It is a well-reported problem in the education literature that "students undertaking university courses skip classes on a not infrequent basis" and that "non-attendance at university is an ongoing problem that appears to transcend country, university and discipline" (Cleary-Holdforth, 2007). Yet there is much evidence that university students should attend scheduled classes to optimise their learning and eventual grades (Moore et al, 2008). This is particularly true when it comes to sessions offered in support of lectures, such as tutorials and laboratory classes. Tutorials provide a focus for discussion around salient lecture content and importantly, they provide opportunities for students to practise their problem solving and communication skills (Biggs & Tang, 2007).
Tutorials are of particular importance in engineering education because of the applied nature of the subjects taught. O'Moore & Baldock (2007) asserted that "problem-based learning and tutorial assignments are essential for student learning in engineering courses" and that without regular practice, the required skills are difficult to acquire. Alpay (2001) noted that the applied nature of engineering and science subjects means that students require a good understanding of mathematical concepts and their applications.
The many benefits of tutorials can only occur when students attend regularly, come suitably prepared and actively participate. However, many studies have indicated that this does not happen. For example, both Fry (1990) and Sisson & Warton (2005) reported that although students were instructed to tackle problems at home and then seek assistance during tutorials, it was found, to their detriment, that most students were making a first attempt at problems during the tutorials. Many researchers have concluded that most students need a motivator to complete tutorial problems on a regular basis.
A number of studies have shown a positive relationship between tutorial attendance and overall assessment performance (Gatherer & Manning, 1998; Longhurst, 1999; Sharma et al, 2005; Cohn & Johnson, 2006), while other studies have been able to show that student attendance is a useful predictor of participation and overall performance (McCarey et al, 2007; Smith, 2008). Using data collected over three consecutive semesters, covering five core units (in mathematics, statistics and physics) of the mining engineering program at the Western Australian School of Mines (WASM), a significant linear relationship (at the 0.01 level) was obtained with a positive correlation of 0.67 (figure 1). Further evidence would be needed to establish causal effect here, but that is not the focus of this study. Note that the 10 and 90 percentiles shown in figure 1 indicate that minimal tutorial attendance was needed for some students to pass units, while others failed units despite regular attendance. It therefore makes sense that a program to motivate tutorial attendance should be aimed at the majority of students.
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Academic staff at WASM noted that students who failed to avail themselves of the full benefits of practice and feedback afforded by the tutorial sessions were impacted negatively in their understanding of concepts and in their subsequent grades. To address these concerns, it was necessary for academic staff to find a mechanism to help overcome these issues. This paper describes an intervention designed to tackle the problem of poor tutorial attendances and performances at WASM. Peer tutoring together with peer and tutor assessments were incorporated in the intervention, which was conducted with several cohorts of students. An evaluation of the intervention using student feedback surveys is reported in this paper.
2 SEARCHING FOR A SOLUTION
Typically, in engineering and technical subjects, students are expected to develop their skills by regularly completing given sets of practice problems. …