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Teaching and Learning Forum 2008 [ Refereed papers ]
Are workshops a valuable way to engage the future student? Evaluating workshops and tutorials in Women's Studies

Eleanor Sandry
English and Cultural Studies
The University of Western Australia

Since 1997 Women's Studies units at the University of Western Australia (UWA) have been structured to include one lecture, one workshop and one tutorial each teaching week. These classes are an hour in length and each fulfils a specific role in the teaching and learning strategy for the unit. In particular, workshops were introduced to act as bridges between lectures and tutorials. This paper revisits the concept of workshop teaching in the context of Women's Studies at UWA, and re-evaluates, ten years after the introduction of this type of class, how workshop teaching is understood to function by both lecturers and students. The project on which this paper is based consisted of a student survey and informal interviews with members of staff. The results of the project have been used here to explore whether including workshop classes can be seen to increase the learning opportunities for students over and above the more common practice of providing two hours of lectures and a one-hour tutorial or a one-hour lecture and a two-hour tutorial in Arts and Humanities units. It is suggested that, although the use of workshops needs to be considered carefully in the context of each unit's structure and requirements, workshops can provide a valuable way of engaging students in a process of interactive learning. Workshops are shown to situate students' understandings within a broad social and cultural context, as well as enlarging their thought by exposing them to the opinions and perspectives of many other students taking part in the unit.


Introduction

This paper is based on a project carried out as part of the Teaching Internship programme at the University of Western Australia (UWA). The project structure included a survey of students taking the Women's Studies unit, Sex, Bodies, Spaces at UWA in first semester 2007. In addition, informal interviews were conducted with five members of staff in Women's Studies at UWA all of whom have experience in conducting workshop classes.

The project was framed in terms of analysing what the impact would be of discontinuing workshops in the SBS unit, in favour of introducing two-hour tutorials. Presenting the project in this way helped to focus students' responses, by stressing the importance of their input in the process of possible change to the unit, and also by encouraging them to consider carefully the relative value of their workshop and tutorial experiences.

This paper has been structured to present the student survey in the context of an understanding of the aims and possibilities of workshops in Women's Studies units at UWA provided by the informal interviews with staff. It also contains some additional background material that positions the use of workshops specifically in terms of feminist epistemologies and also more broadly as part of current educational theory.

After presenting the findings of the project, the paper then highlights some issues with, and possibilities offered by, running workshops. It concludes by drawing together the theory, results and discussion presented in the paper, with the aim of considering the value of workshops as classes for future students.

The background of workshops in Women's Studies at UWA

Jane Long and Delys Bird introduced workshops into Women's Studies units at UWA in 1997, and my interview with Jane Long clarified that the original aim of the workshops was to engage students in active, hands-on, participation, by providing a class for which "you had to be there". Workshops were specifically designed to "provide bridges - dynamic zones - between lectures and tutorials". While this placed workshops somewhere between lectures and tutorials, the emphasis on promoting student discussion and participation, with teachers acting as facilitators, mediators or modulators, clearly distinguished them from being another lecture. In addition, workshops were designed to support a sense of being part of the unit's whole student cohort, rather than just being a member of a small tutorial group. By doing this, they were seen as a way to combat the problems of stagnation and small group dynamics that sometimes afflict tutorials.

While the decision to introduce workshops was not overtly based on any particular formulation of feminist educational theory, it almost certainly was influenced by Jane Long's and Delys Bird's backgrounds in feminist theory. Their introduction of workshops can therefore be linked with ideas of knowledge as empowerment and an education practice in which the teacher is seen as less important combined with a desire to transfer more control to students. These theories are clearly supported by the primary aims of the workshop format: to make students more engaged; to increase their participation; and to remain mindful of the problems of equality and access to education.

However, while not explicitly linked to any particular theory at the time of their introduction, this paper stresses that workshops can be clearly understood in terms draw from feminist epistemologies, such as the work of Donna Haraway (1988) concerning "situated knowledges". In this work, Haraway seeks to formulate a workable idea of objectivity that is acceptable in a feminist framework. In the process, she describes a knowledge that is partial, locatable, responsible and critical. Haraway therefore emphasises the need, both to acknowledge the perspectives giving rise to any piece of knowledge, and to be open to the perspectives of others. An alternative understanding is offered by Barbara J. Thayer-Bacon's concept of "relational epistemology" (Thayer-Bacon, 1997). In a similar way to Haraway, Thayer-Bacon stresses the need to value contributions from all people, even where this results in multiplicity, dissonance and discord. She defines relational epistemology as viewing "knowledge as something that is socially constructed by embedded, embodied people who are in relation to each other".

