Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Self directed learning unit - Muresk Institute of Agriculture

Peter Crawford
Muresk Institute of Agriculture
Curtin University of Technology
    There is a growing awareness within higher education establishments of the value of moving the pendulum away from teacher centred learning towards more self direction, and responsibility for their learning, by the individual student.

    This paper will investigate the results of moving an agribusiness marketing unit from teacher centred to more student self directed learning.

    Approximately 70 agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture students involved in three compulsory marketing units at Muresk Institute of Agriculture were allocated 50% of their unit marks to individual or group projects of their choosing. The students investigated the demand for the product or products they selected, the pricing policy of the firm and the marketing strategies of the decision makers producing the product(s).

    The aim was to enable students to take control of their learning of the basic concepts of marketing by researching a topic of relevance to their background or future career goals.

    A total of 27 different topics were researched by the students. WebCT was used for group presentations and for interaction between groups via bulletin boards and email. Students gave two seminars: the first to present their topic to other students and receive feedback on their topic, and a final seminar to present their results. All students and groups were expected to and were evaluated on, their interaction and assistance to other groups.

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Why a self directed unit

The pendulum in university teaching is moving away from teacher centred learning, towards more self direction and responsibility for their learning, by the student, with the objective of encouraging independent lifelong learning.

As well as discipline specific knowledge, students in a marketing orientated workplace will need skills in identifying and critically analysing information, logical and independent problem solving and effective goal setting, time management, ability to complete a task, communication and interpersonal skills such as allocating responsibilities and managing conflict. All this will be expected in the employee as well as the ability to work unsupervised, be self motivated and proactive.

Giving more control to students will have real lifelong vocational advantages. "It helps learners develop approaches and skills of much more value than they get by simply acquiring knowledge and then somehow demonstrating that such knowledge has been retained over a certain period of time" (Hiemstra 1994).

If students are to be skilled in the attributes that future employers demand, they must practice them, they "must engage in such higher order-thinking tasks as analysis and evaluation" (Barnwell & Eison 1991).

An important aspect of this unit was develop students abilities "to ask intelligent questions, communicate effectively, critically analyse sources of information, research issues and draw on resources" (Meyers & Jones, 1993).

The unit organisation

Approximately 70 agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture students involved in three compulsory marketing units at Muresk Institute of Agriculture were allocated 50% of their unit marks to individual or group projects of their choosing. The students investigated the demand for the product or products they selected, the pricing policy of the firm, and the marketing strategies of the decision-makers producing the product(s). The students researched a total of 27 different topics.

Within the broad constraint of "a marketing" orientation, the students had the freedom to develop the project as they wished.

Students chose a wide range of topics, including Damaras (a sheep breed), Bamboo, Coastal Regeneration, Agroforestry, Wine Production, Salinity, Olives, Roses, Oysters, Lobsters and Oil Mallee.

Students were given the opportunity to select, define and develop a topic that was of interest to them and of value to their future goals. This would make the learning process more meaningful to the student, and thus encourage "a deeper and more lasting knowledge of the subject while increasing their involvement and participation in the process of learning" (Mathews and Barrington 1998).

The responsibility for learning was shifted, at least partially, from the teacher to the student.

Unit structure

Students entering this unit had all completed a basic economics unit that was very structured and content orientated.

The unit commenced with an explanation of how the unit would be organised and its emphasis on the student taking more control of the learning process. Considerable initial ground work in group work, working in groups, organisation, time management, conflict resolution etc, was done to lessen the problems that would occur.

Students attended workshops on WebCT (a web based educational environment) where they received some grounding in using WebCT and how to set a Web Page.

WebCT was used for the individual or group projects with each project allocated a web page which was subsequently developed by the individual or group. This web page was used by the 27 groups to inform other groups of their topic outline. This format was part of the assessment.

A Bulletin Board was used by students to give other groups ideas, sources of information etc. A total of 133 contributions were posted. This also contributed to assessment.

This bulletin board allowed each individual to communicate with other people or groups. If a student had a problem, they could ask for help. If they had information of value to other groups, it could be posted on the bulletin board.

The "public" Web Page and Bulletin Board emphasised the need for students not to do their "own thing" in isolation from others, but to find out what other students were doing and to interact in a positive way with other groups. As one student stated "Even though I did my project alone, I exchanged information and ideas with several other students". This situation effects more closely the real world where teamwork, and a contribution to several projects concurrently, is the norm.

Students gave two assessable seminar presentations. The initial presentation allowed them to explain their topic to other students and to give some initial indication of what they were going to investigate. This information was posted on the Web Page and was altered as necessary through the semester. The final seminar was a presentation of the results of their investigation. This seminar of 15-30 minutes (depending on group size) allowed them the opportunity to give a "professional" presentation of their product. All students filled out an evaluation/feedback form for the first seminar. This information was given to each group.

The students were themselves assessed on both seminar evaluations and feedback they gave to other groups. It was emphasised that the feedback forms would NOT be used to assess the group being evaluated by the student. It would only be part of the assessment of the student making the evaluation.

This process ensured a very conscientious, serious and detailed feedback form being filled out by each student for each group project. It thus generated considerable feedback on their project for the groups when it was given to them (minus the names of the evaluators).

