Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

Which way next? Sustaining innovative changes in units with multiple tutors

Susan Hall, Chris King and Bill Lawrance
Curtin University of Technology

Curriculum development at the level of university classroom teaching is exacting and labour intensive work, which, if undertaken in a systematic and collaborative manner, can be extremely rewarding for the students and lecturer involved. However, as enrolments increase or the same innovations are incorporated into other units and multiple teachers are involved, then a new phase of curriculum development is needed to sustain the changes to teaching practice. This second phase of development is the dilemma which is considered in this paper.

The paper begins with an outline of a curriculum development program in cross-cultural education carried out over the course of Semester Two in 1994. This outline is elucidated by cases sketches depicting two examples of classroom curriculum development carried within the program and the dilemmas which were faced as the changes were undertaken by tutors in the following year. Next the dilemmas are "unpacked" in light of some of the literature on curriculum development which offers deeper understandings of the problem in context. Finally, questions are posed with a view to ascertaining the most strategic and practical ways forward.

The Curriculum Development Program

The curriculum development program was a structured program for the lecturers who worked within a facilitated action research group. [1] After preliminary and introductory workshops, the program ran as a sequence of concentrated classroom curriculum development initiatives by each lecturer supported by individual conferences with the facilitator and facilitated group reflection sessions. The program concluded at the end of the semester with a full day workshop in which the lecturers presented their outcomes and curriculum development processes and also considered further strategies for dissemination and publication.

As part of the individual conference and the group reflection sessions the lecturers designed and undertook to carry out strategies for achieving consultation and collaboration within their immediate work contexts. They decided to:

  1. Inform their Heads of Schools and/or Departments and elicit support for their projects
  2. Notify colleagues of their undertaking in a manner appropriate to the organisational ethos. (For example give a seminar and seek feedback, chat informally or circulate a memo)
  3. Enlist a "critical friend" to discuss data and reflections
  4. Present findings and a summary of the process to colleagues at the end of the development period
Two of these successful projects are summarised below along with accounts of what happened when it came to passing the new methods on to teams of tutors. As stated elsewhere (Hall, S., 1995, p. 3) each of the five projects undertaken was considered a success in producing the following changes as quoted below.

The program did make a difference to the quality of teaching and learning:

  1. Unit outlines were redesigned to increase student participation and interaction between cultural groups;
  2. Unit content was changed to increase relevance;
  3. New teaching approaches and processes were adopted to meet observed student needs;
  4. Assessment procedures were altered to increase the emphasis on active learning;
  5. Student feedback was regularly sought and made use of in both short term and long term planning;
  6. The student learning environment was improved; and
  7. Pass rates were raised by instances of successfully intervening where students were at risk of failure.
Two of the successful projects are summarised below along with accounts of what happened when it came to passing the new methods on to a team of tutors. The summaries of two of the projects, below, provide some insight to the particular curriculum changes made as well as to the processes used within each context.

Case Studies of Classroom Curriculum Development

Case One:   Action Research In a Large Class With Multiple Tutors (Chris King)

As a teacher in a university with a high number of students with a non-English speaking background I have observed an increase in the cultural division of the classroom. Most often the classroom has been divided into three components: the Anglo/ English speaking background student, the Australian student with a Non-English speaking background and the International Student. I have felt this division is not a good thing and as a result I undertook action research into two of my classes to overcome this division.

In 1994 I undertook action research to carry out curriculum development in a small international graduate unit, International Marketing, which I was the only lecturer. The aim was to increase cross-cultural interaction within the classroom so that students gained cultural knowledge, cultural understanding and students developed the skills to work in a cross-cultural team. This research was extremely successful and so in 1995 I adopted an action research approach to develop cross-cultural interaction in a large class with six tutorials groups and three tutors. The case sketch which follows looks at the problems encountered in engaging a team of tutors in an investigative approach to curriculum change.

Situation Analysis

The action research was undertaken in a second /third year optional advertising unit within a commerce degree. The unit runs in Semesters One and Two and has an average of 150 students per semester. The unit consisted of equal percentage of male and female students and the majority of students were full time students and aged between 19 to 21 years. The ethnic background of students varied considerably; there was a large percentage of international students and Australian students with non-Anglo backgrounds.

The Unit Assessment

The unit assessment consists of one individual journal component, two group projects and one examination at the end of the year. The greatest difficulty with the unit is ensuring that group work is based on equity in participation and in equal opportunity within the groups.

