Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Workshops as stimulating learning environments

Cecil A. L. Pearson
Commerce Programme
Murdoch University
Improving the quality of teaching and student learning in tertiary institutions is a continuing challenge for university teachers. This paper represents the culmination of an eight year longitudinal study that was undertaken in two second year business courses to improve the quality of student learning. The study commenced in a traditional management course which had a diverse student population including a high proportion of international students and a relatively high failure rate. Changes were made to the course in terms of curriculum redesign to make the tutorials more interactive, the provision of additional learning support classes, and culminating in the introduction of experiential workshops. The workshops have proved to be so popular and stimulating that they have been successfully introduced into the majority of the other management courses of the Commerce Programme. This paper shows that workshops can provide a stimulating learning environment that enables greater participation and involvement of all students, better final grades and attendance.

Introduction

In spite of an awareness that teacher-centred pedagogical methods are not the most effective way of promoting learning and developing quality graduates, the traditional lecture remains the dominant form of university teaching (Casey, Gentile and Bigger, 1997; Mathews and Barrington, 1998). Furthermore, there is a growing body of literature on university students' learning difficulties (Eklund-Myrskog, 1998; Felix, 1993; Killen, 1994), and there are many criticisms and expressions of dissatisfaction about what is delivered by higher education (Pena, 1997), and concern that many students fail to "realise their full potential as learners." (Sorbal, 1997, p. 39). Although empirical findings (Li and Kay, 1998) have shown that the type and quality of teaching and tutoring are strongly related to academic progress, there is other documented evidence to show that the traditional lecture is often poorly attended by students (Ramsden, 1992). Arguably, such student behaviour contributes to underlying causes of students' learning difficulties and problems.

There is a general consensus from decades of research that tertiary students employ a number of different learning orientations and strategies (Birenbaum, 1997; Hambleton, Foster and Richardson, 1998). Assessments of students' dispositions to employ particular approaches show students may adopt a surface approach to learning, which relies on memorisation and rote learning strategies for academic success (Watkins, 1996; Webb, 1996). At the other extreme is the deep approach (Biggs, 1987a; Volet, Renshaw and Tietzel, 1994), which is described as an approach based on an intrinsic interest in understanding the material to be learned through strategies of interrelating ideas and wide reading. Extensive research has been conducted to examine how to enhance deep approaches to learning, which is the accepted aim of most western universities.

Propositions have been advanced that deep approaches to learning can be enhanced by improving students' metacognitive skills (Sorbal, 1997). A recurrent theme in the literature on metacognition (Meichenbam, 1985; Murray-Harvey, 1993) is that heightened awareness of learning processes is linked to greater academic success. A pivotal proposition is that more academically successful students have greater metacognitive capability (Murray-Harvey, 1993). Metacognition, in terms of learning, portrays a broad range of self awareness and self regulatory behaviours that are related to how learners manager their thinking and studying. Biggs (1987b) contends that students deliberately choose, within a range of cognitive options, those approaches which are more likely to give a desired outcome. As to be expected enhancing the potential for self awareness and to have control over the way to study and learn is more likely to occur in student-centred learning contexts.

This paper describes the evolution and evaluation of an experiential learning approach that facilitated active engagement of students with subject content in one management course, and how the principles were diffused into a second management course. It outlines how the learning context was progressively changed from a teacher-directed to a student-centred environment in which students were encouraged to develop independence, metacognitive behaviours as well as interdependence with other participants. Evidence of the development of behaviours is presented and corroborated by overall course grades, student success rate, and the demonstrated level of student commitment.

Evolution of the workshop approach

Data have been collected on students enrolled in two second year university management units in the Commerce Programme at Murdoch University from 1991 to 1998. These two units are Organisation and Management Development (OMD), and Organisational Theory and Behaviour (OTB). The author has coordinated the former course from 1991 to 1997, inclusive and the latter course during 1997 and 1998.

A traditional, teacher-directed approach was employed for the delivery of the OMD course in 1991. For instance, there were two, one hour lectures and a one hour tutorial each week for a semester of 13 weeks of class contact. There were written assignments and formal exams, half yearly and at the end of the course. The failure rate, with the most liberal of grading, was 13%. In addition, in the tutorials, which were not well attended, the women seldom actively participated in discussion or debate. Moreover, the students, and especially the international students who predominated, appeared to be adopting a surface approach, as their work revealed little critical thinking, a lack of ability to apply the subject concepts, and poor writing skills. Of most concern was the lack of understanding within the school of how to address these problems. In the following year (1992) assistance was sought from a department of the university that provided learning support.

Language and learning skills support was provided after 1991 to encourage high quality student learning in the OMD course. In 1992 a study skills advisor, course tutors, and an academic staff member of the Business School provided assistance to students on an ad hoc individual basis. However, this strategy had a negligible effect on reducing the overall failure rate of the OMD course (see Table 1). Consequently, in 1993 a formal collaborative programme was commenced with the author and a study skills advisor (Beasley and Pearson, 1998; Pearson and Beasley, 1996). This initiative, which was instigated to improve vital literacy skills fundamental to success in the OMD course has continued annually, been modified, and refined to meet the varying demands of the enrolled students. These additional voluntary classes were not conducted in isolation of the content of the OMD course. They provided a further opportunity for students to develop the academic and communication skills in the context of the course content using OMD required readings and assessment tasks. Coupled with these collaborative learning sessions has been a progressive redesigning of the OMD curriculum to make it more interactive.

