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Teaching and Learning Forum 2010 [ Refereed papers ]
Teaching smarter? The place of workshops in the curricula for undergraduate history teaching

Cedric Beidatsch and Susan Broomhall
The University of Western Australia

In recent years there has been increasing pressure to find more "efficient" or "sustainable" ways to teach. Workshops have been much touted as a solution to reduction in classroom contact hours, in which large numbers of students can be taught, often in collaborative group exercises, in place of tutorials. This paper reports on research comparing workshop and tutorial teaching in an undergraduate history unit, exploring the skills, materials and content that each format offers and assessing their role as part of contemporary history teaching practice.

Aims and background

History teaching has traditionally comprised weekly lectures and tutorials, sometimes implemented as longer 90-minute seminars. Yet in recent years there has been increasing pressure to find more "efficient" or "sustainable" ways to teach. In practice this has led firstly to larger but fewer tutorial groups, and secondly to less tutorials offered over the course of a unit. Anecdotal evidence suggests that large cohorts in traditional tutorial environments provide fewer opportunities for individual student articulation and explorations of ideas, and for identification of individual student needs by the tutor. Tertiary teachers have explored a range of strategies to maintain learning quality in their units. For some, introducing more group-based exercises in the lecture venue allows for the close student collaboration and discussion that is being lost from the tutorial room. For others, a suite of web-based activities displaces that interaction between students, and student and tutor, to an online environment, through blogs, comments, and other forms of e-learning communities. However, while new information technology has heralded many advantages to student learning, including the development of simulation, gaming and role play forms of experiential learning (Shortridge and Sabo, 2005; De Freitas, 2006; Levy, 2006), it has also posed a challenge by isolating students and decreasing "live" interaction.

We wanted, however, to retain the element of physical and verbal interactivity to support development of students' verbal presentation skills and ability to think and act in real-time. Active-learning workshops of the kinds we adopted are often used in the tertiary classroom as part of a range of strategies that seek to promote a student-centred approach to learning (Barraket, 2005). Active-learning techniques such as role play are seen to assist in keeping student engaged and motivated in the classroom, factors which generally lead them to perform more successfully (Hativa, 2000, 121-22) Importantly, participatory activities that focus on student intellectual, as well as sometimes emotional and physical, engagement in a range of tasks also encourage development of generic social skills such as debating, negotiation, and brainstorming (Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Meyers & Jones, 1993) Moreover, by arranging the activities of the workshops in small groups, teamwork, collaborative and especially co-operative learning in which the students were dependent on each other for exploration of key concepts, can be developed. Within history curricula specifically, role-play techniques have been lauded not only for the qualities above, but also for their ability to enable students to understand the complexity of human motivations in past events. Many role-plays detailed in scholarly practice focus on re-enactment of key events and scenarios and their associated debriefing and reflective components emphasise understanding of historic actions, and social, cultural and political dynamics (Gorvine, 1970; Keller, 1975; Levy, 1997; McDaniel, 2000; McCarthy & Anderson, 2000; Maypole & Davies, 2001).

Our project asked how workshops might be used to support the new dynamics and structures of tertiary history teaching in ways that maintained learning quality, allowed for a range of historical skills sets, content, and sources to be presented in appropriate formats. This question responds to a seemingly widespread understanding of the workshop as a format that can 'save' teaching time. Customarily, lectures articulate theoretical concepts, detailed historical content, and explore scholarly debates. Tutorials focus on the in-depth discussion of particular historical items of importance or of problems in the field, and have a secondary function of skill development including the use of primary sources, inductive reasoning from sources, empirical verification of argument, and assessing of rival interpretations from the sources. These skills have value in training students in critical literacy and general research and analysis applicable in a wide range of professions. We wanted to conduct a rigorous analysis of the sorts of content and skills sets that could be successfully delivered through the workshop environment. Thus, the project sought to address these competing agendas in the humanities, by developing best-practice frameworks for the development of active-learning workshops within humanities disciplines, which provide intellectual rigour and enduring learning in a cost-effective format.

This project represents the final stage of research study which commenced in early 2006 as part of research within a UWA Postgraduate Teaching Internship. The authors collaborated on testing the use of experiential learning workshops as a method of teaching early modern history to undergraduates at The University of Western Australia. In that iteration, tutorials within the program were completely replaced by workshops. Early modern history was taught in two semester units - each with 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, although each workshop divided students into smaller groups. The intention was not to recreate 5 or 8 tutorless discussions, but to create a different learning environment. Each workshop became a site for experimentation in the use of different strategies and techniques including role plays, case studies, brain storming, simulations, syndicates and lateral thinking techniques. What remained common to 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 or requirement to write a short reflective statement at the end of the workshop to test their reading.

