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.
My tutor came to class well-prepared to help me learn
Feedback for this question was overwhelmingly positive.
“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.”
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”.
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.”
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 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.”
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.
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:
You can view a complete transcript of all open-response questions here.
The raw responses are also available for each tutorial group:
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.”