It should also be noted that these feminist theories of knowledge articulate well with educational research that values the activity and participation of the learner over the presentation of material by the teacher (Laurillard, 2002; Ramsden, 1992; Biggs, 2003), as well as theories concerning the importance of a social basis of learning as described by Vygotsky (1978). Such research emphasises the effectiveness of the construction of knowledge by the learner, as opposed to the instruction of the learner by a teacher.

Workshops support these conceptions of knowledge and the learning process in a number of ways. As Steven Schacht (2000) has also noted, the participants in such classes represent a number of "situated knowledges". In workshops, these various perspectives are contributed, valued and used to help students develop their own understandings of the theory introduced in the unit. These understandings then drive their critical analysis of popular culture, and students become actively engaged in the collective production of their own knowledge.

Survey of students taking the Sex, Bodies, Spaces unit at UWA in 2007

The section presents the results of a survey of students taking the SBS unit in the first semester of 2007.

Method

Figure 1

Figure 1: The survey questionnaire

The survey questionnaire, shown in Figure 1, followed a very simple design, and covered only one side of A4 paper. It contained some quantitative questions that required students to answer with values on a scale of either one to three or one to five as appropriate. In addition, there were some open-ended qualitative questions asking students to respond with a brief written answer. The survey was kept short in order to focus students on answering the relatively small number of quantitative questions carefully, while giving sufficient time for considered responses to the qualitative questions.

Students were asked to complete the questionnaires during the short break between the lecture and the workshop in the ninth week of semester.

Results

A summary of the quantitative results from the student survey where questions related to the workshops is shown in Table 1. These results indicate that over 70% of students had not attended this type of workshop class before. While students did often sit with the same people each week, they did not tend to sit with members of their tutorial group. The answers students gave indicate some ambivalence; both about how much they enjoy workshops, and how much value they think workshops offer towards the unit. However, the mean of both these scores does show that they are slightly more positive than negative about workshops.

Table 1: About the workshops


YesNo
Do you attend the workshops?100%0%
Have you attended workshops like these before in other units?29%71%

Mean
(scale 1-3)
RangeStandard
error of mean
Do you sit with the same people each week?2.752-30.08
Do you sit with members of your tutorial group?1.751-30.13

Mean
(scale 1-5)
RangeStandard
error of mean
Do you enjoy the workshops?3.712-50.13
Are the workshops a valuable part of this unit?3.392-50.16

Table 2 shows a summary of the quantitative results from questions related to tutorials in the student survey. These results show that the majority of students both enjoy the tutorials, and value these classes as an important part of the unit. However, the rest of the questions in this section of the survey elicited a broader range scores from students. Students' opinions varied over whether tutorials would be better as longer classes, and the mean score is slightly towards the negative. There was a slightly positive result indicating that some students felt they would benefit from a tutor led section in the tutorial, and this was supported by a slightly negative result when asked if tutorials should remain entirely student led.

Table 2: About the tutorials


YesNo
Do you attend the tutorials?100%0%

Mean
(scale 1-5)
RangeStandard
error of mean
Do you enjoy the tutorials?4.322-5 0.15
Are the tutorials a valuable part of this unit?4.432-50.14
Do you think the tutorials should be longer?2.681-50.29
Would you like tutor led and student led sections in the tutorial?3.571-50.19
Would you prefer to keep the whole tutorial student led?2.391-50.20

The qualitative questions about the workshops and tutorials provoked many interesting responses from students, and they clearly showed their engagement, both with the unit, and with the idea of being asked what they thought about the classes used in teaching the unit.

When asked what they liked most about workshops, student replies centred on two main themes. The theme most commonly expressed related to a perception of workshops as interactive classes that allow students to put the theories introduced in the unit into a real life context. Students indicated that they enjoy thinking about the materials presented in workshops, such as video clips, magazines and case studies. They appreciate the workshops as an opportunity to explore theory in the context of real-life examples, in an interactive and engaging forum. For example, "[workshops] give us the opportunity to explore the themes of the unit in interesting ways and to apply the theory we learn to real situations". The second theme arising from asking students want they liked about workshops emphasised one aspect of the students' perceptions of the difference between workshops and tutorials. While both types of classes are designed to support student discussion of concepts and examples, the workshops were valued as a time when students could focus on sharing perspectives and ideas with other students. They liked the fact that the workshop situation often started with student group discussion, before there was a requirement to report back to the class as a whole, or talk to a tutor or to the unit coordinator. Workshops were seen as more relaxed than tutorials, but still offering a valuable learning opportunity. For example, "[w]e get the opportunity to discuss concepts with classmates before saying them out loud to the lecturer. In the tutorial it's a bit harder because anything you say is in front of the whole group and the tutor, you can't freely discuss things first".