The key finding of the 2006 project was that the experiment had been a 'limited success' with a number of structural problems in the implementation identified, suggesting that design of future workshop programs should give consideration to conceptual and practical issues such as:

In 2008 a UWA Teaching Fellowship enabled follow-up implementation of a trial of experiential learning workshops in conjunction with other learning formats - with an explicit aim of organising distinct learning formats to deliver different sorts of skills, materials and content to students. The overarching research goal was to establish which of the three interactive teaching and learning formats (lectures, tutorial and workshops) had the greatest retention of content for students. The underlying assumption was that if a clear rank order emerged from this comparison, the profession would have a guide to the most efficient mix of teaching methods in future course design.

Project Design

A module approach to the overall course design was adopted, as those allowed the integration of the three learning vehicles while retaining a cohesive course experience. This experiment was conducted 'live'; from a student-centred perspective it was a normal course to be navigated and studied with standard academic assessment. It was thus imperative that the experimental and research elements were integrated within a workable learning environment. Each fortnight was dedicated to teaching and learning on one broad thematic module and contained three lectures, one tutorial and one workshop. In the first week of each module, students attended two lectures and participated in one tutorial. In the second week, students attended one lecture and participated in one workshop.

For workshops, our aim was to design a series of active learning workshop that necessitated whole class participation, addressed unit content, encouraged debate and discussion, and highlighted skills development and explored the historian's practice. The primary purpose of the workshops was defined as vehicles for student-centred active learning, in which students were to be placed in situations in which they had to exercise choices as historical participants and thus acquire some sense of the complexity of historical motivations and actions. Moreover, we wanted to convey aspects of historians' practice, for students to understand the role of imagination and empathy in historical analysis. A secondary purpose was to enable practice in a range of other skills, such as teamwork, brain storming, rapid assimilation and summation of data, ranking of ideas, negotiation and public speaking.

A key problem in the 2006 experience had been the size of the workshops. The whole class (between 50 and 60 students) had been assembled in one lecture room although divided into groups of 12. Noise levels and crowding made it difficult for some students to participate fully and had limited the ability of the workshop coordinators to move between the groups and undertake both scholarly guidance and pedagogical assessment. In 2008, we ran separate workshop times, with half the class (25 to 30 students) in each, and consequently smaller groups of eight. These arrangements were maintained throughout the semester, thus reducing set-up time each session, as recommended from the 2006 experience. Students seemed happy to be in the same groups each fortnight, and close observation showed that they developed a good collective working relationship during the workshop activities. Students prepared for workshops by preparing short list of readings to outline the historical background to the question under discussion. Workshops commenced with a brief outline by the facilitator of the historical simulation, and then the groups had around 15 minutes to complete the activity. Subsequently, 15 minutes was given over to each group summarising and reporting on their solutions, outcomes or experiences, and the final ten minutes were reserved for general discussion, questions and a facilitator summary.

Each workshop exposed the students to a different simulation technique which generally involved both intellectual discussion among student groups and physical movement in the classroom space. The first, "Tulipomania and the Exotic in Europe" involved a game which explored some of the dynamics of the emerging market and consumer society in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. The second workshop "Religion and the ordering of space" involved a case study, in which each group took on sequentially a different religious or estate identity (Catholic, Protestant, or Absolutist Ruler) and designed the town plan for rebuilding a destroyed city. Students debated varied political and religious positions from the 1649 Putney Debates within the parliamentary army in the third workshop. In the fourth workshop, students acted out the process of local poor applying for relief from a board of Poor Law Governors in the early seventeenth century. In the final workshop, students were asked to pose for a family group portrait, and to use their acquired understanding of iconography as well as familial, gender and status relationships in positioning themselves according to the assigned characters and roles for a family portrait.

Tutorials emphasised technical skills, in particular the key historical skill of analysing and critiquing primary sources. This teaches close 'reading' of sources, placing sources in a chronological and contemporary context, analysis of content, style, phraseology and nuances of expression for hidden or buried meanings, critical and imaginative reconstruction of the events the source describes and assessment of accuracy, veracity and reliability. Included within the general skill set of primary source analysis is the more general skill of 'information literacy'. A secondary objective was for students to obtain an awareness of the problematic relationship between the historian, the sources and the product, in short into the nature of the enterprise of historiography itself. Tutorials, comprising small group discussions based on shared readings, were conducted on a fortnightly basis. The course supported four groups, of 17, 14, 12 and 12 students respectively, and each tutorial ran for the standard 45 to 50 minutes. Tutorials merged a Socratic question and answer component in which students were asked direct and more reflective questions arising from their readings, a discussion component in which students debated issues with each other, and a component in which the tutor outlined the context, the ongoing debates and historical evidence relating to the topic.

