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Australia: Politics and Nation,  Sydney University, Winter Session, 2013

The Human Rights Revolution, Sydney University, Semester 1, 2013.

Australian Social HistorySydney University, Semester 1, 2012.

The Spanish Civil WarSydney University, Semester 2, 2009.


HSTY2677 Australia: Politics & Nation

Winter Session, 2013

I was course co-ordinator and lecturer in this small (8 student) Winter School intensive course. The Winter School session allows students to complete a full semesters’ study in a turbo-charged timeframe: two lectures and one tutorial a day, four days a week, for three weeks.

This involves an incredible amount of hard-work and planning, but is great fun and intensely fulfilling for the students and co-ordinator.

I had substantially re-worked the Australia: Politics and Nation curriculum (originally drafted by James Curran) with colleague Matt Allen in preparation for semester 1, 2013. Although James’ course was excellent, Matt and I wanted to focus more on the social aspects of Australian history. Believing that the words of politicians only have purchase when embraced by “ordinary Australians,” we sought to contextualise the course’s straightforward “political” aspects with broader considerations of the Australian people, and particularly conceptions of what it has meant to “be Australian” at different times. Matt co-ordinated the course in Semester 1, and I gave a number of guest lectures. The Unit of Study evaluations received for the unit indicated it was very well received, gaining an average mean feedback score of above 4.43.

For Winter School, I further tweaked the curriculum, replacing a small number of readings that were poorly received, and substantially re-drafting the assessment tasks. As part of this re-working, I introduced a tutorial participation self-assessment task (which I will discuss further on my website). Other innovations included the introduction of a library research session with our Faculty Liaison Librarian, Rena McGrogan; the allocation of more time in tutorials for discussion of the major research essay; and the inclusion of a number of digital tools for use in essays and tutorial discussions.

Students were asked to complete two surveys at the conclusion of the Unit. The first was a “Teaching in Lectures” questionnaire, which is designed to evaluate teaching quality. The second was a “Unit of Study Evaluation,” designed to assess the content and structure of the course (though these distinctions are somewhat artificial). Eight responses (100%) were received for Teaching in Lectures questionnaire, and seven for the Unit of Study Evaluation.

The responses to both surveys were truly exceptional. Mean responses to Teaching in Lectures propositions ranged from 5 (“The lecturer used audio visual aids appropriately”), to 4.25 (“The topics covered in lectures were organised in a way that helped my learning”). The “average” mean across all questions was 4.68. The Unit of Study Evaluation was similarly positive, with responses ranging from 4.43 (three questions) to 4.71 (four questions), and an “average” mean of 4.58.

Open feedback was similarly positive. Standout responses included: “Dave was a truly outstanding lecturer… Without a doubt Dave is one of the most committed and friendly academics I have encountered in 5 years at Sydney,” and “I have never before enjoyed Australian history, [but] this is easily one of the best units of history I have studied.”

Teaching in Lectures Questionnaire

Winter Session, 2013

This survey asked students to respond to propositions about my teaching.


The lecturer was enthusiastic about the topic area


“Dave had a great knowledge of the unit and it showed he deeply cared for his focus area of disability history.”

“Dave made it clear that the political history scope of the course was outside his immediate interest as an historians but nonetheless delivered lectures and conducted seminars with enthusiasm and interest, adding to a potentially dry course with his approach.”

“Dave was very enthusiastic about Australian history in general and often provided personal insights and interpretation based on his research area of expertise.”

The lecturer stimulated my interest in the topic area


“Dave made the course very interesting. Though political history is a topic I thoroughly enjoy, the nuance and perspective he brought to it made it more enjoyable rather than less.”

I have disliked Aus history since high school and this is one of the best units I have done.

“Managed to make Australian politics interesting, even to the point where I was watching related videos on youtube at home.”

“As a confessed agnostic on Australian history, I was surprised that I was as interested in as much as I was.”

Unit Structure

It was clear that the lectures were relevant to the unit of study objectives and outcomes


“The unit engaged with the objectives + outcomes well + this unit is the first time I feel fully confident arguing a case based on the historical content as well as being challenged to continually assess that content.”

“Always stuck to course objectives, clear theme of national identity.”

“Each topic in the objectives and outcomes was tackled in turn.”

The topics covered in lectures were organised in a way that helped my learning


“The lectures overall helped me learn effectively.”

“The broadly chronological structure was helpful + the treatment of thematic content both in bloc + interspersed throughout the course sustained interest + allowed for greater academic engagement with the themes of the course.”

“Well planned unit.”

“Lectures always ordered in a clear, chronological manner. Easy to follow.”

Lecture Delivery

The lecturer used audiovisual aids appropriately


“The powerpoints were of high standard and the video clips helped me understand the unit better.”

“Videos + images gave a great sense of the time/issues being discussed + improved the effectiveness of the lecture.”

“Great collection of photos and videos – really broke it up!”

“Visual material offered interesting insights into the various contexts attached to different periods of Australian history that were often unbeknownst to me.”

“All of the supplementary videos were relevant to the unit of study and to the topic discussed at the time. Opening with the bicentenary celebration drove home the idea of some of the problems in forming a national identity and its susceptibility to be used as a political tool.”

I found the lecturer’s speech easy to understand


“Dave was articulate and clear in speech, explaining concepts and examples in a way that was easy to understand and process.”

