Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Responding to changing times: Reflections on an "upside-down" course

Colin J. Beasley
Teaching and Learning Centre
Cecil A. L. Pearson
Commerce Programme
Murdoch University
A continuing challenge for teaching staff is how to develop successful, independent and self-reliant undergraduates given increases in the numbers and diversity of students. Students have a range of backgrounds and attitudes to learning and knowledge and are not always aware of the need for good communication skills, critical thinking skills, and independence as learners. Despite staff awareness and expectations in these matters, many university courses adopt traditional teaching practices and methodologies that encourage passivity and reliance on the teacher.

Requiring students to take greater responsibility for their learning presents challenges and benefits to students and staff. This paper outlines work-in-progress on the evaluation of progressive changes in a second year management unit that, in the words of some students, have produced an "upside-down" course in which students are made to "do all the bloody work". Traditional teaching and assessment have been increasingly replaced by workshops and assignments in which students develop knowledge, skills and responsibility for learning through individual and group activities and tasks. Although there has been some initial student resistance, the gradings and qualitative and anecdotal evidence from students and staff demonstrate the value of this approach.


There are indications that the massive changes and dislocations to national systems of higher education are likely to continue. Currently, one third to a half of the world's population is claimed to be undergoing a deliberate change in their economic and social systems (Autenrieth, 1993; Cascio, 1992; Chatterjee, 1996). As a consequence, many countries are experiencing enormous revolutions in their infrastructures, including education. For example, the rapidly developing nations of Singapore and Malaysia as well as some of their neighbouring countries are being compelled to embark on educational reforms to create relevant and flexible educational institutions of modernity as these societies change rapidly through new technology and the information explosion. Specifically, both Singapore and Malaysia are investing in their educational systems to move away from traditional teacher centred learning delivery modes and activities to new paradigms and strategies that will promote critical thinking skills, problem solving strategies and environments of enquiry (New Straits Times, 1997; The New Straits Times, 1997).

Likewise, Australian tertiary institutions have not been immune to pressure for change. A number of major issues have promoted extensive ongoing reform of Australian universities. One of the key concerns is the efficacy of Australian higher educational institutions in terms of them being more responsive to community expectations, and having programmes and curricula more closely linked to industry needs and national goals (Harman, 1994; Koorndyk, 1997). Consequently, the Australian Federal Government has instituted a number of initiatives such as funding reductions, consolidation of courses as well as refinements to commercial business arrangements (The Australian, 1996; 1997), to encourage Australian universities to focus on the aforementioned concerns. However, the Government's agenda did not spring from one influence. Several reports of the early 1990s (e.g., DEET, 1991; HEES, 1991) highlighted features about the growth and vocational outcomes of Australian universities, and these concerns were to be reiterated in the Karpin Report (1995). Karpin argued that not only was there a gap between university outputs and the skills needed by contemporary managers, but this was the reason why Australia was falling behind the rest of the world (Nettle, 1996). Specifically, it was argued that the Australian higher education system, and particularly business schools, was training managers to possess narrow technical skills or focused operational knowledge, such as operations management, scientific management principles, or traditional management training. What was clearly lacking was leadership competencies.

Competent leadership operation requires an integration of several unique qualities. Although highly romanticised, heroic views have been developed about leadership (Meindl, Ehrlich & Dukerich, 1985; Yukl, 1981) which recognised that foresight, vision and capacity to inspire others (Kotter, 1990) are central premier attributes of effective leaders. Thus it is incumbent on Australian universities, however vague and enigmatic the concept of leadership, to develop within university students the so called "soft" skills as well as the "hard" technical competencies of the study discipline. There is considerable support for this proposition from a great number of educators and practitioners who have identified social interactional qualities as well as independent learning as vital life skills of graduates (Candy et al., 1994).