There is always difficulty with students doing group work but over the years I have generally found that the inequity in group participation was due to a lack of communication in groups. The result is that students do not have a shared project goal. Work loads are not delegated, or they are delegated but not clearly communicated and students are not sure as to what they are suppose to be doing. Alternatively, there is a leader who takes on the load of the project but does not want to share the information. I have overcome this to a large degree by discussing working in groups and spending time with students if they do encounter difficulties, but it has now become evident that there is also a problem of discrimination within the groups. This problem has been reported to me directly by students, in students open-ended evaluation forms, from students through appeals and reporting to equity boards. I do not want to give the impression that there were large numbers of complaints but, rather, that there were a small, consistent number of complaints. I wanted to reduce this problem and I decided to improve the situation by:

  1. Continuing with discussion about group work and delegation of tasks.
  2. Devoting more time in class to students getting to know each other and appreciating the diversity of their backgrounds. I hoped that by encouraging knowledge and understanding of other people I would be able to reduce stereotyping and increase learning.
The reasons I adopted an action research approach for the problem were:
  1. It was important to student learning. The research would increase student learning by increasing participation, involvement and learning.
  2. It was something which could be changed. Student understanding of different perceptions, values are essential to today's business environment and must be achieved if we are to enter the international trading arena. We also need to understand, appreciate and learn from these differences if we are to achieve social equity and justice in our communities. Within the classroom this can be achieved by removing culture barriers so we are on equal footing.
  3. I believed the research to be manageable in size, time and politically. The research was designed to be implemented within the semester and, although it would take time for liaison with tutors and students, I considered the time allocated to be reasonable.

Actions: Changes to the Unit Outline

The unit outline had been changed to encourage participation, reduce discrimination and group work problems but the difficulty was to make this relevant to an advertising unit, to convince the tutors of the importance of these changes and to gain their cooperation.

Students were told in the lecture that I had introduced changes into the unit to encourage students to know each other, to improve group work, to increase their learning, and hopefully, to increase their enjoyment of the class. The need for feedback from students was also discussed and accepted by students. However, unlike in the 1994 study, the actual action research project and process was not explained to the students.

Changes to the outline included:

  1. The first two tutorials consisted of class exercises which concentrated on students getting to know each other, including knowing each others' names and backgrounds. The first exercise was a cultural building exercise which was designed to encourage students to introduce each other and to gain an understanding of the diversity and value of the background of fellow students. The second exercise was a Competitive Advertising Strategy: A Matrix Game. The exercise relates to interpersonal communication and again is designed for students to get to know other students in the class before they select their groups. Both games were set around groups of five so that students should get to know.

  2. The third and fourth tutorials were based on the design of a promotional plan. This plan is directly related to the unit and students were to work with their selected group to ensure they got to know each other and to determine any problems straight away. This gave the students the opportunity to remedy problems or change groups if this was appropriate.

  3. All other tutorials are based on class participation with other students so that the class got to know each other and learn about the unit. The aim was to increase participation, learning, enjoyment of the unit, to encourage cultural understanding and tolerance and to reduce conflict due to cultural diversity and cultural misunderstanding.
The complete procedure was explained to the tutors prior to the commencement of the unit and their cooperation was given. These changes were set in place and again discussed with tutors in Week One, Week Four, mid-semester and the end of the semester.

The Feedback

Feedback was received from the tutors and the students and it was the difference in the feedback that indicated the problem.

The Tutors

To obtain feedback from tutors I paid them for additional meeting time and due to their different timetables I had individual meetings with the tutors. Feedback from the tutors was favourable and according to the tutors all was going well. The tutors had eliminated mini -lectures during the tutorials and they were concentrating on the tutorial exercises. They believed that the program was working.

The Students

During the lecture which followed the fourth tutorial I asked students to fill in an evaluation of the tutorials. To my surprise, excluding my own class, less than 33% had completed both the exercises or attempted the exercises during the tutorials and very few had completed the exercise with the students who hey had chosen to complete their major assignments with. Some students stated they were put into groups and they had changed these groups themselves. Students attitudes about the exercises were also poor; one student asking rather sarcastically whether the exam paper was going to be ...a social question?

Of the minority of students who had completed the group exercise with their group members all stated this helped them in establishing their group except for a couple who had already decided their group and knew the group members well. I felt very let down by the tutors for not completing the exercises and not stressing the purpose of the exercises when they did conduct them, but on the other hand I could understand their situation. These tutors are paid as casual staff and paid for hours worked only. Although I paid the tutors to attend meetings with me, they are paid no additional time for changing their teaching style and as my tutors are very knowledgeable, I did not want to alienate them.

To check the situation I dropped into one tutor's class the following week only to find a mini lecture in place. I again emphasised the importance of spending time in the tutorials on journals and on assisting with the promotional plans but I know, from discussions with the students, that this did not take place.

The Results

I eventually continued with the exercises in my class only and concentrated on the students' journals, portfolios and on students" integrated learning. I am a hard marker and yet my students results were higher than other tutorials. I believe this result is due to the fact that I spent time with them on their individual and group work. Furthermore, I did not mark my students exam papers and they received higher marks than other classes. This is unusual as I mark harder than other tutors and in the past my students have not received the highest grades for the unit.