In 1992 the tutorial contexts were designed to encourage students to engage more actively with the subject content. Emphasis was on a movement away from superficial approaches to learning represented by teacher-directed methods to student-centred forums, which encouraged students to take more responsibility for their learning. In practice students were required to undertake stimulating individual and group activities both within the tutorial session as well as out of class.

There have been at least two notable demonstrations that there has been a shift away from traditional teacher-directed tutorials. First, in 1994 the Student Guild mounted an unsuccessful argument for a 25% increase in the point value of the course. They contended students were required to do a lot more work compared to other similar courses. Second, two years later in an interactive tutorial session a student declared, somewhat irately "This is an upside down course, we have to do all the bloody work" (Beasley and Pearson, forthcoming).

Although these more interactive tutorials were associated with many beneficial outcomes, they were eventually discontinued in favour of interactive workshops. After the adoption of interactive tutorials, there was a substantial improvement in the student's success rate, attendance at tutorials, and learning behaviour, with tutors frequently, commenting favourably on the work of their students. By the end of the second semester in 1996, although the failure rate had plateaued at about 3%, the women students were obtaining significantly higher grades than the men students, a condition that commenced in 1994. This situation led to the development of a learning context of greater complexity to further heighten individual and collaborative effort, and hopefully correct the gender imbalance. In the second semester of 1997 experiential workshops of two hours duration, each week, became a key component of the OMD course.

Table 1 represents the relative descriptors of the OTB (top half) and the OMD (bottom half) courses from 1991 to 1998 including the annual average grades for each course, average grades of the women participants, and of the men students. After introduction of the interactive tutorials, and the collaborative extra learning support programmes in the OMD course (1993) the women's average grades were always greater than the men's average grades. In addition, from 1994 to 1996 the differences were statistically significant (1994, p<0.01; 1995, p<0.004; and 1996, p<0.001). Moreover, when student-centred tutorials were also employed in the 1997 OTB course the women's grades were substantially greater than the men's grades, and the failure rate was reduced five fold from the previous year. Furthermore, when experiential workshops were introduced into the OMD course in 1997, and into the OTB course, in 1998 the women's grades were non-significantly different from the men's grades and the lowest failure rates were recorded in both courses.

The participant numbers are shown in Table 1 by (N=x). Class sizes were relatively large, and except for the 1995 OMD course there were always more women students. In the OMD course the number of international students increased steadily until it peaked in 1996. Although this data is unavailable, similar proportions of overseas students were in the OTB course, as most OMD students enrol in OTB in the first semester of the following year. The substantially greater OMD class size in 1996 was the result of a strategic university decision to deliberately exceed quotas that year. Over one third of these students never attended an Australian university before, most having completed first year in off shore local institutions in a twinning arrangement with the authors' university. This may explain the increased failure rate compared to the two previous years.

Table 1: Evaluations of tutorials and workshops

CourseYear
Variable
19911992199319941995199619971998

OTB[d]Average grade NA[b]63.76
(N=225)
55.50
(N=230)
62.89
(N=160)
NA63.74
(N=285)
62.41
(N=231)
66.48
(N=240)

Men
63.29
(N=100)
55.54
(N=103)
63.53
(N=73)

61.59
(N=132)
60.63
(N=102)
65.64
(N=106)

Women
64.14
(N=125)
55.46
(N=127)
62.34
(N=87)

65.59
(N=153)
63.81
(N=129)
67.14
(N=134)

Difference
n.s. n.s. n.s.
w>m [a] w>m n.s.

Failure rate (%)
12.0[e] 19.1[e] 7.5[e]
8.8[e] 1.7 1.7

OMD[c]Average grade 60.82
(N=200)
59.20
(N=202)
62.89
(N=176)
63.41
(N=232)
64.46
(N=224)
63.95
(N=326)
64.38
(N=263)


Men 61.15
(N=89)
55.12
(N=90)
62.29
(N=79)
60.73
(N=104)
62.69
(N=115)
61.23
(N=143)
63.79
(N=111)


Women 60.49
(N=111)
59.41
(N=112)
63.15
(N=97)
64.31
(N=128)
66.33
(N=109)
66.09
(N=183)
65.31
(N=152)


Difference n.s.n.s. n.s.w>m w>mw>m n.s.

Participation % NA70.0 96.096.9 86.085.0 89.0

Failure rate % 13.012.4 5.72.6 2.74.9 1.72

International students (%) 4146.5 47.748.7 51.861.5 56.9

Notes:
[a] w = women; m = men.
[b] NA = Not available.
[c] OMD course. Interactive tutorials from 1992 to 1996. Experiential workshops in 1997.
[d] OTB course. Traditional tutorials until 1996. Interactive tutorials in 1997. Experiential workshops in 1998.
[e] Visiting overseas lecturers.

