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Ross Harley design narrative - large-scale group tutorials in an FE college: or how I learned to stop worrying and wear the penis costume

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Ross Harley
29 March 2017


My previous job was at a fairly typical regional FE college in north-east England as a Learning Facilitator in a Creative and Cultural department. I was on placement there during my PGCE PCET year and was fortunate to walk into a part-time role there not long after I completed my studies. 


2014/15 was my third academic year in the job and by this time I was a full-time employee, primarily responsible for group and 1:1 tutorial provision for around 150 level 2 and 3 students across Music Performance, Music Technology, Production Arts and Art & Design.

My role was also focused on student retention and achievement, and I worked closely with all staff from all levels and departments in the college, but most notably the three other Learning Facilitators in our department, (two full-time and one part-time).  Between us we covered around 500 students, which was about 150 more than 3.5 of us should cover. The part-time facilitator was in my PGCE tutor group so had a similar level of experience to me, another was in the second year of a part-time PGCE through the college and the other had been working in FE for over 20 years.  


When the college announced in summer 2014 that all students would receive at least 3 hours of 1:1 tutorial and at least 10 hours of group tutorial across a 30-week course, we got our heads together to try and devise a solution to the problem of being 1.5 facilitators short.  We felt that the 1:1 tutorials would not be a problem as they could be conducted either via prior appointment or at a moments notice, and because the vast majority of students seemed to find them worthwhile there was no problem getting their ‘buy-in’. 

The problem was the group tutorials. They were distinctly unpopular amongst the creative and cultural students, with very low attendance rates and a lack of appetite for topics unrelated to their main course of study such as health and wellbeing, sexual health, progression routes and financial literacy.

We needed a way to achieve the expected hours and to generate some enthusiasm amongst our students.  To do this we decided to hold large-scale tutorial events for 50-60 students at a time and to hold ten or so of these ‘Big Events’ across a two week period during the three terms of the year.  Each of them would last around 3 and a half hours and at least three of us would be present to deliver and facilitate as required.  


The first thing we did was hold a series of meetings throughout the summer to plan where and when sessions would take place and to sketch out the first Big Event which we scheduled for early October.

We allocated various roles to each other (admin, logistics, staff liason, lesson, resources etc) to ensure that we could deliver coherent, engaging sessions that could be repeated, reflected on and improved.

We worked collaboratively on the content and aims of the sessions and it was surprising how quickly the first session came together. The level of support and interest from other staff was also remarkable, although some of the curriculum leaders were initially cool on the idea - this was understandable given that by the time we discovered the change to the tutorial expectations and devised a response, their course timetable for the upcoming year was subjected to some adjustment.

By the end of the summer we had a session fully planned around the first topic of Progression and had identified two other topics for later that year, Equality and Diversity and Sexual Health.


We expected that the students would be a good deal more enthusiastic about Big Events than regular group tutorials and this was largely true.  During the first sessions in October attendance was fairly high, typically at 75% which was a significant improvement on the regular group tutorials, although once word spread about what was involved and the mystery was dissolved numbers began to drop.

In order to promote cross-course discussion we made each student draw a card upon entry that determined what table they would sit at and although this was partially successful in that it brought some together, the strong reaction of some others meant that we used that technique only in the first session.

Some of the older students did not want to be there and made it quite plain. Gregarious or confident students tended to dominate, particularly in sessions with a large cohort of performing arts students.

The sessions themselves were largely well received, most importantly by the students but also some staff members and the deputy-head who gave us the seal of approval and even arranged a small budget.  Some of this budget was used to buy materials to create a UFO for the second session - we made the design and construction an assessed activity for Production Arts students - and to buy a pack of resources on sexual health and an inflatable penis costume. I still don’t know why I agreed to wear it but I suppose it represents a small legacy of sorts.


