Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 Home Page

Category: Professional practice
Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]
Alternatives to the traditional tutorial: A report on workshop based experiential learning in the History Discipline at the University of Western Australia

Cedric Beidatsch
School of Humanities
The University of Western Australia

In 2006, small group teaching in early modern history at UWA was conducted according to a workshop model, with the explicit intentions of incorporating experiential learning and higher order learning skills in the taxonomic sense in addition to the normal emphasis on subject content, technical and generic skills. The key finding is that while the introduction of experiential learning was a success, various structural deficiencies prevented other aspects from being as successful. It was found that in general students found the experiences worthwhile and appropriate, although a vocal minority did provide a negative response. This report summarises that experience, highlights the successes and shortfalls of the process and makes recommendations for the inclusion of workshops in the teaching and learning repertoire of humanities teachers in future courses.


History teaching at the University of Western Australia has traditionally comprised weekly lectures and tutorials, sometimes implemented as seminars (Bertola and Murphy, 1994, 5) In 2006, it was decided to teach early modern European history experimentally by replacing small group tutorials with whole of class workshops. The workshop model entailed stimulating learning through a wider range of activities. A key element in the design was to consciously widen the skill base used by students, and move the educational purpose of the units beyond content.

Workshop design parameters

The traditional model emphasised reading and discussion. Tutors focussed primarily on teaching content (detailed historical knowledge), the techniques of historical research and analysis, and historiography (debates and schools of thought operative among historians specialising in that period). The education thus formally focused on knowledge and skills specific to the practice of academic history.

Ironically this was an education suitable for future postgraduates and historians only, and the vast majority of undergraduates would never use the knowledge, and possibly not even the skills. The skills they would use in their future careers were the generic ones of university learning - research; weighing of evidence and data; inference and deduction; analytical thinking; writing of structured, argued, reference reports; debate and public speaking.

Thus a particular and explicit objective in the design of the workshop program was to expand the range of non specialist, higher order learning and working skills used by students, in other words to lift the profiles of the courses of study in terms of Bloom's taxonomy. (Bloom, 1956; also Candy, Crebert and O'Leary, 1994, 43-44). Particular additional practical skills to be addressed included co-operative and group work; problem solving under pressure; absorption, analysis and synthesis of alternative points of view and the use of such techniques as brainstorming, role paying, simulations, scenario analysis and case studies. (Zimmermann, 1998)

Some history staff members have experimented with the use of simulations and role plays. This led to a further, equally important design parameter - that the workshop program should encourage learning in ways different to the traditional academic rationalist analysis of evidence. There was an objective of encouraging students to think of past time as lived experience, to have some sense of what it may have been like to experience aspects of a past culture. The course designers saw this as a subset of 'experiential learning'. (Kolb, 1984, 20-38).

The design team's thinking drew on a range of sources for the concept of experiential learning, but for the author a key element was the theory of multiple intelligences. (Perlmutter and Hall, 1985, 247-253; also Gardner, 1983) Workshop design was particularly inspired by the idea of including the development of social and emotional intelligence in the repertoire of teaching techniques.(Goleman, 1996, 111-129) Social intelligence was to be incorporated through shared work and problem solving and emotional intelligence stimulated by recreating experiences of the past.

The workshop program

Early modern history was taught in two semester units - History 2242 / 3342 The Baroque (17th century history) in semester 1 and History 2243 / 3343 Age of Enlightenment? (18th century history). Final enrolments in H 2242 numbered 47, and for H 2243 numbered 57. Each course had 7 workshops, of 45 minutes each. Workshops were held directly after the second weekly lecture in the same lecture room. All students who attended were present in the same room.

To adequately involve students and reduce the 'free rider' problem, each workshop was divided into small groups. In H 2242, the choice was for five groups, of 9 or 10 students. In H2243, this was modified to 8 groups of 7, for reasons to be explained below. Similarly in H2242 groups were formed at the start of each workshop, thus meeting the androgogical (as in pertaining to the education of adults, in contrast to pedagogy see Burns, 1995, 231-237 for the concept of andragogy) goal of requiring students to work with different people each time. Again for reasons to be explained, in H2243 the decision was taken to form permanent groups at the beginning of the semester.