This situation leaves me with the dilemma of how to sustain successful classroom curriculum changes in teams of tutors who have no time or resources with which to experiment with their teaching.

Case Two:   Dilemmas in University Teaching: the experience in first year Electrical Engineering at Curtin University (Bill Lawrance)


In second semester 1994 an innovative cross-cultural curriculum development project was undertaken in the School of Electrical Engineering at Curtin University. The project involved a common first year unit (Electrical Engineering 102) taken by all engineering students in either First or Second semester. The unit consists of a one hour lecture and one hour laboratory session each week. Feedback from students and my own observations revealed several problems associated with the unit. These included:
  1. The laboratory program was organised around a prescriptive lab. manual which students found to be extremely boring. This manual effectively stifled student initiative and interest in the laboratory. The laboratory component of the unit was of limited educational value as students were simply required to follow a "recipe".

  2. Communication skills of students (both oral and written) were not enhanced by the program and stayed at a low level. Although students worked in groups of three in the laboratories there was little evidence of coordinated group activity. Report writing was limited to filling in blanks in the manual.
A new laboratory program aimed at addressing the above concerns was developed through an action research approach. Specific aims of the action research project were:
  1. To enhance the first year learning experience.
  2. To foster teamwork - especially cross-cultural teamwork.
  3. To develop students oral and written communication skills.
Actions taken
  1. Breaking down the size of and increasing the number of lab. sessions to be taught.
  2. Teaching the lab. sessions myself alongside tutors who assisted.
  3. Dispensing with the old laboratory manual and replacing it with a "lab guide". This guide gave a list of weekly laboratory activities. Most of these activities were open ended, investigative exercises without any specific instructions.
  4. Students were arranged into groups of three with a deliberate cross-cultural mix.
  5. Pre-lab. work was required, where the group would plan their proposed lab. activity.
  6. Introducing a major assignment which was to be completed by individual lab. groups.

Project outcomes

The outcomes of the project were extremely favourable. Based on survey results the students claimed to have:
  1. Enjoyed the laboratory sessions.
  2. Made friends with students from other cultural backgrounds.
  3. Learned more than in comparable courses using traditional methods.
In addition to this positive feedback, the examination results showed an upwards trend in the pass rate although it would be premature to ascribe this solely to the new program. The conclusion was, that despite the extra involvement required by staff in the labs. the new program had made a significant improvement to teaching and learning for first year students within the School.


The following semester (1/95) the unit ran again, with an increased enrolment of 280. Although I gave the lectures, the lab. sessions were allocated out, mainly to postgraduate students. Unfortunately, one of the tutors, who had been very involved in the curriculum development, and who had been my "critical friend " on the project in 1994, was not re-appointed when his contract expired. (He failed in his application for the job because he did not have a doctorate.) I sent copies of the new program to laboratory supervisors and told them this was how the program should run. To my surprise the program did not run successfully. There were complaints from both students and staff that the lab. sessions were dis-organised, that they were not sure what was trying to be achieved, that assessment was difficult etc. Worst of all was the query as to when the old lab. manuals would be available again. In retrospect there are some actions which I consider would have helped promote the new program. For example:
  1. Advertise the success of the initial program. A campus-wide seminar was conducted at the Teaching Learning Group in the university, however this was not attended by staff from the School of Electrical Engineering.

  2. Discuss with laboratory supervisors what the aims of the new program were. Obviously there was some confusion here as the postgraduates related the lab. sessions to their own experiences in First year.

  3. The new program was seen to be an interesting concept with "belonged" to me. Since the program was meant to be modified each year it would have been appropriate to have input from the new supervisors so that they felt some ownership of the program themselves.
While these two case sketches by Chris and Bill are examples of curriculum change in vastly different disciplines within the university they expose a common dilemma.

The Dilemma: How to sustain quality teaching practices with a changing staff?

What happened in each of the cases presented above? The innovations were both successful when conducted by the lecturers in their own classes. Both lecturers strategically and successfully elicited support and collaboration from those who would teach the unit with them. In Bill's case his co-lecturer was not successful in winning the contract for his job in the second year because he didn't have a PhD and Bill found himself with an entirely new team. Chris, on the other hand, introduced her curriculum changes as an experiment in a different unit of study. Even though her team of tutors were consulted in a collaborative manner and appeared to be well intended towards the innovation, the impetus eventually waned due to the constraints brought about by the working conditions of sessional academic staff. In both cases attempts to involve those who would be teaching the unit were inadvertently sabotaged by the circumstances relating to the employment of teaching staff.