Table 2 presents the means and standard deviation of student's perceptions of traditional tutorials and experiential workshops. Initially, a pilot study was conducted with 17% of the 1997 OMD course participants to establish item appropriateness. A five item, seven point Likert scale was employed. Four of the five items were then administered within an official evaluation questionnaire by the university's Institutional Research and Evaluation Service. A total of 124 respondents (47% of the course participants) provided data as shown in Table 2. Subsequently, the questionnaire was extended to 10 items and administered at the close of the 1998 OTB course (first semester). There were 224 respondents (92% of the course participants), and the means and standard deviations of each item is shown in Table 2. Overall, the responses indicate the experiential workshops encouraged energetic engagement with the subject content, that students felt the workshop format improved their understanding, and developed critical competencies and skills.

Table 2: Student perceptions of workshop tutorial contexts

Questions about workshops.OMD 1997
(N = 124)
OTB 1998
(N = 224)

The workshop activities made me learn the material more thoroughly. NA5.67 (1.26)
Workshops made me do a great deal more work outside of class contact hours. 5.215.28 (1.41)
Workshops provide a higher level of participation and team problem solving. 4.946.28 (0.94)
Workshops allowed me to be involved with topics of greater complexity. 5.765.82 (1.00)
Workshops provided greater opportunity to experience management problems. 5.245.98 (1.05)
The workshops enabled me to develop better interpersonal skills. NA5.87 (1.12)
The workshops enabled me to developed better leadership skills. NA5.54 (1.15)
The workshops enabled me to develop better oral presentation skills. NA6.07 (1.09)
The workshops enabled me to relate other units in a holistic manner. NA5.18 (1.17)
The workshops enabled me to relate what I am learning with the 'real world'. NA5.82 (1.10)

Notes:
a. The values in parentheses are standard deviations of the means.
b. NA = not applicable. In 1997 the first item and the last five items were not administered.
c. Seven point Likert Scales were employed (1=strongly disagree to 7=strongly agree).

Discussion

The results of this study show that positive educational achievements have been associated with the introduction of student-centred pedagogical methods. A primary strategy has been to replace the teacher-directed mode of delivery to a student-centred approach, which provided the opportunity to make the course subject matter more stimulating and interesting. Students were engaged with intellectually challenging goals. In addition, multiple, appropriate forms of assessment coupled with the provision of timely and relevant feedback were employed. Many of these criteria have been identified by Ramsden (1992) as key principles of effective teaching. As expected, students of the management course developed independence, confidence and active engagement in their learning during the course of the study.

A vital, but supplementary component of this higher quality of student learning was the provision of additional, voluntary learning support classes. Not only were these classes attended well (Beasley and Pearson, 1998), but many of the attendees stated at the close of the session that more classes were needed (Beasley and Pearson, forthcoming). One of the reasons why the students were more successful was because they were given more time on task, and instruction in relevant strategies (Hattie, Biggs and Purdie, 1996). Clearly, other university teachers, who are experiencing high failure rates might consider similar strategies. The evidence of this study is that there is a need for collaborative and integrated academic support strategies that increase students' academic and communication skills in the context of students' area of study as well as a deeper understanding of the learning process.

A feature of the experiential workshops is their popularity. These workshops, which are of two hours duration, attract relatively high attendance rates compared to teacher-centred one hour tutorials that are conducted in other courses. Indeed the tutors of these traditional tutorials remark that they have difficulties attracting regular attendances from students, and their students often come unprepared. This is not the case, however, with experiential workshops. The longer period of the workshops enables more complex and challenging exercises to be undertaken, and in particular simulations are employed in the latter half of the semester. Responses of exit questionnaires administered in the final workshop show that most students find the simulations provide memorable and valuable learning contexts.

The favourable attitudes of tutors and students are reflected in two significant associated behaviours. First, several OMD tutors who have later coordinated or tutored in other courses have adopted the workshop context and reduced the lecture component in the other courses. Second, students who are unavailable to attend their regular workshop (almost 25% have work commitments) will usually advise tutors in advance of their difficulty and make arrangements to attend an alternative session during the week. Overall, the comments and actions of staff and students indicate that the workshops are educationally stimulating and encourage active engagement with the course content.

Conclusion

An overall finding of this study is that many students have benefited from the restructuring of management courses in the Commerce Programme at Murdoch University. Progressive redesign of learning support classes and the delivery of course content that encouraged independence and interdependence in learning has been associated with both direct and indirect outcomes. Direct effects of reduced failure rates, improved student participation and enthusiasm for the course are important, but equally welcome has been the adopting by several OMD teachers, who had previously employed conventional lecture based pedagogy, of student-centred teaching methods. This is a fascinating and strategic outcome given the recent restructuring of tertiary education which has led to large increases in class sizes. A substantial challenge for future researchers and practitioners is to demonstrate that innovative student-centred learning contexts, like those described in this paper, can bring about quantitative and qualitative improvements in a variety of tertiary programmes.

References

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Please cite as: Pearson, C. A. L. (1999). Workshops as stimulating learning environments. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 310-316. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/pearson-c1.html


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