Thus while 'small group work', in the sense of techniques for empowering and involving group members in the learning process was always a potential, (Bertola and Murphy, 1994, 10-12) in practice this was considered to be one option only, as the intention was not to recreate 5 or 8 tutorless discussions, but to create a different learning environment. Each workshop thus became in turn, a site for further experimentation in the use of different strategies and techniques. What remained common in all workshops across both units was the uniform reading list given to all students, the listing of very general questions to guide reflection on the readings with the topics in the unit guide (as in conventional tutorial reading lists) and the distribution of a brief quiz to all students at the end of the workshop to test their reading. In the latter part of H2243 the quiz often became a 200 word reflective statement. In theory quizzes were due the following week, but in practice they were accepted anytime and as no penalties for late submission were announced in the course instructions, none could be imposed. In H2242 quizzes were posted on the WebCT site; in H2243 quizzes were made available solely in hard copy, so that students who did not attend the workshops were unable to obtain a mark.

Evaluation of participation in groups of that size was impossible in the conventional sense. Instead the quiz mark became the participation mark. Quizzes were assessed at a10 point maximum, with the deduction of 2 points if a student submitted a quiz but did not attend class. Students who submitted medical certificate or advised of unavoidable absences in advance were not penalised, but received a mark for the missing quiz equivalent to their average quiz mark for the whole course. Students who attended classes but did not submit quizzes received mark of 2. The final participation mark was thus the mean average of the quiz marks.

Project evaluation: Action research and reflective practice

The design and implementation of the workshop program was an experiment in finding an alternative educational tool for small group teaching, but conducted in real time; for the students involved it was not an experiment, but rather their actual experience of learning. This introduced dynamism into the project; while being experimental, i.e. while seeking to test certain practices, it had to be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of the participating students as they were manifested and / or developed. In short, the exercise was inherently and classically dialectical, with as much input into the process from the students as from the tutor / facilitator.

Evaluation of such a real life process is best conducted through the methods of action research. A further methodology, that of reflective practice, (Parker, 1997, 36-41; Brookfield, 1995, 28-48, Pereira, 1999) was the main vehicle through which action research was conducted, supported by student sampling and surveys.

The implementation of these two evaluative strategies made use of the following tools:

In each case, the information collected was recorded in the facilitator's reflective journal and became subject to a process of written analysis and reflection. Such reflections initially recorded within 24 hours of the events or data, were at times revisited depending on discussions at internship seminars, conversations with colleagues, educational follow seminars from the internship program and theoretical reading.


'Iconic' status

One of the key successes of the program was that certain individual classes obtained what can best be described as 'iconic' status. They were the highlights of the teaching and learning experience from the student perspective. Students referred to these workshops frequently in positive terms throughout the semester and some chose to refer to them in their surveys, including end of semester SPOT analysis. It seemed for students that these were the workshops that became the standard by which others were judged.

Common features of 'iconic' workshops were:

Developments over the semesters

A number of changes were made in the conduct and management of the workshops over the two semesters, in response to the finding and ongoing evaluations. In keeping with the tenets of action research, improvements were incorporated as identified, and then became themselves subject to further evaluation. Changes were made in the following areas: complexity of group work; formation of groups; simplification of group tasks; group size and quiz design.

Complexity of group work

Initially, a wide range of different teaching and learning strategies were adopted, including role plays; case studies; brain storming; simulations; syndicates; tutorless groups and lateral thinking techniques. This proved to be an unsustainable commitment for the facilitator, in that preparation time for each workshop ranged between three and six hours. Where readings and resources had to be sourced as well, preparation time expanded to in excess of 10 hours. This led to a substantial change in design in second semester, with the adoption of one strategy only, that of the case study. This resulted in a much more manageable preparation load. This issue was exacerbated by the fact that the facilitator was a casual appointment; a staff member on full or fractional appointment might well have found the preparation component less of a burden. Excessive adjustment to the tasks allocated did occur however, and it became apparent in second semester that the students were not working to full capacity.

Formation and size of groups

Some students in first semester were very vocal in their dislikes of the process of forming new groups each time, feeling that it was a waste of time and confusing. Thus the decision was made in second semester to form permanent groups at the first lecture and students would meet in those groups. This proved to be substantial time saving, enabling the workshops to start far more promptly than had previously been the case. However it did mean that students were not exposed to one particular higher order skill: needing to quickly form working relationships with new colleagues. Interestingly some students in the second semester indicated a desire to form new groups more often.

Group sizes in first semester were too large, with the result that a substantial minority were not taking part, either through adoption of a 'free rider' approach or simply because they could not hear or be heard. Smaller groups in second semester led to more widespread participation. Overall noise levels remained a problem for some students.