“Dave spoke plainly and delivered content + engaged with the class effectively and without lecturing ‘at’ us in the manner some lecturers I have had previously have done.”

The lecturer explained important concepts and ideas in ways that I could understand


“Dave’s explanations of the topics were great for me to understand the unit’s outcomes.”

“Contextualised and explained units very well.”

Knowledge Transmission

The lecturer helped me understand the relevance of the topic


“Dave’s interpretation had included me thinking about how the topic is explored in current social situations.”

“Dave consistently brought the subject matter back to our current context and political climate.”

Dave put Aus history in a completely new context for me.

“References were often made both to contemporary politics and events.”

The lecturer took account of students’ existing knowledge and level of understanding


“It was clear that our existing knowledge was expanded upon when Dave thought we needed it.”

“Dave often allowed students to input during lectures + tutorials and encouraged deep engagement with matter.”

Nothing was assumed but we weren’t taught like children.

“Explained everything from the ground-roots up.”

“Most of us had a good base level of knowledge so generally the content did not require diversion to explain context. Broad scope of inquiry also made knowledge variance less of an issue.”

The lecturer taught in ways that fostered my development of generic graduate attributes (e.g. research & enquiry skills, communication skills, personal & intellectual autonomy, etc.)


“Allowed debate to develop organically and for people to ‘own’ their opinions.”

“The unit fostered academic skills + historical knowledge better than any course I’ve taken in history.”

“Frequent references to and demonstrations of online research tools (e.g. Trove) was very beneficial and not something that I had experienced before.”

Assessment and Feedback

The lecturer sought feedback from students about our understanding of the material


“We were encouraged throughout the course to comment and question what was being said in order to understand it fully.”

“Dave constantly made sure we were on track and understood the subject matter.”

“Questions were encouraged and Dave made a point to explain in greater depth when required.”

During lectures, the lecturer provided useful feedback on student work


“The feedback that was given gave me a lot to think about and improve my work.”

Essay feedback was fantastic.

“Only one assignment due during the lecture period + need for feedback linked well outside lectures.”

“Most of the feedback was provided online, but assignment were also discussed in class, particularly the standard of work, what worked, what didn’t, etc.”

“Timely and thoughtful advice was provided.”

The lecturer explained the assessment processes in ways I could understand


“Dave was very helpful the entire way throughout the assessment process.”

“Best explained I’ve had at uni – detailed, didn’t leave expectations of assessments ambiguous as in past experiences at uni (which meant every one ended up resenting the assignments) [resentment is presumably referring to the past experiences].”

“David explained explicitly what was expected of us during assessments, providing examples of good work.”

“I had never used Turnitin before, but the lecturer ran through the process and explained it clearly.”

Overall Impression

Overall my lecturer effectively supported my learning


“I thoroughly enjoyed Dave’s teaching method + the way he structured the course.”

“The lecturer’s comments on assessments were great. His overall support has led to a good unit of study.”

“The only suggestion I could make to improve the course is to have focus questions to come back to during tutorials. The open nature of discussions often made it difficult for all students to contribute in meaningful ways.”

Dave was a great teacher and someone I would highly recommend.

“Coherent & engaging teaching style—enjoyed the unit!”

“Dave was a truly outstanding lecturer. The small group environment of winter school enhanced the fact that he was a deeply engaged and responsive lecturer – someone who embraced the fact that there were only 8 students in the course. Without a doubt Dave is one of the most committed and friendly academics I have encountered in 5 years at Sydney.”

“Overall a solid teacher with a passion for history and education.”

Unit of Study Evaluation

This survey asked students to respond to propositions about the content and structure of the course as a whole, and how these were integrated into teaching.

Feedback & Assessment

The assessment in this unit of study allowed me to demonstrate what I had understood.


“The first assignment was very closely linked to both the unit as a whole as well as what we had learned and discussed in class up to that point.”

Both essays were set out well and clearly.

“The historiography assignment was a welcomed change from courses with two straight research essays as it encouraged actual work within the discipline of history.”

The neutral response read:

“For a winter school maybe a slight readjustment could be made to make the final assessment more relevant. I would give the first assessment a lesser weighting and instead of requiring additional research (which had the effect of knocking out an early start for the major essay) make it an analysis of 2 or 3 set readings instead. i would leave the major essay as is and add 10% to the final assessment so that there is more value placed on doing the readings and the content of the lectures (being 40% overall with the take home and participation), which more accurately reflects the effort being put in throughout the weeks.”

This was a very thoughtful response and I will certainly consider whether taking this approach would be worthwhile if I have the opportunity to teach the course again. Another option might be to slightly reduce the length of the major research essay, and include a longer take home exam.

It was clear to me that the staff in this unit of study were responsive to student feedback.


“Dave was readily available for any questions and seeing as the unit was so condensed was always available.”

The feedback on this unit was useful in helping me to learn.


“The online marking sheet [Turnitin interface] provides a great source of feedback.”

“Feedback on the first assignment was very quick and very helpful.”

Excellent essay feedback.

“Timely and thoughtful feedback was provided.”

The assessment requirements of this unit of study were clear to me.


“Assessment requirements were provided even before the unit of study started, allowing time of thought and planning.”

“Very well presented, great options, relevant to unit course work.”

The neutral response read: “Not sure about the final assessment?”

Course Structure

The learning outcomes and expected standards of this unit of study were clear to me.


