Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Chinese whispers: How do you stop the traditional views of students undermining teaching change?

Jan Thomas
Division of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences
Murdoch University
Changing units towards a more student-centred way of teaching is now happening rapidly throughout the School of Veterinary Biology and Biomedical Science. Extensive unit development to decrease content-dense subject areas, increase problem based learning and introduce more appropriate assessment techniques is creating an active learning environment with complementary development of generic skills along side discipline specific skills. These changes have arisen from extensive feedback received from previous students and an increasing awareness of modern teaching theories. Interestingly the biggest hurdle faced so far is that previously surveyed senior students, who are held in high regard by junior students, inform junior students that by decreasing content they will not have a worthwhile degree. Other problems include students of the changed units are insulted that teachers considered previous content overload too difficult for them to handle. In this dilemma session, the issues surrounding this situation will be discussed further, along with more broad-based discussion on ways to encourage students to become willing participants in change.


Murdoch University provides a 5 year programme in Veterinary Science, and the graduates automatically register to practice as veterinary scientists. There is an entry quota and a large unmet demand for places. Students are generally high achievers who are highly motivated, with a strong career focus. The first three years of the programme provide preclinical science subjects, such as anatomy, biochemistry and pathology that are the building blocks for units such as surgery and medicine in the more applied clinical years.

The programme has undergone a radical transformation over the last two years. There has been systematic and planned academic staff development that has motivated many of the teachers to contemplate change. At the same time there has been a systematic change where a requirement for learning objectives has been put in place for all units. Through whole school workshops, these objectives have aligned with teaching and assessment methods, reforming the curriculum away from a typical didactic lecture-based science programme. In addition, the School has decided on a strategic direction that includes the explicit valuing and development of problem solving and other transferable skills in the undergraduate curriculum. To do this, teachers are undertaking extensive revision of their units with a proportion of each taught and assessed in a student-centred way. This has lead to a decrease in content so that students are less inclined to adopt surface learning strategies, and an increase in problem based learning. There is a greater emphasis on group work and on the development of communication skills in several styles of written and oral communication. The intention of teachers is to create an active learning environment with complementary development of transferable skills along side discipline-specific skills.

The direction described in this paper has arisen at least in part, because of the introduction of a teaching development facilitator (TDF) that is faculty based, leading to an increasing awareness by the staff of teaching and learning issues. As well, registering bodies such as the Veterinary Surgeons Board were identifying issues such as communication to be deficient in graduate Veterinarians. Large surveys of student evaluation of the course were initiated by the teaching development facilitator and these consistently produced evidence that the overwhelming majority of students wanted a change away from the large numbers of contact hours and a constipated curriculum that was assessed predominantly by closed book examinations. Extensive surveys of students in 4th year during 1996, 1997 and 1998 demonstrated consistent findings. Typical of this were that:

"Most of the first three years were spent sitting for endless hours in boring lectures....with tired and old lecturers who have no idea what it is like in the real world"

"When will they (lecturers) realise that we are never going to be researchers in their discipline and the huge amounts of information crammed into these early years just turns us off the subject?"

Veterinary students study several general University units during first year. In some units that the School coordinates, changes towards a more student centred approach had already been made gradually introduced. Some changes were made in a third year unit as part of a CUTSD project in 1997 and 1998. However, the most significant and wholesale changes introduced in 1998 were in the second year of the course. Major changes will be introduced in 1999 in the third year of the course.

As part of the process, students are always included in the change in some way. Students were provided with information on learning approaches, and discussed ways that they liked to learn. Seminars, meetings and social events such as coffee and biscuits or lunch were held at the beginning of each major change to explain the changed curriculum and to discuss issues that students had with the changed curriculum. Students were active members on School committees that designed and oversaw the curriculum change. Other students were paid to trial sections of units and to provide formative feedback on them.

We know that our students had been highly successful at the closed book examination system that separates secondary school from university. We were expecting that there would be some resistance from students, already rewarded in their approach to learning through individual effort and memory. We were also aware that as high achievers they are also competitive and issues may arise from newly arisen collaborative learning situations. However when change was instituted in 1997 and 1998 several unexpected outcomes were identified. These have formed the basis for this dilemma session and a more detailed context will be provided with each scenario.

Situation 1

Students form groups that are comprised of members from 3rd year microbiology unit and members from 4th year Public Health unit. These groups work on a group assessment task (poster) which contributes to each separate unit. This encourages peer teaching and collaboration. Students in 3rd year can see a context for their learning of the basic science, reinforcing the relevance of the content and encouraging deeper learning. Students in 4th year are able to revisit some earlier knowledge in a new context that reinforces the principles previously learned. It integrates the curriculum in a vertical manner without needing wholesale course change. We have decreased the amount of content given to 3rd year microbiology students, and have emphasised the importance of transferable skills and realigned the assessment to confirm this. Students in 4th year (who went through the 3rd year subject when there was a far greater amount of content) are working directly with students who have had their content cut.

Dilemma 1: Senior students undermining content decrease in the overstuffed curriculum

Dilemma 2: Junior students feeling insulted that we "unstuffed" the curriculum for them

Situation 2

Students are being asked to work in groups to produce a group projects which include answer to core questions. The information in these projects can be used in some way in latter assessment. All students are expected to be very familiar with their project information and that of another groups' work. In order to complete the latter assessment for closed book examination, projects are displayed and time is allocated in class for students to examine, learn discuss all the projects. The project work contributes 20% to the unit, whilst the questions relating to their own and others project work contributes a total of 20% to the unit in two examinations.

Dilemma 3: Competitive students are sabotaging group work

Situation 3

Teachers have been trying to systematically introduce the teaching, opportunity to practice and assessing of transferable skills. These include the skill of written communication in varying situations, oral communication in varying situations, information access and critique, analysis, problem solving and group work. Teachers feel that we have not addressed this sufficiently in the curriculum and that they are skills that our graduates will need in the workplace. We are aware that the body of knowledge will change rapidly and students will be better equipped to handle the changing workplace if these skills are well honed. This is confirmed by registering bodies such as the Veterinary Surgeons Board who already identify poor communication skills as the major reason for client complaint. These skills have been integrated throughout the curriculum so that they are learned as an integral part of learning the content. The teaching of them takes varying forms, both as class discussion, watching videos, notes and handouts or seminar formats by communication experts. They are not taught as an add-on stream or subject.

Dilemma 4: Students believe they are competent in transferable skills and do not need to be taught them


Is it possible that students have had their comfort zone moved away a little too fast? Have we not provided students with enough consultation or enough support? Are these problems transitory and should we expect that they will settle down in a year or two? How can teachers willing to change encourage students to be willing participants in that change?

Please cite as: Thomas, J. (1999). Chinese whispers: How do you stop the traditional views of students undermining teaching change? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 433-436. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/thomas.html

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