Simplification of tasks

It was apparent also that questions for discussion and exercises needed to be made more manageable for students to undertake with limited tutor input. In the first semester SPOT survey a few students indicated they had at times not really understood what was required of them in the group exercises. Although the tutor circulated around the room and attempted to listen and make suggestions to each group, the reality was an allocation of approximately five minutes per group. Consequently questions needed to be phrased and selected that students were able to answer, and answer appropriately, from their readings, with limited input. The case study approach, in which students were asked to solve a particular problem or address a particular issue as if they were actual participants, helped ensure that the groups could achieve an outcome in the allocated time.

Quiz design

Quiz design also proved to be an issue, in that there was a marked tendency to quote the tutor's summaries and comments back rather than refer to the reading. The suspicion of course is that the reading was not done in the first place. It was also clear that questions were frequently not understood. Eventually the quiz was replaced with a reflective question, in which students were asked to write around 200 words reflecting on their readings. The standard of work did improve markedly with this strategy.

Outcomes - Student perceptions

SPOT Analysis - semester 1

A number of students took the opportunity to comment on the workshop program at the end of semester 1 as part of the SPOT survey. As will be seen from the answer summary below, a number of the changes made as described above were directly triggered by the SPOT responses. In addition students were asked three questions about the workshops:
  1. The workshop structure has been beneficial to my learning
  2. The presentation of the workshops has been interesting and appropriate
  3. The workshops have encouraged me to think about history in different ways.
Responses were as tabulated:

QuestionStrongly disagreeDisagreeNeutralAgreeStrongly agree
13%19.8% 30.3%36.4%12.1%
20%9.9% 21.1%42.4%29%
30%12.1% 18.5%42.4%30.3%

The conclusion is that despite the occasional comments expressing dislike, the vast majority of the students (71.4%) found the workshop program an interesting and appropriate way to learn and 72% felt they obtained a different insight into the past. On these responses, the workshops in general must be judged a success from the student perspective. The quantitative data reinforced a perception of the tutor / facilitator that there was a very vocal minority of 'grumblers' in this particular class who had in a sense captured the informal feedback process. This was confirmed in discussions with the course coordinator who was able to identify much the same groups of students as complaining about the work load in general, the essays, the sources and readings and much else.

SPOT Analysis - semester 2

Due to an oversight in the ordering of the SPOT questionnaires, specific questions concerning the workshops were not asked. However, one of the standard questions, "The teaching has been well suited to small groups" may be taken as a proxy for more specific questions. In addition, as the tutor who was the subject of the SPOT survey only had responsibility for workshops, student comments about the workshop experience can be extended beyond the personal evaluation aspect of the SPOT survey to the teaching and learning process as a whole. Specific comments made by students were as follows: As mentioned previously, quantitative data for this survey was limited to the statement that the teaching in small groups was appropriate. The mean average was 3.59, indicating that students were marginally, but not overwhelmingly, in agreement with statement. However in this case, modal averages may be more revealing. Frequency counts of the individual answers were:

Strongly disagreeDisagreeNeutralAgreeStrongly agree
12 12183
2.78%5.55% 33.34%50%8.33%

In short, 58.33% of students felt that the workshops were appropriate, and only 8.33% were hostile to the program. By this measure, the experiment was a success.

The following conclusions can be drawn from the second semester surveys::

  1. Workshops were more popular than the impression gained from verbal feedback. This is because those who dislike them were loud in their expressions of dislike, introducing a distorted perception.
  2. Surprisingly, the quizzes were valued as a learning experience. While a consistent substantial minority of students never submitted their quizzes (an average of 40% per workshop), some of those that did submit obviously valued the chance to reflect on their learning.
  3. The aspects of the workshops that were most strongly valued included the chance for free discussion, the chance to participate in creative activities and the opportunity to pursue different activities at each workshop.
  4. It should be noted that more students were in favour of rotating groups than set groups, and one of those was a student who had been vociferous in asking for set groups at the end of the first semester. It would seem that students still prepare largely individually and look upon the group as discussion centre, rather than sharing the tasks and working co-operatively, and thus did not value the opportunity to plan and share work collectively offered by permanent workgroups. If the latter skills are to be developed, some more overt strategies will need to adopted, perhaps reducing the assessment load on the research essay and introducing a group research project into the mix.

Workshop Survey - Semester 2

Student perceptions of the workshop program were sought via surveys in mid semester in both semesters. In each case, only a very small number of students completed and returned surveys (less than 10). In the absence of anything approaching an adequate sample, the key findings have been summarised as qualitative, not quantitative data.

Students were equally divided as to whether they had learnt more or less in the workshops than in a traditional discussion tutorial. However, the majority felt they had obtained some additional insight into the lived reality of the eighteenth century. This implies that the experiential learning component of the project was a qualified success.

