Influence of tutors' subject-matter expertise on student effort and achievement in problem-based learning
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Purpose. To investigate the effects of tutors' subject-matter expertise on students' levels of academic achievement and study effort in a problem-based health sciences curriculum. Also, to study differences in turors' behaviors and the influences of these differences on students' performances. Method. Data were analyzed from 336 staff-led tutorial groups involving student participants in seven four-year undergraduate programs at the University of Limburg Faculty of Health Sciences in 1989-90. Overall, 1,925 data records were studied, with each student participating in an average of 1.7 groups led by either content experts or non-experts. The basic analyses were of (1) students' achievement scores as a function of tutors' expertise levels and students' curriculum year; (2) students' estimates of self-study time as a function of tutors' expertise levels and students' curriculum year; and (3) the average ratings of the tutors' behaviors as a function of tutors' expertise levels. Statistical methods included analysis of variance and Pearson correlations. Results. The students guided by subject-matter experts were shown to spend more time on self-directed study, and they achieved somewhat better than did the students guided by non-expert tutors. The effect of subject-matter expertise on achievement was strongest in the first curriculum year, suggesting that novice students are more dependent on their tutors' expertise than are more advanced students. Also, the content-expert tutors made more extensive use of their subject-matter knowledge to guide students. However, in addition to the tutors' knowledge-related behaviors, the tutors' process-facilitation skills affected student achievement. Moreover, these two sets of behaviors were correlated, indicating that both are necessary conditions for effective tutoring. Conclusion. The results indicate that, at least for the curriculum studied, the assumption in the literature that tutors do not necessarily need content knowledge so long as they are skilled in the tutoring process is not entirely justified: the students who were guided by content experts achieved somewhat better and spent more time on self-directed learning. More important, tutoring skill and content knowledge seemed to be necessary and closely related conditions for effective tutoring.