5.2 Case Study 2: The use of lecture time for workshops

John Sloman, The University of the West of England

I was module leader on the level 1 Economic Principles module at the University of the West of England (UWE) for several years in the 2000s. At the time it was a year-long 30-credit module. Students on other 30-credit modules on the programme had 2 lectures per week and 1 seminar (in a group of 20) per week. There were 240 students on the Economic Principles module, and if class contact were to have followed the pattern of the other modules, this would have meant having 12 weekly seminar groups. Total staff hours would have been 14 hours per week.

The material that would be covered in seminars would be a mix of formal theory (such as constructing models and working through graphical and numerical problems) and the consideration of policy issues, cases and other more open-ended questions where there is room for discussion and debate.

The decision was taken several years previously to introduce a third type of class. This was a workshop. Workshops were for the full lecture group in a lecture theatre seating 310. They were taken by two members of staff. Students had 2 lectures per week, 1 workshop per week and 1 seminar per fortnight. Student class contact was thus 3½ hours per week (rather than 3) but staff hours were only 10 hours per week (rather than 14). Workshops were used for technical material or for questions where there is a clear right or wrong answer. Seminars were reserved for discussing policy issues, case studies, debates, small group work, etc.

Students were given 3 lecture hours per week on their timetable but were not told in advance which would be lectures and which would be workshops. They did know, however, that workshops would be based on material covered in lectures.

When students arrived at a workshop, they picked up a problem sheet. This contained a series of questions: graphical, algebraic, numerical problems (set out in sections), multiple-choice questions, making lists, etc. There was room on the sheet for them to write their answers. The students worked through one or two questions, discussing them with their neighbours as they did them. The lecturer then went through the answers from the front. Then the students did another one or two questions, and so on.

The lecture theatre was tiered, and so the students were asked to leave one row free in every three. The students soon got used to this and it was an easy process to organise. Leaving every third row free in this way allowed the lecturers to go round giving help to students if they were stuck. Although such a workshop involves two (or three) members of staff, there only needs to be one experienced lecturer. The others can be graduate teaching assistants (GTAs).

Workshops proved very popular with students and a good medium for learning and applying basic economic concepts. They consistently scored high 'satisfaction' ratings in student questionnaires. There are significant economies of scale in such classes and yet virtually nothing is lost by doing the workshop exercises in such classes rather than in groups of 20. In fact the gains can be substantial:

  • Students enjoy the variety of having three different types of class.
  • Seminars become very lively and can be much more problem- and issues-focused.
  • The workshop format makes efficient use of GTAs. They need a far lower level of teaching skills on the one-to-one basis in which they are helping students in workshops. In fact, it is almost a form of peer support; students like being helped by GTAs who were recently undergraduates themselves.
  • The lecturer time released can be reallocated to extra office hours support (again this could be by GTAs) and support in an online environment, such as running a discussion board to answer follow-up questions to the lectures or workshops.
  • Workshops can lead directly into extra practice work for students. At UWE, additional 'homework' questions were attached to the workshop sheet, again with space to write the answers. Students handed these in to seminars. As the questions could all be marked simply right or wrong, they were very quick to mark. Tutors did not write comments on the answers. Instead, they stapled a worked answer sheet to the student's homework.

The frequency and total number of workshops that are feasible to run in a department depend on the nature of the module. On 20-credit one-semester modules, the workshops could be run weekly. On 20-credit year-long courses, or 10 or 15-credit one-semester modules, the workshops could be organised on a fortnightly basis.

Rather than having a whole hour devoted to a workshop, an alternative is to introduce workshop activity into lectures. If lecture hours are increased by 50 per cent, then approximately one-third of each lecture could be devoted to workshop activity, without any reduction in the time for traditional lecturing. The mix of lecturing and workshop activity in each lecture hour could make for a very active learning experience for students.