The vast majority of students felt they had learned most from their reading, with group discussions a somewhat distant second. This suggests that the workshop format was not particularly successful in teaching information about the past, i.e. content. . One student commented that the small groups resulted in a reduction in the range of debate which might have ranged wider in a larger group. Another suggested that group discussion tended toward a common denominator of "regurgitating what everyone had read anyway".

Most students surveyed seemed to like the aspect of adopting past identities - either in role plays or 'real life' case studies - best, with general discussion a close second. Primary source criticism was popular with only one student! This seems to confirm the above findings - workshops worked best when they put students into a simulacra of past conditions and encouraged them to "think outside of the square" to obtain a sense of past life. Discussion was enjoyable but did not seem to lead to significant learning outcomes, possibly a reflection of the absence of guidance, direction and prompting from a tutor.

Students were asked to identify a range of higher order learning skills, all of which were made available in the program. Theoretically, each skill should have scored 100% usage, but students perceptions of what they learned to do were interesting:

Skill practisedPercentage of students
recognising this
Cooperative project planning25%
Collaborative research50%
Debate and sharing of information75%
Synthesising different viewpoints into a conclusion63%
Reasoned discussion63%
Decision making under pressure13%
Creative thinking and problem solving50%
Analytical techniques50%
Cooperative drafting13%
Public speaking37%
Online peer discussion12%

The last item is an anomaly as no students made use of the group discussion facility on WebCT, however this does not mean that some discussion may not have occurred privately. Low scores for co-operative drafting are interesting - either students left it to their spokesperson to frame a reply or did not recognise that a collectively prepared report was an exercise in co-operative drafting. Similarly it is clear that students felt they had enough time for the group exercises as decision making under pressure was hardly rated - an indication hat the work load could have been higher. Also groups clearly did not plan in advance very much or allocate the readings among themselves. One student commented astutely that while a wide range of skills were practiced, the time span of the workshops was too short to really develop any skills. Students were most likely to identify debate, discussion and synthesising of perspectives as skills used, much the same skills as are developed in traditional tutorials. Thus in terms of consciously exposing students to higher order learning skills the project was only partially successful.

Asked or what they liked best, students responses were as follows:

Additional comments illuminate the general popularity of small group discussion : "it allowed better participation"; "small groups enabled everyone to speak" ( this was mentioned twice). One criticism was that small group discussions went on too long.

Asked what they would change, students made the following suggestions.

Finally, a number of students recognised that their own contributions to the group work had been below standard, and indicated that faced with a similar type of learning environment again, they would do more readings, and had a responsibility to participate more in the group discussion. In some cases, then, self awareness and reflective learning was stimulated.

Outcomes - Facilitator perspective

A review of the facilitator's reflective journal indicated concern about the adequacy of the workshops clustered in four main area; uncertainty about what students were learning; difficulty of building relationships with the best students and thus encouraging them to proceed to honours and postgraduate study; not always able to identify and assist those struggling; and the 'corruption' of the quiz process through contamination by discussions, tutor statements and possible post workshop reading.

Student learning

The practical impossibility of the tutor devoting total attention to the discussions, and reliance on a brief (5 minute or less) window to summarise the issues at the end of the workshop meant that students were effectively proceeding with minimal guidance from the tutor. There was thus a concern as to the quality and quantity of subject content that students were learning. This concern was reinforced by the results of student surveys discussed above. Of course content is among the lowest ranking learning outcomes in Bloom's taxonomy, and this immediately raises the question of the course objectives and priorities.


One benefit of the tutorial system is that it allows tutors to identify the best students and to encourage them to consider honours or post graduate work in history - to 'grow' the profession. This level of personal interaction was impossible to obtain in classes of 50 plus students. By the end of each semester, the facilitator was still unable to identify most students by name.

Assistance to struggling students

Other than poor marks in the quizzes, there was no way to identify who was having difficulty in the class. Once again, interpersonal communications were weakened by the workshop process.

Quiz corruption

The return of quizzes a week or more after the workshop meant that answers were very often framed by the discussion or the tutor's comments, rather than the reading. In future, a definite time frame for completion and return of quizzes should be set; ideally quizzes should be completed in class.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Overall, the workshop program for the teaching of early modern history at UWA in 2006 should be judged a limited success. Grounds for rating the experiment as a success are: Grounds for considering the experiment to have been less successful are: It would be easier to rate the project as a whole had the course designers established a set of priorities among subject content, technical skills, higher order learning skills and experiential learning at the outset, as this would have better enabled a conclusion to be reached as to the overall efficacy of the program.