“It was a well set out unit that was extremely consistent and concluded successfully. There were no surprises but a lot of room for individual interpretation.”

“The course outline and the expectations of the unit were discussed at the beginning of the course. They were also recapped on in the concluding lecture.”

This unit of study helped me develop valuable graduate attributes.


“I have never before enjoyed Australian history, this is easily one of the best units of history I have studied so far and has been extremely useful considering that I am going to be a history teacher. It has given me excellent ideas about how to teach Australian [sic] history intelligently and interestingly.”

It gave me better research skills.

“Of particular use was the research assignment which involved finding primary evidence from a number of sources.”

I can see the relevance of this unit of study to my degree


“Yes it has great relevance to my degree.”

As mentioned above it has been an incredibly useful unit of study.

“Definitely- a course like this (at least with some of the first year content) should almost be a first year pre-requisite. High school students don’t [sic] really have an appreciation [sic] for this kind of Australian history but doing this course definitely instils one.”


The teaching in this unit of study helped me to learn effectively


“Dave was a great teacher and expressed all major points clearly.”

“The small group nature of winter school is something that I would recommend to any student – it allows for a much more engaged experience with the unit, content and lecturer.”

Dave’s teaching [w]as great and synthesised the content well.

I could understand teaching staff clearly when they explained things.


“Very clear.”

“Dave is an excellent teacher and is definitely one of the best tutes I have had.”


I was motivated to engage with the learning activities in this unit of study.


“The readings were really good — nothing too dry, some pretty entertaining and others more theoretical but definitely engaging.”

“Seeing as the classes were smaller and Dave ran the tutorials well it was to our great advantage to have a solid understanding of the unit material.”

“This was the first Australian history unit I have completed and upon enrolling was sceptical as to how much I would enjoy it. Needless to say, Dave’s passion for and engagement with the content put this scepticism to rest.”

“My engagement was much higher in this unit than others in the past.”

There was sufficient opportunity for me to participate in class/tutorial discussions.


“The small group nature of winter school provides ample opportunity for contribution.”

Overall Impression


What are the best aspects of this unit of study? Please explain why.

“The assessments given and the structure of the unit in a small timeframe.”

“The content covered, how it is expressed, the room for interpretation.”

“Dave Earl.”

Broad scope with strong thematic content and historiographical focus.

What aspects of this unity of study need improvement? Please explain why.

“Perhaps it would be useful to have more women and aboriginal focus in the unity however it is already quite full.”

“Perhaps too much social history – more political and/or military history may be good.”

“Maybe less focus on national identity, more focus on indigenous history”

Complete Feedback

Download a .pdf with a complete transcript of the feedback for this unit:

HSTY2677 – Winter 2013, “Teaching in Lectures Questionnaire”

HSTY2677 – Winter 2013, “Unit of Study Evaluation”


The Human Rights Revolution

Semester 1, 2013

This course was co-ordinated by Dr. Marco Duranti. It was taught for the first time in 2013, and surveyed the extraordinary rise of human rights discourse, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century.

I taught three tutorials of twenty-five students in this course, and also delivered a guest lecture on human rights and disability.

This was a fulfilling, but challenging course to teach. Many students came from a legal or international studies background, and were sometimes resistant to the idea that “human rights,” like other concepts, are historically contingent and can change over time. The transnational nature of the course, combined with the broad time period covered, also meant that students often lacked the contextual information to ground the often complex readings.

The semester was also frequently interrupted by industrial action at the University.

Having said that, Marco Duranti did a fantastic job providing incredibly engaging lectures which helped students grasp the core concepts.

The Institute of Teaching and Learning facilitated a “Teaching in Tutorials” survey to my three tutorial classes at the end of the semester.

Students were asked to consider fourteen propositions regarding my teaching. Open responses were also sought.

55 of approximately 75 students responded to the survey.

A summary of student responses is included below, and links to the full student responses are available at the end of this section.

Knowledge Transmission

My tutor came to class well-prepared to help me learn

My tutor came to class well-prepared to help me learn

Feedback for this question was very positive.

Comments included:

“Dave was always very well informed, lots of background knowledge & detail.”

Always stimulated discussion + had questions to pose or set tasks to work on.

“Knew his stuff! Was able to give insightful comments.”

My tutor had a firm grasp of the subject matter

My tutor had a firm grasp of the subject matter

Responses here were generally positive:

“Could answer all our questions, helped me understand certain concepts.”

“Dave had a very firm grasp on the material and encouraged us to think more historically and critically.”

“Was always knowledgeable on the readings and offered opinions and insights on them.”

The students who disagreed said:

“Particularly when discussing genocide and the ICJ [International Court of Justice], my tutor was unaware of important cases & info.”

“He had strong views of his own on human rights.”

“Topics were not interesting, should focus more on examples of human rights action.”

My tutor explained things clearly

My tutor explained things clearly

Responses included:

“I understood everything he said or if I didn’t he would try and explain differently.”

“Effective and clear speaking manner.”

Interjected in student led tutes if concept/idea needed more explanation.

Two students worried that my habit of offering contrary views detracted from clarity:

“He often made things more confusing by playing ‘devil’s advocate’ then failing to explain any reasoning.”

Learning Engagement

I could see the relevance of the tutorials to the unit of study aims and outcomes

I could see the relevance of the tutorials to the unit of study aims and outcomes

The positive responses to this question probably reflect the quality of the course structure, rather than my actual teaching:

“Discussion directly based on lecture material & core concepts.”