At the end of the fourth and eighth teaching weeks, after both classroom-based learning workshops and conventional tutorial sessions, students completed written reflective thinking exercises designed to enable them to articulate their experiential learning into a coherent pedagogical framework. These exercises took the form of five identical questions to which they were asked to respond.. Analysis involved tabulating all the answers under each question and then proceeding to group answers were they were identical or very similar. The result was a rough quantification of responses that enabled a judgement on how the students as a group responded to the modules. Analysis of phrasing in answers and comments provided a qualitative insight into student thought processes and responses, indicating how students were thinking about their learning and about what they were learning in the various course components. At the end of the semester, students completed a further in-class test asking them to draw on unit work as examples for set questions which enabled us to assess test the effect of the various delivery styles in terms of how they recalled and discussed it in their answers. Staff teaching the unit also created data for analysis through immediate observation logs of the success or otherwise of the delivery of unit elements, and reflective journals of their experiences.

The research thus drew upon a wide range of data for assessment of the workshops, including facilitator and unit co-ordinator observation logs, students' reflective statements, students' unit-end in-class tests, informal feedback by students and Student Perceptions of Teaching (SPOT) analysis. The project explored its over-arching question about the viability of workshop teaching through conducting qualitative analysis of, generally, subjective data sets that revealed both perceptions as well as evidence of workshops as learning environments. These datasets were designed to be derived from a variety of teaching and learning viewpoints (student, staff and researcher), and at different stages of distance from the various classroom activities.


Students responded to a feedback questionnaire asking 5 standard questions following the second and fourth learning modules. Twenty students completed the reflective survey in the second module and eight in the fourth module. The varied numbers make quantitative assessment across the different modules difficult. Instead we have analysed this aspect to compare the way in which students wrote about their perceived learning in tutorials and workshops, focussing particularly on their ability to distinguish learning goals between the two formats. The questions were designed to have students consider, and be able to distinguish between, different aspects of their learning - specifically historical content and source material types (Questions 1 3, and 4), historiographical process and the historian's practice (Question 1 and 5), and finally, their personal skill development (Question 2).

1. What is the key concept that you learnt in this session?

This question elicited a range of answers that spoke either to the nature of the materials studied or to the content of the sessions. Student responses identified the importance of analysis of particular forms of primary sources (artefacts, paintings, archival documents) as the focus of tutorial sessions: "Use of artefacts as historical evidence" or "Paintings provide an insight into social relations." Others highlighted the thematic content of the tutorial session: "VOC was an economic and political force" or "Art was a trade in the seventeenth century, not for art's sake". Likewise, some workshops appeared particularly to produce conclusions about the period under study such as Workshop 4: "Charity more a social duty than a Christian responsibility" or "Poor relief depended on personal characteristics rather than people in need". By contrast, comments for Workshop 3 suggested that this session helped students to think about historical process: "Story has been pieced together from limited evidence" and "Successful historians must use imagination to fill the gaps in the record." This suggests that the distinct aims sought by the particular teaching formats were indeed grasped by students.

2. What skills have you practised in this class?

Student responses indicate that the different skills that were practised across the two different environments were discernible. For tutorials, they highlighted source-related skills: "Critical analysis, interpreting primary sources" as well as those integral to small group discussion: "argument" "questioning, objective commenting" and "group discussion, linking concepts". For workshops, a range of skills being developed in these sessions were identified, from practical skills such as teamwork and collaboration, brainstorming, debating, and thinking on their feet to more abstract, conceptual skills such as imagination and empathy.

3. How have you encountered the past in this session?

This question generated generally only quite basic responses. For tutorials, answers were consistently 'through texts', 'readings' and 'artefacts'. For workshops, answers were variations on 'through role play' although some students articulated more fully how this operated for them: "Just how difficult it is to unearth the past," and "Session made everyone part of the past community where everyone adapted to the views and attitudes of the past."

4. Has this session helped you better understand the seventeenth century, and why?

This question produced mixed and often quite general responses for both tutorials and workshops, such as "gave meaning to contemporary accounts" and "Better understanding of the dynamics" (in workshops) and "Better perspective", "Insights" and "Complexity" (for tutorials). Concrete facts about the period were noted from tutorials, such as "Motives of the VOC" whereas a particular feel for the period was identified through workshops, such as "The way people believe matters. If a debate can get that heated when people are simply pretending, what else could be done by those who really believe?" and "Significance of class and station, something I skimmed over as coming from a more egalitarian society".

5. How has this session helped you to understand the historian's task better?

In general, students appeared to have gained a strong sense of insight into historians' practice through both workshop and tutorial activities and discussions. Their responses on workshops noted: "Own viewpoints affect interpretation of history, Imagination and creativity are needed to construct history from sources and be aware of personal bias and prejudice" and "Not everything I want or need to know is given to me. There is a lot of evidence but ciphering through it lead to encountering the gaps or valuable missing links". For tutorials, they emphasised: "A multifaceted job, not just reading books, part archaeologist, part historian," "Forming own ideas from sources rather than from other peoples ideas", and "Lateral thinking to work out what the evidence means". Interestingly a few acknowledged the importance of analytical conversation itself, one of the key elements of traditional tutorial practice: "Asking questions, collaborative discussion."