Design of future workshop programs should give consideration to the following points:

  1. Clearly ranked priorities need to be allocated in the course design stage between the teaching of content, technical skills, historiography, higher order learning and life skills and a sense of past experience.

  2. There needs to be an 'administrative workshop' in the first week to discuss processes, workshop techniques, mutual expectations and roles.

  3. Students need to be 'briefed' on the mechanics of group work in terms of allocating and rotating tasks, support via attendance and sharing of readings. Having each student submit a "peer evaluation" of the participation of all other students in the group at the end of the semester (which could be included in the overall participation marks), would also help to reinforce the mutual obligation aspects and reduce the "free rider" problem.

  4. Adequate resources of staff time to prepare workshops to 'iconic' status - either by having workshops designed by the course co-coordinator on full or fractional appointment, or by increasing the time allocation for casual staff, so that the remuneration matches the actual workload.

  5. Reducing the number of workshops and making them longer. This would allow the following enhancements:

    1. Groups could formed anew at each workshop if this option is deemed valuable;
    2. More time for students to consciously use and practice the higher order learning skills being fostered;
    3. Allowance for more extended and guided large group discussion at the end, giving the tutor more control and input into content;
    4. Allows for a question and answer session;
    5. Incorporation of a practical, primary source exercise to foster technical skills;
    6. Allows time for the quiz to be completed in class.
    7. Quizzes to be varied, including questions, multiple choice, imaginative assignments and reflective writing.

  6. Encourage the use of WebCT discussion forums for ongoing discussions of topics, perhaps allocating a portion of the participation assessment to this.

  7. Total workshop sizes need to be limited to about 30 per room. This may entail splitting the workshop between 2 facilitators as well as booking an additional room.

  8. Higher order learning skills need to be more positively incorporated into the teaching framework - each workshop should encourage a particular set of skills with students being exposed to these skills as part of the introduction and with sufficient time to use them in the group work.

  9. Introduce one group exercise / project into the assessment mix, in which students work co-operatively and present their findings to the class in a co-operative verbal presentation.

  10. Supplement the workshops with two booked interviews, of a quarter hour each, over the semester. This would allow:

    1. Individual, direct feedback to be given to each student
    2. Advice on improving skills and performance to each student.
    3. Special assistance to those struggling
    4. Discipline building by encouraging the better performers to continue to higher studies


Bertola, Pat and Murphy, Eamon, (1994), Tutoring at University, Bentley WA: Curtin University of Technology.

Bloom, Benjamin, (1956), Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, New York: David McKay.

Brookfield, S. D., (1995), Becoming A Critically Reflective Teacher, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Burns, R., (1995), The Adult Learner At Work, Chatswood NSW: Business and Professional Publishing.

Candy, P. C., Crebert, G. and O'Leary, J. (eds.), (1994), Learning Beyond Graduation: Developing Lifelong Learners Through Undergraduate Education, Australia; National Board of Employment, Education and Training.

Gardner, Howard, (1993) Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences, (2nd edition) London: Fontana Press.

Goleman, Daniel, (1996), Emotional Intelligence, London: Bloomsbury.

Kolb, David (1984), Experiential Learning, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Parker S, (1997), Reflective Teaching In The Postmodern World, Buckingham: OUP.

Pereira, Marcia, (1999), My reflective practice as research, Teaching in Higher Education, 4 (3), 339-354.

Perlmutter, M. and Hall, E., (1985), Adult Development and Aging, New York: John Wiley.

Zimmerman, B.J., (1998), Academic studying and the development of personal skill: A self regulatory perspective, Educational Psychologist, 33(2/3), 73-79.

Author: Cedric Beidatsch is a PhD Candidate and Teaching Intern with research interests in world economic history 1300-1800, early modern political thought, and renaissance neo-platonism. He holds degrees of BA(Hons) (UWA), GradDipArts (Local History) (ECU), GradDipFin&Inv (SIA) and MA (UWA). His previous work experience in APS and the finance and investment industry includes extensive experience as corporate trainer and public speaker. The author has Advanced Toastmaster standing with Toastmasters International. Postal: Cedric Beidatsch, School of Humanities (History), M208, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009, Australia. Email: beidac01@student.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Beidatsch, C. (2007). Alternatives to the traditional tutorial: A report on workshop based experiential learning in the History Discipline at the University of Western Australia. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/beidatsch.html

Copyright 2007 Cedric Beidatsch. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

[ Refereed papers ] [ Contents - All Presentations ] [ Home Page ]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/beidatsch.html
Created 14 Jan 2007. Last revision: 19 Jan 2007.