Part 2 Teaching approach

2.1 The role of a tutor

By David McDade [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Tutor, formally also called an academic tutor, is the term that is used to define the majority of staff that teach students at The Open University (OU). You may see the title Associate Lecturer sometimes referred to as AL or Tutor. Tutors are vital in the contribution that they make to the quality of teaching and learning as well as the support that they provide to students.

Students that come to study at the OU have a wide range of different backgrounds, as well as wanting to study with the OU for a variety of different reasons. For example, students may be working full-time, so studying with the OU provides flexibility. Other students may have various disabilities and they recognise that the OU provides a more suitable environment for study.

We consider the important aspects of the tutor role include the following:

  • Welcoming students to the university
  • Identifying the needs of students
  • Providing correspondence tuition to students
  • Providing academic as well as non-academic support
  • Providing pro-active support
  • Developing study skills
  • Monitoring the progress of students
  • Providing study advice and academic guidance
  • Providing feedback to students
  • Working online and using OU systems
  • Developing good working relationships with OU colleagues.

There are many other facets to the tutor role, for example, possessing good personal attributes. This includes being approachable, being a good listener, being empathetic, non-judgemental, being open and honest, and respecting the values of other people. We examine the skills and attributes of a tutor in more detail in the coming sections, as well as how the tutor role fits into the wider life of the OU, and how this role interacts with other teams, for example, student support, staff tutors and module teams.

Most of the work a tutor carries out involves working online at distance. Important aspects of this include being a good facilitator and having the ability to develop independent learning in students, which we also look at in this section of the course. Additionally, we examine the more detailed personal aspects of the role such as the nature of the OU contract, the support a tutor receives and developmental opportunities that are available.

In this video, Charly, Prince, Joan, Colin and Tammy talk about what they consider their role as an OU tutor is.

Download this video clip.Video player: nc4487_alstem_2020_vid101c_q1_1080x1920_high.mp4
Skip transcript


Can you tell me a little bit about the role of a tutor?
The role of a tutor, to me, I think is about being the point of contact for students who have opted to do the extraordinary thing that is called distance learning, which is what the Open University is all about. And they don't have a door that they can knock on at the end of a corridor. But they do have a telephone, an email, possibly a video conference that they can have with a friendly face and a friendly voice, who is able to guide them, not give them answers to questions but point them where they can find the answers to questions.
Obviously, there's a whole lot more to it than that. For example, giving the student confidence that they may think, who am I to try to be an undergraduate? Well, anybody can be an undergraduate. That's the OU has proved over 50 years.
I think one of the main responsibilities of a tutor-- especially at level 1-- is to help develop our students' study skills, which they will then need, you know, further along the line in their studies-- studies skills like English language skills, mathematical skills. you know, in our line-- in the IT department, we also try to help them to, you know, develop their problem-solving skills.
And hopefully, all of these skills will help them down the line as they go through their studies. That's one of the main responsibilities as well.
I think-- I'm a postgraduate tutor. So I think I follow on from a lot of what Charly and Prince have said, in that we do all of the usual role of a tutor, which is to provide academic support and also some welfare support as well, making sure that students are happy studying the module and sorting out any problems.
We also, as Prince said, really try to develop, in our case, postgraduate skills. So we're moving students on from an undergraduate level, where they're absorbing material, to a postgraduate level, where we're asking them to be much more critical, to learn independently, and to develop some skills really which are transferable-- as Prince said-- through all their modules and to complete their qualification but also transferable skills to the workplace as well. So I'm thinking about things like critical engagement and reflective practise.
The role of the tutor is they are very much the face of the Open University. They are the human being that they actually meet and they talk to and they discuss, in addition to the textual material and the other meeting material that they have as part of their distance learning.
So you are very much engaged as a person with the student themselves, talking to them, discussing with them, verbally answering their questions in a pretty diverse way, much more than they are getting from a textual book or a video.
Tammy, can you tell us a little bit about the work you do as an undergraduate tutor?
much. Reiterating what has been already said, supporting and helping students develop, facilitating their learning. I think an important point to pick up is that a lot of what we do is we help reduce the sense of isolation by being that friendly face, by being the face of the university. And that point of contact-- that reliable points of contact-- we help reduce that sense of isolation, which helps maintain the engagement of the students.
End transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Activity 1

Think about the ‘traditional’ role of a face-to-face teacher. In what ways do you think working as a tutor would differ from this role?

Post your thoughts to the discussion forum and comment on some other posts. Do you agree with the other posters?


Your response depends on your individual situation and context, as well as the extent to which you already have experience of teaching, so these are model answers for you to consider.

There is reduced face-to-face contact and so there is the danger of students feeling isolated – tutors use facilities such as email, forums and telephone to engage with students.

Identifying the needs of students is not as clear-cut as in a classroom and, therefore, early discussions with students are very important.

Assessments are submitted electronically, so this means that marking and feedback play an important role in facilitating the student's learning.

2.2 Teaching materials