When asked what they liked least about workshops, the student replies showed a number of themes. However, these can all be related to the way that many students' felt there was a lack of clear structure for at least some of the workshops. Student felt that at times they went off track, they were not always sure what they should be discussing and that sometimes discussion was rather stilted. In addition, workshops that required them to report back to the whole class were sometimes felt not to work as well. For example, "[t]hough we discuss in small groups (which is great), sometimes bringing up ideas to the entire class seems like too much".

Students were also asked if they had any suggestions for improving the workshops. In general, they felt that it was important to have clearly structured workshops, which introduce new example material to help them contextualise their thinking about theory. Some students expressed the fact that discussion times were sometimes too long, or simply that workshops were too long. In addition, those students who didn't like the workshop format tended to suggest that they would prefer the workshop material to be presented as part of a longer tutorial.

When students were asked what they liked most about tutorials, their answers showed similarities with their reasons for liking workshops. Answers centred around the importance of broad discussion, sharing different perspectives and opinions, asking questions and expressing ideas arising from different cultural backgrounds. For example, "[y]ou get a vast array of opinions, perspectives and ideas which you can directly relate to". Students also liked the fact that tutorials consisted of student-led presentations and activities each week: "I enjoy the discussions that arise from student presentations".

The aspects that students liked least about tutorials normally revolved around the perception that tutor's did not take an active enough role, either by presenting information, keeping discussions on topic or by ensuring that all students were able to contribute. Some students also felt that tutorials were not focussed enough on the readings: "[sometimes it seems like we don't really discuss the readings too much but just have broad discussions". There were also some comments stating that tutorials were too short.

Suggestions for improving tutorials included, as would be expected from the responses to the other questions detailed above: making them longer, controlling participation more closely and introducing a tutor-led section to the tutorials.

Discussion

Although the majority of students had not attended this type of workshop before, it is encouraging to note that the responses of students to the survey show that they share a similar understanding about the aims of workshops as the staff who introduced the classes in 1997. For example, "[workshops] offer a different perspective and 'way into' the tutorial material than enables further discussion in tutes". It is also interesting that most students do not choose to sit with members of their tutorial group, and some student comments highlight the value of "being able to talk to people outside of [their] tutorial". Workshops may therefore allow these students to circumvent the small group dynamic of tutorials and access a broader range of opinions, a possible benefit of workshops noted by Jane Long.

The students also value aspects of workshops that position the classes in terms of feminist epistemologies. For example, students note that workshops offer the "opportunity to talk directly to other students and hear their perspectives". Again, the perception is of workshops supporting their experience of a broad range of opinions from other students in the unit.

The survey contained two questions that enable a direct comparison between student perceptions of tutorials and of workshops: "Do you enjoy the workshops/tutorials?" and "Are the workshops/tutorials a valuable part of the unit?". It can be seen from the mean scores for these questions that, even taking into account the standard error in the mean, the majority of students both enjoyed and valued tutorials over workshops. These results are highlighted in the graphs shown at Figure 2 and Figure 3.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Comparing how much students enjoy tutorials and workshops

Figure 3

Figure 3: Comparing how students value tutorials and workshops

However, it should be noted that the students are still more positive than negative about workshops. It is also worth considering these results in light of some of the students' qualitative comments. For example, many students expressed their feeling that workshops needed more structure in order to operate effectively, and it seems that at various stages students were unclear over what they were supposed to be discussing, and what they might be asked to present back to the class as a whole. It is therefore possible that students' perceptions of workshops, both as enjoyable and as valuable, might be improved by responding to these issues and offering further clarification of the aims, structure and outcomes of the workshops in the future.

Student opinions were slightly negative over the question of lengthening tutorials. However, there was some support for introducing a short tutor-led section to the tutorial. Given the qualitative comments about tutorials the tutor should probably aim to clearly establish the topic for the tutorial, and also maybe focus students more closely on the readings as the initial source for discussion. However, the tutorial group should also be encouraged to move onto a broader discussion of the topic for the week as the class progresses.

The written comments of students do show that they feel workshops and tutorials in SBS have similar outcomes, with a clear emphasis on the ideas of promoting student discussion and putting theory into a popular cultural context. However, some students were aware of having access to a more diverse range of their peers' perspectives in workshops, an idea that was also expressed by staff. In addition, the interview with Jacqueline Van Gent clarified that in some other Women's Studies units the differences between the two classes are clearer. For example, in the first year unit, Days of Our Lives, both the lectures and tutorials concentrate on developing students' understandings of relevant theory and critical analysis of scholarly texts. For this unit, the workshop class is the main opportunity that students have to express their personal experiences, and put the theory into the context of various aspects of popular culture.

Conclusion

As described in the introduction, the project that formed the basis of this paper was framed in terms of analysing what the impact would be of discontinuing the use of workshops in the SBS unit, in favour of introducing two-hour tutorials.

