarios and it was really such a practical course,” she said.
Senamile’s apprehension was short-lived. Now that she has earned her NQF Level 5 Certificate in Small Group Facilitation through CHERTL, Senamile feels only warm approval and gratitude for the experience. “It was honestly one of the greatest highlights of my year and I feel extremely fortunate for having completed it…I’ve learned so much!”
The theme of purpose recurred throughout the ceremony. Sasha-Lee Schafli recalled the last tutorial with her Linguistics first-year group where she reflected, “This is our last tutorial.”
“No, Sasha. Why are you telling me this? You’re making me sad,” remarked one student.
“Because you’re my favourite tutor and you’re the reason I’m passing Linguistics.”
The impact of this shared student-tutor interaction was felt by everybody in the room. Experiences like these make the work of tutoring worthwhile.
After the evening’s addresses, course designer and facilitator Nichola van der Poel, of CHERTL, presented tutors with their certificates. “The design of this course revolves around active participation of students,” explained Nichola. “It deliberately embraces a non-hierarchical, dialogical, collaborative approach.” She continued, “Engage seeks to offer a space in which tutors can participate in rigorous critical reflection, as well as informed and dynamic practice towards the development of student learning in small group contexts. By all accounts, our tutors have found this process valuable.”
“I am a first-time tutor,” concluded Lona Pupuma, another tutor who participated in the Engage course. “I felt scared…I didn’t know how I was going to approach the whole thing of tutoring, so when I saw this opportunity I thought it was going to help me - and it did.” For Lona, Engage has delivered. “I believe that I am the best in what I do because of the course.”