Extended case study: Collaborative learning tutorials for introductory microeconomics

Contact: Anne Gleeson, John McDonald and Joe Williams
Business Economics, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia
anne.gleeson@flinders.edu.au, john.mcdonald@flinders.edu.au, joe.williams@flinders.edu.au
Published February 2006

This case study is adapted from a paper analysing student perceptions of a collaborative learning method used in first-year microeconomics tutorials. Questionnaire responses indicate that a clear majority of students saw social, learning and skill development advantages in the collaborative approach, as against the traditional tutor-led tutorials they had experienced.

Introduction

At Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia, we have moved towards collaborative learning practice in our first year microeconomics tutorials. One of the ideas behind these tutorials is to encourage students to teach each other, to unravel problems themselves, and to explain the issues to their peers. This process results in a deeper understanding than can be gotten from a teacher simply stating the solution to the problem. There are other advantages of this tutorial method too. Students develop communication and interpersonal skills, and the collaborative learning tutorial is a more intense and meaningful experience for students - one that enhances motivation and interest in their studies. During the tutorial, students actively interact with each other and the tutor, in contrast to their more passive role in lectures and traditional tutor-driven tutorials. This involvement encourages students to feel that they are part of the university, and that the university experience is important and worthwhile. This is particularly important in a university such as Flinders, where students commonly live at home, often have outside part-time jobs and interests, and tend to only visit the university for lectures and tutorials.

In the next section we describe our experience at Flinders, and in the following section we discuss the advantages of collaborative learning. We then present evidence from a survey as to its value, as perceived by students.

First Year Microeconomics at Flinders

A few years ago at Flinders, we moved away from the traditional lecture and teacher-driven tutorial format towards a more active tutorial practice. We retained the lectures (24 lectures, two lectures a week over the semester) but introduced a collaborative learning component to the tutorials. The tutorials were increased in length to two hours. Although this was costly, the cost was largely offset by having about twice as many students in each tutorial (20-24 students). The key feature of the tutorial was that the students themselves, working in small groups of five or six, attempted to answer the questions and to work through the exercises. They were supported by the tutor, but essentially worked out the answer themselves and taught each other. Tutors who taught the topic in 2004 received instruction in the tutorial method, and most already had previous experience of teaching the tutorials. The method was explained to students in the first tutorial.

The typical tutorial proceeded as follows. Prior to the tutorial, students were asked to attempt exercise questions that directly related to the lecture material. (Our impression was that most students did attempt the exercises before the tutorial.) In the first hour of the tutorial, students discussed the answers to those questions in their groups. During this time, the tutor moved between groups listening to the discussions, acting to promote discussion and clarify points. Tutors facilitated discussion, but did not lead it or take it over. The groups constructed their own answers to the questions.

In the second hour, after a break, the group answers were discussed by the whole tutorial body and the tutor. This was usually done by groups presenting their answers, followed by the other tutorial members commenting on the answers. The tutor also added his or her comments. In six of the 12 tutorials, during the last 15 minutes, students individually answered a written test based on the tutorial content. The test marks made up twenty percent of the topic assessment.

Evaluation

We saw a number of advantages in the collaborative tutorial format - social benefits, learning benefits, and development of skills for future careers. The tutorial method aimed to reduce the social anxiety of first year students - who may not have known anyone in the tutorial, or even the university - by providing an instant group of peers with whom they would not feel exposed, but would instead feel a sense of community through engaging in the common task of grappling with and understanding the topic material. Secondly, we hoped that the method would help to promote deeper understanding. Answers were questioned by other students and the tutor, who asked for further clarification. Misunderstandings, extensions and extreme cases were considered. Students were exposed to different styles of thinking, and different ways of tackling the problems. Having already thought about the problems, the arguments and comments of the tutor were more meaningful to the students. Thirdly, we thought that interacting in small groups would give students practice in communication and interpersonal skills useful in their later careers. Workers often operate in formal or informal small groups, asking questions and advice of peers, sometimes accepting and at other times rejecting ideas, and then forming their own opinion by synthesising the contributions of others with their own previous experience and knowledge. We thought that the tutorial format would provide valuable practice in these skills.