For a small number, unexpectedly, this newfound appreciation of the work of the historian was interpreted quite negatively, "In trying to be a farmer from ca 1600 I realised how alien the assumptions and cultural norms guiding his thinking were to me. It seems a complex, almost futile effort to try and discover these and attach the right amount of weight to each. Why would anyone want to be an historian?" (workshop) and "Historian's job of analysing evidence more difficult than I thought". (tutorial)

Further to the weekly reflective statements, 44 students also completed a Student Perceptions of Teaching Survey (SPOTS) at the completion of the unit. We added specific questions about the workshop-tutorial nexus. Most notably, we asked, "In which context (tutorial or workshop) did you learn most?" Nine students opted for the workshop, while 22 students selected the tutorial - although seven of these mentioned that they also got a lot out of the workshops. A further 13 replied both equally. While this shows some preference for the standard history teaching environment that students encounter at UWA, they were quite evenly split in their assessment of the most productive learning environment.

In terms of suggested changes to the unit, four requested more or longer workshops, but another three argued for more or longer tutorials. Four students suggested there should be no workshops at all. Free-form comments included positive reflections particularly about the organisation of the material and the insights the structure offered:

Further to students' own assessments of their learning in workshop and tutorial environments, we also analysed students' final test responses and overall unit marks as indicators of these fora as successful learning contexts.

51 students submitted test papers. The paper required them to respond to broad questions about the seventeenth century, referencing two learning modules from the five in the program. Students could use their learning from lectures, tutorials, workshops and reading. The research analysis revolved around observing which components they used and whether the choice of components affected the outcomes. Potentially, each student could reference two content components in answering the paper, providing a total sample size of 102 reference opportunities. There were 43 references to content explored in workshops, a proportion of 42%. These came from 30 students - a proportion of 58%. A standard distribution of results would anticipate 50% of students might make workshop references. Given the size of the sample (51 individuals) 58% represented a very respectable outcome.

The implication was that the workshops were memorable and influential in terms of learning experiences. Lectures produced 42 references, or 41% of responses, by 40 students (78% of cohort). One could conclude that students relied most heavily on lectures for their information and learning. Tutorials were referenced 23 (22.5% of examples), by 16 students (15.8% of cohort). As this is at the extreme end of normal distribution, it seems that tutorials were in general not as memorable a learning context. There were also 22 occurrences of external reading among the 102 references, 21.5%, spread across 15 students (14.8% of cohort). Students did not generally read outside of assigned areas, so it was pleasing to discover that one fifth pursued some additional reading for their own interest. Finally, students also wrote one essay, so potentially one reference could stem from essay research, therefore n=51. There were 15 uses, or 29.5%. Surprisingly, it seemed that most students did not use their essay as a learning experience in thinking and reprising the course as a whole.

Conclusion and recommendations

Our conclusion at the end of this research is that workshops, while a valuable addition and supplement to the repertoire of teaching practices, are not a sinecure and work best when combined in an ensemble of teaching practices. Delivering best-practice workshops involves a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and recognising that they may not be an appropriate format for all learning objectives that we would want to convey to history students. It requires at least as much organisation as delivery of a tutorial, particularly to design appropriate collaborative exercises, student role statements, supporting classroom materials and props, as well as considered preparatory and reflective exercises to support the learning objectives of each session. When these elements come together well, it appears that the impact of content learned in simulated, active learning formats is powerful in terms of student memory and recall.

However, workshops do not appear to perform as successfully in terms of managing the sophistication and control of the concepts that student learn in this context, and perhaps in pushing students to think through their understandings. It is therefore critical that the desired learning outcome is matched with the appropriate teaching technique. Workshops work well in supporting student learning of historical process, the role of imagination and empathy in historians' practice, as well as in creating some understanding of period social and cultural dynamics. This environment can be ideally complemented by the more traditional form of the tutorial that can provide students with other learning opportunities, for example, for detailed engagement with primary sources, and practice of individual oral presentation and argumentation skills. Finally, both tutorials and workshops are most successful when there is a conscious effort to use these formats to educate students in meta-learning, to be reflective, cognisant and critical about their own learning.


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Authors: Cedric Beidatsch and Susan Broomhall, History, School of Humanities, The University of Western Australia. Email: susan.broomhall@uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Beidatsch, C. & Broomhall, S. (2010). Teaching smarter? The place of workshops in the curricula for undergraduate history teaching. In Educating for sustainability. Proceedings of the 19th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 28-29 January 2010. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2010/refereed/beidatsch.html

Copyright 2010 Cedric Beidatsch and Susan Broomhall. The authors assign 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, provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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