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Online tutorials and active participation – what do business and law students think?

Author: Kevin Amor FCA, Academic Lead BSc Accounting & Finance, The Open University

Published: 19 May 2023

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The Open University recently undertook a pan-university survey to gauge students’ thoughts on active participation in online tutorials. A significant proportion of business and law students, despite acknowledging the benefits, resist the idea of active learning.

The Open University (OU) offers university-level qualifications to students who may or may-not have the usual entry qualifications needed at most other institutions, such as A-levels. Most students are studying part-time whilst also being in employment or with other similar commitments (caring, family). Accordingly, OU content is delivered predominantly online, asynchronously. Online tutorials are an exception to this, giving students an opportunity to partake in synchronous learning with direct engagement with tutors.

It has become somewhat of a given in higher education, especially for online delivery, that active learning, involving collaborative activities, for example, lead to better learning outcomes (e.g. Lear et al., 2010; Caliskan et al., 2020). However, it is worth noting that resistance to active participation has been detected before (e.g. Vivolo, 2016). The OU’s survey sought to establish the extent to which students find active participation in online tutorials desirable or beneficial.

In the complete study, 620 students answered a range of questions about online tutorials. The sample was taken across the OU’s four faculties, including the Faculty of Business and Law (FBL). This article is going to focus on the responses from FBL students (approximately 11% of responses) only.

Business and law students enjoy online tutorials where they can actively participate and agree that there is a benefit in active participation

The survey tells us that 72.7% of FBL students agreed with the statement ‘I enjoy online tutorials where I can actively take part’. This is a promising start; there are links between enjoying learning and successful motivation, interest and engagement (see for example, Okada & Sheehy, 2020). Indeed, when we move from ‘enjoy’ to recognising ‘benefit’, 68.2% of students agree with the statement ‘I think there is a benefit to me if I actively take part in online tutorials’.


Despite the enjoyment and benefit some students find the thought of active participation stressful and less than half feel confident speaking

When asked to comment on the statement ‘I feel stressed in online tutorials when I am expected to actively take part’, 30.3% of students agreed. This is a sizeable proportion of students. Indeed this may be driving an observed trend at the OU whereby students prefer to watch recordings of online tutorials than partake synchronously. Online recordings of tutorials were watched by 50.6% more students than attended synchronously.

In an associated question, the statement ‘I feel confident speaking in online tutorials’ attracted 42.4% agreement from FBL students.

These findings suggests that online tutors need to be aware of the stress that forced participation may cause. This is particularly challenging in an online environment, where tutors maybe deprived of the visual cues showing discomfort that might be more obvious in a face-to-face setting.

We also need to ask whether the style of online tutorial has an impact:

Business and law students prefer tutorials where they learn by being ‘given’ facts

In response to the statement ‘In online tutorials the tutor's role is to teach facts’, 69.2% of students agreed. In a similar vein, the statement ‘Thinking and reasoning processes are more important than specific module content’, only 37.5% of students agreed with.

Exactly 50% of students preferred online tutorials where the tutor does the talking. Only 35.9% of students agreed with the statement ‘Students learn best by finding solutions to questions and problems on their own’.

This suggests that business and law students prefer to be given information and methods rather than being taught learning processes or encouraged to learn by discovery. One has to wonder if this an artefact of the subject matter where, for example, a significant proportion may be concerned with regulatory matters. For comparison, only 47% of non-FBL students agreed with the first statement in this section (‘In online tutorials the tutor's role is to teach facts’).

So why do students choose to not participate actively?

We can bring these last two finds together and ask why students have not participated actively in the past. The top responses are given in this chart:
Graph showing why students did not take part in activities
The top reason given was that students simply did not wish to partake actively, ‘I was happy to just listen’. This lends some support for traditional ways of teaching with the expert transferring knowledge to the student. Other reasons include being worried about what other students (and to a lesser extent tutors) might think. This is presumably the perennial fear of asking a ‘stupid’ question. There is also the problem, that might be OU-specific, that the student had not yet arrived at the appropriate part of the module. At the OU, students have some flexibility in the pace at which they can study, though this is constrained somewhat by assessment deadlines.


It has become a modern day mantra that learning is most effective when it involves active learning, through active participation, by for example collaborating in authentic activities. Indeed most students enjoy such activities and recognise their benefits. However not all students feel comfortable actively participating and this is not their preferred approach to learning.

A significant cohort of students find the expectation of active participation stressful and less than half of students reported feeling confident speaking in online tutorials. Nearly twice as many students thought that tutors should provide facts in online tutorials rather than teaching how to think and learn. Barely over a third of students thought that the best way to learn was though personal discovery.

All of this suggests that to an uncomfortable degree current academic approaches to learning in respect of active participation in online tutorials are not aligned to students’ comfort zones or beliefs in how they should be taught. Such misalignment may cause friction between tutors and students and lead to disengagement and demotivation from significant sections of the student community.

Can this friction be reduced? To those students who find participation stressful, tutors might allow students to flag that they do not wish to be approached to participate (asked a question or invited to provide a view). Possibly a symbol could be used online or a student could add ‘DND’ (‘do not disturb’) to their name when they join the tutorial.

To address the differing styles of learning between students (and tutors – also surveyed but not addressed in this article), departments might offer two styles of tutorial for each event – one participative and one not. This would allow a closer match between student-learning and tutor-teaching preferences (at the OU, most tutorials are run more than once due to the large numbers involved. This may not be a practical suggestion elsewhere.).

Given the increase in online learning throughout the sector, academics will need to more actively monitor the alignment of their approaches to students’ learning and personal preferences.


Caliskan, S., Kurbanov, R. A., Platonova, R. I., Ishmuradova, A. M., Vasbieva, D. G., & Merenkova, I. V. (2020). Lecturers Views of Online Instructors about Distance Education and Adobe Connect. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning (iJET), 15(23), 145–157. https://doi.org/10.3991/ijet.v15i23.18807.

Lear, J.L., Ansorge, C., & Steckelberg, A.L. (2010). Interactivity/Community Process Model for the Online Education Environment.

Okada, A., & Sheehy, K. (2020). Factors and Recommendations to Support Students’ Enjoyment of Online Learning With Fun: A Mixed Method Study During COVID-19. Frontiers in Education, 5 (December). https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2020.584351.

Vivolo, J. (2016) Understanding and Combating Resistance to Online Learning. Science Progress, 99(4), pp. 399-412. DOI 10.3184/003685016X14773090197742.

*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.