This dilemma can be considered more closely in the light of some of the literature on curriculum development which will now be considered. An important consideration is that both lecturers planned their innovations in keeping with the principles of, what is known in education circles as, the "bottom-up" approach to curriculum development. This is evidenced in the way that they involved their co-workers and sought their commitment as well as their input to the ideas and methods. Because the innovators strategically attended to the processes of consultation and collaboration one might have expected the ownership of the innovation to have broadened (This is a concept which is often proffered in literature on curriculum change, see for example Smith & Lovett, 1995, p. 175).

That the tutors didn't appropriate the investigative approach to curriculum development, is possibly due to some unforeseen contextual constraints which are also mentioned in the literature. First, innovations in teaching are often overlooked in universities, where the ethos is commonly dominated by research rather than by teaching (Gappa and Leslie, 1993; Ramsden, Margetson, Martin and Clarke, 1995, p.2; Stuart Hunter, 1995). This is evidenced in the plight of Bill's co-worker from the 1994 project. It appears his interest and involvement in teaching carried little weight in his application to continue in his contract position. Second, it is common for innovators in teaching to be isolated in their immediate work situations (see Hancock, Clark, Rea and Fitzpatrick, 1982, p. 25). Certainly, both lecturers experienced some degree of "going it alone", despite their successful efforts to generate interest. Third, the role of unit co-ordinators, in balancing respect for autonomy (as an essential element of academe) with the need to ensure that the underlying values and content of a unit are actually taught, is a difficult one. When it comes to cross-cultural education there is a basic need for tutors to have new information. Goldstein (1994, p. 115) elucidates this point when he says, "Faculty who mean well but who are uniformed cannot promote social justice in the classrooms". However, this is not always easily solved for as Stenhouse (1975, p. 169) points out, introducing new knowledge or new teaching methods can be so disturbing as to threaten the identity of a teacher. Fourth, the time and monetary constraints of casual staff can make it almost impossible for them to engage in experiments with their teaching or to attend professional development programs (Hall and Slaney, 1995). Therefore, for all of the above reasons, tutors (including many full-time staff) often develop their own ways of teaching and stick to them.

Sustaining Quality with a Changing Teaching Staff

If one is to take seriously the first indications of the findings of the Committee for the Review of Management of Higher Educational Institutions then the above dilemma and the contextual issues underpinning it are likely to escalate. According to the findings reported in the Higher Education Supplement of the Australian (13/12/95) the Committee recommends that the tenure quotas be waved. If this eventuates then there is likely to be more casual staff, a higher staff turnover and fewer tenured staff to co-ordinate the teaching of units. In such a situation the task of conducting and sustaining quality innovations in teaching will become even more difficult. Which way from here? Is it solvable or does it point to a need for change to the internal organisation of university Schools/faculties? If so we should note the following cautionary comment made by a curriculum theorist in reference to curriculum in the primary and secondary education systems,
Curriculum innovation requires change in the internal organisation of the school. Change in the internal oragnisation of the school is a major innovation ... (Hoyle,1972a in Stenhouse, 1975, p. 172)


  1. The project was initiated by a lecturer who was a member of the Curtin University Cross-Cultural Education Network. Funding was provided through an Equity and Access grant from within the campus and it was administered by the Cross-Cultural Education Coordinator. From this funding small grants of $2500 were made available to successful applicants who subsequently became the cross-cultural curriculum action research group.


Gappa, J. and Leslie, D. (1993). The Invisible Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Hall, S. and Slaney, K. (1995). Developing a Strategic Approach to the Support of Sessional Academic Staff at Curtin University. A Report to the Commonwealth Office of Staff Development. Curtin University Teaching Learning Group, Perth, Western Australia.

Hall, S. (1995). Reflective Practice in Cross-Cultural University Teaching. Paper presented at the Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia.

Hancock, J., Clark, H., Rea, J. and Fitzpatrick, J. (1982). The Counsellor in the Innovations Program. A report on a Commonwealth Schools Commission Project. Sturt Campus, Adelaide College of Advanced Education, Adelaide, South Australia.

Ramsden, P., Margetson, D., Martin, E. and Clarke, S. (1995). Recognising and Rewarding Good Teaching in Australian Higher Education. A Report to the Committee for Advancement of University Teaching.

Smith, D. and Lovett, T. (1995). Curriculum: Action on Reflection. Social Science Press. Wentworth Falls, New South Wales, Australia.

Stenhouse, L. (1975). An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. Heinemann, London.

Stuart Hunter, Mary (1995). Video link-up from University of South Carolina, USA. A keynote address to the seminar, First Year Experience, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia.

The Australian Newspaper: Higher Education Supplement (13/12/1995).

Please cite as: Hall, S., King, C. and Lawrance, B. (1996). Which way next? Sustaining innovative changes in units with multiple tutors. In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p57-64. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/hall.html

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