“Critical in clarifying lecture content + exploring reading + deeper ideas.”

One neutral respondent said:

“At times talk + discussion was led astray by reference to current affairs and popular culture.”

I was challenged to think independently and creatively in tutorials

I was challenged to think independently and creatively in tutorials

This is one of the more demanding aspects of tutoring as it involves balancing the fostering of critical historical understanding (versus uncritical opinion) whilst still encouraging new ideas and knowledge.

Feedback on this question included:

“As the tutorials were student led it gave the chance for us to come prepared with our own points hand have discussion where we wanted it to go (within reason).”

Activities + discussion promoted thinking + analysis.

“Tute questions really helped to challenge our understanding.”

Neutral and disagrees included:

“Tutorials were big so this was difficult.”

“Felt like he wanted us to just see his way.”

“Felt somewhat compelled/encouraged to agree w\ readings (+lecturer), despite not necessarily thinking they were correct.”

Student Motivation

I felt motivated to learn in tutorials

I felt motivated to learn in tutorials

Another challenging area for the tutor, but results in this area were generally positive:

“Well organised, interesting, varied content, open forum for discussion without judgement.”

“Discussions made course interesting + this motivated me to learn.”

“Simply by the nature of the topics of the tut (highly debatable), Dave ensures ease in the class.”

A number of students (across all answers) mentioned they would like to see more group work, and I will take this suggestion on board.

The students who felt neutral or disagreed with this statement offered an extremely varied range of open responses. A number attributed their lack of motivation to the structure of the course:

“The amount to read meant most tutorials a lot of students couldn’t complete readings for discussion.”

“The content of the course was interesting but like previous Marco classes I felt his lectures were extremely boring.”

Two students were unhappy with a student-led learning structure, with one student commenting:

“The tutorials were often boring and being lead [sic] by student [sic] was unfair. We pay for him to teach us, not the other way around.”

My interest in the subject matter was stimulated during tutorials

My interest in the subject matter was stimulated during tutorials

This question, as usual, provoked comments on two slightly different areas: course content and tutorial management. Most students were very positive in their open feedback. Comments regarding tutorial management included:

“Partly because this is an interesting unit but also because the questions Dave raised were stimulating.”

“Discussions were an effective way to unpack sometimes complex material.”

Tutorials were facilitated really well, I was motivated and engaged.

Comments on the course were also positive:

“This course changed & challenged my perspective on human rights.”

“Interesting articles and topics.”

Neutral responses varied:

“I chose the subject merely as a filler to get enough credit for my graduation. As this is only an elective, I was not paying much attention to it. However, that is not to say the tutor’s teaching was not interesting. It really is to the student who cherish the unit [sic?].”

“Sometimes very much so, but majority of the time I was more motivated to go home than learn.”

Only two of the students who disagreed with this statement provided an open response. They wrote:

“Excess reading.”

“Readings were way too long and dry.”

Learning Environment

I felt comfortable asking questions in tutorials

I felt comfortable asking questions in tutorials

This question, as usual, provoked a diverse range of responses. Generally, the very large (25+) tutorial sizes makes it difficult for all students to feel they can contribute, especially if they are shy. Trying to encourage quieter students occasionally leads to accusations of “picking on” people. Although the majority of students responded positively here, I’ll be continuing to try new strategies to improve responses to this question.

Positive open responses included:

“Dave is very approachable.”

“Very open discussions – nothing wrong Dave just showed us there were different interpretations.”

“Open learning environment.”

“Calm environment for tutorial.”

Unfortunately only a minority of students who felt neutral or disagreed with this statement:

“Mild hostile atmosphere.”

“More so the individuals in class, not Dave.”

“Name tags made me feel isolated/picked on for not knowing an answer.”

“The environment set in tutorials had those who were outspoken & majority of people kept silent.”

Only one of the students who strongly disagreed provided an open response. It reads:

“Too critical & his facial gestures often made you not want to address what was said.”

My tutor was open to new ideas and viewpoints

My tutor was open to new ideas and viewpoints

This is another area where a fine balance exists between teaching course content from readings and lectures, and encouraging independent learning and assessment amongst tutorial attendees.

This question received very positive responses from students who agreed with the proposition:

“Dave really encouraged participation from everyone.”

“Nice tutor, not intimidating, listened to class.”

“This was an extremely positive aspect of the unit.”

“He did seem open to new concepts – as long as you were able to argue your point clearly.”

Dave gave his opinion without squashing other people’s ideas.

On the flipside, neutral comments varied:

“Had no opinion on anything.”

“Had own thoughts + didn’t really like different eg. concept of ‘evolving.’”

“Felt like other ideas from other disciplines ie. law, sociology were unwelcome.”

Only one open response was received from the three students who disagreed:

“I often felt like I could not express something because it was not in line with his point of view.”

My tutor respected each student and responded to individual needs

My tutor respected each student and responded to individual needs

Quite positive responses were received for this statement. Again, a balance needs to be found between encouraging quieter students to participate, and avoiding causing embarrassment or discomfort to participants. I feel I’m close to getting the balance correct. Clearly some students disagree:

“Most definitely.”

“Really nice tutor, listened and respected well thought put ideas & helped develop them with us.”

“Didn’t talk over us or condescendingly very [unclear] to contribute.”