It could be argued from the discussion above that, because the goals of tutorials and workshops in this unit are fairly similar, it would probably be possible to discontinue the workshops and extend the length of the tutorials. However, the survey also indicates that some students do appreciate workshops as offering a valuable and different learning experience from tutorials. It is also clear that some of the workshops require structural clarification, and if this were provided they would then be more likely to be appreciated as a valuable and unique contribution to the learning opportunities provided by the unit. This therefore supports the conclusion that discontinuing workshops in the SBS unit, while possible, would reduce the range of options available for student learning.

The challenges of running workshops

All of the members of staff whom I interviewed in relation to this project stressed that workshops were probably some of the most demanding classes that they organise and run for students. This is because of the amount of time and effort it takes to prepare them well, which includes finding and presenting interesting material, working out thought-provoking questions and keeping the workshops up-to-date year on year. The latter point was seen as essential by all staff, because of the reliance of workshops on presenting material from what is relevant in popular culture for each new student cohort. In addition to the preparation time, the process of running the workshops also takes a tremendous amount of energy, and for some lecturers, provokes a certain level of nervous tension. This is, in part, because workshops require the lecturer to be able to respond to how the workshop develops as it runs. All the staff who have run workshops acknowledged that, while a workshop should have a clear structure, it is also important to be able to "go with the flow on the day".

The idea that workshops require a high level of confidence in one's ability to "think on one's feet" at the time the workshop runs may also mean that they are to a certain extent reliant on a lecturer's personal style, and their comfort with this need for quick responses to comments, questions and changes in direction or focus as the workshop is taking place.

On a more bureaucratic note, it is also important to highlight that the way in which workshops are positioned, somewhere between the more commonly used lectures and tutorials, makes it very difficult to quantify their value in terms of contact hours or teaching load. However, it is particularly important that the efforts of teaching staff in creating workshops, selecting material, running them and taking student responses at the end of the class, should be fairly calculated as a part of their teaching commitments.

The possibilities of workshops

Well-designed and dynamic workshops can offer students an unprecedented opportunity to discuss the unit material and how this relates to their own ideas, both with their peers as a cohort and with lecturers in the unit. Workshops offer broader opportunities for discussion than tutorials, and access to lecturers as opposed to tutors, which in some units may be an important distinction. In this way, workshops can be seen to fit within a complete strategy of teaching that includes presenting material in lectures, as well as promoting student discussion.

During the interviews I carried out with staff from Women's Studies a number of different ideas for materials to provide and ways to run workshops were highlighted:

Workshops for the future student

This paper suggests that before introducing workshops both the context of the unit's structure and requirements, and the challenges of running workshops effectively, need to be considered carefully. However, it also indicates that in many cases workshops would improve student engagement, by providing unique, interactive student learning opportunities. A further consideration is that workshops have the additional advantage of enabling teaching staff to work with increasingly large student cohorts, while still providing interactive and thought-provoking sessions that are currently more often associated with resource intensive, small group tutorials.

In general terms, this paper has shown that staff and student perceptions of the function of workshops are similar. The particular value of workshops - in situating students' understandings within a broad social and cultural context, as well as enlarging their thought by exposing them to the opinions and perspectives of many other students taking part in the unit - supports them as worthy of careful consideration when planning the education of the future student. Such an understanding is in line both with feminist theories of education and knowledge, and with current thinking on best teaching practice, which advocates the idea of teaching as supporting students in the construction of their own knowledge, rather than simply instructing them with what they need to know.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the members of staff in Women's Studies at UWA that were interviewed for this paper: A/Prof Jane Long, Dr Alison Bartlett, Dr Jacqueline Van Gent, Dr Chantal Bourgault and Dr Tama Leaver.

References

Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575-599.

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking university teaching: A conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies (2nd ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to teach in higher education. London: Routledge.

Schacht, S. (2000). Using a feminist pedagogy as a male teacher: The possibilities of a partial and situated perspective. Radical Pedagogy, 2(2). [retrieved 19 Jun 2007] http://radicalpedagogy.icaap.org/content/issue2_2/schacht.html

Thayer-Bacon, B. (1997). The nurturing of a relational epistemology. Educational Theory, 47(2), 239-260.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Author: Eleanor Sandry was awarded a BA Honours in Natural Sciences in the UK in 1991. After emigrating to Australia, she completed a Masters in Communication Studies at UWA in 2005, with a thesis presenting positive support for the use of lectures in higher education. She is now a doctoral candidate in the School of Social and Cultural Studies, and completed the project on which this paper reports as part of the UWA Teaching Internship programme. Email: eleanor@cyllene.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Sandry, E. (2008). Are workshops a valuable way to engage the future student? Evaluating workshops and tutorials in Women's Studies. In Preparing for the graduate of 2015. Proceedings of the 17th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2008. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2008/refereed/sandry.html

Copyright 2008 Eleanor Sandry. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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