Adventures in tutor training (part two)

In the first part of this post I outlined part of a new approach that we’re taking at the UWC Writing Centre towards the initial training of peer writing tutors. I described briefly using a PLA approach called the River of Life, the aim of which was to get the new and returning tutors to get to know one another, and chiefly to bring the tutors’ own experiences and knowledge into the training space, to open up a more open and interactive training environment.
The second PLA technique we used was Matrix ranking. The idea behind this technique is to get groups of people to collaboratively draw up a list of qualities or items that correspond to an issue they need to think about. These get written down in a vertical column. The facilitator then gets the group to come up with criteria for choosing between the different criteria or items they have come up with. These are written along the top in a horizontal column and a grid gets drawn up. The group then gets to cast votes, using beans or buttons as counters for what is most to least important or valuable to them, and the criteria or items are ranked. The idea, essentially, is to collectively share knowledge and ideas, and to give groups an opportunity to defend their choices to one another and to try and persuade the other groups members to choose along with them (Rowley 1999). We simplified this activity by removing the horizontal column, but the essence remained – the collective sharing of knowledge and ideas, and the group discussing and voting on the most to least important criteria or items. The issues we spoke about were the characteristics of a successful peer writing tutors and successful writing tutorials – this session led on from the first session in which we drew Rivers of Life and then, using a Think-Pair-Share activity, discussed three readings we regard as fairly foundational in terms of giving us a framework and a shared language for our work with student-writers. Thus we had some of the theoretical foundation in place and this activity was designed to extend and deepen that earlier conversation we started by creating a more practical application.
The tutors got themselves into three groups and discussed amongst themselves the characteristics of successful tutors and tutorials, and came up with eight characteristics per issue, per group. These they then voted on and ranked them, and presented their matrices to the whole group. I wandered around and listened in on their discussions and voting and gave advice and guidance where needed.  I then took all the matrices home and collated them – pulling all the similar characteristics together and creating a collective list of characteristics that reflected what they had written, presented and what I had overheard during facilitation. We now have two collaboratively designed and debated matrices that, very simply, represent what we, as a team, consider to be good practice. This is informed by the experiences of the returning tutors, the ideas and input of the new tutors, and all the tutors drawing on the relevant theory they have read. The matrices are here.
Following this session, on the second day of training, the tutors received simple scenarios and were divided into pairs and small groups. They then devised 5 minute role-plays for the whole group, being as creative as they wanted to be and bringing in their own experiences with students to add colour and life to the scenario. These were videotaped and then discussed with tutors giving one another feedback and then the facilitator stepping in, consolidating and adding relevant points where necessary. This role-playing has been a part of training since 2011, but every year we challenge ourselves to be more creative and make this a more informative, rewarding and fun experience for all the tutors. For the newer tutors the role plays provide a small insight into some of what can happen in a tutorial, so that they go into their first encounters with students a little more prepared. An example of one of the scenarios:
One-on-one: tutor has not read the draft – it’s just the first part of an essay, an intro and a couple of paragraphs and the student says they are stuck and don’t know what to write next; tutor uses questions to get the student talking about the task and their ideas and what research they need to do and how or why they have to do research before they can keep writing
The feedback on the interactivity of the revised and renewed tutorial programme was very positive.
‘The role plays were refreshing – quite a hands on experience of what transpires during consultations.’
‘Very empowering and exposure to the actual tutorial sessions.  More reflective and engaging.  More enriching to personal development.’
‘Today’s session has been productive in that new and old tutors shared very varied but good experiences.  A good building block for 2013 tutoring.’ 
‘Provided opportunity for students to share their ideas, experiences and goals.’
 As a result of the feedback, and my own experience of working in these newer and more engaged and interactive ways with the tutors, I feel that making the tutor training more collaborative, and also more up to the tutors themselves in as far as leading their own discussions and contributing so much of their own experiences, ideas and expertise made these the most enjoyable and informative, and also empowering tutor training workshops we have had thus far. I am encouraged by how well it went, and also by how we, through our own support of one another and mutual teaching and learning in our ongoing training, are extending what we do with student-writers into our own training space and taking on the issues of empowerment, collaboration, friendliness and peer-ness in new ways.
Rowley, John. 1999. Tips for trainers: matrix ranking of PRA tools. Available online at: http://