Qualification of tutors at TU Darmstadt

“A digital orientation week cannot fully replace the in-person event but it works”


An important task for the Qualification for Studies and Careers Department in the Center for Educational Development and Technology (HDS) at TU Darmstadt is the qualification of tutors for the orientation events (OWO). Head of Department, Dipl.-Kffr. Christiane Reese and her employees Dr. Maria Clippard and Dr. Sandra Rieger talk in the following interview about their work during the digital winter semester – which is posing a special challenge both for those responsible for OWO qualification and also for student assistants.

Digital studying.

Most of the tutors for the orientation events work on a voluntary basis. Is it easy to motivate these students to take part?

Dipl.-Kffr. Christiane Reese: It is actually the student bodies in the faculties who recruit the new tutors for the OWO phase themselves. In our experience, many of the students are happy to take part because they consider the OWO to be important themselves. They have a desire to pass on their experience and the motivational and informative start to student life offered by the OWO to the new students

The student bodies in the faculties and the tutors are extremely dedicated and really think about how they can help the students to settle in well at the university. There are also introductory events available for our international students.

What topics are coved on the training courses for the tutors?

Dr. Sandra Rieger: At the start of the qualification course, the tutors are asked to imagine that they are once again a fresher at the university. What general challenges do freshers face at the beginning of their studies and what challenges does the digital semester bring? We also focus on the role and tasks of the tutors.

Dr. Maria Clippard: At the same time, it is hugely important for us to ensure that the tutors are aware of their responsibility to TU Darmstadt and their department. They are in some cases the first faces that the freshers will see and associate with TU Darmstadt.

Rieger: We also teach them that they should be open-minded and treat the freshers with respect. A key aspect of the training is to highlight the options for students to network with one another in a digital setting. We also focus on difficult situations that could arise and examine possible strategies for finding solutions together. And we raise awareness for the themes of gender and diversity.

Clippard: We also discuss how to organise the schedule and simulate an informative discussion between the tutors and their freshers in small groups.

What key skills are important for prospective tutors?

Clippard: We place a clear focus on social skills. An important theme is how the tutors manage and instruct their groups, as well as showing the required level of empathy so that everybody feels included. The training courses also promote self-confidence and assertiveness. In particular, we focus on improving problem-solving skills: How will I deal with any difficulties that may arise during the week? Communication skills are the real key here, including sensitivity for gender and diversity.

What special challenges are you facing in your work due to the digital semester?

Reese: Networking is an important component so that students can study together during the digital semester. In addition, it is important to keep the students motivated for a semester that they cannot attend in person. In particular, this requires a great deal of personal responsibility.

Clippard: We have spent a lot of time over the last six months looking at interactive tools that can encourage the students to network with one another. And we were able to identify some tools that should be very useful during the OWO.

Rieger: Interactive tasks – such as a solving a puzzle or completing a quiz together or creating something digitally with others – help students to discuss things in a digital setting and get to know each other better.

Reese: We recommend, for example, the use of lots of small “breakout sessions” for students so that they can exchange information and ideas digitally in small groups. We also encourage the students to participate in the chat session, which takes place in parallel, to network with one other.

Clippard: It is important for the tutors to give some thought to how they can achieve an ideal mix of pure input and joint activities in the small groups. In the process, they need to find ways to make a record of what was discussed in the groups. It is only in this way that handouts and minutes can be sent out to the students. Our motto in the training courses was “less is more” because everything takes more time in the digital world.

Rieger: Exactly. And your head is so full of information after around 60 minutes that your concentration then begins to decrease rapidly. It is certainly advisable to take a break in this situation.

Reese: When we were faced with a situation where we would be unable to hold face-to-face training courses, we initially thought it would be impossible. Our training courses depend on the fact that we communicate with and learn from one another.

In light of the experiences on the courses, we have now learnt, however, that a lot is still possible. But it still remains a challenge. It is necessary to communicate in a more nuanced way. The personal contact is now different and sometimes has to be established in new ways in a digital setting. This applies both to the qualification process and also later on to the OWO itself. On the other hand, it has to be said that a lot is still possible and things have worked amazingly well. We were pleasantly surprised by the diverse range of networking options offered to us by the digital tools.

Interview: Martina Schüttler-Hansper

Firmly committed to making contacts online

We asked the tutors taking part in the orientation week: What motivates you? And what special challenges are you facing in your work due to the digital semester?

I have always enjoyed being an orientation week (OWO) tutor because I want to support the mechanism that provided me with so much support at the start of my studies: I have found the Department of Physics to be a very close-knit group, especially amongst the students. This feeling of “everyone knows one another” is very helpful, for example, when you are left without a study group at short notice. And it is a feeling that you get for the first time during the OWO: simply take part, develop a sense of belonging and talk about physics.

I believe that the biggest challenge at the start of the digital semester is how to still develop this feeling of “everyone knows one another”: Getting to know each other online means you can only experience other people's gestures and facial expressions in two-dimensional form. In online lectures, there is no small talk about the practicals before and after the lectures or at the break, humour is also exhibited differently when all of the microphones are set to mute. Even without having much experience of these issues ourselves, I believe that one of the main tasks of the OWO tutors is to help the new students overcome these hurdles.

The first semester is one of the most difficult. I want to make the settling-in period as easy as possible for freshers and pass on my experiences so that they can also have success at TU Darmstadt.

The exceptional situation due to the coronavirus has made this settling-in period extremely difficult. Nevertheless, my aim is to ensure that students can enjoy their studies. The biggest challenge is that it is very hard to make personal contacts in a digital setting and thus more difficult to approach the freshers.

I have already worked as a tutor three times and supported freshers in their first weeks or their first half year and I still find it an exciting job even in the slightly different circumstances this year. Especially in the first few days, is important for the freshers to have a friendly face who can provide guidance and who you can turn to with all manner of questions and I really enjoy being able to pass on my knowledge.

The fact that we are unable to exchange information and ideas in person and communicate face-to.-face with the new freshers is clearly a challenge. When working as a tutor in the past, I noticed how important it was to get a feel for the other person in the early days so that you can get to know and understand each other better. I am certain that this year we will also be able to achieve this but it will be a very different process and a challenge for all involved.

Facts and figures

Around 180 students were qualified as tutors in 19 training courses held between the 21 September and 23 October. There were more tutors than ever before this year due to the digital semester. The qualification process for OWO tutors takes place in small groups and lasts five hours.

Link to some tips for freshers:

Under Getting started at TU Darmstadt freshers from all university departments can find information on the themes of commencing your studies and studying in the digital winter semester.

Freshers can find out how to successfully start their studies in the orientation week (OWO) at TU Darmstadt and on the accompanying information page.