Teaching higher education students effectively (and particularly those enrolled in management courses) requires the integration and enhancement of appropriate "soft" and "hard" skills. At a broad level these endowments can be categorised as cognitive skills (independently acquiring knowledge), conceptual skills (diagnosing problems and evaluating solutions), technical skills (literacy, numeracy, computing), and human relationship skills (interdependence, teamwork, powersharing). There is unanimous agreement from the business community that all four categories are important, but developing competent social skills is predicted to be the greatest challenge of all in the 1990s. These social interactional skills are vital in contemporary work settings where members will encounter rapid technological change, have a high probability of being embedded in multi-cultural task environments, and encounter changing social dimensions in their work communities. Despite these predictions, as well as the ever increasing pressures to provide high quality teaching practices (Jackson, 1997), traditional teacher-directed instructive methods (e.g., "chalk and talk") are still commonly employed in universities. These traditional approaches, while being relatively predictable and uncomplicated for both staff and students and appearing to have economic benefits for teaching large numbers of students, have major deficiencies. Specifically, they allow students to choose to remain completely passive and unchallenged in their "comfort zone". Yet, it is widely acknowledged by practitioners and academics that survival in the business world is seldom like this. Students need to undergo a degree of experiential learning (i.e., not just "chalk and talk") involving relevant and meaningful social interactions so that they can learn about operational dynamics, which may be stressful, unpleasant, and even emotionally upsetting (i.e., outside their "comfort zone").

This paper describes the evolution of a second year management course from a traditional lecture and tutorial ("chalk and talk") course to a more interactive, less teacher-directed course which aims to develop not only students' knowledge of the discipline but also students' communication and critical thinking skills as well as independence. The course now utilises a lecture and workshop format incorporating a range of experiential learning activities such as simulations, case studies and projects. This paper outlines work in progress on the evaluation of the present course. Preliminary indications are that both staff and students are overwhelmingly positive about the current approach from which they appear to have benefited.

The evolution of an "upside down" course

Organisation and Management Development (OMD) is a second year university management course conducted in the second semester which examines such topics as organisation, management, ethical responsibility, and culture from the macro perspective in terms of their contribution to the broader community. The course has three hours class contact per week over a semester of 13 teaching weeks. During the course the students are required to demonstrate individual and group competencies in such activities as written assignments, tutorial discussions and group presentations to their colleagues. Students are also assessed in class tests and a final written examination.

A noteworthy feature of this course has been the composition of the students enrolled. For example, since 1991 there have been more women candidates that men students on all years except 1995. In addition, the course has attracted a high proportion of international students, particularly from the south-east Asian countries of Singapore and Malaysia, and to a lesser extent from the neighbouring countries of Indonesia, India, Brunei, and Vietnam. Moreover, the proportion of international students grew steadily from 41% in 1991 to a peak of 61.5% in 1996. (Pearson and Beasley, 1996a, b; forthcoming)

In 1991, the OMD course was run purely on traditional lines (2hrs lectures, 1 hr tutorial) and the failure rate was 13%. During that year, the second author (as course coordinator) observed a number of particular student behaviours. For instance, the weekly tutorials were not well attended; many students (especially, international students) appeared to be adopting surface learning strategies of memorisation and rote-learning as their work demonstrated little critical thinking, self-evaluation or innovation; and the writing skills of many students were poor. In the tutorials men often tended to dominate the discussions and there was an operative element of "masculinity" as the female students were reluctant to challenge the male students in the discussions. Within the school there was a lack of support or understanding of how to address these issues, so assistance was sought the following year from a department of the university concerned with student learning development.

As a result, additional assistance with language and learning skills was provided by a study skills adviser throughout the 1992 semester on an ad hoc and individual basis. However, this initiative was associated with only a meagre improvement to the failure rate (12.4%), so an alternative strategy was formulated for 1993. In 1993, the authors of this paper commenced a collaborative programme which has several key features. Firstly, students who appeared to lack vital literacy skills fundamental for successful completion of the course were identified in two diagnostic mini-assignments very early in the semester and advised accordingly. Secondly, six voluntary extra one hour language and learning skills workshops were conducted by the first author (and since 1994, in conjunction with another colleague, Sally Knowles), to help students improve their learning and performance in the course. Each voluntary workshop related directly to the assessment tasks and learning skills required in the OMD course and provided relevant practice and advice on paragraph and summary writing; analysing, planning and writing essays and projects; oral presentations; working in groups; as well as examination skills and strategies. Although this intervention was targeted primarily at those students identified as most in need, all interested OMD students were encouraged to attend the extra workshops. Thirdly, written feedback was sought from students through a brief questionnaire at the conclusion of the sixth session in order to improve the programme. One student suggestion, adopted since 1994, was for the course coordinator to attend all workshop sessions to provide specialist advice as the need arose.

