Full-time academic staff are more likely than non-staff (casual and postgraduate student) tutors both to emphasise summative assessment as a factor in learning, and to display greater skill in establishing and maintaining a team approach among their students. These findings may be due to the considerably greater time that faculty spend in teaching and assessment tasks in general, as well as experience in dealing with student issues relative to casual tutors and postgraduate students. Although age was shown not to have a significant impact on any of these behaviours, it is worth noting that most (85.7%) staff tutors were in the 40+ age group, compared to 53.8% for non-staff tutors.
Using the same instrument, Moust and Schmidt [10
] investigated differences in tutoring style between staff and non-staff tutors. They found that staff tutors scored significantly lower than non-staff tutors in three of the six behaviours: cognitive congruence, test orientation and role congruence, with staff tutors scoring higher on the authority scale only. This is in contrast to our findings which found significant differences in only two of the scales (and those in favour of staff tutors), test orientation and cooperation orientation. The discrepancy between the two studies may be explained, at least in part, by the different composition of the non-staff group between the two studies. The non-staff group in our study was more heterogeneous, consisting of both casual and student tutors, thereby blurring the distinction between staff and non-staff, particularly with regard to age – only 8.3% of student tutors were over 40 years compared with 85.7% of casual tutors.
With regard to clinical versus non-clinical tutors, medically-qualified PBL tutors are significantly more likely to make use of their expertise in facilitating their groups' learning and to empathise with their students' lives as medical students. This is not surprising, given their own prior experience as medical students themselves and that they can be assumed to also have a large body of clinically-relevant knowledge which they are able to apply to addressing the problem being studied.
None of these findings are reflected in the students' ratings for the last item in the questionnaire: how well they perceived that their tutor played his/her role (overall effectiveness). This may be due to the relative crudity of the four-point scale for each item in the questionnaire. Such an effect would be particularly noticeable with regard to the item on overall effectiveness which has a maximum score of only four points, as well as a relatively higher standard deviation than those for the other scales. Additionally, when taken in conjunction with the finding of significant correlations between five of the six behaviours and perceived effectiveness, it may be that characteristics other than those measured in this study also contribute to the students' perception of their tutor's effectiveness.
Nevertheless, the lack of a significant difference between clinicians and non-clinicians in students' ratings for overall effectiveness, given that they rate clinicians' use of expertise significantly higher, is striking. This is especially so in view of the substantial correlation between use of expertise and overall effectiveness, and raises the question of what exactly is meant by the term "expertise" in relation to problem-based learning. The issue of whether content experts are more effective as PBL tutors than those without content expertise has been, and continues to be, a subject of debate in the literature with many studies finding in favour of the experts [4
]. In research into PBL in integrated medical curricula, the experts are assumed to be clinicians, with basic scientists and others designated as non-experts for the reasons discussed earlier. However, it is possible that, in First Year of the MBBS where the principal emphasis is on the basic sciences, expertise in the basic sciences is seen as an equally valuable characteristic in PBL tutors as clinical expertise. In contrast, the Second-Year curriculum has a much greater clinical focus and the majority of PBL tutors are medically qualified. A follow-up study of tutors in Year 2 is planned.
An alternative explanation is that it is the way a tutor uses his/her expertise, rather than the degree of expertise, which is important in determining a tutor's score on this scale. That is, it is possible that clinicians adopt a tutor-centred, rather than student-centred approach to PBL tutoring but that this characteristic is not regarded by students as having a major impact on their tutor's effectiveness. Indeed, a recent study has shown that clinicians tend to ask questions directly of students, whereas non-clinicians are more likely to encourage students to ask questions of each other [6
The same argument can be applied to the finding regarding staff versus non-staff tutors. That is, that although full-time staff are more test-oriented and better at establishing a collaborative environment for student learning, these differences are not enough in themselves to impact significantly on overall effectiveness, again suggesting that characteristics other than those measured at least partially influence this assessment.
In summary, these findings suggest that, although clinicians and staff tutors consistently scored higher on each of the measured behaviours than did non-clinicians and non-staff, most of these differences are not statistically significant and do not have a substantial impact on students' assessment of their effectiveness as PBL tutors. This conclusion has implications for the recruitment and training of PBL tutors in that it suggests that both subject matter knowledge and process facilitation skills are necessary but not individually sufficient characteristics of effective tutors. Developing a broad range of strategies to encourage optimal group functioning and to stimulate student learning should therefore be a major focus of tutor preparation.