The use of lecture time for workshops

Contact: John Sloman
University of the West of England
john.sloman@uwe.ac.uk
Published October 2002

This case study is extracted from the guide Lectures prepared by John Sloman and Chris Mitchell for our Handbook for Economics Lecturers.

The level 1 Economic Principles module at the University of the West of England (UWE) is a year long 30-credit module. Students on other 30 credit modules on the programme have 2 lectures per week and 1 seminar (in a group of 20) per week. There are 240 students on the Economic Principles module, and if class contact were to follow the pattern of the other modules, this would mean having 12 weekly seminar groups. Total staff hours would be 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 ago to introduce a third type of class. This is a workshop. Workshops are for the full lecture group in a lecture theatre seating 310. They are taken by two members of staff. Students have 2 lectures per week, 1 workshop per week and 1 seminar per fortnight. Student class contact is thus 3½ hours per week (rather than 3) but staff hours are only 10 hours per week (rather than 14). Workshops are used for technical material or for questions where there is a clear right or wrong answer. Seminars are reserved for discussing policy issues, case studies, debates, small group work, etc.

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

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

The lecture theatre is tiered, and so the students are asked to leave one row free in every three. This allows the lecturers go round giving help to students if they are stuck. Although the workshop involves two (or three) members of staff, there only one needs to be an experienced lecturer. The others can be graduate teaching assistants (GTAs).

Workshops have proved very popular with students and a good medium for learning and applying basic economic concepts. They consistently score 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 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 are attached to the workshop sheet, again with space to write the answers. Students hand these in to seminars. As the questions can all be marked simply right or wrong, they are very quick to mark. Tutors do not write comments on the answers. Instead, they staple an 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%, 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.