“Quite patronizing/quite overconfident.”

“Some of the quieter students might have been shortchanged.”

“Choosing people to answer isn’t respecting – it’s embarrassing people who don’t know.”

“Picked on people.”

My tutor maintained a classroom atmosphere conducive to learning

My tutor maintained a classroom atmosphere conducive to learning

Generally very positive comments were received in response to this statement, though opinions were mixed as to whether more or less intervention was required during student-led discussions:

“Conducted great discussions + asked though provoking questions.”

Everyone was engaged.

“Tutorial was impacted by lack of engagement from many students, but tutor tried hard.”

“During presentations needs to let students lead and not talk as much.”

People who disagreed wrote:

“Should have been a tutor and not sat back so much.”

“Didn’t tell rude people to pull their heads in!”

“The environment was calm, interactive but lacked strong debate.”

Feedback and Assessment

As usual, responses to these two questions proved challenging. As with all history units, tutorial participation is not graded until the end of semester, after these surveys are completed.

Assessment for this unit also included a major essay (50%), and a sit-down exam. I would have marked approximately half of my students’ essays, with my colleague Eirini Cox having marked the remainder.

My tutorial work was graded fairly and accurately

My tutorial work was graded fairly and accurately

Positive responses included:

“From the feedback/essay writing class, I found out where I went wrong and how to fix it.”

“I hope so!”

“As far as I know, but only my essay was marked & not by my tutor.”

Neutral responses included:

“Not sure what tutorial work there was?”

“There were not many opportunities for this to occur.”

“Don’t have marks yet!”

“Haven’t had any…”

One student responded:

“I was disappointed to find my major essay was marked in light of not referencing required readings. I thought senior History subjects frown upon this practice.”

I normally received helpful feedback on my learning from my tutor

I normally received helpful feedback on my learning from my tutor

Open responses to this question varied. Some neutral responses indicated, like above, that they hadn’t received feedback. Four of the five students who disagreed provided open responses, and most of them (quite rightly) complained that they only received guidance on the essays after it was returned.

I will continue to advice course co-ordinators to 1) ensure a small piece of written assessment is due early in the semester, to enable written guidance to be provided; and 2) schedule time during tutorials (ideally an entire tutorial) to discussing approaches and strategies for major essays. (I took this approach when re-working HSTY2677 – responses will be available in mid-August 2013).

Regardless, there were many responses that were very positive, including:

“Linked the concepts of the readings back to the major themes of the course very well.”

“When I asked I received very constructive feedback.”

“Helped when I had the wrong idea + gave me suggestions for new ones.”

“Explaining how to write historically was very helpful.”

“Dave was able to provide me tangible and clear individual feedback to me as well as more general feedback to the whole class.”

“Tutor gave good advice for essays and exams, as well as clarifying topics.”

“Acknowledged in class responses and offered opinion/feedback.”

“After class discussions he always lead [sic] us to the right direction if we were steering off to the wrong direction.”

“Prompt email replies & helpful.”

Great essay feedback. Well led discussion + directing of tutorials.

“Dave replied to emails promptly and gave really detailed feedback on the essay.”

Responses where were neutral or disagreed included:

“Not applicable or feasible given tutorial size.”

“Not really covered.”

“There was not many opportunities for this to happen.”

“Feedback was given after it was needed & therefore was useless.”

“Not much time dedicated to providing feedback. We did get feedback on essays, & he told us what to do to improve, but told us after we got the essay back…”

“I just got useless advice to read the History essay guide lines.”

Overall Impression

Overall my tutor effectively supported my learning

Overall my tutor effectively supported my learning

I am happy with this overall result, although fewer students strongly agreed with this statement than I would have hoped. Quite a few students (across all ranges), mentioned their bitter dislike of Twitter. Generally, however, responses were very positive:

“Great tutor – really enjoyed the course!”

“Very good tutor, really happy with the semester. Please no more TWITTER!!”

“Dave was a very insightful tutor, who provided interesting viewpoints which engaged my learning within tutorials.”

Good, needs improvement. More name tags & use of twitter #like.

“Dave was a great tutor, thanks for the semester!”


Complete transcript of open responses.

Raw feedback, 3pm Tuesdays.

Raw feedback, 4pm Tuesdays.

Raw feedback, 5pm Tuesdays.

Decorative Bar

Australian Social History

Semester 1, 2012.

This course was coordinated by Associate Professor Penny Russell.

I was the lead tutor and assistant lecturer in this survey course, which covered Australian social history from 1918 to the present.

In October 2012 I received a Dean’s Citation for Excellence in Teaching for this unit. The judging panel wrote that I show “clear evidence of methodical, supportive, innovative student focused teaching.”

The Institute of Teaching and Learning facilitated a “Teaching in Tutorials” survey to my five tutorial classes at the end of the semester.

Students were asked to consider fourteen propositions regarding my teaching. Open responses were also sought.

90 of approximately 125 students responded to the survey.

A summary of student responses is included below, and links to the full student responses are available at the end of this section.

Knowledge Transmission

My tutor came to class well-prepared to help me learn

Feedback for this question was overwhelmingly positive.

Comments included:

“Dave always knows the content back to front and even those little extra bits students never really think of.”

Dave was always knowledgeable about all the readings and provided excellent & informative insight into them every week

“Dave had great enthusiasm for and knowledge of each class’ topics.”