The key issue, of course, is not our perception of the advantages, but those of the customers - the students. To this end, we surveyed student opinion. After they had received their results, all students enrolled in the topic in 2004 were emailed a request to answer a questionnaire. As an incentive, students who completed the questionnaire qualified for a random draw to win one of three prizes (one of $100, and two of $50). Of those who were surveyed, the response rate was 47 percent (160 of 343 students emailed). In their other topics, students in the main experienced teacher-driven tutorials, so we asked students to compare the collaborative learning approach of the microeconomics tutorials with the traditional tutor-driven tutorials they had attended.

Students generally saw benefits in the collaborative approach, as shown by the summary of results in Table 1. Except for questions 2 and 14, more than two-thirds of students either strongly or mainly agreed that the approach was beneficial. For questions 2 and 14, a larger percentage of students were unsure of the benefits (for question 2, about one-quarter; for question 14, about one-third). It is interesting that the approach was not very successful in developing a personal relationship with the tutor, and that approximately half of the students felt encouraged to take further economics topics. Agreement on the value of the method was very high on some questions. For questions 5, 6, 9 and 13, more than 80 percent of respondents indicated agreement. The responses indicate that a clear majority of students saw social, learning and skill development benefits in the tutorial format.

More detailed results and analysis of the student survey are given in the full paper.

Table 1. Result of student survey 160 responses)

Question Percentages
  Strongly agree Mainly agree Not sure Mainly disagree Strongly disagree
1. Helped me settle into Uni quickly 16.9 51.9 19.4 10.6 1.3
2. Developed personal relationship with tutor 13.1 43.1 22.5 15.6 5.6
3. Encouraged me to attend tutorials* 22.6 45.9 13.8 12.6 5.0
4. Encouraged me to study topic content 23.8 50.0 12.5 11.9 1.9
5. Developed small group communication skills 25.0 51.9 12.5 6.9 3.8
6. Helped focus on key ideas in tute questions* 30.8 49.1 11.9 6.9 1.3
7. Helped me understand other students' views* 25.8 44.7 20.8 7.5 1.3
8. Clarified material after small group discussion* 38.4 39.0 13.2 6.9 2.5
9. Helped me understand difficult concepts 29.4 51.9 7.5 8.1 3.1
10. Showed me how other students approach problems 23.8 52.5 15.0 6.3 2.5
11. Helped me add what I learned from others 21.3 55.0 13.1 7.5 3.1
12. Helped me make better sense of tutor's explanation* 28.3 42.1 17.0 7.5 5.0
13. Helped me prepare for tests* 43.4 40.9 8.8 5.7 1.3
14. Encouraged me to take further ECON topics 16.9 36.3 31.3 13.1 2.5
15. Were improved by tutor's involvement 36.3 37.5 14.4 5.0 6.9

Notes: * indicates one student did not answer
Questions are abbreviated from those actually given in the survey. See the appendix of the full paper for the questions as they were presented.

Conclusion

The collaborative learning method was generally well received by students, with a clear majority seeing social, learning and skill development advantages. Some student groups were more positive than others. For example, female students tended to be more positive than males, especially in agreeing that the method enhanced communication skills, encouraged them and promoted understanding. Those who obtained a better than expected grade were also generally more positive. The tutorial method did not seem to markedly encourage students to take further economics options, but the 53 percent of students who were encouraged were generally very positive about the collaborative teaching approach.

The manner in which tutors interacted with students was important. Students who appreciated the tutor's involvement were much more positive about the method. This suggests that some positive perceptions of the collaborative approach stemmed from the tutor's skill in teaching. Even so, a majority of students who were not positive about the tutor's involvement saw learning advantages in the method. Of course, as Becker (2004) argues, it is very difficult to disentangle the influences of good teaching and good teaching methods. It is also apparent that different tutorial formats may be optimal in different fields and levels of study, so one should be cautious of generalizing our experience to other topics or student levels, or assuming that positive student perceptions necessarily imply actual improved performance.

Reference

Becker, W. E. 2004. "Quantitative research on teaching methods in tertiary education", in Becker, W. E. and M. L. Andrews (eds) The scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education, contributions of research universities, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN: 9780253344243

Acknowledgements

We would like to Eva Åker for her excellent research assistance, Debra Hackett and Corey Durward for their assistance with the questionnaire, the editor, reviewers, colleagues and seminar participants for their comments and Flinders University for funding the project.