The collaboration between the authors has continued and modifications and refinements made annually. For example, the number of voluntary sessions has varied and repeat sessions scheduled in most years because of the high student attendances. The most important outcome of the collaboration, however, has been a progressive redesigning of the management course curriculum, in terms of the nature and timing of the various assessment tasks, and the programming of the extra learning support sessions. The OMD tutorials changed from being teacher-directed to ones in which the students took greater responsibility for their learning through individual and group activities and presentations (Pearson and Beasley, 1996a, b; forthcoming). The greatest change occurred in 1997 when one of the two lecture sessions was abandoned and the time added to the tutorial allocation to enable weekly, two hour interactive workshops.

During the evolution of the current course and its learning support programme, there have been many notable outcomes. For instance, hundreds of students have attended the voluntary learning support programme over the past five years, yet none have failed the OMD course which is examined by a variety of assessments and graded by as many as five independent assessors. The overall failure rate for OMD has been considerably reduced to about 3%. Most importantly, the behaviours of students have changed considerably since 1991. Tutorials are now well attended, and seldom do students come unprepared. It is not exceptional to have students phone or call to advise they will be unable to come to a scheduled tutorial and ask if they can attend an alternative session for that week. There are exceptions but they are few, and usually these students withdraw from the management course and later from the entire commerce programme.

This paper focuses on the introduction of the two hourly workshops and how they have been perceived by students and tutors. The course coordinator has invested considerable time and effort examining various non-traditional learning approaches elsewhere, and then designing and preparing a challenging workshop programme. A comprehensive formal evaluation of the new OMD course has been undertaken by the university's Institutional Research and Evaluation service, but the results of this study are not yet available at the time of writing. In the interim, a series of ad hoc assessments were made by the course coordinator and workshop tutors in the final weeks of the semester and this information is provided in the following section.

Evaluation of the approach

Contributions were obtained from the management course participants in terms of how the workshops compared to the traditional tutorials they experienced in other courses. The three OMD tutors asked their classes questions about the advantages and disadvantages of the workshops. Although they may have some novel attraction for some students, these ad hoc surveys reveal that students believed that traditional tutorials had less learning potential. In addition, the second author conducted a small survey by randomly selecting 42 students (17% of course participants) to complete a five item seven point Likert scale (from one, representing strongly disagree, to seven, representing strongly agree). The description of each item and the mean scores of each are presented below as Table 1.

Table 1: Student perceptions of OMD workshops

Questionnaire item (N = 42)Mean

The workshop activities compel students to learn the course material more thoroughly.5.05
Workshops require students to do a great deal more work outside class contact hours.5.67
Workshops provide for a higher level of participation and team problem solving.5.62
Workshops allow students to be involved with course topics of greater complexity.6.00
Workshops provide greater opportunity to experience practical management problems.6.02

One of the most encouraging observations about the workshops is their popularity. To some extent they have been modelled on the interactive tutorials conducted since 1992, but annually refined, which required students to participate individually and in small groups in a range of activities. The workshop participants now have to confront problems and issues; make decisions as they interact with other class members in discussions; take part in role plays, exercises, and simulations; and give oral presentations individually and as part of a project team. This shift from traditional tutorials which are like a "mini" lecture" where the tutor is the font of all knowledge is probably what caused a student to declare during an interactive tutorial session last year: "this is an upside down course - we have to do all the bloody work". On the one hand, some students complain that there is a lot of work and that they have to read outside the text book, that they are not told in lectures precisely what to learn, and exactly what to study to pass the exams. On the other hand, students in the past have met these challenges and it appears that many report that the "prompt feedback" (from tests, assignments), the "opportunity to learn from others", and the variety of activities ("not just boring cases") are valuable features of the OMD course and more recently, the workshops. In short, students might complain about what they have to do, but they also enjoy dealing with the issues and challenges of the course which focuses on both content knowledge and building communication skills, critical thinking and independence.

Overall, OMD staff have endorsed the introduction of the two hour workshops. Specifically, they have made favourable reports about the three simulations that were conducted in the latter half of the workshop programme in 1997. For instance, one tutor wrote, "workshops seem to be a big success, very few negative comments". Another tutor stated, "I might be biased, but students show more interest when the format provides an experiential learning environment. This is true across all cultures". A third tutor believed that the workshops, but particularly the simulations probably reinforce the course concepts and assumptions more thoroughly. The common perception was that the students related better to the practical exercises in comparison to "book learning".


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Please cite as: Beasley, C. J. and Pearson, C. A. L. (1998). Responding to changing times: Reflections on an "upside-down" course. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 33-38. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/beasley.html

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