  • There’s a fine line between a good idea and a gimmick, particularly if the assessment strategy is not well thought out
  • Collaborative design and teaching of this kind is very rewarding and never really feels like work
  • Making the most of a teaching space and changing it to suit the session can be highly productive and engaging
  • Spending a long time on a learning resource does not automatically make it high quality
  • Regularly entering a room full of FE students dressed in an inflatable penis costume to the sound of “The Stripper” does not do permanent damage to your self-esteem

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Michael Wood
1:50pm 30 March 2017

Hi Ross,

Way to get everyone's attention.  Reminds me of a lecture I went to where they were discussing how Triesman's (?) "pop out theory" was used to study mamograms for tumors.  I suggested the title "how to use pop-out to examine breasts" but it never caught on.

Love the example, and it's interesting to see one that is not solely focussed on the technology.

I was interested in your observations about how some students reacted badly to the set-up, like the card/table activity.  Do you think there is any way that these kinds of issues can be understood beforehand?  Is there some sort of activity that can identify what may cause distress?  I am not sure, but thought you might have more first-hand thoughts on it?




Ross Harley
2:49pm 30 March 2017 (Edited 3:04pm 30 March 2017)

Hi Michael The guidance did say to imitate story techniques so I thought I might as well go for an amusing title! Also, my wife said it was okay...

Great question thanks. I think strong might be slightly misleading in this context- the activity engendered grumpiness rather than any distress or anxiety - although making a student grumpy on entry to the classroom is obviously not ideal and that's the reason why we dropped it. Of course that meant they could sit with whoever they liked and that facilitated some of the more disruptive peer groups, but it was low level stuff that was fairly easy to handle with three of us in the room.

Because of the nature of that role we all had quite detailed profiles of our students, and we briefed each other in advance on who may require additional support throughout, who might require more regular breaks, any medical issues etc. There were also religious, cultural and personal issues to consider, particularly with respect to the sexual health session.

Like you I'm not sure if there is an activity or approach that could identify all of these issues in advance - hopefully somebody out there does and will share it - but we wouldn't have taken this risk (albeit calculated) had we not had the knowledge of our students and the backing of faculty leaders and management. No way would I be parading around in an inflatable penis costume handing out condoms if I didn't have approval from several rungs up the ladder!

James Fanning
8:24am 1 April 2017

Hello Ross. Couple of questions. 1) Was there any survey specifically of students to find out whay they did not attend the group tutorial sessions? 2) Were stduents invovled in any of the planning around a different approach ?

Will Woods (student)
11:51am 2 April 2017

Thanks a great narrative Ross.  We are doing somethign similar for staff, tutors and students at the moment. I like your reflection about good idea or gimmick in these situations. I have a couple of questions.

a) Did you investigate why the group tutorials were so unpopular?

b) It strikes me that you did a lot to give a sense of infomal in these big events (including dressing up!) do you think that the formality, or rather lack of formality, was a key factor in the success of these events?

Ross Harley
10:04pm 12 May 2017

Hi James & Will

There wasn't a survey or investigation conducted as to why students weren't attending the original tutorials although I remember we pooled attendance figures results across all courses for a couple of years prior and saw a decline. Based on the materials made available to us and similar staff across the college, it was clear that there was little or no movement between what students might have received at school and what we were to expected to give them. There had been no levelling.  This confirmed much of what student perceptions of college group tutorials were, that it was pointless, comprised of stuff they already knew and was boring. 

Will, your observation about lack of formality is something I had not recognised.  It also sort of links with James' question about planning a different approach so I hope you both don't mind me combining them again.  I think the lack of formality came from the 4 of us going into it in good faith and trying to foster the informal, supportive relationships we tried to foster in 1:1s in the context of a big group. Alhough that does not sound that practicable I think we had managed to close the gap a little in a handful of sessions, and this is where I wish we had James around to ask if we'd thought about asking students to get involved with the planning! We certainly could have benefitted from an exit survey at the least, and I think there was talk of asking course reps for feedback or to sit in on the planning but because we only got to run it for one year we weren't able to see where it could or should have gone. 


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