“Dave always had interesting questions to help move the discussion into relevant areas. He was also enthusiastic.”

My tutor had a firm grasp of the subject matter

The open responses speak for themselves:

“Dave always knew what topics he was discussing and went above and beyond to help broaden people’s opinions on social history.”

“When discussing in small groups & the talk was flat Dave would come along and really get the group back on topic through knowledge of the subject matter.”

A really modern take + very on top of the scholarship

“Dave clearly loves & understands Australian Social History!”

“Even lectured in the course.”

My tutor explained things clearly

Many positive comments were made:

“Really stimulating approach.”

“Dave clearly explained things, but also guided us to get there on our own which I thought was really helpful.”

Dave speaks with tremendous clarity and brevity

“Good clear way of speaking + teaching. Effectively summarised our often garbled comments into useful information.”

“David’s contributions to discussion were often very incisive and made me think about the issues in a different light.”

Most (five of six) of the neutral comments on this point focused upon my strategy of allowing students to draw their own conclusions:

“Left it up to the class to explain and discuss things – could have taken a bit more control.”

“Due to format of tutorials he didn’t do most of the talking, but when he did it was helpful.”

One student, however, complained that:

” He can be a bit posh and complicated in the way he says stuff.”

Learning Engagement

I could see the relevance of the tutorials to the unit of study aims and outcomes

The relationship between assessments, lectures and tutorials are not always made expressly clear in the course material. I feel that it is important to make sure that tutorial participants are able to draw clear links between these areas.

Again, feedback in this area was generally positive and useful:

“Reflecting on tutorial discussions really helped my assessment.”

“The tutorials were less relaxed than most, and the language used was academic. This was a perfect atmosphere for learning.”

“Tuts + lectures + readings were all relevant and intertwined.”

Two students commented they felt that some readings “seemed a bit peripheral.”

The student who strongly disagreed commented cryptically: “not helpful.”

I was challenged to think independently and creatively in tutorials

This is one of the more demanding aspects of tutoring as it involves balancing the fostering of critical historical understanding (versus uncritical opinion) whilst still encouraging new ideas and knowledge.

Feedback on this question included:

“Dave always asked really thought-provoking questions.”

“I liked how we dealt with different viewpoints.”

Independent thought was the main focus of the tutorial

“Ideas were listened to and respected by fellow peers.”

A few students commented that large class sizes prevented “individual independence,” and one student who disagreed noted that “the course has such a left-wing bias”.

Student Motivation

I felt motivated to learn in tutorials

Another challenging area for the tutor, but results in this area were generally positive. Many students used this question to express their overall satisfaction with the tutorials:

“Loved this tutorial.”

Student-led discussion encouraged everyone to contribute

“Debates on controversial topics of Aus social history in tutes were very engaging.”

“Class discussion was often heated & motivated me to keep on top of readings and think critically.”

“The discussions & group work all helped make this tute interesting.”

“Everyone did the readings which meant we all felt the motivation of a strong class group.”

“Dave made sure the conversation flowed, & tried to get everyone involved- nobody got left out, and nobody dominated.”

There were some mixed reactions to the general approach of student-led discussions. While some found this very engaging, others felt intimidated:

“Structure of tutorials allowed people to take over. Could have used more individual works so that students weren’t lost.”

“I felt a little intimidated by the format of the tutorials i.e. having us lead them.”

“The hour-long tute facilitations meant that every week we (the students) had to ‘learn’ from inexperienced people for most of the course with no help from the tutor.”

My interest in the subject matter was stimulated during tutorials

Comments upon this question centred around two areas: tutorial discussions particularly, and course content generally. This question generated (by far) the most comments, most of which were very positive:

“He introduced areas that I had not known about. He stimulated my wanting to find out more.”

One of the best tutorials I have been in

“We had some heated debates and discussions, which furthered a want to come to class prepared – to argue!”

“They were much, much better than the lectures. Far more interesting.”

“Most interesting part of the course.”

“Until now, I had very little interesting in Australian history. I gave it a chance and now I do.”

Neutral and negative comments tended to express a general lack of engagement:

“Refresh of HSC [high school leaving certificate]“

“A bit repetitive and boring at times”

“I wasn’t too interested in many of the things discussed in tutorials.”

Learning Environment

I felt comfortable asking questions in tutorials

I was quite surprised by the range of responses to this question, given the very positive responses to other learning environment indicators. Positive comments on this question included very encouraging responses, and the comments attached to neutral responses tended (five of thirteen) to read fairly positively.

Comments from ‘agree’ responses included:

“David very much encouraged everyone to get involved in the discussion.”

Tutor was very approachable, easy going manner and likeable

“Dave was always supportive and assisting if one had a question to ask.”

“Questions were encouraged, they stimulated discussion.”

“The set-up of tutorials with nametags & students as experts made the environment much more comfortable.”

“I felt like it was an open forum and if there was disagreement, I knew that it would be adequately explained.”

“Safe environment (if you got something wrong it was okay).”

Neutral responses included:

“Never really felt the need to.”

“No one really asked questions directly to the tutor during tutorial.”

“Yes I felt comfortable but I found that tutorials were more about sharing opinions, rather than asking questions.”

“The tutorial was not really a forum to ask questions.”

Four students giving neutral responses, and most (five of six) respondents giving a negative response, indicated they felt slightly intimidated, primarily by the large tutorial sizes:

“Because of the large tutorial.”

