Contemporary University Teaching – Networked and Supported

Dr Lilia Mantai and A/Prof Elaine Huber talk to us about a research project they conducted at Sydney University Business School on experiential learning in large classes. Lilia is the Academic Lead, course enhancement at the Business School and Elaine is the Academic Director of the Business Co-Design team.

What motivated you to pursue this research?

In our work with academic colleagues we encountered feelings of frustration and helplessness in stark contrast to the desire to do good for their students and deliver a good quality education. We wanted to find out what underlies this frustration. Academics recognise experiential learning (Andresen et al., 2000) as a good way to learn but struggle to do it with large cohorts to the high standard they set for themselves.

Furthermore, we have observed and heard anecdotally from colleagues about some of the issues involved in teaching large classes. We wanted to collect rigorous evidence from practitioners to help us design solutions to some of these barriers. We also wanted to understand colleagues’ experiences of teaching large experiential classes to examine how their perceptions influence their practice (see also Broadbent et al., 2018).

What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research?

Designing a survey that captures enough detail but at the same time is simple enough for colleagues to complete (as they are time poor) and thus help us achieve a high enough response rate.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash
In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

Our research reveals one reason for academic resistance to change and educational innovation may be that they still hold on to the ‘romantic’ idea of teaching whereby they know each student well. While close instructor-student connection is desirable (Wright et al., 2017), it doesn’t reflect what is actually happening when teaching large cohorts. What happens in reality is that with large cohort teaching there are likely to be more than one convenor, an army of tutors, markers, learning designers and/or educational developers involved who all have different connections to students. So the contemporary teaching model is both distributed and networked. Holding on to traditional ideas of what good teaching is (ie personally knowing each student and being their only point of contact) creates tensions with current practice and barriers to educational innovation e.g. team teaching, etc.

Was there anything that did not make it into your published manuscript that you would like to share with us?

Our manuscript went through a number of revisions and in the end we were able to get across all of our findings. Some of the detail and specific quotes from staff had to be left out but their main message was there.

It would have been good to include student perceptions but circumstances did not permit us time to collect primary data. Looking at secondary student data, we found that they wished for smaller class sizes but this was driven by the desire for more opportunities for interaction with their teachers. Further to this, students also commented on the desire for more personalised feedback and preferences for differential marks in group-work assignments to ensure effort was rewarded. Teachers that made this effort to ‘see’ who was collaborating were praised by students. We did not include the student data in the final manuscript, focussing instead on the staff perceptions as this is where the gap in the literature is.

What advice would you give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study?  

Give yourself time to get human ethics approval and collect primary data. Take time to reflect on your findings and ask for feedback from your peers and other stakeholders on the ideas and conclusions you draw to ensure your work speaks to your audience.

Any final comments?

You can read the published paper here: Mantai, L., & Huber, E. (2021). Networked Teaching: Overcoming the Barriers to Teaching Experiential Learning in Large Classes. Journal of Management Education, 1052562920984506. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562920984506 and follow / chat to us about all things academia on Twitter: Lilia – @LiliaMantai & Elaine – @enm181

References

Andresen, L, Boud, D., Cohen, R. (2000). Experience-based learning. In Foley, G. (Ed.), Understanding adult education and training (2nd ed., pp. 225-239). Allen & Unwin.

Broadbent, J., Panadero, E., Boud, D. (2018). Implementing summative assessment with a formative flavour: A case study in a large class. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(2), 307-322. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2017.1343455

Wright, M. C., Bergom, I., & Bartholomew, T. (2019). Decreased class size, increased active learning? Intended and enacted teaching strategies in smaller classes. Active Learning in Higher Education, 20(1), 51–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787417735607

Associate Professor Elaine Huber has been designing curriculum and teaching adults for over 20 years and is currently the Academic Director of the Business Co-Design team at the University of Sydney.

Lilia Mantai

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