Students allocated the assessment weightings for the project as follows:

Table 1: Group assessment structure

Assessment Agriculture
Horticulture and
Aquaculture students
Topic presentation on web page 7.57.5
Initial topic seminar 5.05.0
Interaction with other groups
(Bulletin Board, Feedback/evaluation forms)
Group participation 2.55.0
Final topic seminar 10.010.0
Hard copy of project 15.015.0
Project - total marks 50.050.0

The remainder of the assessment came from 4 exams that were conducted throughout the semester, as sections of the unit were completed.

Questionnaire results

Students were given a questionnaire at the commencement of the unit, and at its conclusion. Some results of the questionnaire were as follows:

The project as a learning experience

Attitude to group work

Of the group of 60% of people who had not changed their attitude, their attitude to group work at the start of the project:

Positive comments

Negative comments

Did it work?

Results of this unit have been very encouraging, with the majority of students having a positive response. A number of these students became very involved with the topic and showed an enthusiasm and commitment had would have been very hard to duplicate in a more teacher centered approach.

A small number of students could not accept the responsibility for directing their own learning and had problems with the independence resulting from this student centred approach.

Another set of students had problems with WebCT (and computers in general). This points to a need for some mechanism (in first year) for ensuring that all students have adequate computer skills.

Despite a good of preparation and grounding in working in groups etc, a number of students had problems ranging from minor to serious (group break up).

Almost all of the negative comments put forward by students related to problems of working in groups and problems with group members, including group relationships and organisation and the ever present "free rider" problem. Almost universally the students stated in the final questionnaire that it was the group that was the problem, not the project.


Some very good web pages were produced showing a degree of interest in the projects beyond the norm.

Final presentations created a problem in that most groups were wanting more than their allocated 15-30 minutes to present their results to their peers.

The hard copy reports in general showed that considerable effort was put into the project, and some reports were excellent.

Student attitude to the structure of the unit was in general quite enthusiastic, with 75% having a positive response to the project and only 3% having a negative response.

Student attitude to group work also moved in a favourable direction, with 32% having a more positive attitude to group work, while only 8% had a more negative attitude at the end of the unit.

As an overall statement, students had a positive attitude to the project as a learning experience, had a positive reaction to the group work involved, and succeeded in taking the responsibility for learning, into their own hands. However, students with more motivation and a more independent attitude to study and who had a particular interest that could be used as a project topic, especially if it was relevant to their past interests (eg, family farm), or their current or future ambitions, were much more willing to, and successful in, directing their own learning.

Students with little motivation or a history of teacher orientated learning with little or no experience with directing their own learning, believed that taking charge of, and being responsible for their learning was not their role.

The question this raises is whether we should be tailoring our units to suit such students or rather that we tailor these students to suit the unit and the future workplace.

These students will have to go out to a workplace where they are expected to be self directed, organised and professional. A painful (to both the student and the lecturer) process of moving from spoon feeding (or force feeding) passive students full of knowledge, to a self directed, motivated professional student, is not only necessary for the student, but a responsibility for both the lecturer and the individual student. The question now becomes not one of should we make the painful move, but of when and how.

Requiring a first year student to be totally self directed is unreasonable and unworkable. A final year student asked to do the same, has "missed the boat". A progressive movement of responsibility for learning along a continuum from the lecturer to the student from the first year to the final year is more rational.

The "How" is more complicated and no doubt has many answers. A dog does not learn a trick because you want it to do a trick. It does the trick because it gets some immediate enjoyment (food) from doing it.

If a student is to progress from a teacher centred passive recipient of knowledge to a self directed professional responsible for their own learning, they have to be motivated to change. Food, fun, enjoyment, meeting other people and other ideas, having support and help, getting intellectual stimulation, being able to "do your own thing", or doing something you are deeply interested in, are all reasonable motivation's to get a student moving towards taking charge of their own learning.

The highlight of this project was seeing students taking responsibility for their topic and running with it in a direction they decided and then presenting their results to other students with confidence and pride, knowing that they had done a professional job.

The students who were motivated to do a professional job (the majority of students in the unit) learnt far more than the economic and marketing principles that presented to them in the unit. They have taken a large step to being a confident, independent thinker, who can take a question, or a problem, and work their way through to the answer, or the solution. They have become better able to work constructively with other people, to organise themselves and their time, to reach a common goal.

People with these attributes not only will better handle the rest of their university learning, but will greatly enhance their employment prospects in the future. But of more importance is the realisation that they can do it, raising their self-esteem and confidence in themselves.

Isn't that what it is really all about?


Bornwell, C. C. and Elison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. George Washington University, Washington DC.

Hiemstra, R. (1994). Helping Learners to take responsibility for self-directing activities. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 64, p81-87.

Mathews, A. and Barrington, D. (1998). How can we encourage independent learning and interaction in the learning of science using small class situations? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 189-193. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf98/mathews-a.html

Meyers, C and Jones, TB (1993). Promoting active learning: Strategies for the college classroom. Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco.

Please cite as: Crawford, P. (2000). Self directed learning unit - Muresk Institute of Agriculture. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/crawford.html

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