“The tutorials weren’t always that relaxed – it was intimidating to ask questions.”

“Discussion was encouraged although tutorial size meant many students remained quiet.”

My tutor was open to new ideas and viewpoints

This is another area where a fine balance exists between teaching course content from readings and lectures, and encouraging independent learning and assessment amongst tutorial attendees.

This question received very positive responses from students who agreed with the proposition:

“He was always willing to hear different viewpoints and people’s opinions on a variety of subject matters.”

“Very much so, sometimes to the point I was unsure where he stood on certain issues.”

“Dave took on board what people said but also made his own point of view clear.”

“He often offered a counter-opinion but I think that this was to serve the discussion and encourage ideas being generated.”

“Came across quite humbly in his knowledge base + willing to entertain new ideas / thoughts.”

Never a word of bad judgement on people’s remarks

“Dave would sometimes play devil’s advocate, more in an attempt to strengthen arguments rather than dismiss them.”

“Dave actively sought our feedback during the semester.”

There were some students who felt I held too firmly to my views but, with a small number (three) of exceptions, this was not expressed negatively:

“I think Dave is hard to prove wrong.”

“Sometimes I felt that I would want the discussion to join a certain direction, but it was interrupted. But perhaps it was because we were getting off point.”

“Not necessarily – quite firm in his viewpoint”

“Frequently openly argued ‘the purpose of history’ that was narrowly defined by tutor”

My tutor respected each student and responded to individual needs

I was pleased with the very positive responses to this question:

“Tutorials enhanced the readings / course content / my learning more than any other tute I’m enrolled in!”

Dave asked the class how we wanted our tutorials to be conducted which was very good and respected our suggestions

“There was an immediate establishment of respect at the beginning of the tutorial.”

“It was nice how he knew everyone’s names.”

“He was very respectful and open to hearing everyone’s opinion + positive to approach.”

A handful of students commented on the large size of tutorials. Whether I knew everyone’s name (125 students) was a small point of contention, despite my best efforts:

“As much as you can in an oversized tut like this.”

“Not entirely certain he knew all our names.”

“Respect yes. Individual need is hard in big tutorials.”

“Yes, he respected each student, but he didn’t know some people’s names & it felt like he ignored some students.”

My tutor maintained a classroom atmosphere conducive to learning

Responses to this question were outstandingly positive, though there were some disagreements over certain elements of the tutorial structure (name tags, ‘class rules’, student facilitated discussions):

“Favourite tute since I started my degree! Definitely the most conducive to learning.”

“Relaxed environment helped make speaking up in tutes easier.”

“His tutorials were inclusive, entertaining, and conducive to learning.”

“I liked name tags.”

“The labels and circle were good, and he helped facilitate discussion really well.”

“Always fun to have rules set out in the first class :).”

Great atmosphere, relaxed, lots of conversation from tutor + didn’t feel pressured to speak if didn’t want to

“He had very good class control, and students did respect him, which I think is very important.”

“I think some people could find him to be challenging but I responded well to his authority and involvement in the discussion.”

“Professional but still relaxed and approachable.”

“The circle = WIN.”

“Over-consultative – not enough time on discussion.”

“Stupid name tags were patronising, rules were patronising.”

Feedback and Assessment

I take providing useful and timely feedback to my students very seriously, so I was quite concerned when I saw the responses to these two questions.

To an extent, the structure of the course had a significant effect on these responses. Assessment consisted of a major essay (60% of total grade, due week 8 of 13), a take home or sit down exam (30% of total grade, submitted after this survey was received), and a tutorial participation mark (10% of total grade, not disclosed to students as per departmental policy).

Comments proved very useful in interpreting these results.

Students who considered their essay feedback to be part of this assessment submitted very positive comments.

The majority of students giving neutral feedback (all 28 neutral comments on the first proposition, and 32 of 33 on the second) gave responses such as “N/A” and “Don’t know”, indicating they didn’t consider their work to have been assessed according to the proposed criteria.

That aside, I would recommend course coordinators build small assessments, due early in the semester, into all their courses, so that useful feedback and guidance can be given to students before a major assessable task is undertaken.

It is the policy of the History Department not to release tutorial participation marks to students. During the course, I encouraged peer feedback in the form of a stop/start/continue exercise during week six. I will be investigating other ways of providing useful feedback to students in future tutorials.

I normally received helpful feedback on my learning from my tutor

Positive responses to this question, which usually discussed feedback from the major essay, were generally good:

“The comments on my essay were very helpful for the future as I had never done a historiographical essay before.”

“Dave was always willing to help with questions about exam or assignments.”

Feedback for the essay was top notch

“Dave’s feedback for my major essay was exceptionally thorough and helpful.”

There were also some general comments on feedback during tutorials, including:

“Dave’s comments in tutes, answers to my questions + feedback on my essay were clear, helpful + efficient.”

“Dave challenged me on my answers and helped me to understand the concepts.”

“Due to only having one assessment, feedback wasn’t very regular, but his comments in tute discussions were good.”

In addition, there were many (approximately 10 of 28) students who indicated they hadn’t sought (or didn’t need) feedback. For example:

“I did not ask for feedback on this course.”

“Never really seeked [sic] feedback.”

“I would here if I’d asked for it – but I didn’t I quite confident [unclear] I would have and helpful good [unclear] if I’d asked.”

“Tutorials aren’t really the place for feedback.”

“Did not require feedback – was happy with progress and grades.”

My tutorial work was graded fairly and accurately

Overwhelmingly, open responses to this question noted that tutorial participation grades had not been revealed:


“Don’t know my tut participation mark yet?”

“Not sure if this applies.”

“No idea yet!”

Positive responses once again referred to the formal essay:

“Great feedback on exam!! Good to know where you’ve gone wrong!”

“His explanations on graded work were clear.”

“Thanks for the distinction!”

The exception to this rule were two individuals who felt that their major essay had been marked unfairly, particularly given the effort they had made on it:

“Did not reflect time and effort put in.”

“I was heavily penalised on grammer [sic] and punctuation. This is not English! I think the mark I received and the effort I put in did not reflect what I got.”

While I sympathise with students who feel that their grades do not reflect the effort they put into their assessment, the university requires that we assess their work according to established benchmarks. There is an appeal process in place and I would encourage students to make use of it if they feel the grades they have received do not reflect their submissions.

It is interesting to reflect upon the relationship between grades received and feedback provided. Certainly, these two (slightly disgruntled?) students provided the vast majority of negative feedback in the survey: “too abrupt,” “the format of the tutorial was not productive,” “usually just wanted the hour to end,” “tutor too rude + abrupt and very arrogant,” “very set in ways and beliefs,” “too arrogant,” “not helpful,” “poor control,” “not sufficient.”

Overall impression

Overall my tutor effectively supported my learning.

Generally, however, the feedback from the course was very positive, and participants felt that a conducive learning atmosphere was fostered:

“This tutorial encouraged debates & discussion. I liked the name badges- first time I’ve managed to learn the names of everyone in a tute. Really good tutor, really good tute. The rules were pointless though.”

“Hands down my favourite tutorial. I felt this was the only one in which it was a true open learning environment. Great job.”

Thanks for making me love Aus social history!!!

“Nothing but praise for Dave. Smart, confident + inclusive. Thank you.”

“Great tutor, I felt motivated to study, & Dave encouraged conversation rather than sitting in awkward silence which was nice.

“Dave has been one of the best tutors I have had at uni.”

“Tutorials went smoothly- the use of small group discussions was effective. Students were largely able to run the tutorials, with Dave as facilitator which involved all pupils but also made it easier to learn rather than just being talked at.”

“Dave was a positive and fun tutor who made learning fun.”

“Dave is one of the best tutors I’ve had at USYD yet!”

“I had my reservations, but in the end he turned out to be a good tutor. His essay feedback surpassed all expectations.”

“As students facilitated much of the class- summarised readings and provided discussion topics, I felt that the class was much more cohesive, I really enjoyed this way of learning.”

“And he’s a babe.”

Student commendation

In addition to the ITL Student Assessments, I also received a “student commendation” for this course.

These are unprompted, formal ‘thankyous’ which students can submit to the Faculty if they are particularly impressed by a course or teacher (see:

My commendation reads:

“You can tell that Dave is extremely passionate about the subject and wants to incite that same passion within his students. The amount of effort he put in to preparing for this subject was clearly evident through the array of online resources he made available to his students. Dave organised and maintained the twitter hashtag for HSTY2614, which I thought was a really innovative use of social networking for educational purposes; it was immensely conducive to my learning and I hope that it will be used again in other classes. I really wish that more students had utilised this resource and I very much appreciated that Dave took the time and effort to tweet to the HSTY2614 hashtag on a weekly basis. Dave has definitely set the bar high for the rest of the tutors in the History Department, I’m extremely happy with my HSTY2614 tutorials this semester.”

I’ve written more about my Twitter escapades here.

Further resources

Just for fun, I ran a transcript of all the open-response feedback through VoyeurTools. I can’t say that the result has been very useful, though:

Feedback word-cloud

You can view a complete transcript of all open-response questions here.

The raw responses are also available for each tutorial group:

Group 1

Group 2

Group 3

Group 4

Group 5

The Spanish Civil War

Semester 2, 2009.

This course was coordinated by Professor Judith Keene.

Student responses indicate that 93% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the quality of the course, and 89% of the group said that the course had encouraged a diversity of their ideas within and beyond the subject matter.

Feedback from my three tutorial classes included:

“Dave has been professional throughout the semester. He is one of the best tutors I’ve ever had within the department.”

“Class rules. Established a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere for discussion. The process of making rules themselves got people out of their shells.”

Dave lets us draw our own conclusions, but aided our ability to come to these conclusions.

“Relaxed personality. I felt able to ask questions and the relaxed atmosphere encouraged me to participate in discussions.”

“He was very courteous and honest in his responses. Sometimes I’ve found tutors explanations to go over my head but Dave’s were always articulated very well.”

“He really did add something different. He was very approachable but his knowledge of topics was often in-depth, but also adding different perspectives on the topic.”

Tutor was well read. Dave always knew all there was to know about the readings.

“Responsive/sought out feedback during course. Asking us to assess what we liked/disliked with tutes halfway during course meant that the quality of discussion improved.”

“Directed flow of topics well. If presenters ran out of ideas, he knew when to take over and ask the right questions to continue flow of discussion.”

“Dave took a ‘hands off’ approach that allowed students to take the lead. Although I was initially sceptical about this approach, I now think it worked really well. Students found it empowering and debates were often lively and informative.”

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